Mayday, Mayday! Our workers are sinking

COMMENT

On May 1, South Africa joins the global community to commemorate workers and take stock of the noteworthy contributions they have made to people’s rights and social justice over many decades. 

May Day is also a reminder of the many problems that still confront the working class, politicians and trade unionists. South African workers have always understood and consistently maintained that workplace struggles cannot be separated from broader social struggles, which include gender equality and, specifically, women’s emancipation. 

It would be thoughtless, however, for anyone to use the greeting “Happy May Day” because there has been a huge failure in South Africa to ensure that workers’ rights have been prioritised over the past 26 years. 

In fact, May Day has become notorious for the absurd slogans and government or political events and speeches that continue to distort the essence of this day in our country.

Historically speaking, it is quite clear that the most oppressed people in society are  workers, and they remain exploited from all directions. If it is not white monopoly capital — which treats them as second-class citizens and/or trash — it is the new elite, who conspire to press workers for profit. 

This includes the unions, which have joined the frenzy of oppression inadvertently by not challenging enough policies that take advantage of workers. Workers’ aspirations remain secondary in a country where the majority of its labourers belong to unions.

Trade union federation Cosatu — a member of the tripartite alliance together with the ruling ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) —  has been the worst sellout in the past 26 years.

How does a revolutionary federation like Cosatu, which prides itself on liberating black people, agree to a minimum wage of R3 500? After agreeing to the fatuous minimum wage, VAT was increased in 2018 to 15% right under their noses by their alliance partner, the ANC. Cosatu, for positions and attainment of political favour, has abandoned its mission of prioritising workers and ensuring that they are not tyrannised. 

On April 6, Cosatu expressed its disappointment with the health department in a statement, citing that the department has failed to ensure that health workers get adequate personal protection equipment as they carry out their duties in fighting the Covid-19 virus. 

On the other hand, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), an affiliate of Cosatu, took the department to court to force them to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act. 

On Wednesday April 15, the ruling party decided not to honour — without notice — the collective agreement that was signed in 2018 at the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council, to increase public servant salaries by between 4.4% and 5.4% on April 1 2020. This after the department of public service said in a statement that they planned to honour the agreement. 

Antagonised by this insult of non-implementation by the government, Nehawu is in consultation with its lawyers to explore what legal action they can lodge against the state, and have pronounced that when the lockdown ends they will pick up a real battle against the government, rendering the state system unworkable. 

Meanwhile Cosatu has resorted to continue its negotiations with the government over the wage increase stalemate, hoping that the mediation process will yield positive results. This demonstrates the toothlessness that is Cosatu and how complacent it has become, all the while justifying its alliance with the ANC, by implying that they can influence pro-poor policies. 

This is laughable because all neoliberal policies — that have led to further oppression of workers  — were passed under the ANC, showing Cosatu the proverbial middle finger. 

The apparent influence that Cosatu, which haughtily brands itself as the “vanguard of the workers”, commands has done nothing to advance the material conditions of the working class in recent times. During the times of Jay Naidoo and Mbhazima Shilowa, when Cosatu called for a shutdown of this country and put in demands, they were met. 

South Africa is in a recession for the second time in two years, load-shedding has disrupted daily life and the treasury is forecasting the biggest fiscal deficit in the post-apartheid era. Now is the time to panic; with 38.7% people unemployed, white people still earning three times more than their black counterparts, and an inequality database indicating that the top 1% of South African earners take home almost 20% of all income in the country. 

The economic outlook has significantly deteriorated since President Cyril Ramaphosa took control of the ruling party, and promised to overturn a decade of “misrule”. As a former union leader, Ramaphosa promised the country that if they “thuma” him, he would revive the economy, implement the policy of land expropriation without compensation and undo the damage from “the lost nine years” of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. The fact of the matter is that he has been unable to build the authority necessary to force through change. Things are only going to get worse now that South Africa is under lockdown.

The reality is, the country is sinking and we should shout “Mayday!” instead.

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