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The Cape Town city centre was a hive of political activity on Wednesday morning ahead of the budget speech by Minister of Finance, Enoch Godogwana. Public sector unions, activists and unemployed youth held separate and joint activities against the expected austerity measures and called for a budget that responds to the social and economic crises affecting them.

About 150 public sector workers from Cosatu- and Saftu-affiliated unions gathered in Keizersgracht Street demanding a 10% salary increase. The government as their employer has according to the unions unilaterally implemented a 3% wage increase for the previous year. The protest by the public service unions coincided with their serving of a notice to the employer to prepare for strike action.

Mike Shingange, the president of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) said that the public sector unions are demoralised as they continue to suffer due to cuts in the wage bill.

According to the deputy general secretary of Saftu, Nontembeko Luzipho, the workers have expectations that the annual budget has to address specific issues. “The budget we look forward to will speak to the 10% increase of public servants as it was what was agreed upon during negotiations, and a budget that will be gender sensitive in particular to women that will help to fight off gender-based violence,” said Luzipho.

“In the speech today, we know the government will tell the public that they are giving public servants an increment of 4.7%. That is nothing to us,” said Siphiwe Gabela, the deputy president of the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw).

The public sector unions are also demanding the permanent employment of casual workers in the public sector. Archive photo by Vincent Lali

During his budget speech later in the day, Godongwana disputed the view that the budget was an austere one. “This is not an austerity budget. It is a budget that makes tough trade-offs in the
interests of the country’s short- and long-term prosperity. An unbudgeted wage settlement will require very significant trade-offs in government spending because the wage bill is a significant cost driver.
It will mean that funds must be clawed back in other ways,” he said.

The unemployed demand a universal income grant of R1,500

The unemployed under the banner of The Cry of the Xcluded held a speak-out to warn against an austerity budget that would make their lives more unbearable. “Research has shown that in 2019 the cost of looking for employment in South Africa per month is around R900,” said Lindi Mkhumbane from The Xcluded. “If you say we must look for employment […] we must start from somewhere. We want a basic income grant of no less than R1,500 per month,” she added.

Asemahle Gqozo (24) who came to the mobilisation with her infant, has been unemployed since 2019. “The reason I decided to come support today is the basic income I see workers get. The increase that the government has offered the workers is unfair to the workers given their working conditions.

Gqozo, who survives off her child’s social grant, says the basic income grant would help her in supporting herself, her child and sister.

Unemployed for three years with five dependents, Ntombikayise Kasi from Gugulethu, said that even though she is unemployed it is important for her to be part of the march to fight off the ever increasing cost of living and to also advocate for the employed to get a salary increase. “If our demands were to be met maybe the crime in our townships would decrease because people are staying at home doing nothing,” said Kasi

Vuyani Sijorha (41) who lost his wife during the Covid-19 pandemic says that a universal basic income grant must replace the R350 Covid social relief grant in order to restore the dignity of people. “The R350 does not cover any basic needs, and what the government fails to understand is that food is not the only basic need,” said Sijorha.

In his budget speech, Godongwana announced that there will be increases to different types of grants and that the Covid-19 grant has been extended until 31 March 2024.