Workers’ Day 2018. The national minimum wage that was meant to be in place from Tuesday is not – and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s flagship project, a gesture to workers, remains contested. The bus drivers’ strike enters its second week amid word of a looming public servants’ strike, as salary negotiations appear stalled. It’s a tough labour environment in a tough economic climate, where any little improvement is talked up despite questions over real betterment, and there’s just about a year to go before the 2019 elections.
On Freedom Day, President Cyril Ramaphosa hailed the national minimum wage as “a great victory for the workers of this country and … a tribute to the social partners, who worked so hard to make it a reality”, benefiting some six million workers. “A wage increase of that size and that extent is unprecedented in our history, and we must celebrate it.”
Not one to be politically tone deaf, Ramaphosa, during the Mangaung celebrations, acknowledged that the national minimum wage was not a living wage, nor that it would overcome income inequality. But it was the much-required start, he argued, remaining heavily invested in the initiative he steered through the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) over two years until an agreement was reached in February 2017. And his comments are a nod to ANC alliance partner, labour federation Cosatu, which has signed up to the initiative as a “starting point”.
Two days earlier, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) mobilised thousands of boots on the streets in towns and cities across South Africa in a national general strike against the national minimum wage and related amendments to existing labour laws which, it argues, would curtail workers’ right to strike and give employers an unfair advantage. With estimates ranging from 10,000 protesters in Johannesburg to 2,500 in Cape Town, the broader impact on workplaces remains unclear, as many workers may well have stayed away, but not come out to march.
Formed a year ago, following the late 2015 expulsion from Cosatu of its former general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), amid ANC factional politicking when supporters of then-president Jacob Zuma appeared to hold all the cards, Saftu had a point to prove.
That Saftu industrial action had impact is undeniable. Cosatu found itself on the back foot, issuing a statement that it was not part of this strike. With word of an impending public service strike looming – the majority of Cosatu affiliates these days represent a labour elite of civil servants, from office workers, teachers, police officers to nurses – the grapevine has it Cosatu was too yellow to down tools and that it would again find itself on the back foot.
The polarisation around the national minimum wage highlights the fissures among South Africa’s organised labour, but also broader politicking. It is a test for Ramaphosa’s new dawn and whether organised business is willing to go beyond lip service to social partnership, amid word companies are offering the R20 minimum wage, particularly to new entrants, even in sectors where the established wage is significantly higher.
But it is also a test whether Ramaphosa can garner sufficient support for a successful 2019 ANC election win amid the still divided (though significantly less so in public) governing party. ANC alliance partner Cosatu is a natural support base, and the labour federation could easily argue supporting Ramaphosa would be the equivalent of supporting one of their own, given his role in establishing the National Union of Mineworkers.
The challenges are deep and entrenched.
The ANC remains less united than it claims it was, as shown by the turmoil in North West, province of key Zuma ally Supra Mahumaphelo, leading to Thursday’s national government intervention there. Meanwhile, Zuma is repeatedly given public platforms to speak, not only in his home turf of KwaZulu-Natal, but elsewhere, thanks to the Congress of Students of South Africa (Cosas) and Black First, Land First (BLF), which hints at unease behind the scenes.
While positive indicators like the recent spike in business and consumer confidence are easily talked up, positive sentiment after years of bruising politics of ANC factionalism in a scandal-ridden Jacob Zuma presidency must still be backed by real betterment. The petrol price goes up again next month, consumer indebtedness is staying elevated and unemployment is stubbornly high as over the long term, manufacturing, construction and agriculture are shedding jobs. South Africa is behind the targets set out in its blueprint for reducing poverty and inequality by 2030, outlined in the National Development Plan (NDP), according to Statistics South Africa. Coincidentally, Ramaphosa was deputy chairperson of the National Planning Commission, which drafted the NDP.
A recent World Bank report described South Africa as the most unequal country in the world by any measure, following on from the August 2017 Statistics South Africa poverty trend report, showing the gains in relieving poverty had been reversed between 2011 and 2015.
That six million South Africans currently work for less than R3,600 a month shows the extent of the working poor amid entrenched unemployment. If only one person works in a household of four, a R3,600 monthly income means this household remains stuck below the upper poverty line of R992 per person per month.
And during the parliamentary public hearings on the National Minimum Wage Bill, many civil society organisations and academic researchers argued there was no guarantee a R20 per hour wage would amount to R3,600 monthly income. The calculations are flawed in that they assume workers can clock up between 40 to 45 hours a week. The overwhelming majority of the least paid workers work less than 40 hours a week. Also, the national minimum wage does not cover all workers: it’s pegged at R18 for farm workers, R15 for domestic workers and R11 for public employment programme workers.
Last week Parliament’s labour committee asked the labour department to re-draft the National Minimum Wage Bill to take cognisance of issues raised in the public hearings. Submissions in Parliament not only highlighted political machinations behind the proposal, but also embarrassment to government for failing to implement agreed to policy initiatives within publicly stated agreed timeframes.
Saftu’s anti-national minimum wage general national strike is done and dusted. It’s now all eyes on Cosatu’s May Day events, which sees the ANC alliance partner taking the fight for workers’ support into the stronghold of Saftu’s largest affiliate, Numsa, in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.
Last year Cosatu abandoned its main Mangaung rally after Zuma was booed. That not everything was rosy had become clear in the days beforehand when several Cosatu affiliates had raised questions why Zuma was billed as keynote speaker, given the labour federation’s call for him to step down. But Cosatu leaders had become tone deaf – Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini attended Zuma’s 75th birthday bash in Kliptown two weeks earlier, the only one of the ANC alliance partners to do so – and what unfolded that day in Mangaung was a lesson in the rank and file telling their leaders where to get off.
The run-up to Cosatu’s May Day 2018 has been uncharacteristically subdued. Perhaps it’s a sign of the labour federation’s waning power given its dabbling in ANC factional battles.
This year Cosatu’s May Day celebrations are held under the banner of its 2018 priority campaigns. Ironically, these include a living wage somewhat down the list of twelve campaigns, headlined by the fight against gender-based violence followed by quality decent jobs.
Priority 2018 campaigns aside, for now Cosatu has hitched its wagon to Ramaphosa’s flagship national minimum wage, as a starting point. It could be a politically mutually beneficial hook-up.
The bus strike and the public sector salary negotiations – three years ago government depleted its contingency reserves earmarked for disasters after agreeing to significantly above inflation salary hikes – will be other key milestones on the road to the 2019 elections.
Marianne Merten / Daily Maverick