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SAFTU slams the state’s response to Covid-19, calls for social solidarity

PARI has endorsed the following statement by Zwelenzima Vavi, General Secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).

The state isn’t pulling its weight!

24 March 2020

The all-out war against the Covid-19 virus which SAFTU supports has just ground to a halt. What we as the masses are being asked to sacrifice, versus what the state is asking South Africa’s rich people and corporations to contribute to the cause, is so far out of proportion that it simply will not work. Collectively, while the rich may run to their safe havens and the middle-classes may escape to well-stocked suburban homes, our society as a whole will be defeated. The South African Federation of Trade Unions demands a much different approach, for the sake of our survival.

In this crisis, not only must the society respect health science and promote emergency mutual aid. Also, it is urgent that we shift the discussion to socialist strategies of healthcare, social welfare, self-reliant economic interventions, ecologically-sound reindustrialization, the socialisation of the commanding heights, and class solidarity among our country’s vast poor and working masses.

The near total lock-down announced from March 26 to April 16 – and probably longer – will be immensely disruptive to our people. We will witness a period of extreme discomfort for poor and working-class South Africans, especially women caregivers responsible for our communities’ and households’ reproduction, and those who are vulnerable to Covid-19 infection, given the apartheid-health system that seems to get progressively worse.

The state is adding to our people’s survival burdens with what public health officials deem a necessary social distancing, with which in principle we agree, so as to limit the spread of the virus in these critical weeks and months. The objective is sound. All of society must respect this, and the working-class people in so many vital sectors who risk their lives servicing our basic needs now, deserve respect and due compensation – instead of being treated as an expendable, outsourced precariat.

However, the tokenistic way in which the state is providing compensation to everyone now teetering on the edge of survival needs an urgent rethinking.

Our calculation based on the President’s March 23 speech is that the state and corporations are only willing to commit R12 billion in explicit programme and project funding above and beyond the existing 2020-21 budget, which was itself brutal to our poorest and hardest-working people. The amounts promised are:

R8 billion for “a tax subsidy of up to R500 per month for the next four months for those private sector employees earning below R6,500” – for only 4 million workers, forgetting that more than 10.5 million are officially unemployed, for which there is nothing;

R3 bn from the Industrial Development Corporation, R500 mn from the Department of Small Business Development and R200 mn from the Department of Tourism for companies in distress or those making essential contributions to the health sector;

R1 billion each from the Rupert and Oppenheimer families to help small businesses;

R150 million into a voluntary Solidarity Fund “to combat the spread of the virus, help us to track the spread, care for those who are ill and support those whose lives are disrupted”; and

unspecified support from the Unemployment Insurance Fund and Temporary Employee Relief Scheme, for people in formal employment not being paid, and an unspecified “safety net is being developed to support persons in the informal sector.”

This is mere tokenism, when a war footing is required. The emergency taxation of the rich andthe corporations, and long-overdue clampdown on corporate crime are not mentioned. The long-standing calls for a Basic Income Grant, and for food parcels in this time of crisis, get no attention. But it is the limited nature of the fiscal stimulus on its own terms, that is so shocking. The South African ruling classes’ offer of R12 billion (0,23% of GDP) to fight the worst immediate threat our society and economy have faced in living memory is actually trivial. Compare this to what is being offered by countries run by notoriously conservative governments, such as Britain and the U.S.

In the former case, a full 16.3% of GDP was announced last week by Boris Johnson. If we had the equivalent ambition in South Africa, where our vulnerable populations and inequality are far greater than in the UK, our fiscal stimulus would be R830 billion (given SA’s 2019 GDP of R5.1 trillion). If we use the coronavirus-denialist Donald Trump as a measure, our fiscal stimulus would be R434 billion. What our Treasury provides the state to address the crises – R12 billion – is heartbreakingly stingy.

Just before the President’s speech, Business Day columnist Carol Paton put the challenge squarely: “What must not happen is for the Treasury to revert to its catch-all response: thegovernment does not have money. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni must take a red pen to the budget he tabled in February and shift spending into health, welfare and small business support.”

He did nothing of the sort. And so in spite of being Africa’s representative to the G20, where most of the fiscal stimulus is occurring, the South African government is shaming our population. The world fiscal stimulus is anticipated to be in the range of $10 trillion, according toBaron’sestimates. Yet our government and richest families are apparently not willing to offer more than the paltry $700 million (R12 billion) in local fiscal stimulus to the global cause.

In addition, the masses who are in debt now suffer from extremely high interest rates. The economy is screaming in pain from the outflow of financial capital as corporations loot South Africa and similar countries so as to present a “fortress balance sheet,” crashing the Rand’s value even further. Between $10-25 billion (R178-R445 billion) in annual illicit financial flows out of South Africa were estimated by official agencies late last year, with the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) and Treasury unable or unwilling to call out the thieves.

Last week we received only a vague commitment from the SARB to loosen its notoriously pro-bank monetary and financial sector policy, with a 1% cut in the Bank Repo Rate to 5.25%. Yet South Africa pays a higher interest rate than all but two of the 50 countries which issue ten-year state bonds (Turkey and Pakistan are currently higher). That is why our poor and working masses urgently need the kind of debtor holidays that will put a pause on our unpayable debts, the way even some of the commercial banks are voluntarily offering their medium-sized business borrowers. Again, President Ramaphosa had nothing to offer.

President Ramaphosa said in his speech, “The Governor has assured me that the Bank is ready to do ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure the financial sector operates well during this pandemic.” Yet the SARB has not done what it takes to lower interest rates to reasonable levels – for which implementing and tightening exchange controls are a critical step, so as to prevent further capital flight.

The last precedent for such an emergency, requiring tighter exchange controls, was in 1985 when the apartheid system was under attack by our movement’s international comrades through financial sanctions (leading to a default on $13 billion in foreign debt) – but the current outflows and the risk of not having funds to repay the current $180 billion in foreign debt, together put South Africa in an even riskier situation than then.

Many more criticisms could be offered to show how the state is not pulling its weight. The Institute for Economic Justice issued suggestions on March 23 for much more expansive economic strategies. And SAFTU joined a coalition of civil society groups making explicit demands to address the public health and economic crises. The state’s response to most is deafening silence.

The tragic question that must be posed is this: with a massive military and police presence now being prepared to discipline the citizenry, while the Treasury remains stingy with the fiscus and the SARB is still exceedingly tight with monetary policy, doesn’t this set the stage for a political catastrophe, like the one that occurred on the platinum belt just seven and a half years ago?

The South African working class is considered the world’s third most militant (by the World Economic Forum’s 2019-20 Global Competitiveness Report). The South African capitalist class is considered the world’s third most corrupt (PwC 2020 Economic Crime Survey). South African income inequality is the world’s worst (according to current World Bank measures).

So what kind of brutal experiment is South Africa expected to witness starting on Thursday – with our people’s movements for survival to be challenged by state security at every turn, and our government and private sector tossing out only a few crumbs?

From Friday the mother that used to survive by selling goods in the informal sector will have no income and the current measurers of the government doesn’t cover her. The young person who in the spirit of vuk’uzenzele used to cut hair in the corner of the street is being asked to stay at home and earn no income! The waste picker who survives by waking up at 3am to start picking up waste will no longer be able to earn an income. The underclass working scavenging in the dumps are now going to stay at home for three weeks. There are hundreds of thousands of the poorest of the poor who are not going to be catered for by the nonintervention of the government. These workers involved in the survivalist economy, are normally counted as employed and are not even part of the 10.5 million South Africans too discouraged to go search for employment opportunities. South Africa is being asked to risk a revolt led by this layer of the proletariat that the rich has long turned its backs to.

Capitalism has now unveiled all its weaknesses, leading us to the precipice: in the private health sector’s removal of half the industry’s resources from 85% of the society too poor for medical aids; in worsening inequality; in the economic vulnerabilities South Africa and rest of the continent face in global commodity markets and by importing products that we used to make here in South Africa; in the ghastly way our agricultural and ecological crises now intermingle; in the amplification of inherited patriarchy and racism; and in the pollution ‘externalities’ that continue, especially with greenhouse gas emissions that threaten our species and many others this century.

It is exceptionally frustrating that the capitalists’ media control plus State Capture of substantial areas of vital service delivery through corrupt outsourcing arrangements, prevent genuine debate about socialist solutions. We should be the first to demand the roll-back of profit and property privileges when so much of South African capitalism proved unable to reform from its apartheid upbringing over the past three decades. Even in the most reactionary societies, like the United States, men like Donald Trump are forced into acknowledging that industries that are on the verge of closure require state ownership to revive. A proper debate about the need for new ownership relations is required to genuinely defeat the virus and all the other socio-economic and ecological crises our world now faces.

Since the end of apartheid, we have suffered numerous crises and, through intense struggles waged from civil society, identified socialist solutions: by ignoring Big Pharma’s murderous Intellectual Property on AIDS medicines and ensuring public-sector treatment rollout, thus raising life expectancy from 52 in 2005 to 65 today; by winning free tertiary education for 90% of students and insourcing low-paid university workers; by rolling back multinational corporate water and electricity privatisation to gain even a modicum of Free Basic Services; and even by liberating our Gauteng roads from an Austrian firm’s toll gantries. South Africans are genuinely socialist at heart because we fought so long and hard against racism, sexism, environmental destruction and economic injustice, using the principle of Ubuntu: we are who we are through each other.

The period ahead will not dampen these yearnings and our spirit of mutual aid. However, unless there is an urgent, radical rethink of fiscal and monetary policy, and unless socialist strategies are up for discussion – and implementation – among all of us, this militaristlockdown mitigated only by tokenistic state handouts cannot end well.

A Programme of Action in the time of COVID-19 A call for social solidarity in South Africa

We, as civic organisations, trade unions, organisations of informal workers, faith-based organisations and community structures in South Africa, call on all people, every stakeholder and sector, to contain infection, reduce transmission and mitigate the social and political impacts of the COVID-19 virus.

Government retains a critical role in coordinating actions and distributing resources, yet its efforts will not be enough if we do not hold it to account and commit to a broad, bottom-up, public effort at this time. In a society as unequal as ours, we must work together to ensure that all safety measures are shared equitably.

We have a particular duty to safeguard those who are most vulnerable, those who are already living with hunger, weakened immune systems and poor access to health care. Greater restrictions and shutdowns are coming, but they will only work if full support is provided to working class and poor communities. Drastic measures are needed if we are to avoid disaster. Each of us must act now.

Acknowledging other statements coming from fellow movements and organisations, we put forward the following Programme of Action for all of us to work towards in the coming days.

1. Income security for all

In order for people to remain at home there must be income security for all. Employers must continue to pay salaries or grant sick leave while employees are restricted to their homes, and where continued salaries are impossible government must provide workers with income protection for wages lost during the pandemic. There must be a moratorium on retrenchments during this time. Self-employed, casual workers and those whose income is suspended at this time must be supported by government to prevent job-seeking movement and provide income security. The social grant system must be extended to ensure the direct transfer of cash to households during this precarious time. All defaults on mortgage and debt repayments during this time must be non-consequential. All evictions and removals must be banned. As Labour has proposed, a bold stimulus package will be required in the coming period. These measures must be developed in consultation with poor and working-class formations.

All households, residential institutions, the homeless and the informally housed must have easy access to sanitation, especially water and safe ablution facilities.

There must be an immediate opening of restricted water meters, mass-provision of safe water access points with unconstrained flow in areas where there is limited household access to water, and mass-distribution of safe ablution facilities to informal settlements. All of these sanitation points must have access to soap and/or sanitizer and information on the prevention of the virus.

All households, residential institutions, the homeless and the informally housed must have access to food

If we are to stay at home during this time, access to nutritious food is fundamental. The absence of the School Nutrition Programme is devastating. A coordinated and safe roll-out of food packages directly to distribution points in food-stressed neighbourhoods must be implemented. Failing that, the child support grant must be augmented. Support for locally-organised food systems must be strengthened.

Essential private facilities must be appropriated for public use to provide a unified and fair distribution of essential goods and services to all

National resources need to be focused and deployed in order to combat the epidemic. Essential services – health centres, food services, water and sanitation etc. – should be identified for urgent support and extension. This may require the conversion of factories and other places of production to produce sanitiser, protective clothing, water tanks, soap, food parcels, ventilators and other essential medical equipment. Essential private facilities must be made available for public use to provide a unified and fair distribution of essential goods and services to all. It requires that the public and private health systems need to be regarded as one national health system and coordinated in the national and public interest, also through state appropriation if necessary, as Spain recently demonstrated. Finances may have to be mobilised through unconventional means such as compulsory national bonds or loans, reforms to tax structures and others. Exported food might need to be redistributed locally. Regulations on price hikes should be implemented.

Community self-organisation and local action is critical, as it our representation in national coordination

Civic organisations, community structures, trade unions and faith-based organisations will be extremely important in organising on the ground during this emergency. We must all take action where we are. Civic structures must be engaged, supported and given representation on the National Command Council. The distribution of reliable information, essential services and care for our people will require a massive coordinated effort from community leaders and structures. Volunteers must be trained and organised for safe, coordinated, campaigns at street-level and for those living in institutions. Middle-class and wealthy communities and organisations have an obligation to make resources available to poor and working-class communities.

Community Health Workers must be insourced, trained and supported and, along with other frontline health and emergency services workers, must have access to the resources necessary to safely and effectively contain the virus

The 70 000 Community Health Workers are the outreach arms of our health. If they and other frontline health workers and emergency services workers are to provide the community services required during this time, they must all have access to reliable information, safety and protective gear, and the testing and other resources for effective containment of the virus. All workers must also receive safety and protective gear.

7. We must identify strategies to calm tensions and divert violence in our homes Home-based quarantine will escalate family and relationship tensions, and will likely lead to more violence against women, children and others most marginalized in our families and communities including LGBTI people and foreign nationals. We need to identify strategies to calm tensions and divert violence in our homes and communities over this time. We need a strong education campaign against all forms of violence, especially domestic violence. We need to strengthen safe responses from existing neighbourhood, regional and national organisations supporting women and children. This includes extending access to helplines for domestic violence, mental health, easing referral systems to shelters, and resourcing shelters to keep them open, functional and safe in the time of the virus.

8. Communication must be free, open and democratised

There must be an immediate distribution of free data to all, so that people are able to receive good information, contact loved ones during isolation and quarantine, and understand the measures that are in place to create safety. Access to the best international research should be free and public. There must be daily national press conferences from government leaders alongside scientists and professionals who can keep all of our people informed about the emerging situation.

The inequalities within our educational services need to be carefully considered, and mitigated, when moving to remote learning

Data and free website content must be made widely available to educational institutions for continued learning. However, there is massive inequality of access to resources such as computers, electricity, WiFi and learning space, as well difficult home situations that disproportionately affect poor and working-class learners, students and educators. The move to online learning should be made carefully, and as a temporary measure. We should not extend the inequalities in the education system by affording remote education to the few. Schools and universities should consider their collective role as community educators and developers facing an unprecedented shared experience. Schools, residences and dormitories should be understood as a public resource during this time, including for the safe distribution of food and other essential services interrupted by school closures.

We must prevent a nationalist, authoritarian and security-focused approach in containing the virus

We must guard against the easy deployment of military and police to create security in our communities. We must also prevent against creating scapegoats to blame for the current crisis. Instead we must ensure that care and resources are provided for the safety and protection of all who live in our country and in our communities.

How each of us responds to the COVID-19 pandemic will determine who we are as a society. The better we respond now, the better we will be after the pandemic. We must follow international best practice and the science that we have available to us to build an assertive response that works for the context of our own history and society. Our response must be just, equitable, and redistributive if we are to meet the needs of all our people. In times of physical distancing, social solidarity is key.

Issued by Zwelenzima Vavi, General Secretary, SAFTU, 24 March 2020

ENDORSEMENTS

List below is that of the 105 endorsements to date, to be updated as additional endorsements continue to come in.

021 Cape Town

360 Degrees Environmental Movement

Academic and Staff

Academics for Free Education

ActionAid South Africa

Active Citizens Movement

African Centre for Biodiversity

African Water Commons Collective

AIDS Foundation of South Africa

AIDS Free Living

Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC)

Amcare

Ashes to Purpose

Assembly of the Unemployed Fight

ASSITEJ South Africa

Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute

Black Sash

Bench Marks Foundation

Bertha’s Cape Town

Bonteheuwel Development Forum

Centre for Applied Legal Studies

Centre for Faith and Community, University of Pretoria

Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg

Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

Changemakers

Civic Action for Public Participation

Community Development Foundation, Western Cape

Community Development Foundation, Western Cape

Community Healing Network

Corruption Watch

Denis Hurley Centre

Development Works

Documentary Filmmakers Association

Economic Justice Network of

Equal Education

Extinction Rebellion South Africa

Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa

Gender Equity Unit, University of the Western Cape

Grace Family Church

Gun Free South Africa

HealthEnabled

Heinrich Böll Foundation Cape Town Office

Housing Assembly

Inclusive and Affirming Ministries

Inequality Alliance South Africa

Initiative for Community Advancement

Institute for Economic Justice

Institute for Economic Research on Innovation, Tshwane University of Technology

Isandla Institute

IthubaLethu Recycling Cooperative

Just Associates (JASS) Southern Africa

Keep Left

Khethimpilo

Lawyers for Human Rights

Liminability

Makause Community Development Forum

Marikana Youth Movement

Medecins Sans Frontières

Middleburg Environmental Justice Network

Mining Affected Communities United in Action

My Vote Counts

Natural Justice

National Union of Care Workers of SA (NUCWOSA)

NdifunaUkwazi

New World Foundation

Observatory Civic Association

One Voice for All Hawkers

Open Secrets

Open Society Foundation South Africa

Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Gauteng

People’s Health Movement South Africa

Popular Education Programme

Public Affairs Research Institute

Public Service Accountability Monitor

Public Services International

Refugee Social Services

Rehana Khan Parker and Associates

Rural Health Advocacy Project

SA Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union

SA Lawyers for Change

Salt River Heritage Society

Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT)

Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition

Sharp# movement for ecosocialism

Social Justice Advocacy Campaign

Social Justice Coalition

Social Law Project, University of the Western Cape

Society Work and Politics Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Sonke Gender Justice

South Africa Mining Affected Communities

South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU)

South African Green Revolutionary Council

South African Green Revolutionary Council

South African Jews for a Just Peace

Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute

Support Programme for Industrial Innovation

Surplus People’s Project

The Climate Justice Charter

The Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU)

The Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre

The Independent Producers Organisation

The Institute for the Healing of Memories

The Interim People’s Library

The Mbegu Platform

The South African Food Sovereignty Campaign

Treasured Gems Cancer Support

Treatment Action Campaign

Triangle Project

Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education

Tshwane Leadership Foundation

WestdeneSophiatown Residents Association

Women in Informal Employment Globalising and Organising

Workers World Media Collective

Woza Women in Leadership