Wednesday, May 06, 2009

May Day in South Africa Takes Place Amid Democratic Elections, Strike Actions and the Global Economic Crisis

May Day in South Africa Takes Place Amid Democratic Elections, Strike Actions and the Global Economic Crisis

Labor escalates demands for measures to protect workers from the deepening financial meltdown

by Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
News Analysis

Results from the April 22 national elections in South Africa reinforced widespread political support for the ruling African National Congress. The ANC won nearly a nearly two-thirds majority in the elections, securing victories in all the provinces with the exception of the Cape where the opposition Democratic Alliance won out over the ruling party.

This year's election was the fourth democratic poll since 1994, when the former racist apartheid system ended after decades of political, labor and armed struggle. The winner of the 2009 presidential vote was the current ANC president Jacob Zuma. Zuma is the fourth ANC president since 1994 following the rule of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe.

The vote comes amid escalating labor unrest in South Africa in response to both the burgeoning global economic crisis and unfolding national democratic revolution which has scored monumental advances in the political arena despite the fact that the overall economic distribution of resources has yet to be realized for the overwhelming majority African population.

South Africa's new president Jacob Zuma told a May Day rally that the new government will introduce legislation to further guarantee rights for the country's workers. "We want to introduce laws to regulate contract work, sub-contracting and outsourcing," Zuma told a crowd of tens of thousands of people in East London. (AFP, May 1)

These laws, which were included in the election manifesto of the ANC, will outlaw policies that allow abuse to workers as well as "labor brokering." This practice involves the utilization of employees on a contractual basis where they never gain the full rights under the existing labor laws in the country. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has called for the outlawing of "labor brokering" inside the country.

"It is a serious matter that while our Constitution talks about the rights of all and the rights of workers, we have workers that worked for decades without any security," Zuma said at the rally in East London on May 1. The new president called upon corporate leaders to develop programs which protect jobs in the current economic climate.

"We reiterate our message to business that they should do everything possible to retain jobs," Zuma told the May Day rally in East London.

Labor Struggles and the Economic Crisis

During the annual May Day commemorations workers in South Africa sent out a strong message in defense of their class during the present world situation. The leading trade union federation COSATU organized 36 rallies throughout the country. The largest rallies took place in the Eastern Cape.

Several of the rallies were addressed by the-then president-in-waiting Jacob Zuma, the South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande and COSATU president Sidumo Dlamini. At a media briefing in Johannesburg, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, stated that the 2009 May Day events came during a period when workers are losing their jobs at the same time that the world is reaching
"unemployment peak levels."

Vavi said during the media briefing that:

"This is the worst economic environment which we celebrate Workers Day under. We can't wait to see the state president on a daily basis providing solutions and interventions on job threats. We want a very active president who is preoccupied with South Africa's survival in this economic crisis." (The Times, South Africa, April 30, 2009)

Another trade union umbrella in South Africa, The Federation of Unions of South African and the National Council of Trade Unions, under the banner of the South African Confederation of Trade Unions, selected the theme "Fighting for decent work through worker's unity." The general secretary of the National Council, Manene Samela, called for a focus by the Unemployment Insurance Fund on worker retraining of the unemployed.

Samela said that "high food prices are affecting and hitting directly on the workers' disposable incomes. The government needs to ensure that the Competition Commission is well-resourced to take up the battle against companies which don't comply." (The Times, April 30)

The general secretary of the Federation of Unions of South Africa, Dennis George, proclaimed that May Day must focus on the need for legal safeguards for contract labor, sub-contracting and outsourcing.

George also emphasized the Federation's support for the reduction in the usage of labor brokers. "It will mean punishing employers who do not provide decent work by refusing them state tenders. It is imperative that the government seriously invests in the creation of decent jobs for all, he said.

Leading up to May Day in South Africa a number of strikes have hit the country in key industries involving transport, metals, municipal services and public health. In addition, the slow pace of the resolution of some of these strikes has threatened to bring about further workstoppages in broader sectors of the economy.

The South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (SATAWU) held a strike during April that affected the supply of petroleum and food. In Soweto, the largest township in the country, the Digital Journal indicated that "while filing stations in Johannesburg were working normally, many Soweto pumps were empty due to alleged intimidation of truck drivers by members of SATAWU.

Another article on the SATAWU strike published in the Cape Times warned that "Western Cape consumers could face empty shelves if the strike by about 20,000 truckers lasts into this week. (April 13) Merchandise director Kevin Korb on nationwide food chain Pick n Pay said the franchise had 'filled its distribution centres to the hilt' in the weeks before the strike."

On April 28 600 Metrobus workers in Johannesburg who are affiliated with the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) went out on strike. The strike action was based on two demands: the increase in salaries and the suspension of a manager.

The City-owned bus service has sought to have the strike suspended and to continue negotiations through a local government bargaining council. However, the spokesperson for SAMWU Dumisani Langa has said the strike would continue as planned.

"The strike is indefinite. We will strike until our demands are met. Metrobus did ask us to suspened it, but we cannot just suspend the strike without an offer. We cannot even suspend the strike on the basis that they have approached the bargaining council with that application," Langa said.

SAMWU has threatened to bring broader union forces into the dispute with Metrobus. The Sowetan reporter Gertrude Makhafola wrote on April 30 that "South African Municipal Workers Union plans to bring Johannesburg to its knees to drive their point home."

Langa was quoted in the Sowetan article as saying that "We are examining the Labour Relations Act regarding a secondary strike. We want to get all the city's departments on board because it seems that is the only way through which management would listen." He was addressing 800 workers picketing outside the Metrobus offices in Braamfontein on April 29.

A physicians strike has also had a notable impact on the country's health care system over the last several weeks. According to the Digital Journal "Countrywide, some 26 public hospitals, located in areas which house tens of millions of the country's most desitute and vulnerable people are the hardest-hit by the doctor's strike, including at the world largest hospital in Soweto, Baragwanath.

"Doctors at private hospitals and clinics, as well as at military hospitals, are all jumping in to help in the growing health crisis. On April 25 the South African Medical Association formally distanced itself from the doctors' strike which has greatly affected the country's public hospitals." (Digital Journal, April 24, 2009)

The majority of the doctors involved in the strike are junior physicians and interns who earn approximately $US700 per month in take-home salary. The physicians are also accusing the government of not carrying out a pledge to raise their salaries through a "Occupational Specific Dispensation" scheme that would put them on par with other medical professionals in the country.

On April 29 it was reported in the Star and Independent Online newspapers that the strike had ended with an agreement between the South African Medical Association, the Doctor's Forum and the provincial authorities. The physicans had been threatened with dismissal if they did not return to work. At the same time doctors in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) province threatened to strike over the poor conditions for doctors as well as patients.

Also sex workers attended the May Day rallies across the country as part of their campaign to gain rights as other workers inside South Africa. COSATU has stated that the federation supports the demands of the demands of sex workers.

"Sex workers demand recognition of their trade," the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) said in a statement on April 30. This organization, that is based in Cape Town but has affiliates in several provinces, has recently won a High Court order halting police from making abitrary arrests of these workers.

"Having secured this victory, Sweat is calling for...the right to freedom of trade, occupation and profession [and] the right to decent working conditions and fair labour practices," Sweat said in a statement issued on April 30.

Independent Online quoted COSATU Western Cape provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich as saying that "It's not our place to make a moral judgement on prostitution. It's a reality in South Africa today. Those workers work under difficult and dangerous conditions, and they need protection just like every other South African." (May 1, 2009)

The opposition Democratic Alliance-led City of Cape Town is threatening to pursue other means of arresting and prosecuting sex workers in the aftermath of the High Court ruling restraining excessive police action.

Over the last year the global economic crisis has severely affected South Africa. Unemployment is rising along with prices for food and transportation services.

Africa's largest steelmaker, the Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal South Africa Ltd, announced recently that the corporation "posted a first-quarter loss of 239 million rand after steel prices slumped. Parent company ArcelorMittal on May 1 reported worse-than-expected loss of $1.1 billion for the first quarter." (Bloomberg, May 1, 2009)

In South Africa the steelmaker could possibly close some of its operations and permenantly cut jobs if prices continue to spiral downward. In response to the threatened layoffs, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) plan to strike over the next two months in opposition to the job losses. The company has already cut 1,000 contractor jobs in recent weeks.

Overall the South African Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni has forcasted a dismal picture forcasting lower growth rates in the economy. He points to the fact that the country is possibly in a recession and is faced with inflationary pressures.

Political Impact of the Election Results

Despite the earlier forecasts of some elements within the corporate media in South Africa, the ANC has maintained its political dominance inside the country. In regard to the opposition-led provincial government in the Cape, COSATU has called for the formation of a coalition government.

In the West Cape News on April 30 COSATU provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich warned the Democratic Alliance (DA) that it should not continue its agenda of "perpetuating white privilege in the province." The DA won 51.46% of the provincial vote in the April 22 elections. The ANC won 31.55% of the vote, down from 45.25% in 2004.

COSATU threatened strike action if the DA did not agree to form a unity provincial government with other parties in the Cape. "Therefore good governance will dictate that the African communities are brought into government," Ehrenreich said.

The South African Communist Party expressed satisfaction with the election results. In a statement issued on April 24, the SACP said that "millions of our people came out in numbers to cast their votes in the fourth democratic elections of our country. The outcomes of the votes...have reaffirmed the overwhelming confidence that our people have in the ANC.

"The ANC has amidst all manner of pessimisms, including sustained negative media publicity, emerged with a renewed mandate to work together with our people to transform the South African society for the better.... The SACP commits itself to deepening the political organisation of the working class to play its rightful place as the leading motive force to deepen and consolidate our democracy." (

Despite the impact of the global economic crisis on South Africa, the people have maintained a commitment to working class and mass struggle throughout the country. The democratic character of the ruling party and its allies within COSATU and the SACP continues to address the major issues related to the distribution of wealth and the character of social relations within the production process.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. The writer has followed the political situation in South Africa and throughout the region of the sub-continent for many years.

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