“Electricity and food is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. In the end of the day people will not have the money to buy food.”
These are the words of Karin Jafta (29), who — together with her husband — was one of an estimated 3Â 000 members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) who took to the streets of Johannesburg on Thursday to protest against the rising prices of food, fuel and electricity.
With slogans such as “Fight hunger, demand food security for all” and “The costs of the power cuts must not be paid by the poor”, and singing anti-capitalist and revolutionary songs, the protesters marched to the offices of electricity utility Eskom and the Pick n Pay supermarket chain.
At both of these the SACP and Cosatu, who organised the march, handed over a memorandum of understanding.
SACP secretary general Blade Nzimande addressed protesters outside Eskom’s offices.
“We are quite angry that we have suffered for such a long time from low wages. And the money we are getting is now stolen by the high prices … We are in the dark now because of the failure of the government. Workers and the poor must not pay for the mistakes they did not commit,” he said to loud applause.
Karin Jafta and her husband, Nolan, both members of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, said they felt that they “had to take part in the march”, adding: “We have three children and we feel the difference in our pocket every month. With the same salary and prices going up, we can afford less and less.”
Another protester, Sydney Kubhika (36), agreed. “I have two kids and my wife at home,” he said. “I have to support my household. But petrol prices keep going up, and a [loaf of] bread is almost R8 now. That’s ridiculous.”
In its memorandum to Eskom, the SACP and Cosatu asked the electricity supplier to withdraw its application to the National Energy Regulator of South Africa for a 53% tariff increase. It also demanded that a national energy summit be held on dealing with the energy crisis.
Nzimande said: “The SADC wants to take part in this summit, but not with the 53% price increase.”
At about 2.30pm, Eskom general manager Jurgen Vos came out of the Eskom building under heavy police guard to receive the memorandum. In response, he told the crowd that Eskom took Cosatu’s complaint “very seriously”.
“That is why we are working with our stakeholders to ensure minimum impact [of load-shedding and higher electricity prices] on the poor,” he said.
Protesters voiced their dismay by booing the general manager as he retreated back into the building. A number of times the large gathering broke into song, singing “Lento oyenzayo ayilunganga [What you are doing is not right, it must stop with immediate effect]”.
Pick n Pay
The march then proceeded to the Pick n Pay offices on Jorissen Street. “We are here at the Pick n Pay but they must sent the memorandum to Checkers and all other retailers,” Nzimande declared. “The food prices are going up, but the average salary at Pick n Pay is R400 a month.”
Included in the list of demands handed over to Pick ‘n Pay senior general manager Kevin Krom was a proposed moratorium on food price increases and stiffer punishment for price-fixing and collusion. Casualisation, outsourcing and land expropriation were also highlighted.
After signing the memorandum, Krom told the crowd the company takes higher food prices very seriously. He said it will analyse the memorandum and tell its 7 000 manufacturers as well as competitors Spar, Woolworths and Checkers about the demands.
The crowd booed Krom and called on him to speak about casualisation. Cosatu member Clement Mdluli said Pick n Pay needed to comment on this as it was taking away the rights of his workers. “They [casual workers] have no pensions and no medical aid,” he said.
Krom afterwards said he could not comment on casualisation as he had been briefed that the memorandum was related to food prices alone.
Kubhika, the protester, said it was a good thing that a petition was handed over to Pick n Pay, which “is one of these companies who are using contractors. They do not offer you a proper job. In the meanwhile they are making huge profits.”
The SACP and Cosatu asked Eskom and Pick n Pay to respond to their demands in the next seven days. “But,” Nzimande emphasised, “anyone who said there is no crisis is dreaming.”