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South African unions condemn unrest, violence, and looting

15 July, 2021IndustriALL Global Union affiliates in South Africa condemn the violence and unrest that has broken out in the country.

Over the last few days, South Africa has been engulfed by what began as protests following the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma on contempt of court charges. Zuma was summoned to appear before a judiciary commission of enquiry on state capture and boycotted some of the sessions.

However, amid widespread poverty exacerbated by the pandemic, and the recent withdrawal of a Covid-19 grant, the protests, mainly in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, turned into food riots and general unrest.

This led to the looting of shopping malls, grocery shops, food and industrial warehouses, garment and shoe shops, and furniture stores, among others. Some factories and malls were burnt in the mayhem including a garment factory in KwaZulu-Natal province. 

According to reports, 117 people have been killed and several injured. Some of the rioters have been arrested. The government says it is taking steps to curb further violence by deploying soldiers to the hotspots to assist the police.

Andre Kriel, the general secretary of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) says:

“We cannot accept that while, together with national government and employers, we have been working extremely hard to save and create local industrial jobs, the future sustainability of our efforts is being undermined by such horrific and unashamed criminal activity.”

“For example, in Isithebe, a brand-new clothing factory, Kingspark Manufacturers, which was set up only in September last year, has been completely destroyed. Machinery and raw materials have been looted, and nothing remains. In the process, 600 much-needed jobs supporting 3,000 family members in the poorest part of the country are now lost.”

William Mabapa, National Union of Mineworkers, acting general secretary says:

“In the aftermath of this situation many workers will lose their jobs. Many families will be left with no means of earning a living as many shops and trucks are completely burnt and destroyed. The looting of these businesses destroys the working class families' source of earning and sustainability. While we support effective law enforcement, unnecessary deaths resulting from such interventions should be avoided.”

Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, the spokesperson of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa adds:

“We are deeply concerned about the acts of criminality and the unrest but believe the uprising was inevitable after two decades of neoliberal capitalism that has caused the crisis of inequality, poverty and unemployment. The working class and the poor have been under pressure for a long time. We need reforms and economic policies that benefit the working class.”

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with high wage inequality and the poor having limited access to education and healthcare. Nearly half of the adult population, mostly women, live in poverty. With job losses caused by Covid-19 lockdowns, poverty levels are increasing.

The union federation COSATU yesterday tabled a Disaster Relief Package at Nedlac, South Africa’s tripartite industrial relations council. The federation recognizes that hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost, and that this represents a “national disaster”.

COSATU is calling for a range of immediate measures, including food parcels, the restoration of the Covid-19 grant, and economic stimulus to help business to recover. The federation is also calling for long term measures to transform the economy.

Paule France Ndessomin, the IndustriALL regional secretary for Sub Saharan Africa says:

“Over many years South Africa has developed social dialogue mechanisms to address social and economic problems. These should be used to diffuse the current tensions, while the government has a responsibility for law enforcement while protecting workers’ and human rights.”

Photo: Community volunteers clean up after rioting, by Athi Geleba