Between the 21 and 23 of April 2017, 1500 delegates representing 24 unions with diverse organisational and historic backgrounds, assembled in Ekurhuleni east of Johannesburg, to commit ourselves to rebuilding a progressive trade union movement of South Africa. During those three days, a baby was born! The name was to be the South African Federation of Trade Union (SAFTU). Its founders endorsed principles previously debated in a Workers Summit held in April 2016.
The underlying principles of SAFTU adopted are:
Delegates to this historic founding congress learning from history, demanded a trade union federation that would be independent but not apolitical. They expressed a view that they are tired of bureaucratic unions and wanted a new federation that is democratic, worker controlled and genuinely – not just rhetorically – socialist oriented that is inspired by Marxism/Leninism.
This was a commitment to turn their back on sweetheart unions and the snuggle of class collaboration, instead demanding that the trade unions should promote the class struggle, be militant and always campaign with allies against deep-rooted injustices, for true justice in economic, political, racial, gender, sexual orientation, ableness, environmental and every other dimension that ordinary South Africans now suffer.
For years workers have listened to speeches and discussion papers analysing their worsening unemployment, poverty and inequalities. They demanded that we now urgently move from just talking, to walking and indeed sprinting to our goal. They committed themselves to fight against all forms of discriminations – be it based on race, sex, regionalism and even country of origin.
The statement made by the delegates excited millions of workers not only in South Africa, but across the progressive movement of working-class formations in every corner of the globe. They knew that the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) had in its day toughened the spine of the liberation movement, that the 1973 Durban dockworkers sparked a renaissance, that FOSATU and COSATU exercised, at their peak, a formidable degree of class power, and that the time had come again for South Africans to build a new labour movement at the points of production and social reproduction that will be free from Alliance Palace politics.
In no time, our federation became a household name. During lunch-time discussions in thousands of workplaces across the length and breadth of the country, workers were debating the campaigns of the new federation that promised a breath of fresh air.
Of course, it is not easy. SAFTU has come to life under conditions not of our members’ choosing. SAFTU came to life because of the objective conditions created by sheer class collaborationism of particularly COSATU. Workers had voted with their feet and have left unions that disappointed them. By the time SAFTU was formed, the country’s “union density” had declined from around 30% of workers within trade unions in 2007 to 24%.
In 2012, the massacre of Marikana mineworkers showed that informal committees had taken the place of an established union which had failed to fight for members’ rights. Later that year, farmworkers in De Doorns took to the streets, rejecting the slavery wages imposed on them in plantations and vineyards, and sparked an uprising that fought against the super-exploitation of farmworkers which until then had benchmarked their minimum wage at R69/day. Their uprising won a raise of their minimum wage to at least R105 per day. .
But in the meantime, workers in different sectors suffered new attacks. The capitalist class succeeded in restructuring workplaces the intent of which was to maximise profits whilst fragmenting the working class and decline the power of trade unions by increasing the army of workers employed in precarious jobs. They have no protection and are treated as inferior with low pay, no perks, and no job security. Whether in the gig economy or simply outsourced and casualised workers in the big industry or public sector, they are part of our massive army of an underclass, joined by youth who have never had – and may never in future have a hope of being full-time secure employment.
The crisis of capitalism has intensified, with a strike by employers when it came to fixed capital investment in local industry, and an economic crooking through Illicit Financial Flows to offshore tax havens. South Africa’s official unemployment rate was at its lowest in 1995 at 16% (not including those who had given up looking) but it soared to 28% within six years, and now it stands at 32% (excluding those who have given up on looking for jobs). We lost a million jobs once the new government liberalised trade, resulting in the destruction of local clothing, textile, footwear, appliances, and electronics firms.
As if that were not enough, the neoliberal policies adopted included privatisation and outsourcing of vital services in the public service. Another million jobs were lost as a result of the elites’ belief in neoliberal globalisation, thus leaving South Africa terribly vulnerable to the 2008-09 global capitalist crises. In subsequent years, crony-capitalist corruption followed by austerity combined with decades of neoliberalism wreaked havoc across the economy.
And perhaps most frightening as the working class looks to a future on a vulnerable planet, every day the elites moved our environment closer to what Karl Marx called the metabolic rift, with a hard-hitting climate crisis that is displacing millions and deepening levels of poverty across the globe. In recent years, we have felt this in the intensity of raging wildfires, the length and depth of droughts, and the extremity of the cyclones and rain bombs reaching South Africa from the Mozambique Channel from the Indian Ocean. In 2019 and 2021, the consequences of these climate rages have killed dozens of people in our country, and more than a thousand in the neighbouring countries.
The combination of all these crises meant the poor were left to device their own means. Hospitals are in continuing state of disarray and the health system at the brink of collapse, the education system became dysfunctional, the criminal justice system has lost its integrity and become dysfunctional, and women and children “could not breathe” due to high levels of violence in working class households and communities.
Faced with these multifaceted crises, a one-year-old SAFTU wasted no time in mobilising millions to strike in 2018. We rose in order to resist renewed attacks on our trade unions, against government’s cut of sweetheart agreements behind workers’ backs with established unions that undermined the right to strike and left us with statutory minimum wages at merely starvation levels.
The strike was an overwhelming success with factory machines going silent for twenty-four hours in a massive demonstration of strength by the young federation. The enemies of the working class got the shock of their lives. They had underestimated the levels of anger and determination on the part of the working class. Workers had long been yearning to fight back against the capitalist tyranny after the 1994 euphoria.
SAFTU wasted no time in convening two Central Committees that developed detailed policies to help strengthen the organisation on a range of organisational – including a Service Charter, socio-economic, political, and international issues. It has never happened that an organisation that is hardly two to three years’ old can claim such a rich policy agenda, covering all aspects of our lives.
It was from these meetings that SAFTU submitted a comprehensive list of demands on every aspect of workers’ lives to the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). Just a week later, NEDLAC provided SAFTU a certificate that all the demands we submitted were not met, giving us the right to embark on legally protected strikes going forward. As we celebrate the fourth birthday of SAFTU, we wish to make a clarion call to workers that they must get ready for countless battles ahead.
This young federation is working hard to reignite the solidarity that existed in the 1970s, 80s and 90s between organised workers in workplaces and the working-class communities involved in daily battles for clean water, houses, etc. The 24 February 2021 general strike even as we faced the coronavirus pandemic is a testimony to this single struggle of the broader working class.
The political chaos and socio-economic-ecological crises are deepening every day. Unemployment has now reached an unprecedented record, with 42% of the population unemployed (including those who have given up looking), and 63% of our young workers below the age of 24 unable to find jobs. Poverty levels have reached catastrophic levels with 70% of the population living below the upper bound poverty level. We continue to be the most unequal society in the world.
Our people are fast losing hope that the capitalist system and the ruling elites will never solve their crisis of want and ignorance. More workers than ever before believe that their future is bound together with that of other people struggling elsewhere in the continent and the world over. Commonly, they yearn for deep-rooted democracy, freedoms and a society free of exploitation and poverty – a socialist future.
Highlights of federation’s victories
In the short period since 2017, SAFTU has already scored many victories for the working class. These include the:
As a trade union federation, we look out for all our members’ interests and strengthen poor and working-class people’s organisations in general. However, as an independent apolitical federation, we do not hesitate to intervene in the society’s political crises. Hence we have been actively commenting and actively intervening in the crisis that engulf the State Owned Enterprises, the government departments and in condemning xenophobia amongst others.
It is for these reasons that SAFTU offered countless submissions on electricity tariffs countering the proposed tariffs by Eskom. NERSA rejected the 20% increase requested by Eskom and imposed only a 5.23% rise in 2018. We are now linking to community groups and environmentalists in the Climate Justice Coalition to work out how a genuinely Just Transition will need to occur so that no single worker or community in the fossil fuel intensive carbon-centred South African economy will suffer as we necessarily move to clean energy, transport, agriculture, urban design and other eco-socialist strategies to exit capitalism’s climate death spiral.
In August 2017, SAFTU took the bold and unprecedented step to lay criminal charges against the Gupta brothers and Salim Essa for looting Eskom coffers through the fake management consultancy scheme in which international consultancy McKinsey used Trillian and Regiments Capital to front for its massive corruption. On the back of this we also threatened the then National Prosecutor, Shaun Abrahams, with court action to compel him to authorize the Asset Forfeiture Unit to seize the ill-gotten gains in bank accounts.
As a result of our relentless legal pressure, as well as information we supplied about the flow of funds, the AFU did indeed act. On 14 December 2017, on the eve of the ANC elective conference, a preservation order against Gupta cronies, Trillian, in the amount of R595 million was issued. The AFU also seized R1.1 billion from McKinsey. In the face of this action, McKinsey agreed to repay Eskom R1.1 billion, a victory SAFTU can be proud to have initiated. Litigation for Trillian to forfeit the R595 million is on-going. In a nutshell, we believe that without SAFTU squeezing McKinsey in such a public and embarrassing way, they would never have been induced to hand the money back without a fight.
Recently SAFTU filed charges of fraud, money laundering, and maladministration against Eskom, Sereti, South32 and host of others, after a deal was cut between all of them that would lead to Eskom paying coal price three times above the average.
In addition to all this work we have partnered with various organisations to create unique value propositions to ensure that our members access products and services cheaper. This ensures that our members are able to save and are exposed to proper financial advice.
We have also suffered huge setbacks in the hands of the increasingly conservative Constitutional Court Judges which underlines Lenin’s theory that the state is nothing but an instrument of class rule.
In one case, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the bosses (NUMSA vs Aveng) that it is okay to downward vary conditions of employment when the company is restructuring. In the NUMSA vs Lufi judgement, the Constitutional Court literally endorsed the employer’s refusal to bargain on the flimsy excuse that workers are not covered by the scope of the union.
While SAFTU remain optimistic, the concern lies in the public sector in which government wants to pull out of the public sector agreement signed in 2018. It is in this context that SAFTU is calling on workers in the public sector to coordinate a declaration of dispute. Equally, we call on workers in all sectors in all sectors of the economy to coordinate declaring of disputes so that they could embark on a protracted strike in all sectors against the wage freeze, to reject retrenchments and so-called rightsizing in the state-owned enterprises at the same time. We cannot and should not allow the capitalist class to solve the crisis of capitalism at the back of the working class.
Working Class Movement
SAFTU recognises the unity of all sections of the working class as sacrosanct. It for this reason that the delegates at the inaugural congress adopted a constitution that states, “the most pressing question facing the working class and poor communities is the question of unity.” Flowing from this constitutional declaration, SAFTU convened a historic working-class summit in June 2018. An enthusiastic turnout of 147 grassroots and working-class organisations attended and adopted a declaration that has become our guide to action since.
Though it suffered a little setback, the process to coordinate the working class movement is now underway. SAFTU head office has established an office of the working class coordinator whose sole responsibility is to link the federation to the grassroots movements and create a platform for their coordination. The move to launch the working class committees in all provinces to create a decentralised and effective coordination is unfolding.
Even the setback in the coordination after the 2018 working class summit did not stop SAFTU from intervening in community and youth struggles. SAFTU has pledged solidarity with students and joined them in organising the Coalition for Free Education. We continued supporting community organisation in Soweto, and the artists organised under Im4theArts campaign that were fighting against corruption in the arts and culture department.
The looming battle to fight for the transformation of Eskom and a Just Transition to green energy production requires us to continue forging unity with the civil, youth and community organisations. The newly launched Green New Eskom campaign, which encapsulates this just transition, plans to transform Eskom and ensure a move to more socially owned renewable energy future that the world so desperately need.
Our precious relationship with the fighting grassroots movements of the working class Gauteng Housing Crisis Committee (GHCC), Abahlali base Mjondolo, Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA), MEJCON, Coalition for Free education, etc., will continue to be watered through the office of the working class coordinator. After all, it is us who say struggles in the three arenas of the class struggle must be coordinate for ultimate success.
International solidarity and working class
Every organisation that is inspired by Marxist Leninism and recognise the need to move to a socialist transformation, must out of necessity, recognise the need to link with the working people of the world. After all, Marx says, “workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains”. Despite this Marxist maxim, our history compels us to link with the working people of the world because of they played a decisive role in the struggle against apartheid.
SAFTU has condemned the xenophobic attacks and pledged solidarity with migrant workers from other parts of the world who are victims of xenophobic attack in this country. In addition, we have been vocal and active in solidarity struggle against the occupation of Palestine and the untold suffering Palestinian people suffer at the hands of the Israel forces. NUMSA solidarity for the release of and the picket at the US consulate are but some of the activities of international solidarity which give expression to the constitutional principle of internationalism.
Happy fourth birthday to all SAFTU members whom we salute on this special day.