Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in South Africa as a trade union federation called a nationwide strike to demonstrate for improved worker rights and against plans to introduce unpopular road tolls.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), said that the country’s system of casual labour, known as “labour broking” in which middlemen acted between employers and workers, amounted to “modern day slavery”.
COSATU is part of a tripartite alliance with the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, and the South Africa Communist Party. But in the statement, COSATU called for protests against the government.
“We must force the government and the ruling party, the [ANC], to scrap the exorbitant e-tolling system and ban modern day slavery (labour broking)“
– COSATU statement
The body is concerned that after 18 years in power, the party revered for leading the battle against apartheid has become complacent and needs to be pushed to replace corrupt or incompetent leaders with politicians who can deliver.
“We must force the government and the ruling party, the African National Congress, to scrap the exorbitant e-tolling system and ban modern day slavery [labour broking],” COSATU said.
Police estimate 50,000 people marched in Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic hub. Smaller crowds turned out in Cape Town and other cities and towns.
The demonstrations progressed peacefully, although there were reports early on Wednesday that people trying to board commuter trains to work were beaten, allegedly by protesters who wanted the demonstrations to shut down commerce.
Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from Johannesburg, said frustration with labour brokers had drawn many out to join the protests.
“They say these labour brokers exploit the workers – they don’t pay them enough and that they work for long hours and they do not get any benefits like health insurance,” Mutasa said.
The e-tolling system, to come into effect in April, by which South Africans would have to pay to use public roads, has also proved unpopular, our correspondent said, with strikers saying that scheme is too expensive and that the government should fit the bill of servicing and maintaining roads.
In a speech on the eve of the march, Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU’s leader, said the toll road debate summed up concerns about growing inequality in South Africa.
“The logic of those who say that the poor do not use our motorways, except by public transport, is that they should be permanently excluded from access to the best roads. They must find the potholed side-roads to get from A to B, while the rich glide along in their fancy cars,” Vavi said.
“Good health and education services currently belong to the wealthier sections of society, who can afford to pay. We do not want yet another addition to the list.”
In a statement, the ANC said Wednesday’s demonstrations were “unnecessary, but we nonetheless respect the right of those who want to protest”.
The party said it had responded to concerns that the tolls would hurt the poor by exempting the buses and taxi vans used by many poorer South Africans.
The government also capped monthly toll fees at about $70, so no driver would pay more than that no matter how much he or she used the improved roads.
Mutasa said that COSATU has had a lot of power in the past in terms of shaping South African policy.
The strike was expected to be backed by the youth league of the ruling ANC, the ANCYL, and the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU).
The recently expelled chairperson of the ANCYL, Julius Malema, attended the protest briefly and was greeted to chants of his nickname “Juju”, reported a local news agency, Sapa.
The marches, coming before an ANC policy-making conference in June and pivotal meeting in December to elect top party leaders, are seen by some as an attempt by COSATU to influence the ANC’s course.
The ANCYL said on its website that it “fully and unreservedly supports the strike led by COSATU calling for labour brokers and immediate cancellation of e-tolling”.
“We call on all members of society, particularly the youth to join in the mass protests across the country, because the issues COSATU is raising are genuine issues,” the party said.
The ANC has been in power since the end of apartheid in 1994 is under pressure to show it can work more quickly to improve the lives of black South Africans, many of whom continue to live in poverty despite economic growth and greater political freedom and stability.
A quarter of South Africa’s labour force is officially out of work, but experts say the percentage would be higher if the discouraged and the underemployed were counted.
Business groups have argued that instead of banning labour brokers, COSATU should work with them and the government to better regulate them.