After the football World Cup drew to a close, most of the world media’s attention left South Africa—Naomi Campbell and “blood diamonds” aside.
But the lid on workers’ struggle that the government managed to keep firmly in place during the tournament has blown open.
Around 1.3 million public sector workers struck over pay on Tuesday of last week. They are threatening an all out national strike if their demands are not met.
Strikers reminded the government of their power by marching in their thousands through Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban.
Workers in the water industry are also threatening strikes, which could potentially shut down the country’s entire supply.
The strikes and threats of strikes reflect the deep anger and sense of betrayal workers feel.
The rhetoric of prosperity for all and of a “rainbow nation” during the World Cup can’t hide the reality of dire poverty for the majority.
A parliamentary question last week revealed that workers at the new Medupi power station receive a meal allowance of only £1.76 per day, and many have been fed rotten food.
Last week 140 workers there went down with food poisoning—for the second time.
Winning real change requires workers’ action. And the power of South Africa’s workers can be seen in the current all-out strike by the country’s 31,000 car workers.
Every car production plant has been shut down, including sites owned by Nissan, Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, General Motors and Mercedes Benz.
Production at car component manufacturers has also been severely disrupted.
Workers are demanding a 15 percent across‑the-board wage increase and the defence of higher pay for weekend work. But they are also calling for full employment contracts for short-term workers after three months.
General Motors can certainly afford to pay up. It posted £834 million in profits for the second quarter of this year alone.
Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, which represents the workers, told Socialist Worker that poverty and inequality are driving workers to take action.
“Workers cannot keep bearing the burden,” he said.
“Our food baskets are more expensive, petrol prices have risen, and now we have just heard that electricity tariffs are rising 35 percent. Our wages don’t go up to match.
“There is no comprehensive social security net for the unemployed.
“In our industries we have seen around 52,000 people lose their jobs—and, since the recession hit, over a million workers have gone across the board.
“Workers don’t only have to look after themselves, they also provide for those members of their families who don’t have jobs.”
Irvin is clear on one of the solutions to the country’s problems—“The time has come for the profits of these multinational companies to be redistributed among the workers,” he said.
The strikes in the car industry look set to continue this week as employers refuse to budge.
As the recession bites many South African workers are questioning the logic of a system that forces the vast majority of the population to live in poverty, while multinational companies make profits and take their wealth out of the country.
In South Africa the idea that workers won’t fight during a recession is being challenged.
And with these strikes workers are looking for answers on how to root out the inequality that capitalism has entrenched.
For more from South Africa see “Miners executed in South Africa” at www.socialistworker.co.uk//art.php?id=22123