Saftu and allies plan national shutdown on 24 August to demand a better life for the working class
At a Working Class Summit held in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, on Friday, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) and its allies in civil society took a decision to stage a national shutdown on Wednesday, 24 August.
The decision to organise a stayaway came after a day-long summit of 500 people and 150 organisations, during which Saftu, its affiliates and its allies debated the critical conditions faced by working-class and poor people in South Africa.
According to Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, “nothing must move on that day”.
The mood in the Braamfontein Centre – a cold, cavernous and poorly dressed hall – was depressed but determined. Among organised workers, there were members of Numsa, the South African Police Union, the General Industries Workers’ Union of SA and the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers.
Delegates were overwhelmingly poor and young. Many were unemployed. The atmosphere in the room contrasted sharply with the Social Sector Summit that President Ramaphosa was addressing at the same moment in an expensive conference centre on the other side of town. (Earlier in the day, I had tried to attend that too, but was unable to get past the security or find an official willing to let me in because “I was not on the accredited list”.)
According to a Saftu statement, the summit aimed “to assemble a fighting plan against the rising costs of living, austerity, privatisation, job losses/unemployment, crime including GBV and killing of police officials, and climate change calamity”.
The statement adds: “Our intent to organise and mobilise protracted struggles is not borne of unfailing fondness for strikes and protests, but because history has not presented the working class with better tools to fight for the betterment of society.
“If anything, the historical lessons of the post-apartheid period have demonstrated that other methods such as negotiating in corporatist structures in Nedlac and bargaining councils are not adequate to bring us to a society that affords ordinary citizens a better life.”
For most of the day, speaker after speaker got up to talk about the difficulties they faced in their workplaces and communities. Delegates questioned why Saftu is still excluded from Nedlac, while a young activist from the Young Urban/Rural Self Empowerment Forum berated the failure of unions: “We are saying to the unions ‘wake up’; we are in this situation because shop stewards are not trained and are unable to negotiate for their workers.”
There were heartfelt cries from communities riven by crime and drugs, about the pain of perpetual unemployment among youth, the violence and rape faced by women and the exploitation of marginal workers. People complained about the inadequacy of the R350 Social Relief of Distress grant, particularly in the face of rising prices on every front.
A speaker from the SA Police Union appealed passionately to delegates to treat the police as allies and fellow workers: “Behind our uniform there’s a parent, someone’s child, a member of the community – so why are we being killed so brutally?” she asked.
Speakers also addressed the summit from organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Treatment Action Committee, 350.org and the Climate Justice Coalition, Mine Affected Communities United in Action and the #PayTheGrants coalition.
Support was also pledged by Bantu Holomisa from the UDM, as well as a speaker from the EFF.
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Declaration of war on inequality and poverty
Closing the summit, Vavi summed up the discussions and the declaration that was adopted. He started by explaining why Saftu is trying to build a broad progressive alliance to challenge the way the socioeconomic crisis is being managed in SA.
“We are trying to be as broad as we can, as unsectarian as we can, as inclusive of all progressive working class formations as we can.”
In this regard, he pointed to a resolution of a recent Saftu NEC resolution setting out criteria for a shared platform of action:
- Anti-capitalist (in the current context this means opposing neoliberalism and the government’s austerity and privatisation programme);
- Reject racism, patriarchy, sexism and xenophobia;
- Oppose the pandemic of gender-based violence;
- Oppose the destruction of the environment;
- Oppose imperialism and its destructive consequences across the globe;
- Accept the centrality of the working class in the resolution of the capitalist crisis as a global system.
“We will work hard to invite everyone to be part of this broad front,” said Vavi, mentioning that Saftu was also “working to engage the leadership of Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu”.
After a unanimous show of hands, Vavi declared that 24 August will be “the day the working class responds to the capitalist crisis – nobody must move, from Musina to Cape Town”.
Vavi told delegates that Saftu would submit a section 77 application notice to the labour court which, if successful, would mean that every worker in the country can participate in the shutdown without “disciplinary action” being taken.
According to Nedlac, Section 77 refers to Section 77 of the Labour Relations Act, which speaks to protest action to promote or defend socioeconomic interests of workers.
“The action that the union calls for in the Section 77 (1)(d) notice is protected under law. This protection is given not just to members of the union or federation who lodged the notice at Nedlac, but to all workers [essential services workers are governed by a separate set of laws] who are sympathetic to that cause. The rule of no-work, no-pay applies to workers who are taking the day off to join the protest action.” (See: What is Section 77? | Nedlac)
In response to questions from Maverick Citizen about whether the protests would be peaceful and how Saftu would prevent it from being hijacked by elements trying to tip South Africa into a new spiral of rioting and looting, Vavi was categorical: “All our protests will be peaceful. We are opposed to the destruction of infrastructure. This does not only divert attention from the genuine grievances, but leads to reversals of the gains registered since and before 1994.”
He added: “We are aware of the destructive nature of ANC factions. Our call to them is – stay away. Don’t dare try to hijack grievances created by your leadership and organisation over the past 28 years.
“Our call to the working class is to be vigilant and be careful of ANC factions seeking to use any genuine grievances to pursue ANC internal factional battles.” DM/MC