The National Union of Metalworkers striking workers march in central Johannesburg. The union wants a 12 percent salary increase, the scrapping of labour brokers, and a one-year bargaining agreement. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi.

Johannesburg - Workers in South Africa have no reason to celebrate 20 years of freedom because they are not free, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said on Tuesday.

“Workers ask what is being celebrated on Freedom Day because they have nothing to show for it,” Vavi told thousands of striking metalworkers in central Johannesburg.

“Workers are still trapped in slavery wages. The people who celebrate the freedom are the bosses.”

Vavi and National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) president Andrew Chirwa earlier handed a memorandum of demands to officials of the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council, and Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA (Seifsa).

About 220,000 metalworkers began an indefinite strike on Tuesday for a double-digit wage increase.

Marches were held in Cape Town, George, Durban, Port Elizabeth, and East London.

Vavi said workers suffered because of the greed of those in charge of production.

“Workers are tired of relying on government for housing. Metalworkers need at least R1000 a month in housing allowance,” he said.

Each of his sentences was punctuated by cheers and whistles.

He said those old enough needed to move out of their parents' backyards and be able to afford their own houses.

Earlier, Vavi said the strike was a political fight for a living wage.

“We are told that we are being irresponsible for embarking on a strike. We are told this is not about workers, but about Numsa's decisions taken at its last congress,” Vavi said.

“A demand for a living wage is political, because it is politics that allowed such conditions 20 years into a democracy.”

He said workers were not to blame for the economy's poor health.

Vavi thanked Numsa for supporting him during his suspension from the Congress of SA Trade Unions last year.

“I thank Numsa for the support when the hyenas came for me,” he told the strikers.

The union took the matter to court and successfully fought against the suspension.

Vavi was subsequently reinstated.

He said Numsa stood its ground and refused to be manipulated.

“Cosatu was going to be turned from a militant federation to a sweetheart for those in power,” he said to thunderous applause.

Workers wanted a Cosatu that did not look down, but spoke out to those in power.

“Another important fact is that Numsa never said it wanted out of Cosatu... that is a lie.”

Numsa's demand for a 12 percent wage increase was a compromise, he said.

“We want 15 percent... asijiki nge 15 percent (we are not turning back on 15 percent).”

The union dismissed claims that some of their striking members were involved in intimidation and violence.

The Star newspaper's afternoon edition reported that a worker at a metal company in Selby Industrial Park claimed strikers vandalised the building.

“They came at about 8.15am and broke the building's windows and gate,” the unnamed worker was quoted as saying.

Numsa spokesman Castro Ngobese rejected this.

“That is the worst form of propaganda,” Ngobese said.

“Anyone that says that the strike was violent is promoting violence.” - Sapa