Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Life Unchanged for South Africa's Poorest

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Life Unchanged for South Africa's Poorest

Article excerpt

South Africa has witnessed a lot of labor strife since the April elections - wildcat strikes by truck drivers, bus drivers, teachers, health-care workers and security guards. There was even a mutiny by disgruntled members of South Africa's Defense Forces who demanded that President Nelson Mandela personally intervene to address their grievances.

I am talking of former guerrillas belonging to the African National Congress' military wing, the Spear of the Nation, and the Pan Africanist Congress Military wing, the Azanian People's Liberation Army . These groups are angry at the slow pace and terms of their integration into the regular army.

In truth, it is easy to understand this anger and impatience. It reflects 300 years of subjugation, a full 50 years of formalized repression under apartheid and unrealistically high expectations.

As Mandela pointed out in a recent interview: "Black workers who were involved in those wildcat strikes see their white counterparts in South Africa getting three times, sometimes up to five times, more wages than the black worker doing the same job."

This wage differential, which exists today in post-apartheid South Africa is, according to Mandela, the root cause of many of the demonstrations. But, clearly, there are many other causes for the serious discontent.

Five million people are unemployed.

Foreign and domestic investment is not flowing in fast enough or in such quantities as to create that many jobs.

People voted for a new day but still live in the same old shacks; they still have no running water, no electricity, no job, an outhouse and dusty roads to wander on.

My union, for example, works with the South African Domestic Workers Union. We provide it with funds and share our expertise for seminars held in South Africa for their members, activists and leaders. The leaders of that union recently told me that it is not uncommon for maids to work 10 years straight - without a day off - and get fired when they do ask for a day for themselves. And this was after the elections. This is happening today in South Africa!

Life has changed little since South Africa's humblest workers, its domestic servants, went to the polls for the first time, many defying their employers to vote for Mandela.

Earlier this year, in a bid for their votes, the former government of F.W. de Klerk expanded the labor laws to give basic protection to domestic workers for the first time, entitling them to things like sick leave and lunch breaks. But because there appears to be little in the way of enforcement, and because domestics often work in isolation behind gates and are in perpetual fear of losing their jobs, the rules are usually ignored.

One organizer told me in a recent phone call that, for domestics, it's "worse than it was before. When you ask for a raise, they say, go ask Mandela! …

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