"We have come here to fire the first warning shot and in our chamber there are still a lot of bullets," South African union leader Zwelinzima Vavi declared on Wednesday.
The Cosatu union federation general secretary was speaking as hundreds of thousands of workers fired a warning shot across their government's bows to tell it to outlaw labour brokers and end electronic tolling of new roads built for last year's football World Cup.
"Just as we made the apartheid system unworkable, we will make this system unworkable," Vavi told the biggest of 32 nationwide rallies in Johannesburg, estimated by police at over 50,000.
Higher Education Minister and Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, who marched in Durban, said that labour brokers who hire millions of workers on short-term contracts at lower rates of pay should have no place in South Africa's economy.
"As South African communists we are in full support of the workers' efforts to end this modern-day slavery," he said.
Announcing that Nzimande would march in Durban, the South African Communist Party (SACP) pledged full backing for the "struggle for a safe, reliable and affordable public transport system."
The SACP deployed key named party officials to each of the 32 regional marches to provide a focus for members.
The trade union movement has been up in arms over labour brokering for years, pointing out that workers are exploited by the system, receiving lower pay and missing out on benefits such as maternity leave.
Food and Allied Workers Union general secretary Katishi Masemola explained: "This labour broker practice has seen in some workplaces up to 70 per cent of the workforce being workers supplied by fat cats called labour brokers and earning as little as 30 per cent of what employees on the payroll of manufacturers earn and with huge fees paid to these fat cats."
Clothing, textile, footwear and leather union SACTWU general secretary Andre Kriel said that 62 per cent of workers in these trades had walked out to protest, bringing most factories to a standstill.
He denounced labour brokering as a form of human trafficking, adding: "It feeds off workers, robbing them of a decent income, denying them job security and converting humans into simple commodities that can be discarded at will."
Kriel revealed that SACTWU had been able to outlaw the practice in some parts of the textile manufacturing sector, serving notice that it will do likewise in all sectors in which it operates.
Cosatu also rejects the e-tolling plan, which will automatically charge motorists and motorcyclists for riding on new roads in the Johannesburg area. There are plans to introduce it to other parts of the country, including Durban and Cape Town.
Cosatu complains that this will make life more expensive for working people, many of whom are forced to drive to work by the unreliable nature of the public transport system.
Public Servants Association deputy general manager Manie de Clercq said that e-tolling should be "condemned as it represents yet another tax on all the citizens of this country."
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) tried to hop on the No to e-tolling bandwagon, citing the additional costs to business, by claiming to have been invited to take part in the protest marches.
The unions made clear that they had invited everyone to march with them, even employers, but had not specifically singled out the DA, which sent the opposition into a huff, taking its marching boots home and announcing that it would restrict its opposition to a legal challenge.
An official spokesman claimed that the government had responded to concerns that the tolls would hit poor workers by exempting the minibuses and taxi vans used by many people to get to work.
It also said that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan had revealed in his budget speech last month that national government would contribute more toward repaying the international loans that funded the new roads and that this would reduce toll levels.
However, Vavi was scathing in his rejection of the government case, asserting: "The logic of those who say that the poor do not use our motorways, except by public transport, is that they should be permanently excluded from access to the best roads.
"They must find the potholed side-roads to get from A to B, while the rich glide along in their fancy cars. The toll roads are therefore a reminder of the divisions that still exist in terms of access to basic services."
The Cosatu general secretary unmasked e-tolling as a form of privatisation, since the private sector will be brought in to operate the tolled roads.
He also criticised the secrecy surrounding the contracts signed with the toll operators, suspecting that enormous sums will be paid which leave "the private operator to milk the public."
South Africa's workers seem in no mood to compromise, insisting on both issues as matters of principle and leading Vavi to address a final warning to government in front of tens of thousands of marchers.
He told ministers that if the confirm the introduction of e-tolling on March 28, "we will take everybody we see here and even more and put them in the highways of Johannesburg."