This morning, Bevil Lucas, former trade unionist with the South African Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) picked us up to take us to Cape Town’s famed “Community House”. It is a vibrant centre for organizations working on women’s issues, HIV/AIDS, union work, etc. and it is located in Salt River, an area for predominantly Black working class families. Many Afrikaans-speaking , Muslims live here as it was a so-called “Coloured” area, established long before the Group Areas Act under Apartheid where Black South Africans were forced to live outside of the city centres.
Koni Benson greeted us at Community House and proceeded to tell us about the work of ILRIG – the International Labour Rights and Information Group. Her South African-born parents live in Vancouver, but they were long time activists against Apartheid while inside the country.
ILRIG began in 1983 when Black trade unions were emerging again and there were healthy debates about workers and international solidarity and democracy. The trade union unity talks led to the formation of COSATU and the start of a mass movement which brought down apartheid.
In the 90s, ILRIG’s approach was clear – if capitalism doesn’t end, then Apartheid won’t end. They began working with unions and the unemployed, and began articulating a clear analysis of globalization.
The current crisis of capitalism hit the world in the late 60s and 70s and over the decades of the 1970s the ruling classes of the world came up with a strategy of globalization to solve that crisis. ILRIG defined globalization as a strategy on the part of capitalism to restructure the world so as to revive profitability for the capitalist class. Financial restructuring means borders opening up for capital to flow and the working class to suffer. ILRIG also looked at new forms of organizing the unemployed and alternative ways of organizing and mobilizing workers, supporting unions but organizing more broadly than just on the factory floor.
There are 5 areas of their work: New forms of Organizing; Youth; Democracy and Public Power; Trade and Investment / Political Economy; and Women. History is interwoven – encouraging people to write their own histories.
ILRIG runs courses based on Popular Education methodology – derived from Paulo Freire and practiced by many unions and social justice organizations (including OPSEU). They are working on many different but extremely important projects, including the following:
· The Municipal Services Project – linking women and public health. They are looking at the link between social services and public health, training people to be researchers themselves – on water, housing, etc. Housing is a right for all but the struggle for decent housing is a huge fight. It’s not that eh government is not building houses – 3 million houses have been built in 25 years, but at the same time, the government is cutting taxes for the rich by trillions and pouring $6 billion in to soccer stadiums for the World Cup, etc. The difference in South Africa is that there is no social safety net.
· Structural Inequality is entrenched. Under Apartheid, 87% of the population lived on 13% of the land and now less than 5% of the land has changed hands in South Africa. There is a small middle class now but the gap has widened and South Africa has surpassed Brazil for the country with the greatest gap between the rich and poor
· Feminism for today – working with women farmworkers in the Western Cape, but looking at how feminism is relevant to Black Working Class women in South Africa today. There is a whole history of resistance to patriarchy and women’s oppression throughout Africa and Latin America.
· The Gender Education and Training Network (GETNET) is a collective which includes ILRIG, the University of Cape Town, refugee groups and the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU)looking at the gendered effects of crime and poverty. There are different issues for men and for women regarding social services and how the lack of services affects women most of all. The links between poverty, violence and HIV/AIDS is clear. One in three women in South Africa starts their sex life through forced sex.
· Globalisation – every year ILRIG runs a Globalisation School for workers and publishes booklets on issues like the economic crisis, the austerity measures and working class resistance.
· Once a year they also have a conference where they also ask questions like, “What does International Solidarity mean now in South Africa? Has Apartheid ended? What are the current struggles of workers in South Africa?”
Koni commented on the The Marikana Massacre – a tragic loss of life but at least it has enlivened debates within South Africa on how unions are responding to the crisis facing workers who are grossly exploited by the mining corporations.
Where else is there resistance? What happened to the militancy? These are questions our group asked of Koni. There is resistance in the townships; they erupt from time to time in response to the lack of housing, lack of water and other services. Termed Service Delivery Protests, there have been instances of communities blocking highways, burning tires, turning water and electricity meters off, etc.
In one of her articles on housing in Cape Town in 2011, Koni wrote: “The majority of people in Cape Town today are Black, female and live in shacks. The history of women in Cape Town is a history of struggle against pass laws, shack demolition, and continued forced removals and displacement which has yet to be acknowledged (beyond lip service) and subverted… From the perspective of the apartheid state, African and female categorically represented permanence. This was associated with two things: first, the high cost of social reproduction (housing, schools, clinics, and wages that could support more than a single male); second, African and female categorically represented nationalist and radical resistance for citizenship and rights. These two issues – service delivery and social movement struggles – remain gendered today.”
It was a great way to end our formal meetings with partners in South Africa – stepping back to place our experiences within the context of globalization on an international scale, and within South Africa to view it in terms of the shift from the old Apartheid system to a new one termed by some as Class Apartheid.
From Community House, our trade union guide, Bevil Lucas took us through another history tour in the Western Cape – from the first slave burial ground to the oldest Muslim Mosque (1754) to Kalk Bay for lunch. Kalk Bay was one of the few areas where “Coloured” kids like Bevil were allowed to swim – far away from the whites -only beaches closer to Cape Town.
We tasted the famous “Snoek” from this area, a great tasting fish. On the way home we stopped to see the tenement buildings in Lavender Hill where the “Coloured” community had been forcibly removed to from their original homes in District Six in the centre of Cape Town. Unfortunately we did not have time to stop at the District Six Museum, but we stopped to see where the demolition of homes by the Apartheid state has left a wilderness of empty lots. Almost twenty years after Apartheid ended former District Six inhabitants are still in court challenges to regain their land and their heritage in District Six.
Sunday, September 23. Our final tour was to be a trip to Robben Island, but unfortunately the weather was too wet and the waters too choppy for the ferry to cross that day.
That night we had a farewell dinner cooked for us by Bevil Lucas – complete with some typical Cape dishes. It was a fitting way to end our OPSEU tour of Southern Africa.