JOHANNESBURG – Workers belonging to South Africa’s largest union launched on Wednesday a general strike to protest the country’s high unemployment rate and plans to divide the public electric company into three entities.
With a national unemployment rate at 27.1 percent, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which has around 1.5 million members and officially supports the ruling African National Congress, mobilized thousands of its supporters and took to the streets, in some places blocking traffic and holding mass rallies.
Union leaders said that the strike call did not mean a withdrawal of their backing for the ANC ahead of May’s general elections, although the leaders made it clear that the COSATU position could be revised in the coming months.
COSATU had called for the strike before the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced a plan to divide South Africa’s energy giant Eskom, although the unpopular privatization plan gave new impetus to the strikers.
One of the biggest electricity companies in the world, the nearly 100-year-old Eskom produces and supplies electricity for almost all of South Africa.
Yet, with a $30 billion company debt, Ramaphosa was compelled to suggest a division of Eskom on the heels of corruption scandals and power outages which have prompted questions regarding the company’s ability to meet public demand.
In response, COSATU members considered the ANC government division plan to be the first step toward Eskom’s privatization.
Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Johannesburg wearing union colors and carrying banners denouncing the Eskom division proposal and the high unemployment rate; these union members stressed that the government needed a wake-up call in light of the job cuts in industries from mining to public companies.
COSATU strikers criticized the measures the ANC government has taken to combat the unemployment rate, which has been over 25 percent for years. The high unemployment rate has become one of one of the main economic and social problems of the African country.
The ANC and COSATU have been allied for over a quarter of a century, ever since Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, won the 1994 democratically-held national election.
COSATU was founded in 1985 and initially was the umbrella organization for 33 unions. Among other issues, it called for an end to the pernicious apartheid system that saw the white minority systematically oppress the country’s majority of people of color.