South Africa: "We Guard Billions, but are Paid Peanuts"

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Brian Mfisa starts work at 6 am for the international security firm Chubb. He guards a large house in the wealthy suburb of Melrose in Johannesburg.

Brian sits in a small wooden box, a "guard hut" that is dwarfed by the parameter walls of the house. He works 12 hour shifts and is paid R1600 (US$220) per month. Last month he was shot through the arm by a man attempting to break into the house. The next day he was back at work. Brian is still refused permission to go to the toilet while on duty and is forced to use a plastic bucket in the hut.

A recent research has found there were almost 300,000 registered guards in South Africa, who are employed by 4200 businesses. There are far more private security forces than state police officers. Private security has mushroomed since the end of apartheid, reflecting both the dramatic divisions of wealth in the country and the outsourcing of state functions to the private sector. This is big business in South Africa. It has a turnover in excess of R14 billion. There are approximately 2,500 private security firms in South Africa though the industry is dominated by a few multinational giants. One of the biggest security firms is Chubb. The company is a subsidiary of multibillion dollar company United Technologies Corporation, based in the US.

The working conditions for this army of private security officers are notorious. According to a survey in 2004 almost 60 percent of private sector security guards earn less than R1500 a month. While more than 70 percent work over 45 hours a week. As one striker explained: "we guard billions but we are paid peanuts." Even with these conditions, thousands search for work as security guards.

Security guards were on strike in South Africa for more than two months, in a dispute that many describe as the most important since the end of apartheid in 1994. The strike became headline news in the country and exposed many of the weaknesses in the labour movement. Talks began in October with the main employers of security guards. The guards are represented by more than 30 unions. The largest of those is the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (SATAWU). The unions were initially demanding an increase of 11 percent. But on April 1 five employers struck a deal with 16 unions for 8.3 percent.

However SATAWU held firm and refused to accept the deal, calling an indefinite strike on the 13 April. The strike continued with violent clashes between strikers, scabs and the police. The intensity of the strike has surprised many commentators. On the 19 April a security guard was shot dead by strikers in the eastern coastal city of Durban. In Cape Town on the 20 April security guards levelled the homes of strike breakers in the large township of Khayelitsha.

It was against this background that the national trade union federation, Cosatu, called a national one-day strike in May. According to the government and business leaders the national one-day action to protest against poverty, job losses and casualisation cost the South Africa economy R2 billion. The statistics tell the story. Officially more than 25 percent of the population are out of work, but most people recognise that the real figure is closer to 40 percent. One report estimates that 51.2 percent of the population are either out of work or earn less than R60 a month.

Cities across South Africa were paralysed by demonstrations. In Johannesburg approximately 20,000 demonstrators marched behind union banners into the blinding sun. Before the march speakers spoke of the "failure of the ANC" to address poverty and job losses. The mood was militant. One construction worker expressed a general anger: "I am here to fight against job losses and casualisation. The government are doing nothing about poverty and unemployment. They put money in their back pockets. We vote and vote and nothing changes. We want to go forward."

Zwelinzima Vavi the general secretary of the Cosatu addressed marchers in Johannesburg: "We fought for democracy in this country, but where is democracy when people are engulfed with poverty and unemployment?" The South Africa Communist Party issued a document on the day of the national strike condemning the ANC record, while the general secretary Blade Nzimande told marchers that "our revolution is in danger."

In other parts of the country there were also demonstrations. In the eastern coastal city of Durban ten thousand marched in the city centre, forcing businesses to close. However in Cape Town Cosatu cancelled the planned demonstration, after police had attacked a demonstration of striking security guards, arresting strikers and trade union leaders earlier in the week. Pictures of the police firing at demonstrators at point blank range were seen across the country. The press condemned the strikers. Even the left leaning weekly paper the Mail and Guardian had a front page headline The strike must end. Politicians denounced the violence of the strikers. Under pressure Cosatu regional leaders called off the demonstration.

There are two factors that dominated the strike and labour politics in South Africa today. The first, as we have seen, was the security guards strike. Guy Slinsby a full time officer for the public sector union, NEHAWU, explained the significance of the strike for the whole labour movement, "The SATAWU workers are giving the lead. The employers tried to divide them, so it is an attack on every trade unionist. They are inspiring us. The employers used every tactic not to give workers the 11 percent but more importantly they are trying to smash the union in the sector."

SATAWU delegations on the national strike were by far the largest and most militant. Their energy and dynamism animated the wider movement. However calls for solidarity from union officials at the Johannesburg rally were peppered with words of "caution" and there was little practical solidarity from Cosatu.

The second major factor that permeates the movement is the question of Jacob Zuma. Zuma has long been considered the figure head for a more radical ANC, and he was widely expected to take over from president Thabo Mbeki. He was the deputy president of the ANC until last year. At the end of 2005 Zuma stepped down from his duties when he was accused of raping a family friend. In May he was acquitted, after a trial that had been watched with fascinated by everyone. The acquittal gave his supporters confidence to relaunch Zuma's bid for the presidency. Immediately after his acquittal Zuma addressed the striking SATAWU workers, who were meeting several blocks away.

Zuma's widespread support reflects a frustration with the poverty and unemployment that grips South Africa. Zuma is seen as a radical and even socialist voice who has become the pole of attraction to all those disappointed and angry with the market-driven agenda of the ANC. Joyce Makete, a causal worker at the Johannesburg Magistrates Court sees Zuma as a real alternative "I support him because he has been in the struggle for a long time and he will listen to us."

The general strike exposed the weaknesses in the governing coalition. The alliance has grouped together the trade union federation, the South African Communist Party and the ANC. But the major fault lines are not simply between the "alliance partners" but also within each organisation. Dissatisfaction is generalising. Groups critical of the ANC leadership - on the question of Zuma and the SATAWU strike - are growing within the ANC, as much as outside it. The government knew that a victory for the SATAWU workers would be a blow to the employers and the ANC's neo-liberal policies.