Open Letter to the trade union movement

 In Civil Society, Economics, Labor and Unions, Politics, South Africa

A call to action to protect our people

Keep Left is revolutionary socialist group. We are pleading with our trade union federations and respective affiliates to step up and meet the acute challenges that face broader society and particularly the working class at this moment, whose lives are most vulnerable and threatened by the pandemic.

The state’s failure to contain the epidemic is now self-evident. It is up to the working class to protect ourselves through a mass stay at home of all but the most essential workers. It instituted a lock down without putting in place its testing capacity or any significant social safety net, apart from the TERS scheme that provided for workers in the formal economy. Its administrative capacity has been found severely wanting and many people are still waiting to see payment.

The eight-week hard lockdown was ended prematurely because of pressure from business, but it was already set up for failure because:

• The state response that was premised on enforcement rather than serving the population, with arrests and overt violence the order of the day and more than 11 civilians have been killed at the hands of the police and soldiers since the beginning of the lock-down in March 27. The state continues to treat the pandemic as a security crisis and wave its big stick relying on coercion rather than persuasion.

• No food provision scheme was in place for the 16 million people who are food insecure. To make things worse it abandoned the school feeding scheme that feeds nine million learners. It will now it seek to introduce a heavily diluted form of basic income grant that we have been demanding for many years.

• More jobs have been lost than protected during the pandemic. South Africa is witnessing a bloodbath of job losses. The number of unemployed persons increased, and the state has allowed this trend to increase under the pandemic. According to the largest survey completed to date, 3 million jobs have been lost since March, 2 million of them belonging women.

• This crisis is inscribed in a longer history of neoliberal policies. Tito Mboweni’s grim supplementary budget speech offered socialism to the bosses and capitalism to workers. It is now clear more jobs will be lost, and this is gradually materialising with companies filing for section 189 of the Labour Relations Act. Labour has been squeezed harder and a new series of public sector pay freezes have been introduced

• The lockdown was primarily put in place to contain the pandemic (it failed) and to buy time for it to prepare the health system for the onslaught (it failed). The private and public sectors should have been made to work as one health system, but government has refused to do take this path, rather it has attempted to use the pandemic to introduce elements of the National Health Insurance – a government led neo-liberal alternative to what we all now understand is required, universal national health coverage for everybody regardless of your ability to pay.

• Our hospitals are in a shamble and are being overwhelmed in Gauteng and Eastern Cape. The horror stories we hear daily are heart breaking. I Our health workers have been starved of medical grade personal protective equipment, leading to very high rates of infections among health workers. Overwhelmed hospitals in these provinces means failure for the whole country as the infection rate becomes uncontrollable when we lose our ability to treat the sick.

• Informal housing settlements have recently sprung up as people scurry to build homes to escape overcrowding. These have been bulldozed to the ground at the barrel of the gun across numerous provinces Regulations that are critical, such as no evictions under lockdown, are being broken by the state.

• There have been no strict restrictions to protect the thousands of workers who commute to and from work. Therefore, taxis have been under pressure to load to full capacity to retrieve their profits loss, while also there is no proper compliance in state owned public transport.

The Gauteng province has called for an intermittent lockdown strategy. Unfortunately, it seems the only option now open to us, but unless we fix the above shortcomings this too will miserably fail. The Brazilian working poor fought hard and recently won a temporary Universal Basic Income Grant, we can do so too.

Communities, whilst continuing to demand food provisioning from the government, must occupy available land for food production to sustain those community kitchens already established and to build many more. Ultimately the whole food production and distribution system, from farm to supermarket needs to radically to meet people needs rather shareholders profits.

We must demand an end to police and army brutality, we must establish our own community policing and monitoring efforts

It is only workers and their trade unions that have the power to force the government to fix the health system, put in place an adequate social security system, to stop evictions, to allow arable land to be utilised by ordinary people for community needs, and to prevent reopening of schools while infections rise.

The state’s intervention should not be focussed on corporate hand-outs and loans but should extend to increasing or imposing corporate taxes on firms to sustain the country’s economy.

The return to ‘business as normal’ by the government is part of a global rhetoric to return to a pre-Covid global order. The roots of this pandemic lie in the failure of neoliberalism and the decline in profitability – which has to date unleashed direct attacks on welfare, state pensioners, public health budgets and so on. Workers should be granted job security and no single job should be lost.

South Africa has surrendered the fight against COVID 19 and has marched its people to onslaught. The increasing number of cases is evidence that South Africa is grappling with an intensifying outbreak. It is only the unity of the workers and trade union that can save working people. The unions need to call a just lockdown from below that includes a universal income grant, accessing health whether public or private, and no return to work until it is truly safe.

We need unity across all the trade unions to force the government to protect the people from harm and enter lockdowns when required as they are now but to do so justly. The government has broken the most fundamental social contract that it enters with our electorate, it has failed dismally to secure our well-being, our health.

It’s time the trade unions live up to the purpose they were established for, protect the people and end its cosy relationship with government. We appeal for the trade unions to lead the fight to protect our people where government has failed so miserably. Our people are hungry, sick and unable to get hospital services in huge parts of the country, whilst politicians use the pandemic to siphon of emergency funds for their own pockets.

Our patience with capitalism has run out. Our lives are at stake. Enough is enough

Forward to a general strike

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