Transport sector labour unions have called for an end to South Africa's austerity budget and called for more robust improvements in transport infrastructure.
Labour also wants subsidies for the sector that transports workers to production sites, warning that current policies would only end up with the overthrow of the government.
At least 500 delegates from 90 countries and 185 national trade unions at an ongoing six-day conference of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) held in Kempton Park debated strategies to deal with the challenges facing the railway, road and urban transport industries, including chronic underinvestment, cuts to services, privatisation and decarbonisation.
The underlying factor for most African labour unions was that the austerity measures adopted by countries, including South Africa, to contain costs worked contrary to the interest of robust economies that needed more spend on infrastructure and, therefore, job creation.
Unions said there was an urban transport crisis developing where the majority of the working class were unable to access safe, affordable reliable transport and it was the tip of the iceberg.
“There is a broader, deeper crisis that can no longer be postponed if we are to find a permanent solution. Where the liberation movement won political power without economic power.
“We want a government that has an expansionary budget, a government that intervenes in the economy, a government that is taking ownership and control of minerals, champion manufacturing and industry, and contributing to the quality of life of the workers,“ the unions said.
They said austerity measures had the capacity to overthrow the economy, while rolling blackouts were sabotaging the economy.
National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa general secretary Irvin Jim said: “We are in a crisis here. The state of transport infrastructure is a crisis with no street lights and numerous potholes.”
Jim said the country had a meagre subsidy where a household that did not have someone who was employed was treated as an indigent who could have access to free or subsidised municipal services, which might vary depending on means-testing criteria in different municipalities.
“Indigent households can have access to at least 50 kWh per month of electricity; 6 000 litres of water and a R50 subsidy for basic sewerage and sanitation. However, there is no mechanism that ensures such households can have access to free transport services as happens in parts of the developed world. If you do not work, you are not expected in town,“ he said.
Jim said Numsa and other transport unions would embark on court action and protests next week against the government for the continued load shedding, which he said undermined the rights of the workers.
ITF's general secretary, Stephen Cotton, said transport workers were being asked to shoulder the burdens of the pandemic and its aftermath, from rising fuel prices to cuts in public spending and services, to the deepening climate crisis.
“Building co-operation and unity between unions in road, rail and urban transport gives us the capacity and strength needed to lead the industrial and political changes that transport workers and our society need,” he said.
And according to presentations at the transport conference, the ITF's 2022 Global Poll indicated that almost two in three people in South Africa believed that their government was handling transport badly in an economic system that 76% of people said favoured the wealthy, despite 78% of South Africans saying they were worried about access and affordability of public transport, more than any other country in the survey.
However, the South African public recognised the importance of transport in their country, with 96% believing transport was important to the country’s economy, 94% saying transport was important for improving life in cities, 96% saying transport was important for reducing economic inequality and 90% believing transport was important for uniting people.