/ 6 August 2008

Cosatu strike sweeps across the country

Masses of workers supported a national strike against rising living costs on Wednesday, paralysing transport services and immobilising businesses.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions’s (Cosatu) countrywide strike against rocketing electricity prices affected a range of services and businesses, including buses, trains, taxis, schools, mining companies, shops and factories.

The South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union by midday reported that 93% of its members had not gone to work.

Though retailer Pick n Pay claimed it was “business as usual”, Foschini said it was hit by Cosatu’s one-day strike. Stores in the Edcon Group were also affected, a spokesperson said.

Global chemicals and fuels giant Sasol said its production had not been hampered by the strike. Gold mining operations, however, were affected substantially, with AngloGold Ashanti saying no shafts were operating while Harmony and Gold Fields said its operations were limited.

Volkswagen South Africa’s factory in Uitenhage said strike action had halted production, and Toyota South Africa closed its Durban plant for the day, as did Mercedes-Benz South Africa in East London.

Many areas reported that schools had been closed and that pupils without transport were wandering the streets of Pretoria and Johannesburg. Some schools said pupils could not get to their schools because they had no transport.

The Chamber of Mines warned that the national strike would hinder coal production and ultimately affect electricity supply by Eskom.

In Pretoria, thousands of Cosatu members marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to hand over a memorandum of grievance against soaring electricity prices to Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana.

The protesters, forming a sea of red T-shirts, also handed a memorandum to the Department of Minerals and Energy.

At the Union Buildings, Cosatu criticised the judiciary as well as the rising cost of electricity.

“We are here today [Wednesday] because of the wrong decision by government … we are paying the highest price because government took the wrong decision,” said Cosatu deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali.

He also took a swipe at the judiciary. “We want to respect the rule of law … we cannot be denied [a] right of opinion. Judges make mistakes… they take decisions under the influence of liquor,” he told the crowd, who upon hearing this cheered him on.

Referring to warnings of an impending power crisis the government had received years ago, Ntshalintshali said that instead of the government responding to this, it was simply “obsessed with privatisation”.

“The working class and the weak pay with the little wages they have,” he said referring to the 27,5% electricity tariff increase the National Energy Regulator of South Africa has granted Eskom.

He said people cannot afford to lose their jobs. “We cannot take responsibility for others … don’t retrench workers,” he said — a sentiment shared by Young Communist League general secretary Buti Manamela, who said that should workers lose their jobs, there would be “serious repercussions”.

Ntshalintshali urged the government to work together with Cosatu to find solutions to the problems. “You must also fund Eskom so that we can be saved from this horrific condition,” he said.

Before handing over the memorandum to Mdladlana, Ntshalintshali said: “We’ll come again [to make] sure that Jacob Zuma becomes president.”

Receiving the memorandum on behalf of his department, the minister of trade and industry, the minister of public enterprises and the Department of Provincial and Local Government, Mdladlana said the memorandum will be considered.

The marchers said they were satisfied with the response from the minister as they boarded their buses to go home.

The march had started at the city hall and Church Square where a wave of protesters chanted songs and held sticks and placards. “Government must protect poor consumers,” read one placard.

The group then proceeded to the Department of Minerals and Energy along Visagie Street, where another memorandum was handed over.

Police spokesman Captain Bonginkosi Msimango said: “No incidents of violence have been reported. About 20 000 people participated in the strike. We also have not received any reports of shops being looted or intimidation.”

He added that parts of Paul Kruger, Visagie, Van der Walt and Vermeulen streets that had been closed to traffic had since been reopened.

Bus and train services in Gauteng had come to a complete halt in the morning.

Unplanned protests in Johannesburg forced metro police to close Beyers Naude Drive for a short period.

Judges are humans who also drink at shebeens, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said on Wednesday, speaking at the Durban City Hall.

He told almost 4 000 Cosatu supporters that the federation was not criticising the judiciary but would “give discreet advice to judges because they are humans”, adding: “They drink in shebeens, they go to parties and make statements and crash through people’s houses.”

Referring to criticism of recent marches and strikes, he said that Cosatu’s efforts had been partially successful in limiting price hikes by Eskom. The decision by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa to grant electricity price hikes below the amounts requested by Eskom was proof of that success.

Earlier, South African Communist Party secretary general Blade Nzimande said that the country’s judges cannot be beyond criticism.

“We want a legal system that is biased towards the poor. We don’t want a system that is biased towards the rich,” he said.

He also criticised the government’s black economic empowerment deals, labelling them “black economic enrichment” deals at the expense of the poor. The government’s inflation-targeting methods, including interest-rate hikes, were also criticised.

Initially the march from Durban’s Botha Gardens got off to a slow start, but by the time the procession had made its way slowly down Pixley ka Seme Street (formerly West Street) the numbers had swelled to about 4 000 people.

As they marched slowly along Pixley ka Seme Street, carrying placards and posters, helicopters circled above and police posted themselves at intersections along the route, monitoring the situation. Along the way, they sang songs about African National Congress president Jacob Zuma.

Durban metro police spokesperson Joyce Khuzwayo said no incidents of violence or intimidation had been reported.

Western Cape
In Cape Town, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said Cabinet ministers who did nothing to prevent the current electricity crisis should be forced to resign if workers lose their jobs as a result.

Addressing more than 3 000 demonstrators who had marched to Parliament in protest against the crisis, Vavi said it was unfair to expect workers to pay for mistakes committed by others.

“Should a single worker lose a job as a result of their mistake of not investing in new power generation, we will be asking that the ministers must all go,” he said.

It was highly irresponsible for the government to turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor who are already struggling with other challenges such as food and petrol hikes.

The fact that the government had not bothered to come up with measures to assist the poor but instead allowed Eskom to hike electricity prices clearly demonstrated that it did not have the interest of the working class at heart, said Vavi.

“As if our government does not know that, they are now imposing a 27% increase on electricity prices,” he said.

It was precisely because of the indifference shown by Cabinet ministers towards the poor that most of them were removed from ANC leadership positions, he said. “The government ministers have proven their inefficiency beyond no reasonable doubt.”

Singing liberation struggle songs and chanting anti-government slogans, the marchers responded with excitement when Vavi bade farewell to President Thabo Mbeki as his presidential term neared an end. “The workers will not miss you,” he said.

He threatened that Cosatu would embark on further devastating strikes if the government failed to come up with measures to assist the poor. “If you do not do that, within the necessary speed we will be back,” he said.

Certain newly elected ANC leaders who had suggested that there would be no change in economic policy under a Zuma-led government were also not spared from Vavi’s attack.

“We are simply sick and tired of getting a message from leaders we elected in Polokwane that there will be nothing changing in economic policies — we did not vote for non-change,” he said.

The federation’s memorandum was received by officials from the government, Eskom and Parliament.

Free State and Northern Cape
In the Free State, thousands of workers protested against high electricity prices in the gold-fields region.

The provincial secretary of Cosatu in the Free State, Sam Mashinini, said the protest march in Welkom by an estimated 10 000 people went well.

Workers were initially slow to gather in Thabong, Welkom, for the protest march, which ended at the Matjhabeng municipality buildings in Welkom where a representative of Eskom received their memorandum.

In Bloemfontein, the national call for protest action seemed to have had little or no effect as transport and business structures ran normally.

The operational manager for administration at Interstate Bus Lines in Bloemfontein, Derek Cilliers, said 20% of its drivers were taking part in the national stayaway. It is the biggest commuter transport bus company in the bigger Bloemfontein area.

In other smaller centres in the Free State there were no visible indications of any protests.

In Kimberley in the Northern Cape, about 10 000 workers also marched to the Eskom offices to hand over a memorandum.

No incidents were reported in the two provinces.

North West and Eastern Cape
About 15 000 Cosatu members protested against rising prices and handed over their memorandum to a government official in Klerksdorp, North West.

“It was a quiet march with no violent incidents reported. The MEC [provincial minister] for transport, roads and community safety, Frans Phenye Vilakazi, received the memorandum,” said spokesperson Superintendent Lesego Metsi.

In the Eastern Cape, close to 5 000 protesters participated in the Port Elizabeth leg of the nationwide strike, police said.

“About 5 000 people were protesting from Nangoza Jebe to the city hall, peacefully with no violent incidents reported,” said spokesperson Inspector Hazel Mqala.

She said the marchers were addressed at the city hall by Cosatu leaders.

Port Elizabeth Cosatu chairperson Phumzile Nondongwe earlier complained about taxis that were transporting people to town on Wednesday morning, contrary to an agreement that they would not operate.

“We noticed that few taxis were working — transporting people to town. We raised that with owners and they stopped it immediately because that was not what we had agreed on.”

The city’s main roads — Msimka and Mtshekisa and Govan Mbeki streets — remained closed.

Limpopo and Mpumalanga
More than 10 000 protesters in Polokwane dispersed after handing over memorandums of grievances to Anglo Platinum and Eskom, a Cosatu official said.

“There were over 10 000 people and the memorandums have been handed over,” provincial secretary Jan Tsiane said at about 3pm.

The protesters were from all sectors of the economy including farm and metal workers, miners and municipal employees.

He said the memorandums reiterated previous calls that workers and the poor should not bear the brunt of rising food, fuel and electricity prices.

Cosatu was also calling for a moratorium on retrenchments as a result of rising prices.

“The mining industry was the first to say they would consider reducing staff,” he said.

Tsiane said the issue of the expansion of mining operations, which would force communities to relocate, was also raised. “We are calling for provincial dialogue on mining,” he added.

He said environmental impact assessments had to be done and social responsibility needed to be addressed in order for the developmental objectives of the province to be met.

More than 4 000 workers arrived for the Cosatu protest march in Witbank, Mpumalanga, police said earlier in the day. “A total of between 4 000 and 5 000 protesters turned up at Lynville Park stadium and some are still arriving.”

Spokesperson Superintendent Izak van Zyl said the gathering was peaceful with no violent incidents reported amid a strong presence of police officers. “We have 110 officers from different towns of the province monitoring the situation the whole day.”

Cosatu’s Mpumalanga secretary, Norman Mokoena, said marchers were to hand over their memorandum to Eskom management and provincial government officials.

“The march is successful with the main shops, factories and mines closed. The stayaway has hit the companies hard,” said Mokoena.