Two days ago, South Africa’s workers joined millions across the globe in marking Workers Day, also known as May Day. This is a day on which workers celebrate the victories they have achieved in the fight for their rights and reaffirm their commitment to struggle for the improvement of the conditions under which they work and live.
At the advent of democracy, we decided that this should be a public holiday because the struggles of workers are fundamentally about the betterment of society. It is a day which all South Africans should honour.
This year, I was invited to address a Workers Day rally at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg. I was, however, unable to address the gathering because workers there had grievances that they expressed loudly and clearly. While the main grievance appeared to be about wage negotiations at nearby mines, the workers’ actions demonstrated a broader level of discontent. It reflects a weakening of trust in their union and Federation as well as political leadership, including public institutions.
These workers wanted to be heard. They wanted their union leaders and government to appreciate their concerns and understand the challenges they face. In raising their voices, these workers were upholding a tradition of militance that has been part of the labour movement in this country for decades.
As political and union leaders, we have all heard the workers and understand their frustration.
More than that, we are firmly committed to take the necessary action to improve their lives and their working conditions. This is not something that government can do on its own. It needs both labour and business, and indeed the whole of society, to work with government to implement an agreed set of measures to grow and transform the economy.
South Africans have seen how such partnerships can bring about real change. The progressive labour laws that we have in place are the product of engagement among all social partners. Together, these social partners devised an effective response to the 2008 global financial crisis and laid the foundation for the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, which is guiding our response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was such a partnership that led to the introduction of a national minimum wage in 2019, a process that I was privileged to lead, giving effect to a demand that had been made more than 50 years before at the Congress of the People in Kliptown. And it is these partners that are, at this moment, once again engaged in deliberations on how to accelerate growth and create employment.
The wage grievances of the workers in Rustenburg deserve the attention of all stakeholders, employers and labour so that a fair and sustainable settlement can be reached. As government, we are committed to play our part.
But the workers at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium also made plain what nearly every South African knows: the working class and the poor of our country are suffering.
They made the firm point that we must do more, and act with greater urgency, to address issues of unemployment, poverty, deprivation and hunger. At the same time, we must establish more efficient mechanisms to enable workers to participate more fully in the formulation and implementation of policy and programmes.
Since the advent of democracy, significant progress has been made in improving the social and economic position of the poor and working class through the improvement of conditions of employment, the general provision of basic services and access to education and health care.
Yet, the growth of our economy and the creation of jobs that followed the advent of democracy has been undermined over the past decade and more by the combined effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the sharp decline in commodity prices, state capture, corruption and poor governance.
The COVID-19 pandemic struck just as the country was emerging from the era of state capture. In addition to the loss of more than 100,000 lives, the pandemic caused massive damage to people’s lives and livelihoods. Our economy shrunk and more than 2 million jobs were lost in a period of 12 months. This was a massive blow to our country, from which it will take many years to recover.
While the pandemic has affected everyone in our society, it is the working class and the poor that have suffered most. They have also been the most affected by service delivery failures, corruption, crime and weaknesses in local government. It is the working class and the poor who were affected most by the public violence and destruction in July last year, and who were most vulnerable when catastrophic flooding struck parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape.
As the tragedies have struck our nation, we have not been idle, either as government or the social partners. We have responded with all the means at our disposal.
As the effects of the pandemic became evident, in April 2020 we introduced the largest social and economic relief package in our history. This provided cash directly to the poorest households, wage support to workers and various forms of relief to struggling businesses. As a result, many jobs were saved, many businesses were kept afloat and millions of households were kept out of dire poverty.
Some measures, like the R350 Social Relief of Distress, remain in place. The grant now reaches more than 10 million recipients. With the end of the National State of Disaster last month, we are engaging with various stakeholders on how to ensure that the grant continues to reach those who most badly need it.
This is happening alongside measures to promote employment, like the Presidential Employment Stimulus, which has provided work and livelihood opportunities to more than 860,000 since it was started. It includes the expansion of the Employment Tax Incentive to encourage small businesses to employ more people, a loan guarantee scheme that has been redesigned to provide finance to smaller businesses, and the reduction of the red tape that holds back the growth of businesses.
We are undertaking fundamental economic reforms that will improve the competitiveness and economic contribution of the energy, water, telecommunications and transport industries. These reforms, together with increased investment in infrastructure, will enable faster economic growth and employment creation.
In the long term, these reforms will unlock much higher economic growth. And as businesses grow, they will create more jobs, helping workers and unions in a virtuous cycle. However, the workers that gathered at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium and millions of other people across our country cannot wait for the impact of these reforms to be realised. That is why, as we implement these measures, we are seeking – within our constrained public finances – to provide a basic level of social protection to the most vulnerable.
Almost all of those who were at the Rustenburg rally would know someone in their family and their immediate community who is receiving an SRD grant, who is in a Presidential Employment Stimulus programme, who has received a NSFAS grant, or who is another way benefiting from some of these programmes.
While much is happening, there is still much more that needs to be done to unleash the potential of our economy and provide the employment opportunities that our people need.
That is why we need to all work together to ensure that it will not be long before the workers of Rustenburg – and indeed workers across the country – begin to experience the benefits of ports and rail infrastructure that can effectively carry our goods to export. So that we can all experience the benefits of a stable electricity supply that is cleaner and cheaper, of fewer restrictions on small and informal businesses, of better access for all to broadband technology, and of an exploration strategy that leads to an increase in mining investment.
The challenges that workers face this Workers Day are many and the hardships they endure are great. The road ahead will be difficult and there is much work to do. That is why we need to rebuild trust and confidence, and why we need to forge a social compact that not only has the support of workers, but also delivers meaningful benefits to them.
The workers have spoken. We must listen. And, together, we must act.