Tens of thousands of workers downed tools in four provinces on Wednesday to voice their “disgust” with rising living costs.
Commuters were left stranded while mining industries and essential services ground to a near-halt as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) flexed its muscles in Johannesburg, the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and North West.
“Together we have formed a broad coalition of organisations prepared to register their disgust at the spiralling cost of living affecting people,” Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told about 25 000 workers at a Johannesburg march.
Before handing over a memorandum of demands to Gauteng minister of local government Qedani Mahlangu, Vavi said that “all the poor are suffering”.
“War has been declared against those who were warned in 1998 and they didn’t act,” Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini said, referring to Eskom’s warning to the government at the time that future electricity infrastructure would be insufficient.
On August 6, the Cosatu leader said, “there will be a total shutdown. The economy of South Africa will come to a standstill as long as the government does not come to us and negotiate decreases [in prices]. That is why Cosatu also supports mineworkers against retrenchments.”
He told protesters: “When you go back home and to your workplace, tell your employer there that Cosatu is here.”
Mahlangu told the Mail & Guardian Online afterwards: “As the provincial government we are glad to see workers take a stand against high prices of electricity. We will engage with Cosatu and we will start with dialogue. We will discuss short-term and long-term interventions.
“The problem with food prices is not only in South Africa, it is global. We need to look at the globe as a whole and find a solution.”
She added: “If we could generate oil in our own backyard, that is something we must look into,” referring to alternative energy sources.
Memo for Eskom
Earlier, Cosatu also handed over a memorandum of demands to Eskom’s general manager in the central region, Hugh McGibbon, at the electricity utility’s office in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
“We know the increase in electricity prices has affected the working class and we are working with stakeholders to minimise the effect,” McGibbon told protesters.
“The memorandum is about serious issues and we will treat it seriously,” he said as protesters chanted “No to electricity hikes”, referring to a 27,5% increase in Eskom tariffs.
The document asked that workers not be retrenched as a result of power cuts and called on the government to invest in the development of alternative energy sources.
The march had proceeded peacefully and protesters were dispersing by 3pm on Wednesday afternoon. Said Dlamini: “This is a very disciplined march. People were saying we were beating people to march with us, but that is hearsay.”
Regarding the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, Dlamini said: “The leaders of the ANC must be at the forefront where the masses are marching.”
He added: “We expect from our leadership in the ANC to sit down and discuss changes in policies. We expect the leadership that we have elected — the same leadership we elected in Polokwane — to sit and discuss policy shifts.
“We will not dance to the agenda of people who do not listen to us. Cosatu will keep on fighting and we shall engage.”
In a stab at recent media reports that said the ANC was losing support in several provinces, Dlamini said: “Those who think the ANC will lose in these provinces must go and hang themselves. Gauteng belongs to the ANC. Gauteng belongs to the working class. This country belongs to all of us; the majority in the country voted for the ANC.”
Earlier, Vavi told protesters that the stayaway had brought cities in four provinces to a standstill, adding that those who complained about disruptions in the city centre should be thankful that there was a solid trade-union movement that could organise workers in a disciplined way.
Cosatu’s Gauteng chairperson Thuthas Tseki said the government should drop interest rates and intervene against rising food and fuel prices. “Everything is shooting through the roof … If the government doesn’t respond, we will continue protesting,” he said.
Dressed in red T-shirts and caps, Cosatu members held placards reading “Away with food prices” and “Away with high fuel prices”. Some marchers had orange stickers on their clothes reading “Down with Tiger Brands” and “No to high interest rates”.
A banner held aloft by members of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union read: “Fawu says no to food price increases. Government must protect poor consumers.”
Johannesburg metro police estimated that about 25 000 people participated in the Gauteng march while about 8 000 workers downed tools in Rustenburg. Another four marches took place in the Eastern Cape.
Commuters were left stranded as taxi, bus and train drivers participated in the stayaway while essential services and mining industries were also affected by the strike.
The strike action shut Volkswagen South Africa’s factory in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape. “Our only comment is that the factory is not operating today, on a no-work, no-pay basis,” said spokesperson Bill Stephens.
Gold Fields — the world’s fourth-largest gold producer — said that operations at its Kloof mine had been affected. “Kloof is our second-biggest mine and there is a 90% stayaway there,” said spokesperson Daniel Thole.
The estimated loss for the day at Kloof — situated on the West Rand — was 95kg, he said. The group’s other two operations had seen almost normal production on Wednesday.