Workers’ Day, South Africa

A tale of two labour federations

By Rebecca Davis 2 May 2018

Members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) take part in a May Day rally in Cape Town, South Africa 01 May 2018. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

Workers’ Day 2018 will be remembered for the dominance of two issues: the ongoing splintering of the labour movement, and the contestation around the national minimum wage. While President Cyril Ramaphosa was given a warm welcome at Cosatu’s Port Elizabeth rally, a gathering by federation rivals Saftu in Bloemfontein saw Ramaphosa denounced as a sell-out and the national minimum wage dismissed as an insult. Though lip service was paid to the “unity” of workers, there wasn’t much evidence of it going around.


Alliance leaders wanted everyone to be clear on one point: Cosatu’s Workers’ Day rally, held in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday, was a great success.

This message was hammered home by speakers at the rally to the point of absurdity.

We have proved them wrong!” said Cosatu provincial chairman David Toyise in reference to the “prophets of doom” who predicted poor attendance at the rally.

TV cameras could film from any angle they wanted, Toyise said. “The stadium is full!”

It was a slightly defensive way to kick off a “very successful Workers’ Day rally” – Toyise’s description, twice – but also only the beginning of what would become a rhetorical leitmotif for the gathering.

Cosatu provincial treasurer Nomonde Mtembu called on the crowd to “clap hands” to prove what a successful time everyone was having. When the resulting applause was disappointing, she demanded a do-over.

By the time President Cyril Ramaphosa referred to the event as “this most successful Workers’ Day rally…very, very successful indeed”, it was all starting to feel a bit like satire.

But the organisers had good reason to be spooked. A week earlier, Cosatu’s rival trade union federation Saftu had succeeded in drawing thousands of South Africans on to the streets to march in protest against the proposed minimum wage of R20, as well as other labour reforms.

On Workers’ Day, Cosatu won the numbers battle when it came to rally attendance – but that didn’t stop some from predicting the end of the ANC’s alliance partner.

At Saftu’s Bloemfontein event, the federation’s president Mac Tshabalala told a hall of members that Saftu believed it had overtaken Cosatu in membership numbers, and that an audit of Cosatu’s real figures would reveal inflation.

We feel for those workers who are trapped in Cosatu,” Tshabalala said.

Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, meanwhile, took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to muse on the federation’s successes after just a year in existence.

We’ve welcomed six new affiliates and strengthened and consolidated others which broke away from existing Cosatu unions and who are now making a serious challenge to their former leaders in the workplace, bargaining councils and recruitment of new members,” Vavi wrote.

He paid tribute to a number of successful workplace challenges, adding: “The grand climax of our first year came last Wednesday, when thousands of workers went on strike and took over the streets of our big cities to reject a poverty minimum wage and attacks on workers’ Constitutional right to strike. It was a warning signal to employers and their sweethearts.”

The question of the minimum wage has become the tool by which Saftu seeks to differentiate itself from Cosatu. The latter has given its guarded blessing to a national minimum wage of R20 per hour, while Saftu rejects the amount as insulting and is proposing a minimum monthly wage of R12,500.

Addressing the Cosatu rally on Tuesday, Mineral Resources Minister Blade Nzimande adopted a distinctly irritable tone when discussing the minimum wage battle.

To reject the R20 per hour minimum, said Nzimande, is “infantile”.

Pointing out that over six million South Africans currently earn less than R20 per hour, Nzimande said that such workers would get “huge relief” from the implementation of the national minimum wage.

President Ramaphosa, meanwhile, adopted a triumphalist – and again somewhat defensive – tone when discussing the minimum wage in his address to the PE rally.

Deviating entirely from his prepared speech for several minutes, Ramaphosa declared: “This is a victory for the workers of our country no matter what other people may say”.

Ramaphosa, like Nzimande, acknowledged that R20 per hour was not a living wage. But he said that the amount would form a “foundation” on which to build.

Though the president never mentioned Saftu by name, he dismissed as unrealistic calls for a much higher monthly wage.

If you were suddenly to say workers must earn R15,000, a lot of workers would lose their jobs, many companies would have to close,” Ramaphosa warned.

We must never be shy or ashamed of incremental victories. We want workers to get that type of wage, but at the same time, many workers in our country would have lost their jobs…Is that what we wanted? We said ‘No’.”

But Ramaphosa also concluded his address by extending an olive branch to the unions which have broken away from Cosatu.

We long and look forward to the day when workers in our country will be united under one federation,” he said.

Nzimande was singing from the same hymn sheet, stressing the need for “broad working-class unity” and indicating that the South African Communist Party (SACP) would be holding talks with federations beyond Cosatu.

Other ANC leaders also expressed hope for future reconciliation between the labour formations. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told eNCA on Tuesday morning that he was sure that President Ramaphosa would not refuse to meet with Saftu.

ANC Eastern Cape chair Oscar Mabuyane admitted that the ruling party “would like to have NUMSA back” within the alliance, while Luthuli House’s Senzo Mchunu said that “government will understand easier and better if workers speak in one voice”.

But from the perspective of Saftu, there was no indication that the young federation is finding the temperature cold outside the alliance.

Speaking to eNCA, NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim lashed out at Ramaphosa as “the Trump of South Africa”, and appeared to confirm speculation that Saftu – which has remained politically unaffiliated up to now – is seriously considering contesting the 2019 general elections.

Next year, we want to have a political party,” Jim said. DM


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