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.’ Continue reading