Explainer: What is behind South Africa’s union strikes?

South Africa’s unions called for national strike due to power cuts, rising costs of living, and high unemployment levels.

South Africa trade unions strike
The Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU), South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) and other South African labour unions embark on a nationwide strike over the high cost of living in Pretoria, South Africa, August 24, 2022 [Esa Alexander/Reuters]

Thousands of people took to the streets of Pretoria in a strike on Wednesday to protest against worsening economic conditions.

The protest was organised by South Africa’s eight workers’ unions, which have called for a government intervention regarding the unemployment rates, rising poverty, and the high cost of living crisis.

Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller said the protesters marched towards the government buildings in the executive capital and handed over a memorandum to the authorities.

“The common theme amongst these unions is the high cost of living and how the working class specifically are struggling to survive in these economic conditions,” she said, speaking from Pretoria.

What is happening to the economy?

Inflation has been soaring worldwide, fuelled by supply chain disruptions after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, as well as surging energy and food prices following Russia’s war on Ukraine.

For South Africans, it has resulted in rising costs for necessities including food, electricity, fuel and medication, the government said.

According to a World Bank report, about 30.3 million South African citizens are living in poverty, while 13.8 million people are facing food scarcity that has been worsened by rising food prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

People are having a difficult time surviving, Miller said, as the economic conditions have not improved since the pandemic.

“South Africa has been plagued by rolling blackouts,” she said. “So not only do they want the cost of electricity specifically to be addressed, but they also want a stable electricity supply.”

How bad is the inflation rate in South Africa?

Inflation has accelerated to its highest level in 13 years in July, pushed mainly by surging prices for food, transport and electricity.

Consumer prices rose by 7.8 percent in July after reaching 7.4 percent in June, according to the national statistics agency StatsSA.

Foodstuffs that many people rely on have gone up by 10 percent in the last year alone.

Prices for bread and cereals were up by 13.7 percent in July from 11.2 percent in June. It means a loaf of white bread now costs 17.84 rands ($1.05) compared with 15.57 rands ($0.91) one year ago, StatsSA said.

The price of fuel increased by 56.2 percent from last year.

The rising cost of living is taking a toll on the public, where the jobless rate hovers near 34 percent.

How has the government reacted to the strike?

So far, the government is yet to react to the strike.

Al Jazeera’s Miller said the governing African National Congress (ANC) is in “a difficult situation” because it is part of a tripartite alliance along with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party.

“They very much rely on the vote, and the support of various parties,” she said. “They know they can’t afford to alienate unions like these. But the unions do have a lot of bargaining power, so it would be difficult for the ANC to ignore protests like this.”

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has criticised the incumbent, Cyril Ramaphosa, saying there is no national plan to address the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

He accused Ramaphosa of failing to deliver on his promises to curb government corruption in South Africa, going as far as predicting that ignoring these issues would result in civil unrest triggered by a single event that might “spark our own version of the Arab Spring”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies