Poverty and unemployment remain the enemy of workers

The country will be celebrating Workers Day on Wednesday. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/Independent Newspapers

The country will be celebrating Workers Day on Wednesday. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 28, 2024


Alex Mashilo

April 27 marked the 30th anniversary of our first ever one-person one-vote elections without regard to race and gender. The oppressed and most exploited workers were no passive victims or bystanders in our liberation struggle that ended the apartheid regime. Missing this point could culminate in the fatalistic notion of expecting workers to be passive recipients of post-1994 development progress.

The working class fought in all the key sites of the struggle- the workplace, the community and the ideological terrain, among others, and in all its four pillars- mass mobilisation, underground organisation, the armed struggle and international isolation of the apartheid regime.

In 1922, a year after its founding, the Communist Party faced a contradiction. White mineworkers in the Witwatersrand went out on strikes in a confrontation with the mining capital. However, their demands included racist content. Some from within the strike racially distorted the Marxist slogan, “Workers of the world, unite”. “Workers of the world… unite for a white South Africa”, they said. To resolve the contradiction, the Communist Party condemned the racist demands and slogans and called for worker non-racial unity to take forward the legitimate struggle against exploitation.

The colonial state sided with the racist workers. Under the laws it passed, black workers were not recognised as employees. This was coupled with the oppressed workers being deprived of workers’ rights, including the right to organise into a trade union and take part in collective bargaining.

The racially oppressed workers had to fight to achieve legal recognition and labour rights. They organised illegally, defying the racist laws. Bit by bit the workers, supported by the Communist Party, realised progress. The party, whose leaders and members played a key role in the 1946 African Mineworkers Strike, subsequently faced a ban by the apartheid regime in 1950. In response, it reconstituted itself underground and continued to play an active role in the pursuit of non-racial workers’ struggles.

While the workers achieved progress in workplace struggles, this remained limited before 1994 as the apartheid regime prevailed. The workers had connected the workplace and broader political struggles. During the transition in the 1990s, the working class ensured that workers’ rights without regard to race and gender were enshrined in our country’s constitution and labour law. The working class also focused on broader human rights and women, children, socio-economic and political rights, shaping the democratic state make-up and contesting policy direction.

In celebrating May Day this year, the working class will be celebrating its contribution to end apartheid, and to the progress that millions of our people realised during the 30 years of our democratic dispensation.

The progressive labour legislation that workers have realised has empowered them to confront unfair labour practices, participate in workplace skills development and benefit from employment equity. This has contributed to improved working and living conditions. In addition, workers’ achievements include the national minimum wage.

The ANC-led government, with the ANC in alliance with the Communist Party and the progressive trade union movement, has provided over five million serviced stands or brick-and-mortar houses, in the main, for free of charge, benefitting more than 17 million working-class people.

Over 82% of households in South Africa gained access to piped water either inside or outside their dwellings, according to Statistics South Africa census 2022. The distribution of households that use a flush toilet has increased, from a racially skewed low base before 1994, to approximately 71% in 2022.

Household electrification expansion has covered the formerly oppressed – excluded by successive racially oppressive regimes for a hundred years from 1894 to 1994. Households using electricity as the main source of energy, at least for lighting, have increased to approximately 95%.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has funded over five million students. After establishing the NSFAS, the government expanded it to cover college students, commendably contributing to the provision of free education through bursaries.

Healthcare expansion, including free healthcare for pregnant women and the elderly, among others, as well as HIV treatment, is also an important achievement. The government’s HIV programme has increased testing, leading to 79% of those who know their status receiving treatment and 93% of them being virally suppressed. This turned the tide against falling life expectancy.

Nearly 19 million people receive social grants. By the end of March 2023, 8.5 million unemployed people received the Social Relief of Distress Grant, bringing the total number of people who received social grants to over 26 million.

On the downside, the progress realised, including in infrastructure – tarred streets and roads, sanitation and other infrastructure – is not yet wide-ranging. Its extent is not yet enough to eliminate the legacy of capitalist racial oppression, exploitation, patriarchy and uneven development. The capitalist mode of production as well as the dominance of the economy, including through neo-liberal policies, is holding back greater progress. Among others, the system is based on inequality, including the concentration of the wealth of society in the hands of the tiny minority of the capitalistic class. Not only does this generate mass poverty but deprives the state of access to sufficient development resources.

Also, despite employment having substantially increased, from below nine million in 1994 to over 16 million in 2023, unemployment remains at crisis-high rates. While the poverty rate has moderated, it remains at a crisis-high level. Black people are the worst affected by these and other results, conditions and levers of capitalist wealth accumulation. This reflects the persisting legacy of apartheid. Within this worst-affected national group, women are the majority.

As things stand, the ANC is the best of all parties contesting elections. The workers should continue mobilising a resounding vote for the ANC to win the May 29th elections with a decisive majority. However, based on post-1994 lessons, including policy contradictions and differences, the working class must build capacity to enforce its momentary interests and achieve its immediate aims. The Communist Party must strengthen its role in this working-class struggle and mobilise for an advance to a socialist society, in the future.

*Mashilo is the spokesperson of the SACP

**The ciews expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL