In a massive challenge to next Wednesday's whites-only elections, South Africa's most powerful anti-apartheid and trade union groupings have united in a call for a two-day anti-election stayaway.
Claiming to represent as many as four million members, the United Democratic Front, Congress of South African Trade Unions and National Education Crisis Committee have declared May 5 and 6 as national days of protest "against the racist whites-only elections and the extra hardships they have and are still going to cause our people".
Mineworkers are considering action starting on Monday. With tension already high following last week's three-day stayaway by Soweto residents protesting evictions; the fatal shooting of six striking railway workers by police; the mass dismissal of more than 16 000 others and the seven-hour siege of Cosatu House on Wednesday, next week's planned stayaway poses a direct challenge to the National Party's "reform" platform, embodied in the campaign slogan "Reform yes, surrender no".
Many activists and unionists are speculating about the possibility of a further security clampdown in the face of a threat of mass action on election day. "The State of Emergency has failed miserably," said one activist who asked not to be identified. The only option for the government is to go one step further and declare martial law."
If it wanted to defuse the situation, he said, the only option left to the government was to talk to legitimate leaders. SA Police headquarters in Pretoria confirmed police were aware of the stayaway plans being organised for next week and said "contingency preparations had been made".
UDF acting publicity secretary Murphy Morobe this week said the stayaway call has also been endorsed by the newly established South African Youth Congress (Sayco), a body which has recently claimed the potential support of more than two million youths, South African National Students Congress (Sansco) and the National Students Co- ordinating Committee (Nasco), the successor to the now-outlawed Congress of South African Students (Cosas).
The UDF said the call for a two-day protest is also directed at students, shop owners, taxi operators and shebeen operators. Only people involved in essential services — like doctors, nurses and journalists — are exempt. People have been asked to join in the action to show their abhorrence for a "system that gives a minority group the right to have a vote whilst depriving the majority of the same right".
The NECC said in a statement yesterday it supports the call for a stayaway because "recent police action against workers which has caused loss of life can no longer be tolerated. All evidence indicates that the police were unwilling to reason with Cosatu's leadership. The unreasonable attitude of SA Transport Services must be condemned unreservedly. NECC said the two-day protest was a necessary response in which "our people can show their disgust against this unmitigated brutal action", and hoped the conscience of the world would be stirred.
Cosatu cited "co-ordinated state actions", including raids on Cosatu offices and the continued detention of members, as "part of a campaign to destroy the progressive trade union movement. "We believe employers share responsibility for the intensified attack. Many employers have all too easily accepted the State of Emergency … Many employers have often, either openly or secretly, called in police and watched as Emergency powers were brought to bear on workers taking up legitimate grievances.
"We have warned … that continued persecution of the labour movement was generating anger and "resentment from our members… "The events of 'bloody Wednesdays' were the last straw. Cosatu members are now demanding national co-ordinated action to drive home their message: hand off Cosatu"