German Government and Volkswagen: Populism and Repression in the South African Pandemic

The German government decided, through the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), together with South African Volkswagen, to support the battle against Coronavirus in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
By Cesar Neto
The initiative was presented to the press in June.  An important local newspaper reported this with the following headline “Volkswagen converted an old PE factory into a massive Covid-19 hospital in just 7 weeks”.
The media has put a spotlight on this news. After all, in a country where private medicine is predominant, that is, it privileges those who can pay, such news is received with great popular approval.  Particularly because the situation in which the main public hospital in the city of Port Elizabeth, where the Volks plant is located, is in a disastrous state.
How did this selfless help happen?
125 million rand (the local currency) or 6.52 million euros were made available, of which the German State contributed 80% and Volkswagen 20%. In addition, the company made a donation of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to health professionals (1).
Volkswagen is reported to have purchased PPE for healthcare professionals in the following proportions: 50,000 N95 masks, 65,000 disposable gowns, two million disposable gloves, and 1,000 visors. There are also 200 digital infrared thermometers and 190 devices for monitoring the oxygen content in the blood and the pulse of Covid-19 patients (2).
The other part of the aid was in the granting of space, from a Volks factory that was deactivated, for the construction of an emergency hospital.  Volkswagen, according to the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) website, has ceded the premises until March 2021 (3), that is, for less than a year.
Uninterested help or marketing move?
Historically, Volkswagen South Africa has demanded an extremely long working day from its workers compared to those in Germany. A study in the year 2000, carried out by the Volkswagen Group’s World Works Council, shows that in Wolfsburg, Germany, the hours per year for each worker was 1,430. Meanwhile, the South African worker worked 1,686 hours per year, or 256 more hours per year.
Ah this data, some might say, is old! And we say yes, but it is from before the total flexibilization of workers’ rights carried out in the ANC-Cosatu-SACP government of South Africa. This means that today the conditions are even worse and the production days and intensity of work are even greater.
Working class over-exploitation allows Volkswagen in South Africa, and the world, an exorbitant profit rate. This while the “donation” of 190 devices to monitor the oxygen content in the blood and wrist, the famous oximeters, cost around $20. And the same with the investment to buy 200 digital infrared thermometers that cost from 50 to 70 dollars on the retail market.
As if that wasn’t enough, the auto parts factory that was deactivated, went through a make-up process. And a very poor makeup, where the “the concrete floor is still marked by yellow lines where machines stood”. (4)

The first hypocrisy of the German government and Volkswagen was the use of the pandemic to market and present themselves as saviors of South African public health.
The South African people do not need poorly constructed and improvised hospitals in the short term, which after March will be returned to the company. They don’t need to buy PPE. There is no need for marketing moves that only pretend to care about the South African people.
The South African people really need to tax the rich and control the remittances of profits from foreign capital. With there venues from this set of measures they can ensure public health that is free and quality for the whole population both during the pandemic and after it.
The historic persecution of workers
The German have a long tradition of disrespecting the African peoples. Namibia, South Africa neighbor, was invaded by Germany and a terror environment was created between 1904 and 1908. And they killed 80,000 Hereros, an original people. The same occurred in Tanzania where they killed between 200 and 250,000 people in the same period.
Volkswagen, in Germany itself, used Nazism to produce cars with slave labor. In Brazil, it does the same. Germany and Volks supported a semi-fascist regime, the Dictatorship-Business-Military, to repress workers, hide Nazi criminals, and make use of slave labor on the Rio Cristalino Farm in the state of Pará.
Volks persecutes its workers fighting Covid 19 in South Africa
On May 4, the workers returned to production after the lockdown decreed by the government on March 27. To get back to work a whole Covid 19 prevention protocol had to be complied with.
Plants were only allowed to operate with 50% of the workforce in order to guarantee physical distancing protocol measures in the workplace.
Volkswagen imposed the use of 100% of its workers, operating both shifts, and thus preventing the necessary and mandatory physical distancing protocol. The spokesman for the Numsa National Union, Phakamile Hlubi Majola, said that “No risk assessment has been conducted since the plant’s reopening”.
Even after some workers tested positive for COVID-19, no deep-cleaning was conducted at the plant, which led to rapid spread of the infection. NUMSA further alleged that many workers who had to self-isolate themselves were summoned back to the production line even before their test results were confirmed negative. (5)
In an interview with the media, Irvin Jim, General Secretary of Numsa and former Workers Party presidential candidate, said that “Instead of… addressing its unlawful and irresponsible actions, (the company)… insisted that workers were being infected in their communities and not at work”.
In South Africa workers have a limit of days that they get sick leave for during the year. The time that goes beyond this limit is deducted directly from holidays and wages.
Irvin Jim accuses Volkswagen of manipulating the medical licensing agreements by refusing to acknowledge that workers have been infected inside the plant, mainly because iot did not adopt the distancing protocol. Jim states that Volks considers that the worker who “has contracted the virus outside the workplace, is not entitled to special medical leave and isolation or quarantine periods will be deducted from normal annual leave”.
In this situation, workers were forced to protect their livelihoods. If they tested positive, and were quarantined beyond the limit of annual medical leave their pay would be deducted, so workers chose not to reveal the symptoms and continued working, developing the disease inside the plant and contaminating others.
Thus, in less than thirty days after the factory was opened, the first worker’s death occurred on June 3rd. On July 17th, a group of 546 workers were analyzed and 120 were isolated for testing positive.
The mask of Volkswagen and the German government fell when workers tried to expose their concerns to the Human Resources (HR) manager and he refused to serve them saying that it “presented a risk to his health,” according to Irvin Jim.
When the workers lost their patience with the practices of Volks, added to the death threat by Covid 19 inside the factory, the workers then held a demonstration. We should consider what it means to hold a demonstration in South Africa, a peripheral capitalist country, led by the colonial administrators of ANC-Cosatu-SACP, in which the workers do not have legal freedom to go on strike, because first they should “warn and ask” the company itself to halt production activities.
Volks, which marketed Coronavirus, accused its workers of going on strike and took the opportunity to dismiss 14 union delegates. Volks did not expect its subjects to go into rebellion, but for the workers it was the last straw and it was necessary and urgent to fight in defense of their own lives. They threatened to paralyze the production, with or without prior warning. This time, under pressure, Volks readmitted those who were fighting for their lives.
In fact, Volks and the German government are pursuing the same policy that they have pursued for over 100 years. In Namibia and Tanzania, where the Germans have committed genocides and refused to acknowledge their crimes. In Brazil, Volkswagen supported the dictatorship, hid Nazis in its factory, organized political repression in the service of the dictatorship inside and outside the factory. As if this were not enough, they used slave labor on the  Rio Cristalino Farm in Pará, and 35 years after the end of the Dictatorship-Business-Military still refuse to recognize their serious violations of Human Rights.
We make our own, the words of the South African newspaper Mail and Guardian: “one of the issues is with the Germans’ vocabulary. It seems the words “genocide” and “reparations” don’t yet feature in their official lexicon on the matter. (Don’t worry, we can help: try “Völkermord” and “Wiedergutmachung”). (6)
[6] African Journalism – Mail & Guardian – nº 16 – 15/agôsto/2020

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