South Africa: “Fighting for Our Right to Work – Organising the Unemployed”

Jeanne Hefez, Pambazuka

20 October 2011

Organising the unemployed is a full time job – one the Unemployed People’s Movement in South Africa is making it’s own. Jeanne Hefez talks to UPM organisers about the challenges they face.

‘There is no third force, political party or communist academic behind our struggle. It is oppression at the hands of the African National Congress that has driven us into the rebellion of the poor. We are in rebellion because we are being forced to live without dignity, safety or hope.’ (Unemployed People’s Movement)

How do you keep members interested in a movement with no resources or immediate solutions at hand? What can you offer discouraged members when you are unemployed yourself, and when local politicians have consistently turned down your demands, including the most basic ones?

Unemployment is structural and rampant, and organising the unemployed is a fulltime job. As Ayanda Kota, chairperson of the UPM in Grahamstown, says, ‘We are living in a radically unjust society. We live below the poverty line. We live in shacks with no electricity and running water. If RDP houses were built they are now crumbling down due to poor workmanship and corruption. Our democracy means the progress of the few while the majority of people are left behind to starve for death. We talk about our situation in our dusty and at times muddy street corners, in our shacks.’

To organise the unemployed means going to informal settlements every day to inform people about their conditions and rights while trying to address the bigger struggles at hand. It means giving back hope, a sense of dignity and purpose to the dismayed. According to the UPM, the poor need help from a third force to organise. Bheki Buthlazi, a coordinator in Durban, explains how he strives to interest people in joining a network of individuals afflicted with the same problems. ‘People need to be reminded that they have a right to decent work and a right for a guaranteed income even if unemployed, that it’s a fight we need to coordinate in order to be more powerful. As people, we have a right to work, and it’s all too known that jobs are only given to people who are connected through corruption and nepotism.’

Decisions are taken at general meetings in different communities. The UPM executive committee’s job is to run day to day affairs, to run around filling in forms for municipalities to make sure marches are registered, sit with communities, design banners and placards, distribute fliers, communicate the decisions with other communities, write press releases for the media, listen to individuals…An organisation with no resources, they have to strategise with no offices and no material support whatsoever, collecting coins and asking around for financial help when possible. They are left to depend on non-governmental organisations and non-profits. In spite of this, they run crèches, lobby local councillors, run political educational classes, collaborate with unions and introduce the working class to unemployment programmes.

The UPM is thus engaged in demands at many different levels. One of them is the fight for decent housing and for the upgrading of informal settlements. As one organiser says, ‘Sometimes people have just invaded land without knowing what their rights are. We want the informal settlements to be formalised and we know that we can train our communities to do so through cooperatives. It could be perfectly easy to borrow money from government and to use the skills we have to reconstruct. We know better how to prioritise for ourselves.’

If a community runs out of water, the UPM will hold meetings and demand information from the municipality. After engaging with the municipality, they hold demonstrations if their demands are disregarded and ignored and continue demanding for decent houses. The UPM is aware that the issues are structural. Still, they have decided to be the protagonists of their lives and to overcome the apathy, resignation and the lack of self-awareness to articulate solutions and to construct ‘alternatives to the man’. They realise that they are their own liberators and can no longer be spectators in a game that they are supposed to be playing.

The problem of poverty remains, and keeping the unemployed interested in their movement seems to be one of the hardest tasks for the UPM. A lot of the unemployed today are young people, and the youth is easily distracted while wanting instantaneous work. ‘Their typical attitude is that they want a job now and cannot wait for tomorrow. We have to make the youth understand the reality of life and of the struggle, and that’s why we need to organise them within the UPM strategies.’

As Peter Banda, a coordinator in the Northern Province, explains, it is incredibly hard to keep members involved, as they are pressurised to extract themselves from the vicious poverty cycle. They often end up taking the first opportunity at hand and withdraw their efforts with the UPM -to come back only when they are jobless again. With such a high exit rate, the UPM has to keep members interested, which is a constant challenge. As one says, ‘We need a lot of help in terms of education because we really need to conscientise our members; they need to understand that we are in a struggle that is a long journey. Fighting the system and our constitution is a very long battle, and what we need the most in this struggle is continuity.’

The UPM places a lot of hope in its political education classes; they use them as a vector to raise awareness and engage members to fight for their right to work. They want to see their problems constitutionalised and a guaranteed income for all those who do not have work. Many people who are working remain poor and many are unemployed. As part of a growing solidarity and militancy, the UPM also demands a living wage for every worker and a real commitment to take immediate radical action to create jobs for all.

Organising the unemployed sector is truly difficult. ‘No wonder Cosatu abandoned the task,’ says Ayanda Kota. ‘Resources are always a major challenge. Our meetings are disrupted by the ANC Youth League; we are branded as counter-revolutionary and a third force. We are organising ourselves at a time when our struggles are being criminalised by the ruling party. Councillors ban our meetings, saying that we must first obtain permission from them. We are no longer seen as political agents, but rather as obnoxious nuisances.’

There are positive results to their efforts. Recently, the UPM in Grahamstown exposed the financial year disclaimer and is now busy with submissions to the Public Protector. They have helpful collaborations with unions. ‘We are able to stand up and speak against adversity and hostilities. The system will not liberate us. The movement is growing. We participate and become active. We are organising in our communities and take our decisions. We run our crèches, netball teams and soccer teams in our different communities. We attend council meetings and IDP meetings. We call councillors to attend our meetings, but so far they have never done so…’

This article was written with the help of the UPM, most particularly Ayanda Kota, Peter Banda and Bheki Buthlazi.

This article was first published in Amandla! magazine (www.amandla.org.za).

Jeanne Hefez is the editorial assistant of Amandla! magazine in Cape Town, South Africa.

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