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The national strike, led by Saftu and its social partners alongside Cosatu, saw thousands taking to the streets in major centres around the country against the high cost of living and government’s austerity measures. The two rival trade union federations agreed to cooperate for the one-day national shutdown. According to Saftu president, Ruth Ntlokotse, the two federations agreed that they were “not going to march together, but will strike together”. That arrangement was put to a test when Cosatu held a march to the offices of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa in Cape Town and met with Saftu outside the City of Cape Town building. The leaders of the federations shared a stage and spoke about the importance of worker unity.

Meanwhile, outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, there were lengthy discussions on how they should share the platform and have a joint programme, which ended with Saftu leaders deciding to join Cosatu on their stage and address the workers. Taking to the podium, the general secretary of Saftu, Zwelinzima Vavi told the thousands gathered in the capital that unity among workers is needed more than ever. “We need to unite against neoliberal economic policies and austerity programmes which denies the majority of the working class and the poor basic services,” he said.

Two marches in the Eastern Cape

Even though all workers have the same grievances, division between unions was displayed in the Eastern Cape as two marches instead of the expected single united, action were held. Saftu’s march started in Bisho stadium while Cosatu’s started in King William’s Town with both converging outside the Eastern Cape legislature.

In Pretoria

Thousands gathered at Burgers Park and proceeded to the Union Building in anticipation of meeting the president and senior government officials. Top among their worries was record-high unemployment, the high cost of living, high electricity tariffs, the miserly better minimum wage and they called for a basic income grant. Among the marchers were domestic workers, casual workers and the unemployed.   

Zimbabwean-born Modest Mbaye, who is a domestic worker belonging to the United Domestic Workers of South Africa (UDWOSA), said she can’t afford to support her family. She has been a domestic worker since 2009 and now earns just R3,000 a month. “Imagine with that I still have to buy food, pay school fees for my children, pay rent and leave some for transport. I must have at least R70 a day for the transport. Really the money we are getting is very low and end of the year bonus doesn’t make any difference. I’m here to ensure that our struggle as domestic workers is heard, “she said.

Thousands marched to the Union Buildings to deliver a memorandum on the high cost of living and austerity measures. Photo by Ramatamo Sehoai

Representing the Unemployment People of South Africa was Dumisani Nkosi, who appealed to the government to seriously look into the issue of age limits when coming to job opportunities. He said this is discriminatory and forces older workers further into poverty: “They should make a serious introspection if this applies to them as well because when I look into the cabinet you hardly see young people there, irrespective of their age, they continue giving themselves jobs.”

“This a very uncaring government. In fact, I’m not even sure if we have a government and a leadership. I’m here to fight the cost of living in this country. The cost of living is very high and that’s abnormal. The ruling party is only about themselves. They are the agents of the white people. Look at the workers at Luthuli House who have been on the streets for the longest time fighting for their salaries. So I’m not expecting them to take care of our needs,” said another participant at the march, Tlou Manamela.

Mondli Ngungubele said the demands raised by the workers are valid and need to be seriously looked into. Photo by Ramatamo Sehoai

“Part of the solutions we are putting on the table is for the government to speedily implement the social compact as discussed at Nedlac and look into foreign currency reserves that will enable it to address these socio-economic challenges,” said Thabang Sonyathi, provincial deputy chairperson of Cosatu in Gauteng.

Accepting the memorandum of demands, Minister in the Presidency Mondli Ngungubele said demands raised by the workers are valid and need to be seriously looked into: “We agree with you that unless we adequately address, poverty, inequality and unemployment, we will remain irrelevant. But let me assure you that there is no plan to sell Eskom. Instead the president said there is an energy plan that is reviewed on a weekly basis.”

In Cape Town

Led by Saftu’s president, Ruth Ntlokotse, hundreds of workers belonging mainly to Saftu unions marched to the City of Cape Town offices, the regional offices of the department of mineral resources and energy, the provincial legislature and then to parliament.

The marchers gave parliament seven days to respond to their demands. Photo by Nobathembu Ndzengu

Vanessa Nelson, an activist from Heideveld, said that high food and electricity prices have affected working class women the most. “The price of cooking oil has doubled in the last two years and we think that there is a need for an investigation into price fixing when it comes to cooking oil. The tariffs have gone up including the electricity prices. They charge us levies for water and we think the DA[Democratic Alliance]-led government should do away with levies. As for the high electricity prices, as women we need to find alternatives; at least I’m in a better financial position than most women in my area as I could afford to buy a gas stove,” she said.

Kashiefa Achmat from Housing Assembly said that the City of Cape Town is carrying out evictions in Bishop Lavis to make way for a new housing development. The development is supposed to have built over 777 housing units but has only built 40. She holds the City of Cape Town responsible for this failure and for gentrification that is happening in many parts of the city.

Constance Mathe, national coordinator of sex-worker organisation Asijiki Sisonke, said that the City of Cape Town’s law enforcement cannot prevent crime in the city but they will not fail to to harass and arrest sex-workers.

About 500 people took part in the Cape Town leg of the #NationalShutdown. Photo by Nobathembu Ndzengu

Accepting the memorandum, Cape Town mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis said that they had deployed 1,232 law enforcement officers in 12 hotspots around the city and this had contributed to the reduced number of murders reported at different police stations around the city. In defence of the city’s response to the electricity crisis, he said: “We are also working towards being the only loadshedding-free municipality in the country as we continue to buy power from independent power producers.”

Saftu’s provincial secretary, Andre Adams was quick to respond to Hill-Lewis saying that they do not want the private sector to provide public services as it will be too expensive for the poor to afford. Adams said that Eskom as a state-owned enterprise should the sole provider of electricity.

Outside parliament, Saftu president Ntlokose read the memorandum before it was signed by a parliamentary representative. She urged the marchers not to turn to xenophobia as their anger and frustration should be directed towards the government.

In Bisho

On Wednesday, workers from different towns in the Eastern Cape under Saftu and Cosatu held two marches to the premier’s office. More than 300 workers, mostly teachers, attended the march. There were delays as both marches arrived almost two hours late at Oscar Mabuyane’s office.

Saftu representative, Nontembeko Luzipo acknowledged that they were late but told Mabuyane that she would not apologise. As the people who voted for Mabuyane to be the premier, she said, he had to wait as long as they needed him to. Luzipo said Saftu will continue to make noise until the government listens to them.“We are tired of officials who are counting statistics; it is time they do what we tell them to do,” she said.

During the march, it was also clear that the workers are not happy with the ruling party. When the newly elected MEC of cooperative governance and traditional affairs tried to give a message of support to Cosatu members who were gathered in King Williams Town, workers refused to listen and some started singing.

Again, when Nehawu deputy president, Nyameka Macanda, speaking on behalf of Cosatu, started by acknowledging the ANC Women’s League, workers responded noisily, some shouting that she should step down.

A number of workers shouted that it is the ANC government that made all the bad decisions they are marching against. As she was reading out the memorandum, some workers loudly let her know, “We are not listening”.

Macanda said as Cosatu, they demand health facilities to be available for people living in rural areas. She said in some villages old people can’t access health facilities because they are too far away.

Even though all workers have the same grievances, division between unions was evident in the Eastern Cape where two marches took place instead of the one as was expected. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik

 Siya Kama works as an admin clerk for the department of health in King William’s Town. She said the only reason she joined the march is because she wants the fuel price to decrease. She said in a week she spends more than R600 on petrol. “I live and work in King William’s Town but I spend this much. In a month I spend close to R3,000 just on petrol,” she said.

Nosiseko Nobhungu from Mdantsane told Elitsha that she is among the workers who are demanding a salary increase. She earns R23 per hour. “I have six people who are depending on me, they are all unemployed. The money I earn is not enough. It does not last a month. I’m always in debt even though I’m working,” she said.

Even though Nobhungu, who is a Cosatu member, was part of the march, she did not believe that it would change anything. “These people are all corrupt, including the leaders of this march. There was no reason for them to divide the marches. I wish you could see the place we gathered at in King William’s Town – it didn’t even have toilets just to prove that they do not care about us, just to prove a point. I came here because it was a free ride,” she said.

Melikhaya Bovu is a teacher in Ngcobo town. He said he joined the march because he needs a salary increase. “Some of us are teaching in schools that are very far. Government used to pay a rural allowance but they have stopped it. As teachers, we demand that money back,” he said.

Both Saftu and Cosatu memorandums were handed over to Mabuyane. In his response, he said government is busy addressing some of the grievances mentioned.