- Labour federations Cosatu and Saftu are aiming for a national shutdown with demonstrations in each province on Wednesday.
- The federations, along with other unions, federations and left-leaning groups, are protesting load shedding and the rising cost of living.
- Despite the relative absence of strategic partners, the federations vow to push for their R1 trillion proposed package of interventions.
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Unions, labour federations and left-leaning organisations from around South Africa are set to mobilise on Wednesday in protest against load shedding, wage suppression and the rising cost of living.
At the foreground of the planned national shutdown are the country’s largest labour federations, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) and the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
However, both federations have said workers’ organisations, unions, and nongovernmental organisations are free to join in the shutdown, which seeks a strong response from government to rising economic pressures on ordinary SA households.
Among other things, Saftu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi said on Monday that the federation would demand a R1-trillion intervention package to help distressed poor and working-class households.
But bringing the country to a halt is not a foregone conclusion. The South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) said it would not participate in the strike, which will prevent a serious disruption to public transport.
The Department of Public Service and Administration, meanwhile, said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon that it would be imposing a “no work, no pay” policy in the case of public servants participating in the shutdown – either by demonstrating or staying home.
Still, the two labour federation giants are pressing on with their plans. Here are the details of the national shutdown, set to kick off on Wednesday, 24 August.
Who’s on the bench?
One setback for Saftu is that its largest and richest affiliate union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), has indicated it will not be in a position to financially support the mobilisation as it usually would.
This is due to taxing wage disputes Numsa is navigating in several sectors, as well as litigation against Saftu’s president, Ruth Ntlokotse, at the Labour Court.
Saftu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi said Saftu accepted Numsa’s position and appreciated the union’s commitment to encouraging its more than 300 000 members to support the shutdown.
As mentioned, Santaco also said it would not be supporting the national shutdown.
Despite numerous requests to participate in the National shutdown, SANTACO will NOT participate in the planned National shutdown.
— SANTACO (@SA_Taxis) August 23, 2022
However, organisations such as Lawyers For Human Rights and #PayTheGrants indicated their support.
What do strikers want?
Saftu and Cosatu lament the state of the economy and the strain that the rising cost of living has imposed on ordinary South African households.
Many businesses have had their finances battered by continued load shedding, which reached Stage 6 in June and July. This has affected revenue and the ability to provide above-inflation wage increases to labour.
The South African Reserve Bank raised interest rates by 75 basis points in July.
The Covid-19 pandemic also wreaked havoc on multiple sectors of the economy.
But Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi said in a briefing last week that the federation and broader labour movements would not tolerate government and the private sector pursuing profits at the expense of workers two years after the Covid-19 pandemic first hit the country.
She said a broad South African economic recovery, without the recovery of working-class livelihoods and their living standards, was illegitimate, and deserved rejection with contempt.
Cosatu also rejected “low wages” and below-inflation wage increases in the private and public sectors.
Saftu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi told reporters during a briefing on Monday that the federation would demand a R1 trillion intervention package from the government to assist distressed poor and working-class households.
Vavi said this package would be used to provide a R1 500 basic income grant, social supports, and improvements to a broad education, health and public transport services to ease the compounded burden of rising costs and deteriorating services.
Both federations demand an end to load shedding and the scrapping of plans to “privatise” state-owned entities such as Eskom, Transnet and the South African Post Office. This is a repudiation of interventions such as the plan to break Eskom down into three entities and private partnerships with the private sector to upgrade the Durban port.
When, where and what?
With Saftu and Cosatu both organising demonstrations in support of the shutdown, the federations have managed to ensure at least one major demonstration in every province in the country.
In South Africa’s economic hub of Gauteng, Cosatu and Saftu will gather at Burger’s Park in Pretoria at 09:00 on Wednesday morning. From there, demonstrators plan to march to the Union Buildings.
In the Western Cape, Saftu members will gather at Keizersgracht in Cape Town at 08:00 in the morning. From there, they will march to the provincial Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, the Cape Town City Council and Parliament. Cosatu has arranged a picket at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s central station at 09:00.
In KwaZulu-Natal, Cosatu has arranged a gathering at King Dinizulu Park in Durban at 09:00. In the North West, both Cosatu and Saftu will march to the provincial legislature, although Cosatu has also included the provincial minerals department, Rustenburg’s municipal offices, and the provincial legislature as cited the federation will march to.
In Mpumalanga, Saftu and Cosatu members will gather at Broadway in Witbank at 09:00 and march to Eskom Park. In the Free State, Saftu will march from Batho Location Hall to the office of the premier at 09:00 while Cosatu assembles at Old Phuthaditjhaba Square at 09:00.
In the Eastern Cape, Saftu will assemble at the Fort Hare Grounds at 08:00 and march to the Bisho local legislature. In Limpopo Province, both Saftu and Cosatu will march to the SABC provincial offices and the office of the premier at 09:00 and 10:00 respectively. Unions, political parties, and NGOs are expected to hold events in the Northern Cape and other provinces.
Vavi was expelled from Cosatu as its secretary-general back in 2015.
However, Vavi said this does not stop Saftu, his new home labour federation, from cooperating with Cosatu in the interest of workers. He said while Saftu must remain politically independent, it should not hinder itself from working with other unions, federations and organisations if it will benefit the working class.
He said this work must be underpinned by “cooperation, not competition”. When both Cosatu and Saftu announced 24 August as a national shutdown day, Cosatu claimed the matching dates were a coincidence. However, Saftu said the two federations were meeting to coordinate their actions in the run-up to the shutdown.
Vavi admitted on Monday that the national shutdown was not likely to have the same numbers as the 2018 Saftu shutdown, which saw tens of thousands of Saftu’s estimated 725 000 members take to the streets. He said this was due to deteriorating public transport, which served as a constraint to getting workers to mobilise.
Vavi urged workers in support of the shutdown to consider striking by withholding their labour and staying home. However, an estimated 200 organisations including political parties, unions, labour federations and NGOs are expected to support the shutdown one way or another.
Interestingly, Cosatu’s march to the premier’s office in Limpopo Province is billed to include membership from the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Operation Dudula. Despite Operation Dudula’s involvement, Vavi has been vocal about his opposition to the removal of foreigners as a solution to working-class challenges.
While the impact of the shutdown on the ordinary working day is expected to be limited, Eskom in the Western Cape postponed a community cooperatives engagement at Elsies River on account of the shutdown.