JOHANNESBURG — Tens of thousands of South Africans marched peacefully through their main cities Wednesday in a protest organized by the country's biggest trade union federation against economic decisions made by the governing African National Congress.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions, known as COSATU, is a close ally of the ANC, but often among its sharpest critics. COSATU cited two reasons for the marches in Johannesburg, Cape Town and other towns and cities.
Support from across the political, racial and economic spectrum has emerged for one of the goals, getting the government to scrap planned tolls to pay for road upgrades in the Johannesburg area. COSATU says tolls will make life more expensive for the working class, middle-class drivers also have complained, and businesses don't want the cost of moving goods to rise. The main opposition Democratic Alliance party has vowed to challenge the toll plan in court.
COSATU also wants the government to ban companies that supply temporary workers, a goal that appeals to a narrower audience. COSATU says so-called labor brokers keep businesses from creating secure, well-paying jobs. Officially, a quarter of South Africa's labor force is out of work, but experts say the percentage would be higher if the discouraged and the underemployed were counted. Business groups have argued that instead of banning labor brokers, COSATU should work with them and the government to better regulate them.
Nomsa Nkosi, a 46-year-old machinist at a clothing factory, took the day off — losing a day's wage of 120 rand ($16) — to join thousands of protesters who wound their way through central Johannesburg. Some waved posters with slogans equating labor broking with slavery. Nkosi said she has worked for brokers who offered no pension or security.
"No protection, no nothing," she said, calling on the government should do more for the poor.
Fellow marcher Gertrude Mmutle, a 58-year-old department store saleswoman from Soweto, said the tolls amounted to a tax.
"The government taxes us a lot, and they play with the money," she said. "South Africa is becoming a place where the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer."
The marches, coming before an ANC policy making conference in June and another meeting in December to elect top party leaders, could be seen as an attempt by COSATU to influence the ANC's course. The party that has been in power since the end of apartheid in 1994 is under pressure to show it can work more quickly to improve the lives of black South Africans, many of whom continue to live in poverty despite the economic growth and political freedom and stability that followed the end of white racist rule.
COSATU is concerned that after so many years in power, the ANC has become complacent, and needs to be pushed to replace corrupt or incompetent leaders with politicians who can deliver.
In a statement, the ANC called Wednesday's demonstrations "unnecessary, but we nonetheless respect the right of those who want to protest."
The ruling party said it has responded to concerns that the tolls would hurt the poor by exempting the buses and taxi vans that carry the masses from paying. It added that the minister of finance, in his budget speech last month, announced the national government would contribute more toward repaying the international loans that funded the road works, and that that would bring tolls down. The government also capped monthly toll fees at 550 rand (about $70), meaning no driver would pay more than that no matter how much he or she used the improved roads.
In a speech on the eve of the march, COSATU leader Zwelinzima Vavi said the toll road debate summed up concerns about growing inequality in South Africa.
"The logic of those who say that the poor do not use our motorways, except by public transport, is that they should be permanently excluded from access to the best roads. They must find the potholed side-roads to get from A to B, while the rich glide along in their fancy cars," Vavi said. "Good health and education services currently belong to the wealthier sections of society, who can afford to pay. We do not want yet another addition to the list."
On labor brokers, the ANC said a solution would be found at the negotiating table, not on the streets. Business organizations have said marches could send potential foreign investors the message that South Africa is unstable.
Solidarity, a small union seen as representing white workers and often at odds with COSATU, called for those who did not want to march to support the protest by honking their horns as they passed tolling stations. Solidarity also has called for posting protest messages on social media platforms.