The COVID-19 crisis has hit South Africa’s poor and working-class majority hard, with the government favoring the rich over the unemployed. Our friends at Africa Is a Country spoke with three South African organizers of the unemployed, who are fighting for decent public services — and a basic income.
Almost five months into South Africa’s lockdown, new studies are finally indicating the extent of economic devastation it has caused. An estimated 3 million people lost their jobs in the early stages of the lockdown, and once the rest of the lockdown period is factored into future studies, the numbers are bound to increase.
Unemployment already hovers around 40 percent; as a result, there was pressure put on the government to expand the provision of social grants before the lockdown started. But the implementation of expanded provision has been slow, and many people remain excluded. For the majority of South Africans who are poor and working class, living conditions are dire, with the threat from the virus and food insecurity looming large, while many municipalities remain unwilling or unable to provide basic services like water.
Africa Is a Country staff writer William Shoki sat down with Siyabulela Mama, Ayanda Kota, and Khokhoma Motsi, three activists from the Assembly of the Unemployed, to talk about the challenges facing working-class communities and the prospects for resistance and social transformation during and beyond COVID-19.
The Assembly of the Unemployed is a burgeoning movement that gives voice to South Africa’s more than 10 million unemployed. It unites many movements around the country fighting for the right to work, a basic income grant, and the implementation of a number of job creation strategies that up to now, the South African government has ignored.
I’m Siyabulela Mama from the Amandla Collective in Port Elizabeth (PE). The Amandla Collective is involved in a range of advocacy platforms. One of these is the struggle for food sovereignty as well as the struggle against unemployment, which is why we are a part of the Assembly of the Unemployed. Unemployment is intrinsic to this system of capitalism. In order to fight unemployment, we have to fight capitalism.
So I got involved with Amandla in 2013 or 2014, particularly because I was interested in its stance against Israeli apartheid. It ran a series of campaigns against Israeli apartheid, which is what interested me and how I got to be part of the movement. And so from there, I participated and became actively involved in Amandla.
I’m Ayanda Kota, and I’m part of the Unemployed People’s Movement based in Makhanda. We’re involved in a number of campaigns, of which one is the litigation for the dissolution of the Makhanda municipality. We won the case on the fourteenth of January, but now the municipality is appealing the result at the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, and hopefully they will lose that one again. The reason we approached the courts of law is because of the dismal failure of the municipality to meet its constitutional obligations. There’s a crisis of water, there’s a crisis of roads, infrastructure collapsing, and the climate crisis — and these are crises due in part to years of corruption and looting.
We also campaign on food sovereignty. We provide teaching and materials to families, especially to women and child-headed households on how to grow their own vegetable gardens, and in some places we provide some acres of land for them to do so. The reason we’ve taken an interest in food security is made evident by COVID-19, which has exposed the limits of capitalism and the lack of capacity from the government. The extent of hunger is huge, and these corporations are devastating our people by increasing and fixing food prices.
But we’re also concerned about water-stressed communities. Two weeks ago we held a protest in Port Elizabeth, and before the protest even started the police were already firing rubber bullets. In many of these communities, and in Makhanda also, people will go for two, three, or more days without water. This is a real issue — our people are without water.
I’m Khokhoma Motsi, from the Botshabelo Unemployed Movement, which is part of the Assembly of the Unemployed. Our organization was formed in 1999 to fight the inequality that we see in this country, a lack of service delivery, and for the issues affecting the unemployed. We are mobilizing on the ground and establishing branches — so far we have eight in Botshabelo, and we’re building some in the Free State.
We are establishing these organizations to fight capitalism, and we conduct political workshops to assist our comrades to have the knowledge of the system we are fighting so that they can stand on their own. We also train them in acro-ecology towards food sovereignty, teaching them how to grow food gardens so that they can grow food for themselves. We also campaign for women’s rights, since they are the ones affected by all of these issues.
Lastly, we’re campaigning for one million climate jobs as well, given the reality of climate change. The Assembly of the Unemployed is also fighting for a basic income grant because that gives people the buying power, which makes the economy of our country open up. On a weekly basis, we have a reading group to discuss these issues and other materials which they think is useful for their circumstances. We want our comrades to stand on their own to fight the inequality and poverty that affects them.
You’ve all sketched a very good picture of the challenges facing working-class people in South Africa at the moment. I think it goes without saying that all of these challenges existed before COVID-19, and they’re only deepened by COVID-19.
So maybe the next place to go from here is to talk about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s most recent address to the nation. At that time, while he was specifically announcing the temporary closure of schools, it was like all of his other addresses in that he just gives us a monologue where he praises the government’s stimulus package, he talks a little bit tough on corruption, and then concludes by imploring South Africans to show individual responsibility during this pandemic.
So, my question is, how would you assess the government’s response to COVID-19 so far? Has it been enough to support the most vulnerable during this time?
Let’s start with the austerity policies that the government is implementing and has been implementing for a long time. When they implement austerity, they are cutting everywhere, and you never really know in which department or by how much, but it always affects the unemployed and the poor. The rich will always be on the safe side.
It’s the same with the schools. The schools were never supposed to be opened in the first place, and now there’s a contradiction where children get into a taxi to get to school and there’s no physical distancing, but once at school they’re expected to practice that. The president has been protecting the interests of the rich, and nothing else. We the poor are going to die, one by one. The unemployed have never adhered to the measures the government put in place, since they have to hustle on a daily basis for something to eat. But we have to remember, people are not poor because of COVID-19, people are poor because of capitalism.
In townships and rural areas, people are not really tested — so we don’t even know the full scale of the pandemic actually.
But also on the issue of health, let’s look at the situation that is faced by health workers. Yes, these were struggles happening before the lockdown and COVID-19, but the interventions of government have been questionable.
If you look at field hospitals, for example — here in PE a field hospital has opened at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and the old Volkswagen Building — a lot of community health workers who are underpaid in the private sector are moving to the public sector to treat COVID-19 patients at these field hospitals. However, they’re being sent to these hospitals while there’s a severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
But, in Dora Nginza, in Livingstone, in Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, and across the Eastern Cape province, there are scores of empty buildings which can be used and repurposed to do the job that these field hospitals are doing, and much more cheaply. All the money being used to build field hospitals could have been used to obtain the necessary PPE for workers.
We as the Cry of the Xcluded tried to intervene, and this was before [Finance Minister] Tito Mboweni presented his Supplementary Budget Speech — but we were not listened to. And now, workers continue to die because they lack protective gear to shield themselves from coronavirus.
But all the while, there are some interesting portrayals of healthcare workers in the media. For example, at Livingstone Hospital and parts of Dora Nginza Hospital, the media recorded doctors cleaning these hospitals. The arguments from mainstream NGOs and the media was that these hospitals were dirty, and there’s a shortage of staff because general assistants or cleaners didn’t want to work, so the doctors had to step up and do the cleaning job.
But general assistants haven’t been paid for three months and haven’t been provided with proper PPE, so they decided to engage in a go-slow for three months until these issues were rectified. And then the media walks in and makes a big fuss about doctors cleaning the hospitals, who by the way will receive bonuses at the end of the month for working overtime while other workers won’t get these benefits. Take the BBC report at Dora Nginza, which recorded patients sleeping in the maternity ward not being attended to — this was blamed on workers.
However, both Motherwell Community Health Centre and the Kwazakhele Day Hospital were closed due to coronavirus. At Motherwell, twenty-three staff members tested positive for COVID-19, and the facility had to be closed. So of course, patients were redirected away from these hospitals and to Dora Nginza and Livingstone, and there was a high influx of patients which would expectedly cause strain in these hospitals.
Now what could’ve happened is that the workers who tested negative at Motherwell and Kwazakhele could have beeen re-deployed to Dora Nginza and Livingstone, with proper PPE provided to all the remaining workers so as to not repeat what happened at Motherwell and Kwazakhele. But this did not happen, and that is a failure of leadership and management. But once again, it’s the workers who are being blamed and demonized.
I think you’re raising a very important point which relates to what Motsi was saying earlier. Throughout this lockdown, workers have been left with this difficult choice between returning to work, which most want to do so they can continue earning a living, and returning to work when conditions are safe. But at the point when it cannot be ensured that conditions are safe, there’s obviously going to be a breakdown in the functioning of whichever institution they’re working at, whether it’s a school or a hospital.
And you’re right that every time this breakdown happens, immediately the first people who are scapegoated and blamed for this are workers. When teachers expressed concerns about returning to under-resourced schools with lacking infrastructure, they were accused of jeopardizing the education of learners. In the same vein, when it’s health workers expressing worries about returning to workplaces which haven’t met safety standards, they’re accused of jeopardizing the public health mission of managing the coronavirus.
Why do you think this always happens? This portrayal of workers as being disruptive and narrowly concerned about wages and working conditions — as if wages and working conditions are trivial issues!
That’s why it’s important to change the narrative. The issues of this pandemic cannot be reduced to an individual’s choices when it occurs at the level of a social crisis. People cannot be held responsible for the failures of their municipalities to provide things like water so that they are able to wash their hands regularly. And when they understandably breach lockdown regulations to gather together and demand this water, which is a fundamental human right — how can you send the police to shoot them?
It cannot be that when municipalities are forging signatures to loot resources meant to fight this pandemic, and which end up in the pockets of politicians, nothing happens to them. We don’t need the police to shoot people, we don’t need the army to kill people. We need the government to build hospitals and provide medicine. We need the government to provide water to the people. We need them to make sure that they have something to eat so they can resist this virus.
All we’ve experienced during this pandemic so far is a government that is an empty seat. The state has the responsibility, and the state is failing its responsibility. All the while the government has drafted a stimulus package to bail out corporations apparently so they can save jobs. But most companies are shedding jobs anyway, they’re firing people and closing their doors. The stimulus has not been able to save jobs; we could’ve used these funds to provide people a basic income grant directly.
Now, this announcement that public schools will close while private schools are at liberty to remain open is an insult to the working class. It’s an insult to black working-class kids who will not be able to go to school while those who have money will be able to access an education. We’re deepening our inequalities while the state remains as nothing but an empty seat.
It’s uncalled for, for the rich to continue to be educated while the poor are left behind. The poor and working class as a whole are being left behind. On the issue of corruption, how far is Ramaphosa really going to push the measures he announced? We have seen food parcels run around in councilors’ hands, and I’m not sure when he talks big about tackling corruption that he is actually going to do that.
One thing that’s becoming clear now is that the state lacks the basic capacity to even implement the policies it commits itself to, never mind all the things it isn’t doing. We’ve seen widespread corruption and the misappropriation of funds. And so as always, it’s been left to poor and working-class people themselves to organize their own resistance to the pandemic, to use their own resources and networks to survive. How have you gone about organizing communities?
There seems to be two things which makes this challenging. One predates the lockdown, which is the difficulty of trying to mobilize the unemployed majority. That in itself is difficult because you can’t find them all in one place, unlike workers who you can meet on the shop floor, on the entrance to a mining shaft, or in the loading dock of a supermarket. Unemployed people are either on the move hustling, or staying at home. And secondly, a pandemic makes it more difficult since as we’ve already discussed, there are restrictions limiting gatherings, which the police are more than happy to repress.
We have to first understand that the people we are organizing are discouraged, a lot of them have given up looking for work, and they’ve lost hope in the system. The “new normal” in some ways has helped us, since we can meet electronically and discuss ways forward. One of those ways forward is the consensus we’re building around the provision of a basic income grant, which is gaining traction in many other organizations.
More than two million workers have lost their jobs and will have no income soon — a basic income grant is something we can have consensus on, that many people will join us on and support. And on this issue, we are not compromising — we want at minimum R12,500 (US $755) a month, which gives people a decent living. Now, the government is talking about it but the real question is what amount this grant will be, which we don’t know yet.
COVID-19 has made it clear what has always been obvious to us, which is that poverty, unemployment, and inequality are entrenched in this system. This is why when we think about what’s possible, we have to reinforce our campaign for food sovereignty. People in our constituency have backyard gardens and some are opening community gardens, and now we have to distribute seedlings to people so that they are one step closer to providing food for themselves.
But more than that, asking how we can use this to develop communal kitchens. We’ve been very careful about not calling them soup kitchens — a soup kitchen is not based on solidarity, it’s one group feeding another. A communal kitchen is based on solidarity, it’s about the community feeding each other.
Organizing the unemployed is a mammoth task, but it must be rooted in your own politics — the politics of the unemployed. The unemployed should understand why they’re unemployed, they should understand why we have an economy which makes millions of people fall into that situation. What we emphasize is that when an unemployed person asks themselves why they’re unemployed, they shouldn’t turn inward but look outward — at the system.
We conduct workshops so that people can understand these issues. The problem is that now and again you lose members, especially the youth who are the majority of the unemployed and who still believe they can find greener pastures. That is why you need to emphasize the politics of the unemployed, so that we stick together. You do this by talking to the bread-and-butter issues which affect them, the issues which they face on a daily basis — not just saying, “look, your government is 123 . . .” and leaving it at that. We have to talk about hunger, basic income, and service delivery, and also take municipalities to court if need be, as those in Makhanda have done.
That’s why reading groups are an important organizing tool as well — to have dialogues, learn, and discuss issues. Our people want to be educated, but they won’t be educated at the schools in their communities, which have been neglected. But we want people to be serious about this, and that is why we ask them to pay. We know our people are unemployed, but when you say a membership card is about R10 or R20, when people are willing to pay they show that what they are doing is close to their hearts. We know that it’s tough, but it allows us to take this movement seriously, of showing to people not only why they are struggling but that they can change that.
One important thing you’ve all mentioned is the importance of making it resonate that the circumstances experienced by one individual have less to do with the choices made by that individual and rather the system as a whole in which they find themselves.
Are people making that connection, between their individual challenges and the system as a whole, and understanding this system as capitalism, which is at the root of all the poverty and inequality we face? How do we change the narrative, as Ayanda was saying earlier, to emphasize that the system as we know it will never deliver justice and equality for the majority of the South African people?
I think people are there already. In Kwazakhele township, for example, one of the issues we are pushing is people owning their own energy and the question of a just transition to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. People really want to produce and own their own energy and in doing so are saying that this fossil-fuel based economy should make way for a different economy based on human development.
That’s why we see these energy cooperatives cropping up in working-class communities, which no one ever talks about — it’s always about independent power producers or whatever. So, it’s very important that when we introduce popular education materials we emphasize a different economy to capitalism, one that is about sustaining livelihoods and not making profits.
People are aware, the question is, how do we unite the struggles between the unemployed, the poor, and the workers? We should teach our people that pre-1994, we struggled together, the working class fought together.
Our work currently is to emphasize that we need to fight together for an alternative. In every meeting, we should understand the political outlook — why are we together in that meeting? The unity of the working class is of paramount importance. The government is driving us to hell, and people should understand that.
Exactly, so the problem isn’t political imagination — the people know what a different economy could look like, and they know that we need a different economy because the one we have now does not serve their needs.
What, then, are the routes to working-class unity today? Pre-1994, it was the Congress Movement of the African National Congress, the Communist Party, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Today, the Congress Movement is no longer what it once was, but it’s nevertheless a strong political force close to a lot of people’s hearts.
Looking at the ongoing pandemic, but also looking beyond it — how do we revive that working-class unity that was once a feature of working-class politics in this country?
Pre-1994, after the banning of all those organizations, we must remember that the Black Consciousness movement (BC) filled in the vacuum left by the ANC. The United Democratic Front was not the only organization operating at that time. The BC was really in the center of assisting the poorest of the poor in the country.
First, we must understand that there are already forms of counter-power that exist on the ground and in social movements. But every time in trying to create a united front — especially with the last United Front formed in 2015, it became about power within the organization, and the point of the organization to be contesting state power.
So we need to clarify this: what is the point of building a united front? Is it about building counter-power, or is it about contesting state power? And if it is about contesting state power, how do we do that without losing movements which are rooted on the ground, which are first initiated at the grassroots? Whatever the answer, we need to start building a working-class movement, one that fights for service delivery and permanent work. We need to bring all of the social movements in one conversation, and build a counter-hegemonic power base first.
As a final question, earlier this year the Cry of the Xcluded was a campaign launched before the pandemic changed everything. It was aiming to kickstart a series of campaigns which would give the basis for a united front amongst the different social movements waging working-class struggle today. What’s next for the Cry of the Xcluded? What are the key areas of struggle to pay attention to in the coming months?
We are still saying, fuck Tito Mboweni’s austerity budget. We had been saying that before COVID-19, and we’ll keep saying it. In the Free State we’re going around putting up graffiti saying this is our demand. We are also mobilizing around a campaign for a basic income grant, and bringing along other forces like the C-19 People’s Coalition to support us.
We want a basic income grant of R12 500, and this will be an ongoing campaign — so even if the Minister of Social Development introduces a basic income grant, unless and until working-class people and unemployed people are receiving R12 500 then this will be an ongoing campaign for all of us, because the amount must speak to a living wage as workers at Marikana were calling for.
But we also understand the ecological crisis, so we are campaigning for one million climate jobs. We want a Green New Deal for Africa and the transformation of Eskom [the South African electricity public utility], against the privatization of Eskom. We want Eskom to be socially owned, by the people, not pushed more and more into private hands. These are the struggles we are taking forward.
Let’s start by talking a little bit about yourselves. What work are you doing, which organizations are you involved with, and how did you come to be involved?