South African unions prepared to march in a nationwide protest on Wednesday against a proposed national minimum wage of 20 Rand ($1.6) an hour, presenting a test for new President Cyril Ramaphosa who champions the policy.
The minimum wage, which Ramaphosa sees as an important step to tackle labour instability and wage inequality, was approved by Cabinet in November and meant to be introduced on May 1. Dissatisfaction over the minimum wage bill could delay implementation.
The new president, who replaced Jacob Zuma in February, staked his reputation on revising a stuttering economy and rooting out corruption associated with Zuma’s nine scandal-plagued years in power.
The protests are the second major public show of discontent in South Africa within a week.
Ramaphosa last week cut short a visit to a Commonwealth summit in Britain to travel to North West province where crowds are protesting against poor public services and demanding the resignation of the local government leader.
Supporters of the minimum wage say it will reduce inequality and stimulate economic growth as workers can spend more.
Critics, on the other hand, say it could lead to increased unemployment, already at record highs, with some employers unable to afford higher wage bills.
The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), which represents 30 unions with around 800,000 members, making it the second-largest trade union federation after COSATU, said its workers countrywide would take part in the protest.
The main focus of the marches and rallies, including a union representing metal workers with members in the automotive and engineering sectors, is the proposed national minimum wage of 20 Rand per hour, which SAFTU calls “starvation wages”.
“This is a fight about the life and death of trade unionism itself in the country,” SAFTU Secretary-General Zwelinzima Vavi said.
Government spokeswoman Phumla Williams in a statement called for the workers to stage peaceful protest.
“When marches deviate from the intended cause and become characterised by violence, looting and civil disobedience – it is less likely to produce democratic progress,” she said.