International Workers’ Day – What do South Africans have to celebrate? 

Issued By the FW de Klerk Foundation on 28/04/2023

By Christina Teichmann


Since the late 19th century, when rapid industrialisation with its growing demand for cheap labour led to the exploitation and impoverishment of workers, Workers’ Day has been adopted as an international holiday on the 1st of May by many countries around the world. Recognising the struggle for workers’ fundamental rights, protection, fair pay, decent employment conditions and social justice, it was first celebrated in South Africa in 1994 with the aim to “serve both as a celebration of workers’ rights and as a reminder of the critical role that trade unions, the Communist Party and other labour organisations played in the fight against Apartheid”. Nearly thirty years since the country’s first democratic elections took place, it seems justified to pose the question: what have Trade Unions and the Communist Party contributed towards making South Africa a better country for all its people, including those millions of South Africans who are unemployed?

Recognising the struggle of the unemployed

With an unacceptably high expanded unemployment rate of 42.6% in Q4:2022, which translates to 11,8 million persons without work, including those who have given up searching for employment, South Africa is in dire need of strategies and policies that promote an environment conducive to investment, economic growth and ultimately job creation. Especially worrying and often described as a ticking time bomb is the high number of unemployed youths. According to StatsSA, Youth aged 15-24 and 25-34 years old recorded the highest unemployment rates of 61% and 39.9% in Q4:22 respectively.

Another reason for great concern is the fact that long-term unemployment of 6,1 million in Q4:2022 has almost doubled since Q4:2012 when it stood at 3,2 million. Long-term unemployment, which refers to unemployment of a year or more, negatively affects the employability of job seekers: the longer the unemployment status lasts, the less likely they are to find a job.

Considering these sobering statistics, one would expect the ANC and its tripartite alliance partners to do all they can to turn things around, starting by providing quality education and skills training for young South Africans and creating an environment conducive to investment, economic growth and ultimately job creation.

However, as long as the tripartite alliance subscribes to the National Democratic Revolution “NDR”, which is informed by outdated communist and socialist ideology, as a guideline for economic development and policymaking, the economy’s growth and employment rates cannot be improved.

COSATU and SACP need to take responsibility for current crisis

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) are long time partners in a tripartite alliance with the ANC, under whose name they contest elections, are represented in Parliament and hold powerful government positions on national and provincial level. They are part and parcel of the ANC government and therefore need to take responsibility for the current political and socio-economic crisis South Africa finds itself in.

While the recent COVID-19 pandemic with its negative impact on livelihoods cannot be blamed on any political party as it posed a universal threat that countries around the world had to deal with, it exacerbated and laid bare fundamental flaws and short-comings of the ANC-led government. The experienced living conditions of many South Africans after nearly three decades of ANC rule is sobering and in stark contrast to their hopes of a better life when they cast their vote in the first democratic elections.

Today, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. High rates of unemployment, rising inflation and soaring food prices make it ever more difficult for South Africans to put food on the table and meet their basic needs. Poor service delivery, frequent and long-lasting power outages, badly managed state-owned enterprises that regularly need bailouts with taxpayers’ money, widespread corruption and high levels of crime continue to undermine people’s trust in the government’s ability to run the country and perhaps even the trust in democracy as the best form of governance.

While COSATU constitutes an umbrella body for various labour organisations and unions, the SACP is a political party that is eligible to contest elections on its own. Although the macro-economic policies of the ANC-led government over the years often seemed to be in stark contrast and against the ideological convictions of the SACP, the party has never opted to leave the tripartite alliance, contest a general election on its own and face the risk of poor results at the polls. With an estimated membership count of merely 300 000, the stakes for such a move would simply be too high.

Instead, the SACP has wielded influence within the ANC by occupying powerful government position such as in Finance and Energy, and being represented in the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC)- the governing party’s top decision making body. It is questionable whether voters who cast their vote for the ANC know that by doing so they automatically cast a vote for the Communist Party as well, whose far-left socio-economic ideology and rhetoric seem trapped in the Cold War era.

Controversial legislation jeopardises economic growth and job creation

The recent adoption of controversial pieces of legislation by the government, such as the Employment Equity Amendment Bill and the Expropriation Bill, that aim to provide the State with more interventionist powers, bear testimony to the SACP’s and COSATU’s ideological and political influence.

On the 12th of April 2023, President Ramaphosa signed the controversial Employment Equity Amendment “EEA” Bill into law. Whilst few people would disagree with the Employment Equity Act’s goal of “eliminating unfair discrimination in employment” and ensuring equitable access to the economy for all South Africans, the EEA Bill is likely to have detrimental effects on the South African economy, the labour market and society as a whole.

The Bill empowers the Minister of Labour “to determine sectoral numerical targets for the purpose of ensuring the equitable representation of suitably qualified people from designated groups at all occupational levels in the workforce.” In effect, this means that the Minister will have the power to impose racial quotas on companies with more than 50 employees at all levels of employment.

Employers are then required to report on their progress towards achieving numerical targets in terms of racial, gender and other demographic categories. Failure to meet these targets can potentially lead to fines and other penalties. These punitive measures could result in many more businesses, which are still reeling from the impact of Covid-19, being forced to shut their doors permanently. This would, undoubtedly, lead to job losses and reduced economic growth.

Another unintended consequence could be that small private businesses that might be able and willing to employ more people, opt to stay below the 50 employee threshold in order not to be obliged to achieve the numerical targets prescribed by the Minister.

Instead of government supporting private businesses in an already difficult economic environment where productivity is heavily affected by interrupted energy supply, and bringing them on board to fight unemployment, this Bill infringes on a private company’s prerogative to employ the best candidate to do the job. In a highly globalised and competitive world, private companies simply cannot afford this kind of interference in crucial decision making.

The controversial Expropriation Bill, adopted by the National Assembly in September 2022, is another best practice example on how to deter potential investors, spread uncertainty amongst private businesses, stall the economy and jeopardise much-needed economic growth and job creation. The Bill seeks to allow the expropriation of property without compensation by the State and ultimately expands the powers of the State enormously. It is noteworthy that according to Section 25 (4)(b) of the Constitution, “property” is not limited to land, thus any property, movable and immovable (i.e. intellectual property, investment and shares), may be expropriated. The Bill will be “effective in transforming the ‘ownership, management, and structure’ of the economy- which is one of the key goals of the SACP/ANC alliance in the ‘second phase’ of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR)”, according to Anthea Jefferey, Head of Policy Research at IRR.

Solidarity with workers should not end at one’s own borders

Another example worth mentioning in this context is Home Affairs’ withdrawal of the Zimbabwean Extension Permit (ZEP), which is due to expire on 30th June 2023. The decision by Home Affairs not to extend the permit is currently being challenged in court by the Helen Suzman Foundation and Zimbabwean Immigration Federation as it will force almost 18 0000 Zimbabweans, many of whom have been living in South Africa for more than 10 years, to leave South Africa.

Besides the tragic implications on a personal level for those affected individuals and their families, according to a statement by the Helen Suzman Foundation, the “expatriation of these Zimbabweans would also have serious implications for the businesses that employ them”.

The decision by Home Affairs not to extend the ZEP will do nothing to bring more South Africans into work. In a statement issued to mark Worker’s Day in 2021, International Labour Organization Director Guy Ryder highlighted the need for international solidarity: “No one can afford to be indifferent to the situation of others in the face of the fragility of the interdependent world that we have constructed. Solidarity is key to our common survival and prosperity, within borders and across borders.”

This Worker’s Day, Government and the tripartite alliance should be reminded that solidarity with workers does not end at one’s own domestic borders. What is urgently needed in South Africa is solidarity with the unemployed and a ‘New Deal’ that brings all stakeholders, including educational institutions and private businesses on board. It is high time for Trade Unions to not only protect the interests of the employed workforce but also take into account the interest of the unemployed, who are prospective workers desperate for a job.

The current political and socio-economic crisis calls for Government and the tripartite alliance to retract from all populist policies that might earn them support from certain constituencies but that negatively impact on an environment conducive to economic growth and job creation.


Images © Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla / The Times / Alon Skuy