In June a four week strike in South Africa involving between 600,000 and a million workers closed most schools, reduced hospitals to a skeleton run by army medics and had an impact on much public transport and many offices. It clearly demonstrated which side the ANC government was on. While it was definitely the biggest strike since the end of apartheid in 1994, the COSATU unions’ insistence that it was a “historic turning point in the lives of public-sector workers” and that “This combination of unity and militancy means that never again will the employer dare to treat us with the callous indifference they have displayed in the past and during this dispute, until they were forced to compromise when confronted by the militancy and determination of their workforce” were exaggerations that hid the real significance of the strike.
Unions can’t be both friend and foe
In late May, a week before the strike started, there were demonstrations in towns and cities across South Africa, demanding an increased offer from the government in the deadlocked talks between government and unions.
The government initially offered the public sector a 6% wage increase while COSATU asked for 12%. COSATU went down to 9% and then 8%, before accepting 7.5%. Two weeks into the strike COSATU said that 7.25% was a completely unacceptable compromise, taking another two weeks to find the extra quarter of a per cent a ‘historic compromise’.
It’s not that COSATU is a weak or treacherous union; it’s actually a partner in the South African government! So every remark they made during and before the strike showed them as either explicitly an ally of the state employer or pretending to be a friend of the working class. The same goes for the South African Communist Party (SACP).
For example, troops were deployed against pickets on a number of occasions, using rubber bullets and tear gas. Pickets were denounced by the government as ‘violent’ and examples of ‘intimidation’, The action of police and troops were justified because of, in the words of Thabo Mbeki, “the unions’ message of selfish own interest”. The head of the police is SACP national chairperson Charles Nqakula.
Or again, when the government started sacking nurses who were on strike, public services minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi said that those who didn’t return to work were “being sacked in the interests of the patients and the country”. Fraser-Moleketi is one of three SACP members in the cabinet.
At one point the unions threatened a ‘solidarity strike’ which would have involved the crucial mining and manufacturing sector. Even this nominal action, involving ‘sympathy’ rather than extension to other sectors of workers, appears to have come to nothing. Similarly, the three unions at the national power utility Eskom, employing 31,000 workers, at one point said that a strike that could cause massive power cuts was imminent. It was planned for 4 July … a week after the public sector strike had been called off. It was then called off itself. Unions have given notice to 150 employers that workers in the metal and engineering industry will strike from 9 July. How long this strike will be depends on how union/employer ‘negotiations’ proceed.
Watch out for the left
Living and working conditions in South Africa have been declining over a long period for the vast majority of the population. Life expectancy, literacy, access to improved sanitation have all been declining, while South Africa now has 5.5 million HIV/AIDs patients, the highest number in the world, and every day there are 50 murders and 150 women are raped.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in an interview in the Financial Times (29/6/7) said that most people “are languishing in the wilderness” as he criticised the slow pace of wealth redistribution since the end of apartheid. “I’m really very surprised by the remarkable patience of people” Tutu said, adding that most of the people living in shacks under white rule were still doing so today. He said it was hard “to explain why they don’t say to hell with Tutu, Mandela and the rest and go on the rampage.”
One of the reasons that people have not gone ‘on the rampage’ is because they still have illusions in the unions, the ANC and capitalist democracy.
A Reuters report (28/6/7) said that “Unions accuse President Thabo Mbeki of abandoning the poor through his pro-business policies” and that the strike “focused attention on growing labour discontent over his strategy, which has helped turn South Africa into an economic powerhouse but failed to conquer widespread poverty and high unemployment left by apartheid.” A statement by a COSATU branch declared that “This crop of politicians have shown themselves to be unfit to lead our government in the interest of the poor. The ANC needs to replace them before it is contaminated with the greed that drives many public officials”.
But it’s not because of greed or particular economic policies that the ANC/SACP/COSATU government attacks the conditions of life of workers and other non-exploiting strata in South Africa. A capitalist government can’t be anything except ‘pro-business’ and therefore anti-working class. The only ‘liberation’ that happened in 1994 was for a small number of black political activists to take a more prominent position in the political apparatus of the ruling class. The elections that have occurred since have reinforced the idea that something fundamental has changed in South African society with the advent of a wider democracy. Socialist Worker (9/6/7) reported a worker on a march in Pretoria as saying “We thought the government would feel for us workers because we put them into power, but it’s like they have forgotten about us.” This kind of illusion is constantly being fed by the unions and leftists, who are happy to talk about the ANC’s capitulations to neo-liberalism but never to openly brand it as part of the class enemy.
Prospects for future struggle
In South Africa some commentators have seen the recent strike as a sign that the unions are going to play a more independent role and this will encourage workers to take future actions. In reality it is because of the growing discontent in the working class that unions try to distance themselves from the government. In Socialist Worker (23/6/7) there is the suggestion that the “mood is opening the door to a rebirth of self-activity during strikes.” It’s not clear exactly what is meant by this (written by Claire Ceruti of South Africa’s Keep Left organisation), but all the advocates of union action will be standing against the emergence of workers’ self-activity. Autonomous struggle can only mean that workers have taken charge of their struggle and have control of the direction it takes.
In many ways the most significant aspect of the recent struggles is their location. South African capitalism is the strongest in the continent and has the longest history as an industrialised country. And the history of the workers’ movement goes back into the 19th century.
The recent strike, although significant, is by no means unique in the period since 1994. In August 2005, 100,000 gold miners were on strike over pay. In September 2004 there was the biggest one day strike in South African history, involving either 800,000 workers or 250,000, depending if you believe unions or government. Teachers were particularly angry as they had had no pay review since 1996. In July 2001 there was a wave of strikes in the mining and power industries. In August 2001 there was a three week strike involving 20,000 workers in the car industry. In May 2000 strikes in the mining industry extended into the public sector. In the summer of 1999 there was a wave of strikes involving post office workers, gold miners and public sector workers including teachers, health care workers and others (see WR 227 ‘Workers strike against ANC austerity ’ on our website). Implicitly all these struggles lead workers to come up against the ANC and the South African state. But the working class is only beginning to be aware of the nature of its enemy and the global significance of its struggles. This only emphasises the need for the development of a real revolutionary current in South Africa, capable of denouncing the traps laid down by the bourgeoisie, and of providing a clear orientation for future struggles.