South African’s National Liberation Movement

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Message by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Workers Day

01 May, 2020

Comrades and compatriots,  

I greet you warmly on this Workers Day, an occasion on which we salute the great struggles waged by workers and celebrate their achievements.  

This Workers Day is unlike any we have experienced before.  

This is a time of great upheaval and uncertainty throughout the world because of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Workers are at the forefront of the fight against this virus.  

We applaud the nurses, doctors, health workers, police, security officials, traffic officers, soldiers and essential service workers who are serving our people with such dedication and courage.  

Today, let us observe a moment’s silence for all those who have lost their lives to this virus.  

[Moment of silence]  

Workers Day occupies a special place in the national life of our country.  

It helps to cement the bonds that workers have with each other and the rest of the community; it is an opportunity for workers to relax and spend time with their families.  

It is also a time to reaffirm the ties of solidarity and the common struggles that bind the workers of the world together.  

For nearly 130 years, workers across the world have claimed this day as their own, using the occasion to draw attention to the conditions under which they work and live and to campaign for their rights and interests.  

Here in South Africa, the long and bitter struggle for the recognition of May Day as a public holiday was inextricably tied not only to the struggle for workers’ rights, but also the struggle to end apartheid.  

The campaign that COSATU led in 1986 to force the National Party government to recognise May Day was supported by formations across society and led to a national stayaway of 1.5 million workers, students, taxi drivers, vendors, shopkeepers, domestic workers and self-employed people.  

‘May Day is Ours’ became a rallying cry that drew attention to the appalling conditions of workers under apartheid and the suffering of black South Africans more broadly.  

With the advent of democracy in 1994, Workers Day finally received the proper recognition that generations of workers had fought for.  

As we celebrate this day, we remember the great trade union leaders who forged the formidable labour movement that continues to fight for the rights and interests of workers.  

We remember leaders such as Clements Kadalie, AWG Champion, Bill Andrews, James La Guma, Vuyisile Mini, JB Marks, Ray Alexander, John Taolo Gaetswe, Reg September, Emma Mashinini, Billy Nair, Elijah Barayi, John Gomomo, Viola Hashe, John Nkadimeng, Lydia Kompe and Stephen Dlamini.  

We are marking Workers Day at a difficult time for our country and the world.  

The poor and the working class are having to bear the burden of a global pandemic that has caused severe economic and social disruption.  

It is now clear that the world will experience a substantial economic contraction and, in the immediate future, a significant rise in joblessness.  

South Africa will not be spared.  

The challenges that confronted us before the outbreak of the coronavirus – low economic growth, unemployment, poverty and inequality – have been exacerbated by the pandemic.  

Our efforts to turn the economy around, to create opportunities for young people, to stabilise public finances and to restore state-owned enterprises have suffered a great setback.  

To emerge from this crisis will require an extraordinary effort.  

Our central concern on this Workers Day is for the health of all our people.  

We are concerned in particular about the vulnerability of workers, the unemployed and the poor.  

Millions of our people still live in informal settlements and crowded areas, many still do not have access to adequate water and sanitation and many are undernourished.  

Millions of workers rely on public transport, where there is a great threat of transmission of the virus.  

In order to limit the devastating impact of this virus we moved swiftly to declare a national state of disaster and implement a nationwide lockdown.  

We have had to limit people’s movement and limit contact between people, to stop the spread the of the virus.  

The nation-wide lockdown has had a huge impact on the lives of poor people.  

As basic liberties like freedom of movement and freedom of association have had to be curtailed, millions of South Africans have struggled to earn a livelihood and feed their families.  

We all recognise that the lockdown is necessary to save lives.  

It has kept the infections and the fatalities low, while giving us the time to mobilise more capacity for the expected peak in infections.  

Now we have moved into a new phase of our public health response, significantly increasing the rate of community-based screening and testing, and implementing a rigorous programme of isolation and contact tracing.  

We are expanding our capacity to care for those who require hospitalisation, we are building field hospitals and buying medical equipment, medicines and other supplies.  

An essential part of our preparations is to ensure that all health workers and other frontline staff are safe and have all the personal protective equipment they need.  

Today, South Africa moves from level 5 of our coronavirus – which is the most stringent – to level 4, which will lead to the gradual relaxation of some of the measures we put in place five weeks ago.  

As we begin the process of easing the lockdown and many people start gradually returning to work, we must remain vigilant and careful.  

As they resume operations in the permitted sectors, employers need to take responsibility for the health and safety of their employees.  

Every workplace is required to implement measures to protect workers.  

Workplaces must adhere to social distancing norms.  

Sanitisers must be readily available and the usual person to person meetings we are used to must be limited.  

Companies are expected to screen all workers for COVID-19 symptoms each day when they report for work, and companies with more than 500 employees must make arrangements to test their workers.  

It is now mandatory for people to wear masks when out in public and workplaces must ensure that their staff are provided with masks.  

The power to stop the virus is literally in our hands.

We can protect ourselves by taking the basic precautions – regular washing of hands, wearing masks, sneezing into our elbows or tissues and minimising physical contact.  

In doing so, we can prevent the pandemic from becoming a crisis that overwhelms our communities and our health system.  

This pandemic is more than a health crisis.  

It is now an economic crisis that will have deep and lasting effects.  

Again, it is workers who are among the most vulnerable.  

For weeks, our economy has been at a standstill.  

And it may still be many months before it is back to full production.  

In that time, many companies may close down and many workers may lose their jobs.  

Already, we have seen how many workers have not been paid this last month.  

Informal businesses – and those that depend on them – will be particularly badly affected.  

In a country where there are already 10 million people unemployed, this will be devastating, leading to even greater hardship for working people.  

We therefore had to act, and to act quickly to address the situation that our people and companies are experiencing.  

Last week we announced a massive social relief and economic support package worth R500 billion to respond to the immediate needs of our people.  

This package includes several far-reaching measures for the relief of hunger and social distress.  

Firstly, the child support and other social grants will be topped up over the next 6 months to ensure that some of the poorest households in the country receive immediate cash support.  

Secondly, the introduction of a 6-month special Covid-19 Relief of Distress grant of R350 a month for unemployed individuals who do not receive other forms of support.  

Thirdly, the implementation of food assistance through vouchers and cash transfers to ensure that help reaches those who need it faster and more efficiently.  

The package will also support companies and workers that are affected by the pandemic.  

Our priority is job protection and job creation and have therefore committed a total of R100 billion to support these efforts.  

The UIF has launched a special scheme, worth R40 billion, to provide income support for workers whose employers are unable to pay their full wages.  

To date, the UIF has approved the payment of benefits to more than 860,000 employees from around 60,000 companies.  

We continue to provide assistance – in the form of loans, grants and debt restructuring – to SMMEs, spaza shop owners and other informal businesses.  

It is essential to keep these enterprises afloat during this time as they provide employment to millions of South Africans.  

Government, working with the South African Reserve Bank and the major banks, has introduced a R200 billion loan guarantee scheme.  

This will assist small and medium-sized businesses with operational costs, such as salaries, rent and the payment of suppliers.  

It is expected that the scheme will support over 700,000 firms and more than 3 million employees through this difficult period.  

To assist businesses with their cash flow, companies can delay paying certain taxes for a few months.  

Government is also working on additional support measures for vulnerable and affected sectors like the taxi industry.  

These efforts have been bolstered by the efforts of many South Africans who have come together in various formations across the length and breadth of our country to identify and assist those in need.  

We must applaud the leading role of the labour movement, including COSATU, in calling for bold action to assist workers, informal traders and the unemployed.  

Trade unions have looked beyond the needs of their members to the needs of those in society who are most vulnerable.  

As we respond to the health and economic impact of coronavirus, we must also address the social effects – from students being out of classes for prolonged periods to the potential for a rise in gender-based violence.  

It is essential that we proceed with the implementation of our National Strategic Plan on gender-based violence and femicide which was launched yesterday particularly during this time. The National strategic plan outlines initiatives we need to embark upon to rid our country of the scourge of gender-based violence and fermicide.  

It also means that we must give consideration to the ratification of instruments like the ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment in the Workplace, so that we can protect workers more effectively and consistently from gender-based violence and harassment.  

All indications are that the coronavirus will be with us for many more months and that its effects will be with us for far longer.  

We will have to adjust our way of living and working to this reality.  

We are a resilient and resourceful people, but much will be asked of all of us to overcome this pandemic.  

We are grateful to all the people of our country for the action they have taken and the sacrifices they have made to safeguard the health of the nation.  

We thank you and we salute you.  

South Africans will have to dig deeper than at any time since the advent of democracy to rebuild our nation.  

Beyond this grave health emergency, we should see this as a time of possibility and opportunity for renewal.  

It is a time for us to work together as South Africans to create a more just, more humane and inclusive country.  

The pandemic has shown us the generosity of spirit of South Africans and their determination to succeed against seemingly insurmountable difficulties.  

Let us work together to emerge from this pandemic with a more humane society marked by an economy that is more inclusive, more equitable and where all South Africans prosper.  

Labour, business and civil society must join with government in a social compact for national reconstruction.  

We need to put in place a comprehensive and far-reaching economic recovery programme that does not merely return our economy to where it was before the pandemic.  

It needs to produce a new, transformed economy, a more inclusive economy.  

It must be an economy that prioritises worker participation and ownership.  

It must be a gendered economy that bridges the great material divide between men and women, creating opportunities for women in all parts of the economy.  

Infrastructure is going to be a key part of our recovery, covering areas such as water and sanitation, transport, human settlements, energy and others.  

It will drive investment in local production and local jobs, create demand for SMMEs and expand the capacity of our economy.  

The ANC’s 54th National Conference was correct to direct us towards a trajectory of radical economic transformation.  

We are called upon to consider unorthodox ways of reviving the economy.  

Radical economic transformation is not some populist narrative to plunder the economy but is about waking up to realities facing the country.  

Renewal of the Alliance and our society is also central to our future.  

The 54th National Conference was correct to assert that renewal is ‘about resilience’.  

Our resilience is about summoning the best skills and knowledge together to serve our country.  

The road ahead will be long and hard, and we will make mistakes.  

However, learning from those mistakes, we must rise and move forward.  

Let each of us call on our indomitable spirit and, as exhorted by the Freedom Charter, pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until we have achieved the South Africa we want.  

I thank you.