Johannesburg or the City of Gold as is affectionately known is regarded as a prime metropolitan area and is often viewed as the commercial nucleus of Africa because of the prospects for economic activity it offers. However, if you spend a bit of time and venture around the city you will see more than simply the splendor of tall buildings and magnetism of the city; you will be confronted with the terrible working conditions of informal traders on the streets.
Believing that the conditions in which informal workers conduct their business need to be changed, the Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation (ESSET) and its partners - the South African Council of Churches (national and Gauteng offices), Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC), and Benchmarks Foundation of Southern Africa (BEFSA) - embarked on the Worker Sunday Campaign in order to raise awareness about the struggles of informal traders.
The Worker Sunday Campaign is a church based initiative aimed at building solidarity with the working poor and unemployed. The campaign dates back to the days of apartheid, when black workers were exploited and oppressed. In responding to this context of the working poor, the church showed its solidarity by organising services at different denominations on an annual basis. By doing this, it gave hope and solace to those disregarded and at the margins of society. Information resources were produced to enable different denominations and ecumenical organisations to advance biblical and theological teachings that promote justice in the workplace.
Reminiscent of the campaign’s success in the past, ESSET and its partners participated in the celebrations and commemorations of this year’s workers month and saluted the millions of workers of our country for their work in making our economy sustainable. Informal workers are among those who are still finding it hard to celebrate Workers Month. Every day they have to confront harsh working conditions and sometimes endure harassment by metropolitan police who enforce draconian by-laws and policies with alacrity on them.
It is against this background, that this year we decided to focus on informal and casual workers and saying: “God cares and is concerned about your injustice but be of good cheer as we also care and commit ourselves to walking with you in your struggles. Serve with dignity in your work because yours is blessed as others”. Ministers from different denominations in Gauteng attended a workshop to learn more on how to run a Worker Sunday Campaign Service at their own churches during the months of May and June to show their solidarity to informal workers.
“This inventive campaign not only helped to create awareness on the plight of informal workers but it was also a useful mechanism to connect the religious community with the struggles of this marginalised sector. During the services, informal workers were afforded the opportunity to relate the experiences and challenges they encounter in their sector to the congregation. It then became apparent that the churches have a role in reclaiming the dignity of informal workers which is often shredded by the public’s negative perceptions on their work and government’s castigatory policies. It is also worth noting that since the advent of the new democratic government, providing sustainable jobs to majority of our people in the townships and rural parts of our country always seemed an unachievable effort. It is based on that finding that we therefore strongly call unto policy makers to focus on empowerment of those who take initiatives to make their livelihood such as the informal workers,” said Reverend Dicksy Mashigoane of the Lutheran Evangelical church in Kagiso in the West Rand, where two Worker Sunday campaign services were held.
It is our view that in order for all people to share the wealth of their country and savour the fruits of democracy, there has to equitable distribution of economic wealth. This process means that democratic participation must be extended to communities of the underprivileged and marginalised who have been excluded from economic policy-making. Investment in the economy must also look beyond the so-called first or formal economy. Those who rely on the informal economy, such as informal workers must also be reached out to and be taken out of the devastating cycle of unemployment, underemployment and poverty.
Edward Johnson is a volunteer at Lutheran Community Outreach Foundation. Thabo Koole is the Communication and Information Coordinator at Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation (ESSET).