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South African Workers Battle for a Living Wage

Striking the World Cup

by ELI JELLY-SCHAPIRO

On Wednesday, July 8 more than 60,000 South African construction workers laid down their tools in a sector-wide strike halting construction for six days on stadiums being built in advance of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. While soccer’s signature event is keenly awaited by millions of fans across the globe as an inimitable carnival of internationalist play and nationalist passion, the next World Cup carries a special weight in the host nation. The first African country chosen to host a sporting competition of such size, South Africa’s preparations for the tournament entail constructing or refurbishing 10 world-class stadiums, along with expanding energy, transportation, and telecommunications infrastructure to accommodate the half-million visitors expected to descend upon the country next June. Worries over whether the hostnation will be ready for the tournament have plagued its preparations from the start. The latest strike does not represent the first work stoppage to interrupt South Africa’s preparation for the World Cup, but it has heightened what was already an atmosphere of taut anticipation.

Since September of 2007, workers have staged a series of wildcat strikes at stadium construction sites across the country to demand wage increases, project bonuses, and better health and safety standards. Multiple work stoppages have occurred in the provincial capitals Bloemfontein, Polokwane, and Nelspruit, and in the coastal cities of Durban and Cape Town. The headline “stadium workers down their tools” has become commonplace, and in debates about South Africa’s preparedness for the tournament, labor unrest is frequently invoked, often in the same breath as “xenophobic violence,” as a potential threat to the tournament’s successful staging. The implication is that the claims of the striking workers, like a recent spate of violence in South Africa against economic immigrants from neighboring countries, are retrograde and anti-worldly. But viewed another way, in laying down their tools and insisting on just conditions of labor at World Cup work sites, construction workers are gesturing toward and not away from the internationalist spirit of the tournament.

The intent and effect of the strikes is two-fold. First and most immediately, construction workers—the vast majority of whom are black South Africans—are acting to improve their wages and the conditions of their work. As members of one of South Africa’s most degraded labor forces, the workers building World Cup stadiums earn less than US $2 per hour, a non-livable wage, while laboring on dangerous work sites where accidents are frequent and health and safety standards are ignored. Due to the temporary nature of much construction work and the low rate of unionization among South Africa’s builders—of whom only eight percent belong to a union—organizing for better conditions has long proven difficult. But the hope of today’s striking workers and their unions is that the World Cup, with its global visibility and its dependence on large-scale construction projects with strict deadlines for completion, will afford labor greater leverage and translate into more effective protest and denser organization.

Second, workers are asserting that unless the immense public investment in the World Cup benefits South Africa’s poorest communities, the event will be a failure. Few of the 20,000 jobs being created in conjunction with the World Cup will outlast the tournament, and while construction firms like Basil Read and Group Five have seen annual profits skyrocket since preparations began in 2006, many in South Africa’s labor movement remain deeply skeptical that their government’s ZAR40 billion (roughly US$ 4.7 billion) investment in World Cup development projects will bring any long-term benefit to the nation’s poor. “Things would look and seem to be going all good, because friend and foe might be here to enjoy the soccer,” said Noel Coetzee, a regional secretary for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the principle building trades union, with whom I recently spoke in Cape Town. “But when we get to back to reality you would come to the realization that the ordinary people, the workers, the poor, did not benefit.”

The most recent strike was called by NUM and the Building, Construction and Allied Workers Union (BCAWU), after a breakdown in wage negotiations between the unions and an association of construction firms known as the South African Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors, or SAFCEC. Citing a rise in food and energy prices with which wages have failed to keep pace, the unions were asking for a 13 per cent increase. SAFCEC, which prior to the strike was offering an increase of 10.4 percent, argued that the total cost of a new compensation package which includes a meal allowance, severance pay, and other benefits made a 13 per cent increase untenable.

With the strike entering its second day, the unions and the employers’ consortium re-entered negotiations, under the mediation of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration (CCMA). Workers rejected an improved offer of 11.5 per cent, but after further meetings SEFCAC again increased their offer, to 12 per cent; workers accepted the wage compromise and returned to work on Thursday, July 16, a week and a day after the strike began. One other major point of contention was resolved unambiguously in the workers’ favor; under the agreed-to terms construction workers will retain the right to strike through the duration of World Cup preparations.

The stadiums strikes, like the lead-up to the World Cup more generally, are happening against the backdrop of a precarious moment in the social and political life of “the new South Africa.” In 1994 Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) won an overwhelming victory in South Africa’s first democratic elections, culminating a liberation struggle which had espoused not solely “non-racialism” but also economic justice among its guiding ideals—and in which the country’s labor unions had played a critical role—and heralding to South Africans and the world the advent of a new “Rainbow Nation.” As the euphoria of liberation from apartheid has given way, however, to the plaintive recognition of seemingly intractable economic realities, the past several years have witnessed an intensified culture of unrest amongst South Africa’s poor. Community-led struggles against the privatization of public companies and services have combined with an increasingly active labor movement to challenge the “market-friendly” macroeconomic policies which have outlined South Africa’s re-entry into the global economy—a set of policies which, though delivering consistent growth rates, has failed to meaningfully redress the stark inequalities of race and class that are the legacy of apartheid and its colonialist antecedents. Over four months in the winter of 2007, more than 1 million South African workers went on strike. Last August, a rise in the price of basic foodstuffs and utilities prompted the country’s main trade union federation, COSATU, to call a one-day general strike which brought major South African cities and industries to a standstill. Construction momentarily ceased on World Cup stadiums, as it did again last week.

In the political arena, popular unrest is personified by ANC leader and recently elected national president Jacob Zuma. To a majority of South Africans—the ANC won 65.9 percent of the vote in elections this April—Zuma is the inheritor of the liberationist mantle, the figure who will recover the soul of the liberation project and return it to the masses. There is hope amongst organized labor in particular that the rise of Zuma, who has always enjoyed strong trade union support, will help to reestablish labor’s symbolic and effective place in the public sphere. How Zuma responds to the current upsurge of labor protest, particularly if work-stoppages continue to effect 2010 preparations, will be an important indication of the extent to which their faith in South Africa’s new president is well placed.

For other South Africans, particularly members of the country’s middle and upper classes, Zuma’s “nativist” populism signals a foreclosing of the cosmopolitan openness that defined the new South Africa’s first decade. To them, the World Cup is one crucial stage upon which the conflict between an open, universalist South Africa and an insular, particularist South Africa will play. But as the experience and struggle of South African construction workers makes clear, this opposition between the local and the global is a false one. The claims of the workers building the literal stages for World Cup matches are addressed to, but not against, the internationalism of the tournament. While sharing in the hope of all South Africans that the World Cup will improve the nation and its continent’s image in the world, the striking builders are maintaining that respect for workers’ rights should be a central feature of the image South Africa projects to the planet in 2010.

A popular ad running on South African television last summer, for mobile phone provider and official 2010 sponsor MTN, depicts a dreadlocked young man traveling swiftly, and mostly by foot, through Africa, gathering the spirit of its diverse peoples and places with a clay pot carried overhead. In the ad’s final image, he arrives in Cape Town, and from a crane above the half-completed Green Point Stadium, empties the contents of his pot; bathed in the star-dust essence of African humanity, the structure comes to life, taking on a golden glow. If the workers who built the stadium were to re-write the ad, they might not feel the need to make any deletions; but they might amend the narrative slightly, adding a couple of scenes portraying the construction of the stadium, in order to show that the utopianism of the World Cup is built upon not just spirit, but human labor—and in order to insist that the stadium is not a monument to an already realized Rainbow Nation, but a critical site in the ongoing struggle over what the new South Africa will become.

ELI JELLY-SCHAPIRO is a PhD student in the American Studies program at Yale. He can be reached at eli.jelly-schapiro@yale.edu