South Africa’s biggest labor group plans to stage a one-day national strike on Oct. 7 to protest against corruption, job losses and the government’s plans to curb its wage bill and other spending.
The protest by the Congress of South African Trade Unions comes as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration struggles to contain the fallout from the coronavirus, which has tipped the economy into its longest recession in almost three decades. While the government has announced a 500 billion-rand ($30 billion) plan to support businesses and individuals whose livelihoods have been affected, its pandemic response has been marred by allegations that contracts to provide protective equipment were tainted by graft.
“We are quite aware that a strike in itself is damaging to the economy, but sitting down and doing nothing is not helpful because the entire economy will collapse if no action is taken,” Bheki Ntshalintshali, the federation’s general secretary, said by phone. “It is better to bite the bullet now and be counted amongst those who are raising crucial issues very sharply.”
Besides being angered by the effect the economic meltdown has had on workers, Cosatu is outraged by the government’s plans to renege on an undertaking made in 2018 to grant more than 1.2 million public servants pay increases that would lump the country with 37.8 billion rand ($2.3 billion) of additional debt. About a third of the annual 1.95 trillion-rand national budget is spent on salaries and freezing civil servants’ pay is critical to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s plans to cut government spending by 230 billion rand over the next two years.
Ntshalintshali said Cosatu had noted reports that the National Treasury is also considering denying state workers raises for the next three fiscal years.
“They have not spoken to the public sector unions, it has not been tabled,” he said. “It can’t just be announced without engaging workers in the workplace.”
Cosatu has been a member of the country’s ruling alliance since white minority rule ended in 1994, and played a key role in helping Ramaphosa win the presidency in 2018. The group isn’t planning to stage mass protests due to social distancing measures.
The battered economy can ill afford the labor action, which will reflect badly on Cosatu, said Mike Schussler, chief economist at economists.co.za.
“Stopping some parts of the economy after many civil servants have been at home for around six months only to come back and strike is a public- relations disaster,” he said. “Those that have lost jobs, income and turnover will feel that the civil servants are royalty who cannot see the suffering and pain of others.”