South Africa: government attacks public sector workers' strike – COSATU prepares for solidarity action

As the strike by more than a million public sector workers in South Africa enters its second week, the government has launched an all out attack against the unions using all powers at its disposal, including the courts, the police, the Army and the media. The unions have replied by threatening solidarity action which could involve the police and the army.

On Friday, August 20th, the State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele appeared at a press conference with the minister of Health, the Minister of Public Administration and the deputy minister of Basic Education to announce a whole series of measures against the strike. These included the creation of special courts to deal with “acts of hooliganism” which were used during the World Cup. The government also insisted that its offer was final and that if the unions did not sign within 21 days it would then be withdrawn.

On Saturday, August 21, the government got an injunction from the courts forcing workers in “emergency services” to go back to work, but the unions refused to accept or to abide by it. "There is no one who is expected to be going back to work. We will challenge that court order if its intention is to intimidate our members into submission," said Sizwe Pamla, a spokesman for healthcare workers' union NEHAWU.

The Zuma ANC government has also used the army and the police to replace strikers at hospitals and to police strike sites to prevent picketing with the excuse of “preventing violence against non-strikers”. Dozens of strikers have been arrested so far up and down the country.

This has been accompanied by a hysterical campaign in the media about people dying in hospitals and being denied care by the strikers. State Security Minister Cwele accussed the strikers of “murder”. On Sunday, August 22, President Zuma joined in the chorus of condemnation, saying that not even in the times of the struggle against apartheid were hospitals targeted by protestors.

However, police violence was clearly aimed at intimidating the strikes rather than “protecting lives”. Thus, 6 members of teachers’ union SADTU were injured in South Johannesburg when Metro police opened fire without warning against a peaceful march of strikers. In a press release, SADTU condemned the intimidation and harassing of striking teachers. For example, SADTU’s “Northern Cape Provincial Secretary, his deputy and fifty members were arrested in Kimberly … while leading a peaceful picket“ In addition, “Three SADTU members shot with rubber bullets while picketing in Potchefstroom in the North West Province.” What lives were protected by these actions?

Hypocritical campaign

This vociferous campaign of denounciation might have some impact on public opinion, but many ordinary working people will see Zuma’s reference to the struggle against apartheid as hypocritical. One of the reasons for the bitterness of the dispute is the constant stream of news about corruption, lavish spending and general waste of money that government officials engaged in during the World Cup, and the recent Black Economic Empowerment deals which have benefited top ANC members and government officials, including Zuma’s own family.

Sizwe Pamla , a spokesperson for the health care and education union NEHAWU, summarized the mood of anger of the workers by accusing the government of misspending state funds on tickets to the World Cup, and financing ministers' "luxury vehicles" and "caviar lifestyles": "A government with serious socio-economic challenges will think twice before spending millions of rands buying tickets [for] a month-long soccer tournament and buy[ing] acres of space in the media to peddle lies and mislead the public”.

An official COSATU statement stressed the same point: “The government ministers who deny workers their meagre wage increase have spent millions of rands on luxury vehicles and are living caviar lifestyles at the expense of the poor majority that is dependent on government services.”

A small minority of those who were involved in the struggle against apartheid have now become wealthy businessmen and budding capitalists. The stinking hyprocrisy of those who have personally enriched themselves from positions granted to them by the movement of the masses, using their past in the struggle to criticise the striking workers, will not be lost on many.

(striking NEHAWU members demonstrate)

Solidarity action

Meanwhile, South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) has threatened to bring its members out in solidarity action. The Gauteng region of SAMWU said it had already received a mandate from its 52,000 members to take action from Friday the 27th, and SAMWU members nation-wide could join the mass marches called by the unions involved in the strike on Thursday the 26th. The Eastern Cape region of SAMWU announced its members would be joining the strike on Monday. SAMWU also announced that they would raise the issue of wider solidarity action at the meeting of the COSATU leadership currently in session. "If they join, then all Cosatu unions will embark on protest actions that will include go-slows, pickets and culminate in total work stoppages," said Tahir Sema.

The decision of the COSATU leadership was to issue an instruction to the effect that “every COSATU union shall on the 26 August submit notices to their respective employers that will allow them legal right to embark secondary strike”. This move, in effect, is a preparation for a one day general strike in solidarity with the public sector workers.

COSATU secretary-general Vavi called on the members of police union POPCRU “"not to allow the employer to use them to crush the strike". Responding to this call, POPCRU announced that its members in the police, prisons and traffic services would be joining the strike as well. Popcru spokesperson Norman Mampane read a strongly worder statement saying, “Hereby today, we wish to categorically state [our] intention to join the current national public service strike action as a revolutionary duty to ensure that our working class power and a demand for a living wage are asserted.”

But it is not only the police union which has announced its intention to join the strikers, but even the soldiers’ unions have stated that they will not be used as scabs. Jeff Dubazana, speaking for the South Africa National Defence Union, said that "the problem is, if this problem is not solved, there's a possibility that we might be seen as scab labour. We are not going to allow our workers to be seen in that particular fashion. That is why we are planning action." The other soldiers’ union, SASFU, took the same position in an official statement entitled “Soldiers advancing working class power”. The statement, which describes the union members as “workers in uniform” explains that “the security services should not be used in a manner that seeks to undermine the right of workers to strike,” and adds that “the continual use of soldiers as scab labour in hospitals is not only unsustainable but is parasitic as the very soldiers stand to benefit to a reasonable settlement and demand of the public service workers. Our government should be careful of developing a negative relationship between the soldiers and the poor as this might strain any future cooperation between soldiers and workers.” The statement ends with a call on all SASFU members to “engage in legal actions in solidarity of those men and women that continue to live in uncertainty whilst some are reaping the benefits” (

Soldiers already embarked in what the government said was “illegal action” one year ago, when they marched for better wages, conditions and trade union rights. If both the police officers and the soldiers were to join the strike or at least take solidarity action and refuse to be used as scabs, this would be extremely significant and would leave the government in a very weak position. It is a feature of every revolutionary situation that the forces of the state apparatus split, with the lower ranks joining the masses of workers. A strike is not a revolutionary situation in itself, but shares some of its features. What this reveals is a deep malaise in South African society which is expressed by this strike movement, but that goes much deeper.

Splits in the alliance and the role of the SACP leadership

The strike has also revealed deeper political divisions within the Tripartite Alliance (COSATU, ANC and the Communist Party – SACP). An alliance between COSATU and the SACP was crucial at the Polokwane conference of the ANC in 2007 in removing the right wing leaders of the party represented by Thabo Mbeki and replacing them with Zuma, who was perceived as being more left wing, or at least more in touch with the views of the rank and file of the ANC. Now, the real character of Zuma is being revealed in this dispute.

COSATU secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi described the African National Congress leadership as predatory, representing the elite, and the example they set had pushed others, like workers, into what he said was "defensive mode.” "We are under pressure from our constituency which is growing restless in the wake of this deepening crisis of unemployment and growing inequalities and poverty that is affecting more and more," said Vavi. “"Two years after Polokwane, we have nothing to celebrate. We lost more than 1.1 million jobs. As a result, 5.5 million South Africans have been pushed into poverty."

COSATU leaders reminded Zuma that he was elected with the support of organized labour and that unless he changed his attitude towards it, they would move against him in the same way they moved against his predecessor, president Mbeki.

"Some people say 'phantsi ANC' (away with the ANC), but the problem is not the ANC. The problem is leaders we elect. We had Thabo Mbeki. Now President Zuma is in China when he should be here. We're telling him he must beware," said National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) Cape Town provincial chairperson James Kruger at a rally of striking workers.

(strike rally in Cape Town)

At the same rally, SADTU provincial secretary Bongani Mconyana warned Zuma that he might not end his term of office, going the same way Mbeki went: "You can't leave a country when it is in turmoil. Thabo Mbeki did the same thing in 2007 and he did not complete his term in 2009. He was arrogant and used quiet diplomacy. This one (Zuma) is our own and he says a lot of things that are not correct". Zuma is in a state visit to China accompanied by South African businessmen.

But COSATU leaders are also angry at what they perceive as the lack of support on the part of SACP leaders, many of whom occupy top positions in government and the ANC leadership. SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande is Minister of Higher Education; the party’s deputy general-secretary, Jeremy Cronin, is deputy minister of Transport; and party chairman Gwede Mantashe is ANC secretary-general, amongst others holding positions.

The SACP has issued one statement in which it declares its support for the “legitimate demands”, but then proceeds in joining the government’s campaign against “acts of violence and physical intimidation” and goes on to call anyone involved in these actions “provocateurs” who should be expelled from their unions: “Workers who are involved in counter-revolutionary and anti-people activities, workers who conduct themselves as witting or unwitting agents provocateurs, should be disciplined and if necessary expelled from their unions.” There is not a word in the SACP statement condemning the violence of the police, the use of the army as strike-breakers or even calling on the government to accept the demands of the strikers. The SACP leaders limit themselves to “call on our comrades in the police and other law enforcement agencies to conduct themselves with maximum restraint”. The main thrust of the statement is dedicated to calling on all parties involved to be nice to each other, reestablish unity so as not to allow reactionary forces to benefit: “Instead of flinging irritable insults at each other, while the private sector and anti-worker elements sit back and laugh, let us, once more, forge a militant strategic unity within our Alliance, and between government and the working class.”

The problem with this kind of argument is that if the demands of the workers are legitimate, and the government is using the police, the army, the courts and the media against them, and yet the SACP leaders are calling for unity, what should the striking workers do?

There is a strong feeling in the trade union movement and probably amongst many rank and file members of the SACP, that when communists join the ANC government or occupy positions in the ANC leadership, they become identified with the policies of the right wing of the ANC rather than defending socialist points of view or representing the wider interests and aspirations of the workers and the poor. As an example of this, ANC secretary general and SACP chairman Gwede Mantashe, attacked police union POPCRU, saying that if they went to strike that would lead to “anarchy”.

In a recent speech at the Ruth First Memorial Lecture, COSATU general secretary Vavi expressed some of the anger and frustration of the ranks of the trade union movement. After describing the dire situation South African masses face 16 years after the end of apartheid, Vavi said that: “What will annoy [Communist leader] Ruth First most is that despite this mounting and unfolding catastrophe, she would have heard some of the leaders who were at some point serving with her in the central committee, assuring private capital, locally and abroad during their endless trips, that the economic fundamentals are in place and the country will stay the course despite mounting evidence that this market fundamentalism is dismally failing humanity.”

In a direct swipe at the leadership of the SACP, he added that Ruth First “would ask where her South African Communist Party (SACP) is, and why it has not led a united working class in a struggle to change the direction we seem to be taking.”

Genuine socialist policies needed

However, a number of SACP regions have come out clearly on the side of the striking workers, taking a firm position against the government, and particularly the use of repression and legal injunctions to break the strike. This is the position for instance of the Gauteng SACP, which has a long tradition of being a left wing voice within the party. The North West Province SACP goes further when it calls “on all our democratic movement to support COSATU on its call for a total general strike in the country following the unnecessary intransigence demonstrated by our government on this matter.” Their statement also denounces the hypocrisy of the attempts of the ANC government to counterpose public sector wages to service delivery for poor communities: “We are all of a sudden, told about the economy and service delivery, though we know that better salaries for workers have nothing to do with service delivery, instead tenderpreneurs are the ones who are negatively blocking and negatively affecting service delivery due to their stealing of public money through their corrupt manners of getting tenders.”

To their credit, the Young Communist League has taken a much firmer position on the side of the workers. In a strongly worded statement rejecting the use of court injunctions against the strike, the YCL national office expresses itself clearly: “We re-affirm our unwavering support to workers in the public sector and hope that they will not be deterred by apartheid style antics used to silence them.”

The statement also attempts to analyse the reasons for the government’s actions: “We view this as antagonistic and affirmation that the state still serves and protects class interests of an elite few to the detriment of our people; some of which are enjoying the life of luxury within the public sector itself.” (

In an earlier statement in support of the strike (The public sector strike is not counter revolutionary and it remains justified) , the YCL also noted that the contradiction was one between workers and their employers and that “these contradictions will not go away so long as we are in a bourgeoisie society reinforced by a bourgeoisie state which is defined on the basis of oppression of one man by the other.”

The South African Students Congress (SASCO), which over the years has provided many of the leaders of the YCL, also came out firmly in support of the strike. “We support, unreservedly, the COSATU led public service strike. It is about time that the working class demands to be compensated for its worth by the capitalist state.”

The statement also made the connection between workers’ wages and conditions and the obscene salaries of ministers and high ranking officials: “It is a shame that workers continue to stay in shacks and cannot afford basic necessities whilst some Ministers stay in expensive hotels at the taxpayer’s expense. We call on government not only to increase the salaries of workers but to considerably decrease salaries earned by Ministers, Director Generals, including those in the Presidency. The elite cannot continue to feed on the carcass of a poor nation so as to live as though oblivious of the untold suffering endured by the working class.”

Finally, SASCO also made the link between the economic demands of the workers and the struggle against capitalism by calling on “COSATU and its affiliates not only to direct this protest at increasing wages but to mount a campaign against capitalism.”

The Gauteng region of the YCL also issued its own statement in support of the strike and condemning the attitude of the government. It is worth quoting from it. “The Young Communist League (Gauteng) is deeply concerned with the increased use of force in response to the public sector strike. We are not surprised that the capitalist state resorts to using its repressive apparatus to counter the genuine demands as tabled by organised workers.” They also clearly link this struggle with the wider struggle for socialism: “We are certain that without the use of violence by the state, class conscious workers will use democratic means to realise their immediate aims and momentary interests while mobilising for socialism, the only sustainable solution to capitalism and its social relations of production in general.”

The Gauteng YCL is particularly clear and articulate in responding to the government's campaign, which attempts to pit workers against the poor: “The attempts to sow divisions amongst the working class by the capitalist state must be vehemently condemned. The manner in which this government is acting is in no way different to the way the apartheid state drove a wedge between unions and community organisations during stay-aways at the height of the struggle against apartheid. The misery wrecking public sector which has resulted in a generally hostile working environment, should be placed squarely on the shoulders of a government that refuses to jettison its capitalist and anti-poor policies. If government really values the lives of its citizens, it would meet the demands of the public servants and stop playing lotto with the lives of the poor. We urge organised workers to remain disciplined in their actions and mobilise the broader working class behind their plight so as to counter the opportunism by many who have become overnight champions of the interests of the poor.”

Again on the ANC YL and the nationalization of the mines

This is absolutely correct and one would expect that the leaders of the SACP would be taking the same position. Unfortunately, the SACP leaders have felt more at home polemicising against the ANC Youth League proposal for the nationalization of the mines. The ANC YL is about to start its National General Council meeting with the presence of thousands of delegates. At this meeting, the YL will again discuss its policy in favour of the nationalization of mines. In this, the YL, stands to the left of the SACP leaders, and particularly Jeremy Cronin, who has gone out of his way to criticize them for pushing this policy.

The nationalization of the mines, in and of themselves, will not solve the problems of the South African masses, and can indeed, take many different forms. The correct attitude that socialists should take when faced with this question is to say, yes, we are in favour of the nationalization of the mines, but this should be done under democratic workers’ control and as part of a plan for nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy (or as the Freedom Charter puts it: “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole”) so that they can democratically be planned in the interests of the workers and poor.

As a matter of fact, the ANC YL documents which will be discussed at the NGC, do address some of these questions. The YL criticizes the ANC documents for introducing the notion that: “For a capitalist economy to succeed, the state has to keep business sufficiently profitable. It should act to raise costs for business only where required by the imperative of achieving a more inclusive and equitable economy.” The Youth League correctly lambasts this notion and says: “This suggests that there is a bigger ideological battle than we initially thought, because this capitalist notion affirms an intention to subjugate all other socio-economic interests to reducing the cost of doing big business.” This is precisely the crux of the matter, if the ANC leaders are committed to capitalism, then all the other anti-working class policies follow as an inevitable consequence.

The policy document presented to the ANC YL NGC goes a long way in this direction by re-stating that: “political democracy remains an empty form without substance unless it is properly grounded on a base of economic and, especially, industrial democracy”. It then adds: “The political programme of the ANC Youth League towards the centenary of the ANC is summed up as that of attainment of ECONOMIC FREEDOM IN OUR LIFETIME. This simply means that all the economic clauses of the Freedom Charter should be given practical meaning and implemented in our lifetime. The people sharing in the country’s wealth should not just be a clarion call, but should be turned into a concrete programme, which includes Nationalisation of Mines, banks and monopoly industries.”

We wished the SACP leaders were as clear! Whether the ANC Young League is serious about this struggle for the nationalization of the mines, banks and monopoly industries, or it is just picking up a controversial issue to be used in the political advancement of some of its leaders will be proven in practice. The national secretary of the Young Communist League, Buti Manamela was booed off the stage at the YL NGC meeting on Wednesday the 25th. There have been a lot of accusations flying in both directions, but really speaking, the debate has not centered on the politics. Only on that terrain can the issues be clarified. If the ANC YL raises the question of the nationalization of the mines and it is attacked for doing so by the SACP leaders who sit in government, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that they would not be particularly impressed by what they wrongly perceive as “communism”.

The Youth League response to the ANC document finishes with a quote which is more relevant today than when it was written: “In our country – more than in any other part of the oppressed world – it is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning without a return of the wealth of the land to the people as a whole. It is therefore a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the root of racial supremacy and does not represent even the shadow of liberation”.

This quote from the document of the Morogoro conference of the ANC, coming from the point of view of national liberation, is an apt summary of what has happened in the last 16 years. It is now clear that the only way forward is socialism.