In 2015 and 2016 the #OutsourcingMustFall campaign reverberated across South African universities. At the University Currently Known as ‘Rhodes’ (UCKAR) protests against racist curricula and practices at the institution, fees, and later sexual assault, did not include a demand for insourcing as it was said that this was one university at which service workers had not been outsourced.
At this year’s opening graduation ceremony on 20 April the honorary graduate for the evening was the dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose poem about the Brixton riots in 1981, Di Great Insohreckshan, celebrates a black insurrection against the police and their rubber bullets and water canons. This was a deeply cynical attempt to misuse the foremost poet of a famous black riot against white racism in London, more than thirty years ago, to give ideological cover to an institution notorious for the way in which it has recently repressed black dissent and protest. That repression has included calling the police on peaceful protestors.
The vice-chancellor’s address was peppered with criticism levelled against the current government for its greed and corruption, which have grown to define its modus operandi. This criticism is very much welcomed – as a country we limp from one disaster to another. However, the same ethical commitments were not evident in his remarks about UCKAR. The vice-chancellor acknowledged the role played by cooking, gardening, and cleaning workers at the University but said nothing about the immoral conditions under which they are forced to labour. Nothing was said about the protests organised by UKCAR workers outside the graduation.
Five days later, on the 25th of April 2017, protest action erupted with workers demanding a living wage. The tactics employed by workers included picketing and go-slows. The immediate cause of the protest action was that workers had been given a lousy 5% wage increase, which was later increased to 6.9% . This was nowhere near to the level required to improve the lives of workers and their families. It was this insult that led workers to embark on mass action. The memorandum of demands which was submitted to management included, among demands: a 7.5% wage increment, an increase in housing and transport allowances, and the abolishment of grades 1, 2 and 3. Instead of addressing an iniquitous wage system that forces workers into poverty, management responded, as it had done with students before, by criminalising further protests.
In 2015 a senior staff member publicly compared black students making rational arguments about the entrenched racism in the institution to the Khmer Rouge. When workers went on strike in 2017 another senior manager at the institution publically described their action as ‘illegal’. In an institution that continually misuses the Constitution to justify its authoritarian and repressive response to protest by black students and workers it is notable that according to the Constitution there are unprotected strikes but there is no such thing as an illegal strike. By describing the strike as illegal strike the university was engaging in typical colonial practices and showing the strike, and the workers participating it, as criminal.
The workers’ actions and demands must be understood from the point of view of the lived experience of impoverishment by people who work as service staff at UCKAR. The dominant contradictions that exist in the labour that sustains the institution are class exploitation and racial oppression, which both continue to define the parasitic wage system existing in the institution. Kwame Nkrumah neatly expressed this phenomenon in Class Struggle in Africa when he observed that: “Africans in South Africa experience a double exploitation – both on the grounds of colour and of class”.
At UCKAR there are a myriad of anachronisms, which continue to subject the working class to poverty. Foremost among these is the simple fact that low wages create a class of people who are working but still poor. The workers are struggling to live decent lives within an income region of R6 000 – R7 000. One worker said, “I have been working here for 11 years but I do not have a house, neither do I own a car, but I am responsible for paying the school fees for my children. The cent that you earn from this institution only covers things such as debt and clothing”.
The demand for a wage increase by workers at UCKAR is not a misplaced one, especially when we consider research done by various people and institutions on the question of a living wage. The workers’ demands are well vindicated by research conducted by the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (PACSA). PACSA showed that a working class household earning an income of R6 000, will, on average, be left with a debit of R542.02 at the end of the month. According to this study, a living wage constitutes an estimated R8 000. On average a wage of R8 000 results in R1 457.98 being left after basic living expenses have been covered.
But apartheid labour relations at UCKAR are not only a result of poverty wages. The system of a racialised exploitative cocktail at the institution is also evident in the university’s practices of casualisation and outsourcing. Some workers started working in the institution as casuals in the late 90s, but were only permanently employed in the mid-2000s. One worker explained “I have worked here for 2 hours a day – for 3 and half years, that is called a pre-dawnie. I started working in 2012 as a casual, and then in June 2015 I was permanently employed”. While the university masquerades as an “outsourcing free” institution, the reality is that most of its security staff are outsourced to Hi-Tech, a notorious local security company.
For some of the workers who occupy the bottom of a racist occupational hierarchy at UCKAR, the experience of suffering and impoverishment is worsened by their experience of time deprivation. This is particularly acute for people working in housekeeping at UCKAR’s residences. One worker reported that, “when I was working at central cleaning, I was not working on weekends so it was possible on Fridays to do your laundry and on Saturdays to attend funerals. But here you only off after 12 days of work. You work for the entire week and even on weekends”.
To rub salt into an open wound, UCKAR management keeps workers trapped at Grade 1 level, the lowest occupational ranking in the institution. Workers in grades 1-3 are described as unskilled workers, who lack education and perform menial tasks. Management consistently ignored calls by students and workers in 2015 when they demanded that Grades 1-3 be abolished, and that entry level for workers should start at Grade 4.
The hypocrisy of UCKAR’s management is further exposed if we carefully consider their vision and mission statement. This postures as committment to basic human and civil rights, while acting as if the institution is sensitive to the imbalances of the past. When workers are being acknowledged for their role in keeping the institution running – as in the recent graduation – it is merely a decorative exercise, that is not accompanied by any concrete action to transform the bitter reality of impoverishment. In 2014, the Office of Equity and Institutional Culture conducted a survey which was aimed at soliciting the views of the service staff and academics on the question of transformation. Nothing concrete emerged out of the findings. The survey merely became an ornament at management’s offices.
In order to flush out the brutal system of worker exploitation at UCKAR, a concerted revolutionary action by the workers and students needs to be developed and intensified. The reactionary and intransigent management has proven to ignore workers’ demands for social justice in the past. But the recent protest actions by workers are of paramount importance and raise real possibilities for a just institution that has finally broken with colonial and neoliberal labour pratices. However, more organised weight needs to be applied to these actions, so that exploitative and oppressive conditions in that colony are put in a dustbin of history.
Photographs: The strike at the University Currently Known as Rhodes is aimed at flushing out the brutal system of worker exploitation — by James Fowler