CAMPAIGN | Organise Against Unemployment


South Africa’s unemployment disaster is now speeding-up and heading down the road to catastrophe. The latest figures show that unemployment has reached 30.1% of the working-age population. A massive seven million individuals. When the two million so-called “discouraged job seekers” are counted, the true rate of unemployment is nearly 40%. The ANC government’s new ‘supplementary’ budget shows that they believe the solution to unemployment is to make it worse! – through further massive cuts in public spending.

The new unemployment figures only describe the January, February and March. In other words, the period immediately before the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown hit. It is almost entirely accounted for by the effect of the recession SA’s capitalist economy had already entered. It will be important for working class activists to keep this fact in mind in the future. The ANC government, and all the other capitalist parties, will try and re-write history to blame the pandemic – and the pandemic alone – for capitalism’s economic problems. But ultimately, the pandemic has only acted as a catalyst for capitalism’s underlying crisis; magnifying and deepening the existing misery of the working class.

The impact of the economic disruption caused by the pandemic will nevertheless be huge. The ANC government itself predicts unemployment increasing by 1.79 million this year alone as a result; Nedbank predicts a similar 1.6 million. An unemployment rate of 50% is a real possibility.[1] This may well become the ‘new normal’.


The bizarre distinction between “unemployed” and “discouraged jobseekers” could only be invented by capitalism’s ideologues. On the one hand, it is an attempt to downplay and ‘normalise’ mass unemployment. On the other hand, it is an admission of the system’s failure. Capitalism, guided narrowly by the profit motive, is unable to marry the vast reserves of labour available to it with the equally vast backlog of unmet social needs in communities.

In other words, millions sit idle when they could be given training and skills, paid a living wage, and put to work building decent houses, and developing water, sanitation, electricity, health, education, road and public transport infrastructure. And that would just be for starters! After eradicating poverty and hardship the work of developing a society where every individual can meet their full potential could begin. Who would remain “discouraged” if a socialist plan like this was put in front of them? It is only capitalism that throws human life on the scrap-heap.

Impact on Struggle

Unemployment weakens the working class. Its immediate victims are plunged into a struggle just to survive. Working class solidarity can erode if those stuck in the same desperate situation view each other as rivals for scarce scraps, rather than as potential comrades in struggle. Crime, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and a struggle of ‘all-against-all’ can develop. Xenophobic attacks can erupt when ‘foreigners’ are wrongly scapegoated. This is the slide into barbarism Marxists often warn about.

Fewer wage-packets feeding ever more mouths puts enormous pressure on those workers who hold on to their jobs. It is not just they who will go without if they lose it, but dozens of family members, immediate and extended. The bosses recognise the advantage this gives them. They try and get away with more and more, tightening the screws of exploitation through pay cuts, longer hours, reduced benefits, shorter breaks etc. When objecting to this, how many workers have been told by the boss: “if you won’t do the work for this pay there are fifty outside who will!”? The long line of unemployed outside every workplace can be a great disciplining tool for the bosses, pressuring workers to ‘put up’ with all manner of abuses, acting as a blanket to smother the smouldering coals of class anger that otherwise would burst into flames in protests and strikes. Karl Marx explained all of this with the idea of the Industrial Reserve Army. (See, Capital, extracts in our political education programme.)

But there is nothing inevitable about this bleak picture. These are only the tendencies – admittedly powerful ones – that unemployment encourages within the working class. But they can be counteracted. This requires organisation and leadership, upon a clear programme, that unites the unemployed and the employed in common struggle. It is absolutely essential that the trade union movement takes up the task of organising the unemployed.


Growing job losses will have a serious impact on trade unions. As jobs are cut, members and therefore income is lost. There is a danger that highly-paid officials in well-established unions will concentrate on bureaucratic factional struggles to guarantee their own salaries instead of turning-out to organise workers against job losses.

The Saftu leadership repeatedly says that financially it “can’t afford” initiatives to take working class struggle forward. If that had been the attitude in the struggle against apartheid the trade unions would never have been built. The struggle is not going to be sponsored by anyone other than but the working class, and least of all organisations linked to the capitalist class. The Covid-19 People’s Coalition has appealed to the billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundations for funding.

Our experience in the Gauteng EPWP workers’ struggle is that workers are willing to make heroic financial sacrifices if leadership offers a clear way forward. These workers, paid barely R2,000 per month, repeatedly dug into their own pockets to fund transport and airtime for their leadership and activists, to buy t-shirts, and even contribute toward the dozen busses that took them to Pretoria for two-days of protest in February. (See video here.)

Unfortunately, the Saftu trade union federation’s statement on unemployment, after eventually declaring “now is the time to act”, gives absolutely no way forward to the working class.

Mobilise Now

The fragmentation of the working class that is developing as a result of the jobs bloodbath needs to be stopped in its tracks with a programme of action that can unite the working class. The core idea must be that the working class will not be made to endure poverty because of capitalism’s crisis. The demand on the bosses and their politicians must be: JOBS FOR ALL! This must be accompanied by the demands that the SOCIAL RELIEF OF DISTRESS GRANT IS MADE PERMANENT AND INCREASED TO R3,500 PER MONTH and THE MINIMUM WAGE IS INCREASED TO R12,500 PER MONTH.

A national day-of-action, including marches in all major cities, should be called around these demands, to help popularise them and build support among workers and working class communities. This would be the first-step in laying the foundations for rolling mass action.

The bosses, the politicians and the capitalist media will laugh at these demands. We will hear how the country “can’t afford it”. It will be necessary to give socialist answers to their capitalist logic. The movement must demand nationalisation of job-shedding big business under workers’ control and the sharing-out of work without loss of pay by giving the working class democratic control of hiring and firing and the re-design of shift-patterns, working hours etc.

In addition, the demand for genuine public works programmes needs to be raised. These must be completely different to the ANC’s fraudulent EPWP, CHW, ECB and CWP schemes by offering accredited training, permanent jobs and a living wage. The government is talking about a massive infrastructure programme. The demand should be raised that this programme is used first-and-foremost to pandemic-proof communities through mass decent house-building, water, sanitation, road and public transport provision; the upgrading and development of schools, clinics, day-care etc. This must be under the democratic control of communities and create decent jobs in communities.


Trade unions need to adopt the organising principle of “once a member, always a member”. Unemployed should not mean unorganised. Union members should discuss the best way of applying this principle in their sectors. In general, retrenched workers should be allowed to remain union members and participate in its structures. For example, in skilled industries workers should demand that the bosses only hire unemployed union members and organise campaigns to recruit every worker with the relevant qualifications into the union. This can stop the bosses pitting the unemployed against the employed.

Where this is not possible, trade union federations could link-up all recently retrenched workers in a single township or area, organising them into unemployed-workers branches. These could pioneer the recruitment of the chronically unemployed. Special attention should be given to the youth, many of whom have never had a job, organising them into unemployed-youth branches.

Such unemployed branches could pay special attention to bringing organisation to the struggle for survival. For example, drawing up registers of the unemployed and their skills in every area, and organising rotas to ensure all casual workers have a fair chance to earn a regular wage.

The new Social Relief of Distress grant is the prefect issue to mobilise communities and the chronically unemployed into the movement. The government views this as a temporary measure. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni repeated this in his Supplementary Budget. It would be possible to start mobilising communities immediately around the idea that this grant should be made permanent and increased.

Initiatives should be taken from below to apply pressure on the trade union leaders to act. We appeal to all individuals and organisations who see the need to act now to organise our class to contact us. Let us start popularising the following programme in workplaces and communities:





  • Fight all retrenchments and closures. Struggle for the nationalisation of job shedding big businesses under democratic workers control, enforced through workplace occupations.
  • Once a member, always a member. Retrenched workers to retain union membership and full democratic rights in union structures.
  • Unemployed must not mean unorganised! Organise the chronically unemployed under the leadership of the trade union movement – build unemployed-workers and unemployed-youth branches in communities. Draw-up registers of the unemployed and their skills. These registers to be regularly inspected by representatives of the community to protect against corruption. Organise rotas for casual workers to ensure all have a fair chance to earn a regular wage.
  • Pandemic-proof our communities! The government’s infrastructure programme must be turned into a massive public works programme under the democratic control of communities and be used first-and-foremost to build decent houses, and develop water, sanitation, electricity, health, education, road and public transport infrastructure. All jobs created to offer accredited training, be permanent and pay a living wage.
  • Workers’ economic planning to end unemployment. Struggle for a reduction of the working week to 30 hours with no cuts in pay. Demand democratic control of hiring and firing and the re-design of shift patterns by workers’ representatives. Share out the work with the unemployed.
  • Reject the ANC’s poverty-level minimum wage. Organise the workplaces to win a living wage of R12,500 per month for all full-time workers backed-up by a rigorous regime of workplace inspections under the democratic control of workers’ representatives. Nationalise non-complying big business; on the basis of proven unaffordability, subsidies and tax relief to small and family businesses adequate for the minimum wage to be paid.
  • Expose the bosses’ lies! Abolish so-called ‘business secrets’. Demand that the financial accounts of big business are opened to inspection by workers’ representatives. When the bosses say “we can’t afford it”, the workers’ movement must say “prove it!”
  • Abolish outsourcing and labour broking! Build a mass campaign to enforce anti-labour broking legislation. Make all EPWP, CHW, ECB and CWP workers permanent.

[1]Treasury Forecasts Jobs Bloodbath in South Africa’, BusinessTech, 2 June 2020