On the 25th of April Johannesburg residents awoke to an emptier than usual CBD. It was not too long before the city became red with the colour of tee-shirts worn by a sea of protesting workers. Workers under the banners unions such as NUMSA, FAWU under the union-federation SAFTU, and of civic organisations and NGOs such as the Casual Workers Advise Office, Khanya College poured onto the streets of Johannesburg. SAFTU was leading its first national strike since launching a year ago. Members of various political parties such as WASP, the PAC, the EFF, and the International Communist League, joined the unions to demonstrate opposition to the R20 minimum wage bill tabled by the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa. The demonstrators also opposed proposed changes to the Labour Relations Act (LRA), including a proposed secret ballot to decide whether a strike should be held or not and the option to end strikes by arbitration and red tape prior to any workers strike.
Social media sites like Twitter and Faccebook were abuzz with the strike, a sign that some section of the public were captivated by the strike. The strike itself drew varied responses. Other union-federations – Congress of South African Trade Unions; the Federation of Unions of South Africa and he National Council of Trade Unions all opposed the strike saying that a minimum wage of R20 per hour is satisfactory and they encouraged workers to stay away from the strike. These federations claimed that the strike could divide workers.
SAFTU Secretary General, Zwelinzima Vavi criticised the country’s president for his willingness to spend huge amounts of money on game while extremely reluctant to wage workers enough to have enough subsistence. “We did not fight for you to buy a buffalo and say that R20 is enough. We want R12, 500.”
The strike also generated differing opinions among political parties. The PAC, with NACTU Secretary General Narius Moloto at the helm, released a hasty statement urging it’s members to snub the strike, calling it reactionary. However numerous members of the party could be seen in action on Wednesday in Johannesburg. The EFF, on the other hand, released a message of solidarity with the strikers, although its leadership did not attend the marches and rallies.
The vast number of workers filling stretching the length of Johannesburg streets demonstrated the thinking of the working class, with the many placards hoisted into the air throughout the day, with messages such as “we asked for a living wage, not a minimum wage”. Opposition to labour-broking and casualisation of work; the exploitation of Community Work Programme workers; and the political link to the need for a “free decolonised higher education” could be seen. The Marikana massacre also formed part of the theme with depictions of current President Ramaphosa smeared with blood brandied about. The president was also constantly linked to his conspicuous spending – purchasing a buffalo for R20 million amidst extreme poverty.
Speaking at the Provincial Department of Health, Phakamile Hlubi who is a spokesperson for NUMSA lashed at the Health Department, saying that it kills patients. She was referring to the Life Esidimeni scandal for which the department recently had to compensate victims’ family members. She said that the problem is that the department cares about profit more than it cares about people. “We are here to say stop your corruption, or you will follow Qedani”. Vavi also threatened to bring in the taxis and buses as well to camp in the city if the demands of the workers are not heeded.