Benjamin de la Fontaine
The Barratt lecture hall is full on a Tuesday afternoon – not with students, but with Rhodes University staff. Most wear civvies, here and there punctuated by bright red NEHAWU shirts. Some wear the grey overalls of groundskeepers, emblazoned with the letters “RU”. A burly officer of the Campus Protection Unit, still in his uniform, glares moodily over his greying moustache. Dining hall staff sit or stand in rows. Some women still have their hairnets and aprons on.
Someone begins pounding a table. A song rises up. The people rise up as well, join in with clapping and stomping. “Asisosebenza,” they sing. “We will not work, we are tired. They do not pay us enough.”
These are the people who mop the floors of residences, clean the toilets, keep students safe at night, fill students’ stomachs three times a day, and fix whatever breaks. They are also Rhodes University’s lowest-paid staff. According to Ma Ntuthu, spokeswoman for NEHAWU (National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union) at the university, the lowest monthly salaries average at around R6000. Most of these men and women are middle-aged; many have children, and at the same time are supporting extended families.
The current yearly inflation rate in South Africa is pegged at 6.1%, down from 6.5% in February. It has been higher – at the end of last year inflation peaked at almost 7% – but for the last three years the university administration has raised salaries for staff across the board by around 6% to compensate for this increase in the price of consumer goods without eliciting strike action (although not without complaint). Currently, the standing salary increase offer by Rhodes University is also 6%. At Tuesday’s meeting, however, the announcement is met with indignant hollering and bellows of anger. Wednesday’s march is the result of a call for a “total shutdown” of the university’s non-academic services. Those at the bottom will not accept the offer that’s on the table. Call it resolve or sheer stubbornness, but they are willing to fight for as little as 0.5%. A speaker for the union names it “our bread and butter issue”.
It is important to understand how things got to this point. The #FeesMustFall movement of 2015 to 2016, in protest of university fee increases, placed enormous pressure on Rhodes administrators. To put an end to the bad publicity and academic disruption, administration agreed to a 0% increase in fees for the year of 2016. The students had won one battle, and in doing so unknowingly instigated another. Come 2017, the university has been set back millions in inflation costs, and finds itself with significantly less money than before. This money, remember, pays for everything students take for granted: new books in the library, food in the dining hall, hot water in the showers, maintenance of facilities, wi-fi… and staff members’ salaries. Clearly, something had to go.
According to a NEHAWU member, Rhodes administration was originally offering a 2% salary increase for 2017. After initial outrage at this offer, administration eventually raised to 5% but refused to go any higher, with claims that the university could “barely afford it”. In April Vice-Chancellor Mabizela called the 5% offer “a bitter pill to swallow”. As of this week, the proposed salary increase is back to 6% – but the damage has already been done. The current demand by NEHAWU is officially set at 7.5%, down from the initial 8%. However, the sentiment generally expressed by staff members is that they would settle for a compromise of no less than 6.5%.
It is hard to fault the administration for trying to manage inflation and keep Rhodes University operating at a level that (still) attracts students from across the country and around the world. What is faulty, however, is wage and employment equality – or the lack thereof.
“We are not academics,” proclaims one speaker in Tuesday’s meeting. “The management knows this, and they send us their reply…” he says, waving a thick wad of documents over his head, “…in this!”
One of the stated goals of NEHAWU is class-consciousness. To its leaders and members, this means “worker solidarity” or a working-class identity. To the rest of us, it is a reminder that class divisions still exist, based on old systems that some of us have been too quick to forget. Not only do the people on strikes and go-slows not see themselves as academics, but they do not see themselves as being equal to academic staff. The simple fact is that, legally, they are not. Legally, working staff have fewer rights than those in academic positions who are paid significantly more, and can be punished with greater impunity. Unlike professors and lecturers, dining hall staff have to punch in their time cards in the morning or face potential punitive action – meaning hearings, suspension of pay, and even suspension of employment. That is the reason for the recent go-slows, and the reason staff members do not simply refuse to show up for work – they fear the system, even if they not afraid to challenge it. The system has been pitted against them from the start, not out of a philosophy of contempt but of callousness, the idea that the most vulnerable are simply not worth protecting. Virtually the only security offered to them is through unions like NEHAWU. The question is, why must this be the case? Would it not have been possible to lower salary increases for the few people in the most lucrative positions in order to avoid short-changing the hundreds that are just scraping by each month? Was this prospect too audacious to even consider?
“Those people with two-million-rand salaries, they don’t care,” says a NEHAWU member. “One percent? They’re like, meeh. But that’s how it works; the people on top pass down the pain to the people at the bottom.”
The strikes and go-slows will not last forever. Movements and institutions are made up of people, and people, no matter how determined they may be at first, eventually tire and give in. It is only a question of who will give in first. Before then, we should consider whether this fight belongs only to those in workers’ unions, or to everyone who places value in the idea of a democratic nation.