The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) sends festive greetings to all South Africans, with best wishes for a safe and happy holiday, and a much better new year in 2021.
We desperately hope that 2021 will be not be as harsh as 2020, a year in which we have suffered not only the tragic 75 000 deaths from Covid-19 (including ‘excess’ deaths) and the difficult but necessary restrictions on the way we live, but also catastrophic increases in unemployment, poverty and hunger.
The Coronavirus pandemic has hit the whole world but it has not affected all people the same; rather it has starkly exposed the already-existing class, race and gender inequalities. In what is the world’s most unequal country, the lack of reliable national data about whether rates of infection and death are higher in townships and rural villages, compared to wealthy suburbs, is infuriating. What are the race and class comparisons, so that our resources can be deployed appropriately? We are simply not being told, as sites like Sandton and Alexandra are rolled into one single reporting district.
With the StatsSA already failing us in profound ways this year and the other health information agencies and journalists simply not reporting whether, for example, kombis packed to 100% capacity represent super-spreader threats, we are terrified of the new variant of much tougher Covid-19 that has now arrived as the pandemic’s second wave gathers momentum.
We do know that based on sheer numbers, our working and poor people have suffered many more infections and deaths from the virus and far more economic grief, as millions of jobs disappeared, more millions dropped entirely out of the labour market, as incomes were slashed and as millions were left struggling to feed themselves and their families on savings or the most minimal government handouts.
Workers have faced the grim reality of either travelling to work in the death-trap-taxis, moving to unhealthy workplaces where there is a daily risk of infection, or joining the ranks of the jobless, dependent on Temporary Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) payments and struggling to avoid infection in overcrowded homes and neighbourhoods where social-distancing is impossible.
When these TERS grants are soon withdrawn, millions more will be forced to survive on poverty-level social grants, or food parcels, which can mean waiting for hours in long, unhealthily-congested queues. In some cases, desperate people had to stage food-rebellions to get food, and service-delivery protests to get access to water, supposedly our human right and so vital for anti-Covid hygiene.
As if that was not enough, many of the poorest South Africans in shack settlements also lost their homes as home demolitions and evictions continued regardless of the pandemic. Government protections against displacement due to unaffordable rentals were rhetorically encouraging but meant nothing in reality. The upsurge of mid-year land occupations was just one result.
Women and children have been the virus’s biggest victims as they face not only the daily struggle for food, but also the rising incidence of injury or death at the hands of their partners.
Not only have the poor been more likely to be infected, they then most suffer worse treatment at under-funded, under-staffed public hospitals and clinics, putting them in greater risk of death. It is still outrageous that as the pandemic unmistakably approached in late February, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni drastically cut the public health budget, by nearly R4 billion.
In addition, poor and working-class students have been hit far harder by the disruption of education at all levels, as they are much less likely to have remote learning options in their overcrowded homes, due to limited access to computers and WiFi.
Meanwhile, the privileged rich minority have been able to enjoy the opportunity to work from home on full pay in spacious houses, and to enjoy superior treatment at private hospitals. Their children have had no problem with remote learning from their well-equipped, roomy homes with unlimited WiFi.
Many of the super-rich have become even richer during the pandemic. South African-born Elon Musk recently passed Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to become the world’s third-richest person, owning wealth of nearly $110 billion (R1650 billion).
Other members of the wealthy minority have become millionaires by corruptly securing contracts to supply masks and PPE, some of which never materialised. Despite the daily evidence from the Zondo Commission into ‘state-capture’, the South African capitalist cancers of corruption, bribery, fraud, money-laundering and tax-evasion remain our other pandemic. It is only because India’s corporations overtook South Africa’s this year, that we are now tied (with China) as the country with the second most corporate tsotsis in the world, according to the 2020 PwC Global Economic Crime and Fraud Survey. With a few rare exceptions, government agencies – especially the Treasury and Reserve Bank which brag of liberalising exchange controls ever faster – are nudge-nudge, wink-wink to their corrupt Sandton/Stellenbosch/Cape Town/Umhlanga allies.
Our hopes have been raised by the news of Covid vaccines being rolled out, but reports by Gavi – the alliance of governments, drug companies, charities and international organisations that arranges global vaccination campaigns – forecast that the global scheme to deliver Covid vaccines to poorer countries faces a ‘very high’ risk of failure, potentially leaving billions of people with no access to vaccines until as late as 2024, while wealthier countries have pre-booked many of the early batches of vaccine. We respect a few government officials who are allied with India and other countries fighting at the WTO in Geneva this month against Intellectual Property restrictions on generic vaccines – as we did successfully to get ARVs to seven million South Africans for free through the public sector, and dramatically lower the AIDS death rate, in the process raising South African life expectancy from 52 in 2005 to 65 today. But we abhor the Treasury’s failure to provide sufficient resources to public healthcare and a National Health Insurance now that the pandemic’s second wave appears far worse than the first.
So Covid-19 will still be blighting our lives well into 2021, more so because of the government’s inept handling of the pandemic by relaxing restrictions too early under pressure from business to ‘get back to normal’.
‘Back to normal’ is no solution anyway. Even before the pandemic struck, ‘normal’ South Africa had world-record levels of unemployment and inequality and widespread poverty. Our pollution levels including CO2 emission have been at the world’s worst levels per capita per unit of output; only Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic have higher levels among countries with 10 million people. The need for a Just Transition to a decarbonised economy in which workers do not suffer losses is as great as ever, but no serious efforts appear imminent from the austerity-oriented government
The lockdown from the end of March led to a net 1.7 million people losing their jobs as of September, with further losses likely due to renewed lockdowns. There are now a staggering 11.1 million unemployed South Africans. Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the third quarter of 2020 showed the latest expanded definition of unemployment at 43%, the highest level in the industrialised world, and in the country’s modern history.
And here too the figures reflect race and gender inequalities; the rate for Africans is 47.4%, while for whites it was around 6% (pre-Covid-19). For African females it is 51.4%.
It has become clear that the ANC government is intending to slaughter thousands of workers jobs. Already government has issued has collapsed SAA and SA Express. Section 89 notices have been issued by SABC and Denel. Eskom has embarked on the process of voluntary severance packages.
In the midst of such a dire situation the ANC government is making sure that nothing will get better, thanks to its dogmatic, disastrous neoliberal economic strategy, dictated by the ruling class both internationally and in South Africa. The Presidency, Reserve Bank and Treasury is forcing the working class and poor majority to pay the price for the capitalists’ failure.
The current Treasury fiscal policy is based on cutting spending on public services and wages, while doing nothing to tackle the ‘strike of capital’ by big business which fail to invest in manufacturing industry, and instead earn higher returns by exporting trillions of rands in capital transfers, much of it into tax havens. The Treasury’s own Financial Intelligence Centre admitted in late 2019 that 3-7% leaves South Africa each year as Illicit Financial Flows – with no outrage in the capitalist press at this looting, and no attempt at tightening exchange controls and prosecuting the guilty. South Africa is the only country where the multimillionaire class earn up to 4% while playing with their dogs in their Olympic size swimming pools. This is made possible by the inappropriate monetary policies that have set a very low inflation target rate of 3% – 6% through high an interests rate regime.
Nothing better illustrates the cruelty of this policy than the government’s reneging on the 2018-20 public-sector wage agreement, a flouting of a legitimate contract that was just scandalously upheld by the Labour Appeal Court on grounds of a chosen fiscal austerity. Instead of being rewarded for their selfless dedication during the pandemic, the front-line workers who have saved countless lives and kept the country running, are being punished with a wage cut in real terms.
SAFTU utterly rejects the government’s argument that public-sector workers are over-paid relative to those in the private sector. The reality is that private-sector workers are grossly under-paid, as a result of years of employers abandoning collective bargaining, adopting the brutal outsourcing strategy, and turning workers into ‘self-employed’ contractors doing precarious jobs.
The ‘private sector’ also includes the mushrooming ‘gig’ economy of taxi drivers, fisherfolk, street traders, waste pickers and others who search desperately for day-to-day sustenance, as well as the huge population of farmworkers. Nearly all are struggling to survive on poverty pay, with around two-thirds of South Africans below the R50/day Upper Bound Poverty Line. All deserve a raise: a living minimum income, not to be used as an excuse for paying the public-sector workers less!
The Labour Appeal Court’s outrageous ruling shows why we reject the idea that unions, business and government should come together in a ‘social compact’ to negotiate agreements in ‘the national interest’. This episode proves that employers will only ever agree to deals on pay or anything else when it suits them, or they are forced through mass pressure, including strikes.
It sends a warning to workers reject the kind of social compact, which was agreed at NEDLAC between COSATU, FEDUSA and NACTU, government and business. If this ANC government cannot even uphold a negotiated agreement on public workers’ pay, how can we trust them to stick to agreements on anything, in such a compact?
The ruling class can agree to temporary deals with union leaders to buy time but will never agree to policies which threaten their wealth and power. They will lose no time clawing back any concessions they made in the deal.
The only way to bring about real change and bring to an end the economic catastrophe into which South Africa has been plunged is through action in the workplaces and on the streets.
This year the pandemic has posed challenges to unions. Social distancing has severely disrupted the normal way in which workers gather in meetings, conferences and rallies. The gap between privileged workers with steady employment and the huge ‘precariat’ slipping deep into poverty grows larger, daily. But that has not stopped many workers from taking action, including:
1. NUMSA and SACCA members fighting all year to save jobs at SAA
2. GIWUSA workers on strike at Clover and Nature’s Garden
3. NUMSA members in action in the motor manufacturing sector
4. NUPSAW’s ongoing battle for permanent employment for community healthcare workers, with an inspirational victory in Gauteng just as the pandemic gathered steam
5. Health and education staff’s struggle for PPE and other safety provisions
6. 3.5 million public service workers staging a massive strike on 8 October
We have also been able to celebrate important victories:
1. NUMSA’s successful appeal at the Labour Appeal Court, which overturned employers’ attempt to ban a strike
2. National Minimum Wage Commission recommendation that earnings of the lowest-paid farm and domestic workers be brought into line with that of other workers.
SAFTU still regard the current levels of the National Minimum Wage as slavery wage.
We have also suffered huge setbacks in the hands of increasingly conservative Constitutional Court Judges which underlines Lenin’s theory that the state is nothing but an instrument of class rule. In addition to the recent Labour Appeal Court endorsement of government austerity and the tearing of the signed contract between government and its employees, one case the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the bosses in a matter between NUMSA and Aveng, that it is okay to downward vary conditions of employment when the company is restructuring. In the NUMSA/Lufil judgement the Constitutional Court literally endorsed the employer’s refusal to bargaining on the flimsy excuse that the workers are not covered by the scope of the union.
There have been waves of community struggles against evictions, shack demolitions, land hunger, police violence, gang warfare, domestic violence, water and electricity cuts, and corruption. It is true that xenophobia also reared its head within the working class occasionally, especially in the freight transport sector, but standing up against artificial divisions in our class is the historic responsibility of conscientized socialist workers.
The pandemic has dramatically exposed South African capitalism’s failure to resolve, and in fact to worsen, the multiple crises of poverty and disease, ongoing racism, gender-based violence, crime and corruption, the environmental crisis, inequality, economic stagnation and mass unemployment.
Capitalism in South Africa is forever based on the continuing impoverishment of the working class and the poor, the repression of women who do so much unpaid labour to reproduce society, and environmental looting. It will forever require the exploitation of the mass of our people by a wealthy, privileged male elite – initially white-skinned and foreign, then white and local, and now also black and local. Coronavirus has now entrenched the previous ‘normal’ misery imposed on the majority by corporations, aided so generously by the ANC government’s neoliberal policies.
As a result, there has been a build-up of anger in both communities and workplaces at the price the workers and the poor have been made to pay in the fight against Covid19. As the necessary restrictions begin to be lifted in 2021 and as workers return from their holiday month, there will be an explosion of both suffering and of protest.
That is why SAFTU is engaging its working class allies to join in the mobilisation for the total economic shutdown on 24 February 2021, the day when Minister Mboweni will be presenting a budget that will put the last nails in the coffin of the working class.
This will be the chance for the public-sector workers to vent their fury at the pay cut the ANC government has imposed on them. The federation calls on all its members, other trade unions, working-class organisations, feminists, anti-racists, environmentalists and youth – to stage the biggest protest ever and lay the foundations for a fight to the finish for socialism, and thus total liberation from the cruel tyranny of the rich elite who exploit and impoverish us.