“This is the day we have chosen to fight back,” yelled acting National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola as Saftu (South African Federation of Trade Unions) members flocked into Newtown, Johannesburg on Wednesday. “Voetsek, Ramaphosa, voetsek!”
Saftu promised to shut down multiple cities in protest against the National Minimum Wage Bill and labour law amendments it claims will tie workers to the apartheid wage system and cripple workers’ ability to strike. Members of the one-year-old federation were slow to arrive in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
Numsa, Saftu’s largest affiliate and the country’s biggest union, is part of the nation-wide bus strike, which meant that getting workers to the city proved difficult. By 11am, however, thousands had arrived, a number claiming Ramaphosa preferred his beloved buffalos over the dignity of South Africans.
“We won’t march,” Saftu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said before the crowd left Newtown. “We are far too many to march. We are occupying Johannesburg.” Vavi was right. Saftu didn’t march; it was more of a run.
Wave after wave of strikers joined the group as they moved towards Premier David Makhura’s office. Some workers carried sticks and knobkieries. Many stores in the Johannesburg CBD were closed as thousands of Saftu members proceeded through the city.
Saftu’s attempt to shut down cities across the country was as much about differentiating it from its rivals as it was about legislation in front of Parliament.
“Comrades, this action today is confirmation in no uncertain terms, it’s the most crushing confirmation, that the South African Federation of Trade Unions is the biggest federation in the country at the moment,” said Giwusa (General Industrial Workers Union of South Africa) leader Mametlwe Sebei outside the premier’s office.
Cosatu and other leading trade union federation’s distanced themselves from the strike, claiming Saftu was grandstanding. In turn Saftu speakers labelled them “sell-outs”. Ramaphosa took a beating for supposedly being pro-capital, while other labour federations were described as his lackeys.
“Today we will fight back,” said Hlubi-Majola as Gauteng MEC for Infrastructure Development Jacob Mamabolo arrived to receive Saftu’s memorandum. “We demand a living wage. We reject R20 per hour. We reject laws that will stop us going on strike.”
The National Minimum Wage Bill is currently before Parliament and proposes introducing a minimum payment of R20 per hour or R3,464 a month for 40 hours of work per week, excluding farm, domestic and Expanded Public Works Programme workers. That would increase wages for almost 50% of workers.
Alongside the Bill, Parliament is looking at labour law amendments that would mean workers must vote before going on strike and the Department of Labour can decide to intervene in an industrial dispute when necessary.
Cosatu has said the minimum wage is a base from which to build and the labour law changes won’t have an impact. Saftu has taken to the streets to disagree.
Marchers said R3,500 was too low. Thokozani Mkhwebane, a nurse from Chiawelo, said, “The reason we are embarking on the march is the R3,500 is little for us, especially since we are working under an NGO we feel as though they are suppressing us. We are earning R2,200 currently and there is nothing a person can do with R2,200. We have bills to pay and after paying the bills we are then left with nothing.”
Numsa member Thapelo Mokoena said, “I refuse the R20 per hour increase. We have kids, we support them. Ramaphosa has a company and he is also black. He has to think of us as black people. Cost of living is high.”
As marchers in Johannesburg moved on to the departments of finance, health, labour and Chamber of Mines, in Cape Town a smaller gathering started at CPUT’s downtown Cape Town campus and then made its way to Parliament.
Democratised Transport Logistics and Allied Workers Union official Brightness Matwa told the crowd that the new minimum wage was an “insult” to workers.
“Away with this minimum wage!” he said. “It is imposed even though the majority of workers reject it.” Matwa rejected the claims that Saftu, which has been struggling to be included at Nedlac, was included in discussions about the new minimum wage.
He also protested new labour laws that require unions to conduct a secret ballot vote of members before calling a strike.
“Who are you to tell us how we must administer our affairs as a union? The Constitution of this country is very clear: every union has a right to manage their own affairs,” Matwa told the crowd.
Esmerelda Nieuwenhuys and Michelle Williams both attended the march as members of FAWU. Both women were farm workers in Woodstock and earned R164 during a 9-hour work day – just over R18 per hour.
“The wages we earn are too little,” said Williams. “And from that little, you have to pay for your child, for electricity, for rent, for school fees. At the end of the day, you have nothing left.”
Both women hoped that the nationwide strike would result in raised wages. “We hope for better wages at the end of the day,” Nieuwenhuys said. DM
Reporting By Greg Nicolson, Orateng Lepodise & Rebecca Radelmeier