Cosatu is planning a national strike on the economy on Thursday.

Cosatu is planning a national strike on the economy on Thursday.

Time will tell if workers will heed the latest call to take part in Cosatu’s strike on Thursday or simply go on with the work realising that they are simple pawns in a bigger political scheme, writes Mbhazima Shilowa.

Today, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), embarks on another political strike, commonly known as a Section 77 socio-economic strike. The demands are the same ones that were tabled at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) on 21 August 2017, when Jacob Zuma was the president. Following a deadlock between parties, the Nedlac standing committee on Section 77 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA), gave Cosatu the go-ahead to stage protest action.

Little did they know that Cosatu would yearly use the same approval for its socio-economic strikes. The federation and its affiliates have engaged in yearly strikes over the same demands, with new demands added depending on the trade union, province or challenges faced by workers and the communities.

The motivation for including Section 77 of the LRA was to ensure that socio-economic issues that negatively impact the working class can be negotiated and settled. Where there is a disagreement or no resolution after various attempts at negotiations, workers could embark on a “political strike”. It was never about tabling a demand, such as in this instance, that would lead to protest action once a year with new demands added to the previous ones.

Pressure on government

According to Cosatu, this year’s protest is aimed at putting pressure on government to do more to end the current levels of load shedding, cable theft, crime and corruption, wasteful expenditure, end austerity cuts that are crippling the state and suffocating the economy – further plunging workers into high levels of indebtedness and misery. To them this is “also a signal to the government, the Reserve Bank, and the commercial banks, that the working class can no longer afford to bear the burden of rising levels of inflation, electricity tariff hikes and relentless and reckless increases in the repo rate”.

They have accordingly called on the government to take the following steps to alleviate pressure on employees and uplift the economy:

  • Raise the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant to the food poverty line in the mid-term budget in October
  • Extend the Presidential Employment Stimulus to accommodate 1 million active participants in October 2023 and 2 million in February 2024
  • Ensure the implementation of the two-pot pension reforms on 1 March 2024
  • Unblock the delays in the rollout of the public infrastructure programme
  • Intervene in the 36 municipalities routinely failing to pay their employees
  • Repeal the Municipal Systems Amendment Act clause banning all 350 000 municipal workers from holding office in a political party at any level
  • Urgently intervene to rebuild and modernise Transnet and Metro Rail
  • Urgently intervene to prevent the collapse and liquidation of the Post Office
  • Allocate additional resources to ensure the police, National Prosecuting Authority, Special Investigating Unit, the Hawks and the judiciary are sufficiently resourced to win the war against crime and corruption
  • Allocate further funds to the South African Revenue Service to tackle tax evasion and customs fraud
  • Implement the recommendations of the Zondo Commission as soon as possible
  • Fill all funded public service and sector vacancies by December 2023

The hodgepodge of demands indicate that these have very little to do with workers, but more about the test of strength ahead of the ANC list process for provincial legislatures and Parliament and the manifesto for the 2024 general elections. None is directed at the private sector. In fact, nothing has been said about the social and economic transformation of the private sector or its role in growing the economy and creating jobs.

What has the call for “the repeal of the Municipal Systems Amendment Act clause banning all 350 000 municipal workers from holding office in a political party at any level” got to do with the socio-economic plight of the working class except to line the pockets of the leadership who has an eye on being party hacks instead of focussing on the work that they have been hired to do?

No influence

It is one thing to call on the government to sort out Transnet, the Post Office and the failure of metros, but it will not succeed without the trade unions taking a firm stand against fraud, corruption and sabotage of the same entities. It does not appear like the trade unions have a plan on how the Post Office that has been dislodged by courier companies and others such as Postnet, will be able to regain any of the market it has lost.

That the strike comes just six months after the ANC national conference is an acknowledgement that the federation was unable to influence the policy direction and outcome of the conference. For the first time since 1994, not a single member of the NEC is a serving member of the federation or affiliate.

Albert Einstein reportedly defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.

During previous Cosatu protests against specific policies by the ANC government, the very same ANC has been given a platform by Cosatu to rail against their government colleagues before laughing all the way back to Luthuli House, satisfied that they were able to blunt the anger and demands of the workers away from the ANC and redirect it to some mystical entity known as the government that presumably has nothing to do with the ANC, its misrule and involvement in corruption and maladministration.

The sooner Cosatu accepts that the ANC talks left but walks right, the better. In fact, workers know hence the attempt at the last Cosatu congress to get the SACP to stop fearing the electorate and to instead “contest for political power” instead of continuing as a parasite that feeds off the blood of the ANC. But the SACP, too, knows that it will spell the end of any influence it may have over the ANC. Better to accept the few crumbs that are thrown their way than have none at all. Better a hyena that scavenges on the hunt of lions than go out for a hunt itself as it may go for days without a meal and eventually die of hunger.

The Cosatu leadership, having failed to convince the SACP to stand on its own and Sadtu calling into question the legitimacy of some decisions, are now looking at opening an outlet for workers to vent their anger before calling on them to vote for the very same ANC in 2024 under the guise that there is no alternative. That may well be so, but better to play open cards with workers than have them forfeit a day’s wage under the guise of a socio-economic strike.

The Cosatu leadership should accept that its horse for 2017 at the ANC conference has been a dismal failure. It may have been the best of the bunch, but a dud nonetheless. Same in 2022. The horse may be the best for the ANC at this point and time, but one has to search the whole haystack for days to find the needle – which is that Cosatu and workers are better off under this current administration, which has as its core of ministers former trade union and SACP leaders, starting with the president.

I am for political strikes. What I am against is what was once termed the opening and closing of the tap – calling workers and communities out for protest action at the whim of the leadership. Time will tell if workers will heed the latest call or simply go on with the work realising that they are simple pawns in a bigger political scheme.

  • Mbhazima Shilowa is the former premier of Gauteng, former general-secretary of Cosatu

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