Workers of the World Unite! South African Federation of Trade Union’s (SAFTU) May Day 2020 message

The South African Federation of Trade Unions joins the workers of the world in celebrating May Day, when we all come together in solidarity to demand an end to exploitation, poverty, hunger and inequality.

Today is the day the world working class celebrate their victories against the brutalities of the world profit mongers and their financial backers.Today is the day the world working class say no to capitalist wars and yes to world peace and development.

At no time in recent memory have the crises of capitalist oppression been so visible in a South Africa now facing shameful, internationally-publicised food rebellions from Mitchells Plain to the Johannesburg Central Business District and beyond – as the two main political parties manipulate the distribution of food parcels. The world’s television screens are revealing how brutal mayors – whether from the African National Congress or Democratic Alliance – brutally evict shack dwellers from Khayelitsha to Cato Manor to Lawley in South Johannesburg.

It is when we rededicate ourselves to building a new world, a socialist society in which the wealth created by the workers is owned, controlled and shared by society as a whole, not in the hands of a few billionaires who run the world’s economy to amass huge profits by exploiting the working class, the poor and marginalised majority.

May Day 2020 however will be unlike any May Day before. Across the world, the labour movement is rising up through new organising drives for essential-service workers, wildcat strikes and creative protests against capitalist exploitation and state repression. While respecting the need for physical distancing, workers committed to social solidarity in the informal sector and amongst the newly-unemployment are embarking on unprecedented, well-organised rent and bond-repayment strikes.

Still, to celebrate May Day, there will be no mass marches in the streets and no rallies in stadiums for the first time since 1889, when the Socialist International declared that 1 May would be the day for the workers of the world to fight for their demands.

Workers are not of course staying at home because we have achieved these demands, or that there is no longer a need for workers to come together in solidarity.  On the contrary the Coronavirus has made it more necessary than ever.

The silent streets and stadiums have been made unavoidable by the need to defeat the pandemic, and to comply with the lockdowns and social distancing rules, which have been imposed in almost every country.

This is despite the fact that, as always during crises, the workers and the poor are paying the biggest price in the campaign against the virus. As the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) has declared:

“Tens of thousands of people have died and many more will suffer lasting health effects. Two hundred million jobs are forecast to be lost, millions of people are at risk of being thrown back into poverty, and the vast inequality that already existed is growing yet deeper. The two-thirds of the world’s population with inadequate or no social protection are severely exposed, with many facing destitution and starvation.”

But workers overwhelmingly understand the need for these life-saving measures and are obeying them. This is itself an act of international solidarity. Saving lives come before making profits!

We the working class in Africa know very well that today as things are on the African continent, we can only hope that there are forces of nature we do not know about which will prevent massive infections, sickness and deaths from the virus.

Virus exposes inequality and class decisions

This crisis has starkly exposed the failings of the global monopoly capitalist system – mass unemployment, job insecurity, poverty wages, public health systems that have been wrecked by austerity and the undermining of workers’ rights has left millions of workers exposed, especially women, migrant workers and ethnic minorities.

SAFTU condemns right-wing world leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who have threatened millions lives with their criminal denialism of the epidemic, their propaganda in favour of a rapid and reckless return to ‘normal’ economic life and encouraging the use of fake remedies.

These political representatives of the ruling class predators are exploiting workers’ understandable fears for their jobs by encouraging them to demand a relaxation of social distancing rules, at a time when to do so could endanger thousands more people’s lives.

The federation further demands immediate action to prosecute those profiteering by over-pricing medications and Personal Protective Equipment, fraudsters who are peddling non-existent remedies and criminals looting stores and schools.

SAFTU also deplores the upsurge of racist and xenophobic propaganda by some right-wing governments, in an attempt to sow divisions between workers, at a time when workers’ unity is more necessary than ever. Chief culprit once again is Trump, who is trying to shift the blame for the virus onto China.

SAFTU condemns in the strongest terms possible the officialization of xenophobia by many government leaders. In the recent past leaders of government has sought to adopt a populist and dangerous posture that seeks to shift the blame for the misery of unemployment, poverty and inequalities away from the capitalist system and mismanagement by the government into the shoulders of foreign workers.

Such pronouncements fuel the already dangerous levels of xenophobia within communities, by encouraging desperate people to blame ‘foreigners’ rather than the capitalist bosses for their hardships. At a time South Africa represents the continent on the G20 and UN Security Council and leads the African Union, and at a time the AU is making appeals for solidarity to assist the dozens of countries that cannot repay their debts, much less get the Africa Continental Free Trade Area up and running due to financial constraints on imports, we are humiliated by the naked xenophobia.  They will set back our diplomatic efforts and remind our Pan African sisters and brothers of how our restrictive visas for the continent’s visitors have made the South African Department of Home Affairs a Mini-Me version of Trump’s Department of Homeland Security.

Lockdown must be enforced legally and humanely

SAFTU fully supports the lockdown and insists that it must only be relaxed when there is clear evidence that the danger of new infections and deaths has been minimised. Our affiliates’ workers report being sent to the frontlines chaotically, especially in the mining and smelting industries. Personal Protective Equipment is still generally inadequate, especially for our courageous, underpaid essential service workers.

But going to Stage 4, the lockdown rules must now be enforced in a humane and legal fashion, based on people’s constitutional rights and recognising that millions of unemployed, poor and hungry South Africans are living on the edge of malnutrition, starvation and even death, not just from the virus but from a lack of food and clean water.

Visible action must be taken against those in the SANDF and SAPS who have used excessive and illegal violence against desperate people breaking lockdown rules in their struggle for food.

There must also be an immediate end to the demolition of shacks in informal settlements, and urgent provision of alternative accommodation, and, following the example of other countries, the requisitioning of both empty hotels and state-owned buildings to house the masses of homeless people.

The future after lockdown

May Day must also be used to look to the future and open up a debate on what sort of future that we want and need post-Coronavirus. We must start from insisting that there can be no return to ’normal’. Throughout the world the old ‘normal’ for the majority was unemployment and poverty, deplorable education and health care provision, environmental chaos, gender-based violence hardwired into our form of economic oppression, ongoing racism and inequality.

This is especially true of South Africa, the most unequal society in the world, and with an economy which was already in recession and on the brink of collapse before the first covid-19 infection. Unemployment was already at nearly 40%; over 60% were living in poverty. The migrant labour system was wrecking our family life, putting even more of social reproduction burden on rural women, to look after children, injured and sick workers, and the elderly. Hunger, homelessness, racism, xenophobia, gender-based violence, no running water in rural villages, inadequate water and sanitation supply in our vast urban informal settlements, electricity disconnections and load-shedding, some of the world’s worst pollution levels, slum schools and dysfunctional hospitals were already features of everyday life.

Returning to ‘normal’, if carried out according to the dictates of the credit ratings agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the capitalist ruling class would mean going back to an even worse social and economic catastrophe than before. This year the South African capitalist class was measured by PwC as being the world’s second most infected with economic criminals, behind only India and tied with China. The amount of CO2 emitted per person per unit of GDP was, among countries with 10 million people or more, third highest, trailing only Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic.

The bosses will make the workers and the poor pay the price for an economic crisis they themselves caused long before the virus struck. They will demand even more retrenchments, wage cuts, privatisation of state-owned enterprises, even less money for National Health Insurance and for municipalities, leading to even worse services to the public.

This must not be allowed to happen! When the virus has been defeated, thanks to all the sacrifices we have made to make the lockdown work, we must build a fundamentally different society.

Lessons of the crisis – what is to be done?

The lockdown experience has taught us some important lessons for the future, including:

Firstly, it has revealed the importance to society of the workers playing the key role in the fight – the nurses, doctors, hospital technicians, cleaners and caterers, ambulance drivers and care workers, who all working round the clock to save lives while risking their own.

We also owe a debt to the thousands of other essential workers – on farms and fisheries producing food, truck drivers getting it the stores, the over-worked shop workers, refuse collectors keeping the country clean, postal and media workers making sure that we are kept informed.

Without these essential workers, and many more – including hundreds of non-South Africans – the lockdown would be much longer and hundreds more would have been infected and died.

Yet the other thing all these workers have in common is low pay and job insecurity. Those most valued by society in a time of crisis were previously the most undervalued, and paid wages which in no way reflected their value to society. Those in the public service were struggling, even during the lockdown, to stop the government reneging on a pay agreement and forcing them to live on an even lower in real terms.

The contribution of all these workers must be immediately rewarded with a pay rise that gives them a living wage – certainly not the government’s poverty national minimum wage – which matches the vital part they play.

Secondly the crisis has exposed the key role of the state at a time of crisis. For years the capitalists and their representatives in the ANC government have been preaching the gospel of the ‘free market’ and condemning ‘government interference’ in the economy. Their solution to any crisis, as in the 2008 financial crash, has always been lower taxes for businesses, austerity cuts in spending on public services and weakening the power of the unions.

They argued that private firms can always deliver goods and services more efficiently than governments or municipalities. Yet in the fight against Coronavirus the private sector and its ‘free market’ has delivered next to nothing. Employers main activity has been lobbying for an early end to the lockdown so that they can start making profits as quickly as possible, regardless of the risk to their workers.

In the USA where Trump’s buffoonery, lack of decisive action and his implicit support for the premature reopening of workplaces has led to over 58 000 lives lost, more than a quarter of virus-related deaths in the world.

The same would have happened in other countries but for the strong role played by the state. Governments in Europe and Asia, even right-wing ones which have previously followed the same neoliberal handbook as South Africa, are doing the very things that for years they condemned.

They are using their central banks and treasuries to generate much greater financial resources and at much a lower interest rate than prevails here, and then paying part of the wages of retrenched and furloughed workers, giving massive grants and interest-free loans to struggling businesses, building new public hospitals within a few weeks, putting up homeless people in hotels and ‘interfering’ with the economy by requisitioning urgent medical supplies and Personal Protective Equipment.

Some are even considering nationalising privately-owned railways and airlines and the UK has actually done it. These actions have shown that the more decisively the state intervenes the faster the infections and deaths are dropping.

We should be under no illusions however that these governments will not reverse all these policies as soon as they can get away with it, but it will not be easy, as workers and the poor will have seen how state action that was previously called impossible and wrong is possible and right.

The government has adopted at least a few of these interventionist policies – a “social and economic support package” consisting of both new grants and loans. Although there are wild claims from Mboweni that this package exceeds R800 billion in size, a vast increase from prior commitments (estimated at less than 1% of GDP), we are not fooled.

Because of Mboweni’s reliance upon banks (which we anticipate will fail to deliver adequate affordable finance to struggling businesses, especially in the townships) and existing funding (a reorganised budget and Unemployment Insurance Fund), the Institute for Economic Justice argues that “the package doesn’t necessarily cost the fiscus anything. This means that far greater spending should be leveraged for additional rescue measures and to set the economy on a new footing in the medium term.”

The package is nowhere near sufficient even to guarantee the defeat of the virus and still less to resolve the economic cataclysm which will follow it. For example, it fails to properly address the worsening pressure all our poor and working-class people face on their budgets this May Day, since the food price inflation index soared to an annualised 58% last month due to unreasonable mark-ups, and as the stingy government failed to commit a paltry R16 billion extra so as to ensure each Child Support Grant recipient would get the desperately-needed R500 increment.

The government must tear up the neoliberal handbook which ANC governments have followed ever since adopting GEAR in 1996. He must reject the inevitable demands of the credit ratings agencies and big business for even deeper public spending cuts.

He must avoid going to foreign financiers – especially the IMF which regularly bailed out apartheid and whose Rapid Credit Facility “1% interest rate” will be extremely expensive to repay as falling commodity prices drives the rand ever lower. He must avoid all foreign-currency-denominated loans which are extremely expensive when currency depreciation is taken into account.

And as the foreign reserves dwindle even further, government must make the vast debt payments currently owed to knowingly corrupt lenders: the World Bank, China Development Bank, African Development Bank and BRICS New Development Bank for Eskom’s bribe-tainted Medupi and Kusile, and for Transnet’s locomotives, pipelines and Durban port, as the main examples. The scarce foreign currency still retained by the Reserve Bank should be quarantined for use only for vitally-needed imports, especially medicines and healthcare equipment not yet made in South Africa.

Indeed, a massive inward-oriented industrialisation and localisation strategy must be pursued. The higher level of local labour content must be treated with far more regard than the state has to date, and, for example, violation of three-year collective bargaining agreements – as Mboweni did for public sector workers – must be reversed.

Time for fundamental change

The end of Coronavirus must be the moment for a fundamental change in the type of society we live in, to create a society in which all people have a living income, wealth is shared equally, there is free education and healthcare for all, the environment is saved from climate chaos, women and children are free from violence and crime and corruption are severely dealt with.

There must also be an end to xenophobia, discrimination and attacks on non-South Africans, which have sullied the country’s reputation.

South Africa is a wealthy country, with rich mineral deposits, much arable land and a huge workforce, including around ten million unemployed. The response in other countries to the virus shows what can be done if those resources are organised and set to work rebuilding a nation ruined by neoliberal capitalism and Coronavirus.

Africa is the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped continent with a continental GDP that accounts for just 2.4% of global GDP and yet the continent has the largest reserves of precious metals with over 40% of the gold reserves, over 60% of the cobalt, and 90% of the platinum reserves!

If other nations can build huge new hospitals within weeks, why can South Africa not build new hospitals, schools and good houses and provide top-class healthcare, education and community services?

This however can only be achieved by a government which takes power and wealth out of the hands of the billionaire elite which has caused the massive economic catastrophe. This will require the nationalisation of the mines, banks and the big industrial monopolies. They must be placed under democratic control by the workers worker and communities. The economy can then be democratically planned and run for the benefit of all.

This will not of course happen without a massive campaign from below. The ruthless capitalists will not surrender their power and wealth without a courageous struggle. The working class must respond with an even stronger mass movement.

It must be led by the working class, mobilising alongside our vibrant social movements and community groups, women’s organisations, the unemployed, the rural poor, informal sector workers, waste pickers, small traders, youth formations, activists fighting sexual discrimination (LGBTIQA+), environmental justice advocates (especially young climate warriors), housing and water commoners, and our internationalist-minded networks fighting against xenophobia and offering solidarity to ordinary Palestinians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Sahrawians, Iranians, Chinese, Brazilians, Indians, Turks, Chileans and so many others struggling to be free from imperialism and state repression, in order to form a single united movement of the working class.

Such a movement will not succeed in isolation in South Africa. On this May Day 2020 we must recommit ourselves to forge unity with workers across the world. We all face the same problems and all need the same socialist solutions.

Workers of the world unite!

***

South African Federation of Trade Unions

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