Langa is quiet. At the entrance to the Cape’s oldest township, hanging laundry sways from buildings that are reminiscent of the migrant labour hostels a few kilometres further in.
The hostels are still there. Their walls are still etched with the words of black labourers, mostly from the Eastern Cape, who lived in the cramped male dormitories under apartheid’s repressive regime.
Robert Tshithiza is now 40-years-old. But he remembers the day he moved to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape, from what was then known as the Transkei, in 1992.
“There was a border gate,” he recalls. “So, I had to pay R5 because I didn’t have a passport to enter the Western Cape. I had to bribe the security at that gate with that R5. Today, it’s different, because I can come and go without anyone asking me questions. I drive up and down from here to the Eastern Cape without anyone saying anything, so in that sense, we are free.”
At the time he left, Tshithiza’s family was scattered all over the country, trying desperately to find work. His uncle in Cape Town was employed at a juice factory, and eventually, under pressure to look after his younger siblings, Tshithiza would be forced into a security worker job instead of going to university.
“I worked myself up. It was not good. The wages were not sufficient to support my whole family. So, I had to do something on the side as well. It wasn’t a good feeling for me to watch them living under those conditions as well because it was still hard,” he says.
“Today, it’s still not that different.”
Tshithiza is now a financial advisor to the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu). On this May Day, he sits inside the Langa Sports complex and, all around him, people wearing red shirts are singing “From Cape to Cairo”. Their t-shirts bear the logo the of the South African Federation of Trade Unions. Fawu is an affiliate of the organisation.
In front of the workers, a screen flickers. The documentary ‘Miners Shot Down’ comes into focus, and the hall begins to quieten down as the singing workers take their seats.
As the film begins, the workers sit in rows watching intently as the scenes of the 2012 Marikana massacre unfold. The back of their t-shirts carry the words: “Mobilise against slavery NMW [National minimum wage] and attacks on the right to strike”.
A living wage for workers
Last week, Saftu embarked on a national stayaway where its 800 000 members were encouraged to strike. The federation, the second largest in the country after Cosatu, has launched a campaign to stop government from allowing a national minimum wage of R20 per hour for most workers and to prevent Parliament from making labour law amendments that will alter rules for protected strikes.
The Marikana miners, 34 of whom were gunned down by police on August 16 2012, had demanded a wage of R12 500. For Andre Adams, Saftu secretary in the Western Cape, the demand for better wages is still being echoed across the country.
“We need to to remind people about the massacre so that nobody forgets what happened there. It was also to show the collusion between the state and big business in quashing legitimate struggles from workers fighting for a living wage,” Adams says.
“This is what we are confronted with now. We should not let the miners’ deaths be in vain. We will learn from the deaths and we will fight for a living wage.”
If everything had gone to plan, the R20 per hour wage would have been implemented from May 1. Instead it has been postponed, and Zoleka Konodile, a mother of four, is relieved.
Konodile works in a factory as a packer. She earns just over R40 per hour, but with the proposed national minimum wage of R20 per hour, her employers have told her her hourly wage will drop to R20 if the proposal is legislated.
“I have kids, I have a home, I must build my home, and I must make everything. I can’t do any of that with R20,” she says.
If the draft national minimum wage is accepted then the breakdown of compensation would be as follows: R20/hour for most workers, R18/hour for farmworkers, R15/hour for domestic workers, R11/hour for Expanded Public Works Programme workers
The right to strike
Amendments to the Labour Relations Act, if passed by Parliament, have the potential to make protected strike action more difficult for workers.
In order for a union to begin a protected strike, the proposed labour changes order that there be a secret ballot vote, and the employer can raise a complaint with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) or the courts, if the strike action has a negative impact on the company.
“The right to strike is one that workers died for. A strike is an issue where workers determine when they go on strike workers deter when a strike ends. It can be determined by the court or the CCMA intervening, because then they’re intervening in the lifeblood of an organisation,” Adams says.
“If workers feel they want to continue a strike because the employer is being intransigent, it can’t be that the employer can now run to court and say his business is now being affected or the economy is being affected, and he wants the court to intervene. That is the whole nature of a strike.”
Adams says Saftu is opposing the secret ballot process because it undermines collective action and transparency in unions, and instead promotes individualised decisions and secrecy.
“Scenes of Marikana are going to become more a reality because there’s going to be so many unprotected strikes,” Adams said.
Tshithiza has seen progress since he first left the Eastern Cape for Cape Town. His sister is now studying at university and there is hope for his family’s future. But it will be a fight, he says.
“That future is still being realised. I would like my siblings to be at a stage where they don’t have to make all these toyi-toyi in order to have their voices heard,” he says.