“We have dreams for our children”
Now that outsourcing has ended at UFS, the real battle begins. The Journalist contributor, Linda Fekisi, shares some of the conversations she had with workers at UFS about infringement of their basic human rights, the violence they had to endure to get the attention of university management, and the continuing battle for a decent wage.
It’s been almost a month since the shocking story broke of the violence that ensued on the rugby field at the University of the Free State (UFS). White students and parents seen attacking black protesting students and workers was a tipping point.
I recall that night so clearly. The singing. The screaming. The anger. The shock. An old man, a worker at the university, who had narrowly escaped from the Shimla Park violence, was stading at the gate, out of breath and visibly shaken.
“I’m so shocked by what those white boys did back there,” he said. “It’s clear now that we are just racially divided. We are two groups. They saw that our numbers were low and they took advantage of this. They came in numbers to attack us and to get rid of us so that their beloved sport could continue. This place is really racially divided.”
Protests and violence continued at UFS after the incident. A number of residences were raided; students and workers were arrested and funds were collected for bail.
The light at the end of the tunnel was the announcement by university management last month that there will be an end to outsourcing, but UFS workers claim no easy victories. As ‘rainbow nation’ fatigue sets in, it is becoming increasingly evident that the violence at Shimla Park was not an isolated incident. It was in fact a physical display of the psychological and emotional violence that plays out on a daily basis at institutions across the country. Workers made it clear that they welcomed the decision to end outsourcing, however the fight for equality is far from over.
Sihle Mkhize* is one of the workers who agreed to speak to me about her experiences working at UFS during the protests following the Shimla Park incident. A single parent of three who earns R4 700 monthly, Mkhize’s salary had only recently increased from R2 100 after negotiations began with the university last year December. She is the sole bread winner in a family of eight people and a third of her income is spent on travelling to and from work.
“I live out of town, so I spend R 800 a month on transport to and from Bloemfontein,” she said, before adding. “I spend an additional R 200 on travel alone when I have to work during weekends.”
Her other expenses range from household essentials to school fees for her children. Mkhize works a minimum of 35 hours per week. Sometimes she also comes to work over weekends and works an additional nine hours.
Another woman I spoke to, Nozi Khoti*, has been working at the university for a number of years. She is a widow with four daughters to take care of, with the second eldest currently in Grade 12. It is unlikely that she will be able to attend university next year, as the cycle of poverty continues.“I need income to sustain my family,” she said.
Sibongile Jozi* travels over an hour to get to work each morning and her fare for public transport, like Mkhize, takes up a large chunk of her earnings. While she is pleased that the university has ended outsourcing, and attributes the victory to the peaceful conduct shown by protesting workers, she still does not earn enough to make ends meet. “We’re doing this so that our children do not become cleaners like us because we have dreams for them to reach great heights.”
Anathi Thinta* no longer has children. They are deceased. In a sombre tone, she discloses that she has recently lost a disabled child and she was unable to pay the necessary health care to make him comfortable while he was alive. “I’ve been working here since 1992. I’ve had to leave him at home with someone else tending to him while I work,” she said. “I need this income to increase for a better life.”
Outsourcing at UFS
Thinta, Jozi, Mkhize and Khoti, are four outsourced workers of the 614 employed at the UFS. The university began outsourcing on all three campuses in 2006, and largely constitutes cleaning, security and gardening services. Their basic remuneration is around R5 000. Unions, which represent workers, recognised by the UFS are NEHAWU (National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union) and the Universiteit van die Vrystaat se Personeelunie (UVPERSU). Outsourced workers have, however, organised themselves into the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA), as well as the Workers and Student Forum (WSF).
According to the spokesperson of WSF, Trevor Shaku, one of the main issues they face, beyond low pay, is not being treated with dignity. There have been numerous racist incidents over the years, the most shocking being the infamous Reitz Four students who made a video humiliating black employees by forcing them to consume urine. “This is treatment of the staff belonging to the client and their employers,” he said, indicating that workers are fighting on more than one front and unity between students and workers is imperative for victory.
“We believe the working class should be regarded as a unit. It is divided into three sections – the students, the workers and the unemployed. If we are going to undertake any struggles to improve the living conditions of this working class entirely, we have to fight and make alliances in all three sections.“We fight this because we regard it as a ‘working struggle,’” Shaku said in a recent article.
Last month, university management came to an agreement with contract workers that outsourcing would be phased out. As soon as worker contracts have expired, they will be employed directly by the university. According to the agreement, all workers currently on contact would be insourced by 2017. However there is a long way to go before inequality is truly recognised and workers are acknowledged and valued- in terms of contractual agreements, renumeration and being treated with dignity.
*Not their real names
Photos by Lihlumelo Toyana