The South African Federation of Trade Unions [Saftu] has flexed its muscle in major cities across the country in defiance of the national minimum wage, among other issues — but this public show of strength has left its rival the Congress of South African Trade Unions [Cosatu] unperturbed.
On Wednesday, members of Saftu's affiliated unions and other workers heeded the call by the federation's general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, to partake in what they called a "national shutdown" — the organisation's first national strike since its inception in 2017.
Thousands gathered in Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Bloemfontein.
Saftu's memorandum slams the National Minimum Wage Bill — which plans a minimum wage of R20 per hour or a R3,500 monthly salary — and the Labour Amendments Bill, which it believes is a "frontal assault on the constitutionally guaranteed right to strike and to bargain collectively".
But experts believe the strike is also a show of strength. Before the demonstration, Saftu called on all workers, no matter their affiliation, to participate. But public-sector unions, most of whom pledge allegiance to Cosatu, ignored the call. For example, the biggest labour group in education, the South African Democratic Teachers' Union [Sadtu], distanced itself from the strike.
Saftu has 24 affiliated unions, the majority of which have less than 10,000 members. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the Food and Allied Workers Union together make up the bulk of Saftu's total support — its total membership last year was around 691,540.
Cosatu dominates the public sector, but its membership has been waning. Previously, it claimed to have more than 2-million members, but this number has now dropped to about 1.7-million.
According to 2015 figures, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union [Nehawu] was its biggest union with 277,317 members, followed by the National Union of Mineworkers [NUM] with 270,649, Sadtu with 248,556, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union [Popcru] with 154,008, and the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union [Satawu] with 152,254.
The federation expelled Numsa, which was its largest affiliate, in 2014.
Cosatu spokesman Sizwe Pamla says the federation is unphased by Saftu.
"We were the ones who came up with the national minimum wage ideas. We did scientific research keeping in mind global economics. We want to avoid the pitfall that other countries found themselves in when it comes to the minimum wage. We want to make this successful without losing jobs and isolating our social partners," he said.
"Saftu doesn't pose a threat to Cosatu. We have long taken over the public sector. Saftu is Numsa more than anything else. Numsa organises in all sectors of the economy. Cosatu has solid affiliates in all sectors."
Labour expert Terry Bell said that even though Cosatu remains the largest federation, it is "fraying at the edges".
"Saftu called for all workers irrespective of their affiliation to join the march. This is a call for support [that] is a slap in the face to Cosatu. Saftu would like very much to bring in more affiliations from the public sector, which Cosatu has a vice grip on... Saftu at the moment is concentrated on the private sector," he said.
"Tensions are brewing in the trade unions because of Cosatu's alliance to government and the state, which is the largest employer in the land. Saftu is making the most of that."
Saftu spokesperson Patrick Craven could not be reached for comment.