SOUTH AFRICA: Food and electricity prices spark union protest

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Thousands of members of the Congress of South African trade Unions (COSATU) took to the streets of Johannesburg on Thursday to protest rocketing food and electricity prices.

The unionists made their way through the city’s central business district and then marched on the headquarters of the national power utility, ESKOM.

“Prosecute those responsible for price fixing and collusion” and “food security: a caring society”, read some of the placards carried through the streets by the 5,000-strong singing and dancing crowd.

“It’s not right for the Government to ask for a 53 percent increase of electricity tariffs”, said Blade Nzimande, secretary-general of South Africa’s communist party, to the applause of the throng.

“Workers are the most oppressed; we are retrenched now and then, and many of us work as casuals so we can’t afford such a high increment,” he said.

After signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) presented to him by the protesters, ESKOM’s Chief Executive Officer, Jorgen Vos, said he took the COSATU concerns “very seriously”, and that ESKOM was working with stakeholders to “ensure that the poor do not feel the heavy impact of power cuts”.

Geoffrey, one of the protesters, said the poor suffered most from South Africa’s ongoing electricity crisis. “We can’t afford any other source of power like gas - we are not rich.”

The entire country has been hit by widespread planned and unplanned power cuts, or “load shedding”, that is affecting every sector of the economy and sparking fear of job losses.

Food also beyond reach

The march then turned to a major supermarket chain, Pick n Pay, where protesters handed general manager Kevin Krom another MOU demanding action on spiralling food prices. Krom said he would share their concerns with senior management and other retailers.
“It looks like there is collusion between the supermarkets and government to fix the prices of some commodities. I can’t run my life now,” another marcher, William, told IRIN.

According to a COSATU statement released earlier this month, “For more than a year now, food prices have been rising much more rapidly than overall inflation”, the labour umbrella body maintained.

With wages barely rising over the same period, the poor have borne the brunt. “The fact is that low-income households spend a far greater proportion of their income on food than the rich - food price increases are fuelling economic and social inequality at a faster pace than the state social security system has been set to address,” COSATU warned.

Vusi Maduna, a mother of two participating in the march, said food prices had risen so sharply that she could barely feed her family.

The COSATU statement also pointed out that high interest rates, high petrol prices and rising unemployment were compounding the problems of the poor.

Official estimates put South Africa’s unemployment rate at 25 percent, although independent economists have said the joblessness rate is nearer 40 percent.

COSATU vowed to organise more demonstrations throughout the country until the government gave in to their demands.