A week-long strike of 70,000 construction workers in early July stopped work on World Cup 2010 projects including stadiums, airports, motorways and rail links. This was by no means the first major strike this year; there were more than half a million working days lost in the first six months, nearly double the number over the same period last year. In 2009 there have been significant strikes in the road freight industry (involving 60,000 workers), on South African Airways and in the health service.
There has also been a wave of protests in many townships against the lack of basic services. More than a million people in South Africa still live in shacks, many without access to electricity or running water. Although 2.8 million houses have been built since the ANC came to power in 1994, there are still officially over two million households (around 8 million people) living in "informal settlements". The houses might exist but the allocation, as with so many other local services, is prone to nepotism and corruption. It's not surprising that local councillors have been popular targets of protests.
The often-violent protests have been reminiscent of the township protests of the 1980s. As well as demonstrations, police cars have been stoned and set on fire, shops looted, buildings burned and roads blocked. As opposed to past protests that tended to focus on individual complaints, the recent wave was more generalised, against a whole range of privations. Also, although some foreigners were attacked it was not on anything like the scale of last year when 60 people died.
The police used tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades and mass arrests. A government spokeswoman said that the ANC had a "deep understanding" of the problems of "poor service delivery" but "the law must take its course" and the state would "deal ruthlessly" with the protests. Zuma said that the police would "respond with sensitivity" but would "take swift action" against anything deemed unlawful.
With the gap between rich and poor wider than it was 15 years ago under white minority rule, with life expectancy under 50 (which is not only because of the 1000 who die every day from HIV/Aids), and with 75% of black children living in poverty, the protests can be expected to re-ignite in the future.
Wave of workers' strikes
There were also many strikes in late July. 40,000 workers in chemical, pharmaceutical and paper industries were on strike at the same time. There was a strike involving workers at Massmart stores, a chain with more than 250 stores across the country, with workers staging protest demonstrations in many locations. Doctors struck for two weeks, and there were also strikes in the transport sector. The SA Transport and Allied Workers' Union said it would make a "last ditch effort" to prevent a strike of Metrorail workers - but failed. There was also a two-day strike that affected the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Strikes in the vital gold, platinum and coal industries were threatened, but the unions and the enterprises came to an agreement.
One of the biggest strikes involved 150,000 municipal workers over five days. The South African Municipal Workers' Union warned striking workers that their demonstrations, which took place throughout the country, should be peaceful. In practice there were clashes with the police, with the latter using rubber bullets and pepper spray in same places.
As far as the unions are concerned The Times (28 July) wrote "So far, the unions have been careful to emphasise that they are not fighting the ANC Government they fought to see elected, and have aimed their anger at incompetent officials and corrupt local government representatives." This is not surprising as Cosatu (the country's biggest union federation) is part of the government (with the ANC and the South African Communist Party). However, criticisms from the unions are definitely growing. For example they criticised the police for their heavy-handed treatment of recent strikes and protests, and have said they won't hold back on wage demands despite the economy being in the first recession in 17 years. It is to be expected that the unions will further distance themselves from the government if they want to retain any credibility.
The official unemployment rate in South Africa is 23.6%, but in reality it's probably at least a third of the working age adult population. Government statistics show that the number of people in employment fell by 267,000 in the last quarter, following more than 200,000 jobs lost in the first quarter. Among Zuma's promises was one for the creation of 500,000 new jobs. Understandably this has been retracted. A former housing minister had said that shacks would be "eradicated by 2014". No one expects this to happen either. As with the township protests, workers' struggles can be expected to continue
Since the ANC came to power a substantial black middle class has emerged, but most of the population have seen no improvements in their lives since the end of apartheid. The impact of the global recession is going to make things worse. No sector is safe. Even the Anglo American Corporation, a South African giant in coal, gold, diamonds (it owns De Beers) and platinum has suffered. It has just announced a 69% decline in profits and wants to make $2bn of cuts in costs by 2011: "this includes slashing 15,405 jobs out of a target headcount reduction of 19,000 by the end of this year" (Guardian 31/7/9) It's estimated that a typical miner has between 7 and 10 dependents, so the impact of more widespread unemployment will be devastating.
Since 1994 the ANC and its allies have amply shown their ability to play a part in the management of South African capitalism. The working class has shown in its recent strikes that it is part of a world-wide revival of struggle that comes up against the capitalist state whatever clothes it wears.