Over the summer South Africa has been rocked by the largest wave of strikes since the ANC took power in 1994. With economic growth stagnant at 0.6%, unemployment running at 30%, and inflation at 7.3%, the new ANC administration led by Thabo Mbeki have committed themselves to "fiscal discipline", which can only mean attacks on the living and working conditions of the proletariat.
The working class is indeed coming under some very heavy attacks. While 350,000 new workers join the labour market each year, more jobs are being destroyed. Between 1996 and 1999, 365,000 jobs in the non-agricultural sector were lost. Between 1997 and 1999, 150,000 mining jobs went, with a further 28,000 scheduled to be cut in the next two months. In the same period, 110,000 manufacturing jobs, 22,000 textile and clothing jobs and 110,000 construction jobs have gone. Between 1998 and 1999, 110,000 service and transport sector jobs went, together with 10,000 in finance. The situation will continue to deteriorate as the economic crisis deepens.
If the recent election campaign served to divert workers' discontent onto the false terrain of 'democracy', this pent-up anger expressed itself very soon after the ANC's decisive victory. At the end of August, a two week strike by 26,000 Telecom and post office workers saw them win a pay rise of 8% from the Post Office. July saw some bitter struggles in the minefields with 4,500 workers on strike at the Oryx gold mine. The unrest continued in August with 12,000 miners on strike for a fortnight in protest against "retrenchments" due to the collapse in the price of gold. The mine owners con conceded an 8% pay rise. At the Columbus Steel mill in Middleburg 500 workers have been on strike since July 12; 150 workers have been arrested. There have also been strikes by railway workers, textile workers and Volkswagen workers.
But by far the largest strike was the two-day stoppage called by the public sector unions at the end of July. This involved up to 300,000 teachers, health care workers and others, in demand of a 10% pay rise. The ANC initially offered 5.7%, and then upped it to 6.8%, but with inflation at 7.3% this still amounted to a pay cut. After two weeks of further negotiations with the unions the ANC walked out of the talks and imposed the pay cut unilaterally. The unions' response was to call a day of 'protest' on August 24th that saw half a million workers out on the streets. Up to 35,000 demonstrators marched in Pretoria and in Cape Town 10,000 demonstrators brought the city centre to a standstill. There were also marches and mass meetings in Bloemfontein, Nelspruit, Pietersburg, Mafikeng, Durban and Bisho
Although these strikes show the depth of anger within the class the unions have once again done all they can to divide the workers and control their resistance to the economic attacks. The three public sector unions that called the two-day strike in July are affiliated to COSATU, the largest of the two main union federations. The other main union federateration is FEDUSA. One of its unions, the mainly white Public Servants Association, held a one day strike in early August which has helped to divide the workers in the public sector and keep them trapped behind their own unions. In the mines the NUM appear to have been provoking the bosses to sack 'rank and file' union officials and using this as an excuse to call out the rest of the workers. The CWU went to great lengths to keep the disputes against the Post Office and Telecom separate, using other tactics such as go-slows and working-to-rule in place of all-out strikes.
For the moment it looks as if the fire fighting tactics of the unions have worked and they have the situation under control. But the very existence of such struggles is significant in itself. The economic attacks by the ANC will help break the illusions many workers have in the 'peoples'' government, in black nationalism and democracy. The ANC are part of the bourgeoisie and will increasingly be seen as such. They have shown themselves to be ardent defenders of capitalism and will have no qualms in attacking the workers, whatever colour skin they have. But what of the unions? They continue to radicalise their image. At its recent congress, COSATU's acting president attacked the government for imposing its wage offer on the public sector workers. He was immediately rebuked by ANC Chairman Patrick Lekota, who said there was a "smell of a lack of revolutionary discipline, particularly since those opinions have never been raised in the movement". He added that complaints against the government should be made privately inside the alliance between the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Lekota also suggested that public disputes between the ANC government and COSATU would confuse "mass based support". Any break-up of the tripartite alliance and criticism of the government was also opposed by SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande: "The alliance still remains the only vehicle for taking forward the transformation in our country. To abandon the ANC would be to agree with those who try to present the ANC as a conservative, elite organisation". It is precisely because workers are beginning to see the ANC as a 'conservative, elite' (ie bourgeois) organisation that the unions have been compelled to take their distance from it. But it is the whole 'tripartite alliance' of ANC, unions and CP (together with a plethora of more radical leftist groups) which acts as capitalism's flood barrier against the proletarian tide.