Africa’s most industrialised nation is facing rolling electricity blackouts, high unemployment and interest rates, as well as growing social unrest due to soaring costs of living.
Hundreds of members of the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU), the country’s largest labour union, gathered at its head office in the commercial capital Johannesburg on Thursday to demand interest rate cuts, electricity reforms, and job additions.
The union also mobilised workers across South Africa’s nine provinces and major urban centres, such as Cape Town, Durban, Kimberly, Mafikeng and Rustenburg, to present a common front nationwide.
The protests came on the heels of President Cyril Ramaphosa signing off on a 3.8 percent salary increase for all public office holders including judges and parliamentarians because of “serious economic challenges facing the country”, according to a July 1 statement from the presidency.
Negotiations between COSATU and the government had led to an increase in the national minimum wage from 23.19 rand ($1.21) per hour to 25.42 rand ($1.33) per hour, as announced on March 1.
But union officials have said prevailing economic conditions including high interest rates have offset the effect of the latest increase which targets.
South Africa’s economy expanded by 0.4 percent within the first quarter of 2023, at a time when public sentiment was expecting a recession. As Africa’s most industrialised nation implements its post-COVID-19 economic recovery strategy, it is bedevilled by rolling electricity blackouts, high unemployment and interest rates, as well as growing social unrest due to soaring costs of living.
At the Johannesburg protests, Duncan Luvuno, COSATU’s second deputy president said workers have to cover increases in medical aid expenses, bank loans, transportation and food prices.
“As COSATU, we rally behind workers and want them to form part and parcel of the fight happening in the boardrooms,” he said.
Protesters who gathered outside the union headquarters came from different parts of the province and were dressed in all red, black and yellow colours of the trade union. The marchers chanted struggle songs as they made their way across the busy streets of Johannesburg.
The union members held placards including some which read: “The right to protest is our constitutional right!” “Cosatu demands dependable energy supply” and “End poverty, job losses and inequalities. Organise or Starve!”
“The cost of living for workers is too high,” Amos Monyela, the union’s chairperson for Gauteng province told Al Jazeera. “The government and private sector need to invest in the economy instead of relying on inflation targeting by the Reserve Bank.”
‘Slow pace of change’
According to Tshiamo Diole, a member of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, one of the bodies under COSATU, the protest march was planned to remind the government of the “slow pace of change” and “high unemployment and low economic growth”.
During the protests, Diole said Ramaphosa, a founding member of COSATU, had “little regard” for workers.
“The problem with him is that he is not fit to run the country where it is now,” he told Al Jazeera, “Whenever revolutionaries reach the table, they tend to forget about the struggles of workers.”
For Selina Khosa, shop steward and member of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union, another COSATU affiliate, the electricity crisis is “causing damage to businesses” and contributing to increased crime rates.
Khosa said Ramaphosa was performing well in government but ought to do more to help struggling workers. “Businesses are suffering, people are dying, and crime is high because it’s dark outside.”
The protesters also went to the offices of the South African Local Government Association and Premier of Gauteng province David Makhura, to request the removal of the Municipal Systems Act – which delineates the powers of local municipalities.
Union officials said the law bars municipal employees, who are COSATU members, from joining community meetings within the municipality and said it was meant to limit bargaining power.
“The municipal amendment act is an anti-thesis of democratic governance,” one told Al Jazeera.
The union also urged the government to implement the recommendations of a report by a commission of inquiry into the controversial “state capture”, a buzzword for grand corruption within the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC).
Meanwhile, the ANC hosted a meeting with a rival labour union, the South African National Civic Organisation, on Thursday, as part of efforts to help the group resolve its internal leadership disputes and join the party as an ally in the 2024 national elections.