This op-ed by Rekang Jankie was first published in the Daily Maverick.
In what promises to be an extremely significant development, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have come together to launch a mass campaign against austerity, job losses and mass unemployment.
Of greater significance perhaps is that far from being a labour only affair, this campaign also includes formations of the unemployed via the Assembly of the Unemployed (consisting of Abahlali baseMjondolo, Amadiba Crisis Committee, Amandla, Botshabelo Unemployed Movement, Progressive Youth Movement, South African Green Revolutionary Council and Unemployed People’s Movement). The campaign, called the Cry of the Xcluded, was launched yesterday on the eve of Ramaphosa’s SONA address and two weeks before Tito Mboweni’s Budget Speech.
This coalition has been borne out of the untenable situation South Africa finds itself in. Following the lost Zuma decade, South Africans were told that a new dawn was coming. Yet, more than two years since Ramaphosa ascended to the Presidency, the situation has worsened.
Unemployment has passed levels not seen since the 2007/8 financial meltdown. Violent crime and especially against women, has become a daily feature in our country. Based on studies by the Medical Research Council on intimate partner violence, every eight hours (on average), a woman dies at the hands of an intimate partner in South Africa. The scale of gender-based violence is symptomatic of the broader social crisis facing our country. A shocking 30 million South Africans live below the upper-bound poverty line of just over R1,000.
South Africa is in effect, in crisis.
It is on this basis, and in light of the continuation of austerity budgets that the coming Budget Day promises, that SAFTU, AMCU – both militant and independent formations – have partnered with the Assembly of the Unemployed in what has been hailed as a year of Mass Action.
Cementing the basis for an alliance between workers, the precarious and the unemployed is the current wave of retrenchments which contribute to the erosion of the social fabric in most communities in the country. Every day brings with it different headlines detailing massive job losses. Just in the last few weeks the following companies announced retrenchments:
- Dunkin Donuts & Baskin Robbins – 120 jobs;
- Standard Bank – maximum 1,200 jobs;
- Absa – 827 jobs;
- Tongaat Hulett – 5,000 jobs;
- Hulamin Extrusions – 200 jobs;
- Sibanye-Stillwater – 3,450 jobs;
- Multichoice – 2,000 jobs;
- Alexkor – 238 jobs;
- Continental Tyre – 170 jobs
These retrenchments are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of our economic crisis. However, what they do indicate, according to the campaign, is the need for urgent action from forces outside of the state and business. In its campaign call the Cry of the Xcluded claims: “We are the majority. South Africa cannot work without us. We have answers to our problems. We want economic power so we can live with dignity.”
In many ways, the Cry of the Xcluded brings to the fore the fundamental contradictions in post-apartheid South Africa. Chiefly, that the heralded attainment of political rights does not necessarily lead to greater material outcomes for the majority. Instead, political emancipation has coincided with economic degradation for most in South Africa. That the country has yet to reach failed state status is perhaps a testament to the temperament and tenacity of the working-class South Africans who toil daily to keep the system working. Yet the system does not work for them.
What this does indicate is how large a mountain this campaign has to overcome in order to obtain any level of success in its objectives.
Chief among them is how the campaign has to navigate the complex power relations that typify South African society. Power, under the status quo, lies disproportionately in the hands of corporations and states, this is a fact that the campaign will confront on its first day. Labour, on the other hand, has consistently been on the defensive, whether it is from attacks by the labour registrar or the state weakening worker’s rights, the relative strength of labour has weakened since its peak in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Even AMCU and SAFTU themselves have faced challenges in fighting for their workers; AMCU’s recent gold sector negotiations are proof of that. In addition, community-based movements have found themselves reaching new lows, despite the recent successes in court of formations such as the Amadiba Crisis Committee and the Unemployed People’s Movement.
The complexity of power relations is not only limited to the relationship between Corporations/States and non-state actors, but also has implications for the internal politics of this coalition. SAFTU and AMCU effectively tower over their social partners in the campaign. Worse, AMCU’s press alert failed to even mention who their social partners were. How the campaign will navigate this real and unavoidable tension will determine its commitment to amplifying the voice of the excluded.
Yet despite these cautionary tones, the significance of this coalition cannot be understated. Voices outside of the government, with few exceptions, have often found themselves fractured, and divided along sectoral interests. The employed have largely limited themselves to employment-related matters, communities have often been relegated to the status of single-issue struggles. This campaign seeks to do the opposite. The question is will it succeed? MC
Rekang Jankie is Media Liaison Officer at the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC).