South African Public Sector Workers Launch All-Out Strike

More than a million South African public sector workers started an all-out national strike for better wages and conditions on Wednesday, August 18. The present wave of strikes shows that the South African workers are not prepared to accept promises anymore and it's time for the Zuma government to deliver the change it was voted in for.

More than a million South African public sector workers started an all-out national strike for better wages and conditions on Wednesday, August 18. Hospitals and schools in particular were affected, with lively pickets closing down installations throughout the country. The unions (mainly COSATU-affiliates NEHAWU and SADTU, as well as some ILC affiliates) are demanding an above-inflation 8.6% wage rise, as well as a R1,000 housing allowance and other improvements in their conditions.

The all-out strike follows a successful one-day warning strike on August 10th, which saw 15,000 workers march in Cape Town and another 20,000 in Tshwane. The day of action led the government to revise its wage offer up to 7%, which the unions rejected as being insufficient.

At both these rallies there was a real sense of anger that the ANC government of Jacob Zuma is not delivering for the people who elected him. Zuma came to power after having won the Polokwane conference of the African National Congress in 2007. At that time, an alliance between the rank and file activists from ANC local branches, the trade unionists organised in COSATU, and the South African Communist Party, managed to defeat the right-wing clique around president Mbeki, which was widely despised as the symbol of the right-wing policies carried out by the ANC government.

The majority in the ANC and COSATU thought that the replacing Mbeki with Zuma would bring about a change in policies, but at the same time were not prepared just to wait and see. Immediately after the elections in 2009 there was a spate of strikes and protests in the poorest communities over the lack of delivery of services.

Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still an extremely unequal society with a massive gap between the rich and the poor (which has actually widened since the end of the old regime), and according to some studies, 70% of the population live under the poverty line. One million workers lost their jobs in 2009 when the economy contracted by 1.8%. Real unemployment stands at about 40% (the official rate is 25%).

Shortage of housing is still a chronic problem, with official government figures estimating that 2.1 million units are needed to house the 12 million people who have no decent housing and live in informal settlements. This is a big part of the current dispute of the public sector workers, many of whom do not earn enough to buy a house and do not qualify for RDP housing programmes.

There is a strong feeling amongst the workers, and particularly the trade union members, that this is their government, that they put Zuma in power and that therefore he should respond to their interests and their demands. The government, however, has launched a media offensive against public sector workers, alleging that their demands cannot be met because of lack of funds, attempting to portray the issue as one of the wages of already “privileged” workers versus services for the poor, etc.

One striking worker had this to say in response: “The president and the Ministers earn thousands, yet the person who keeps the country's wheels running, is earning peanuts. We are not able to apply for bonds, buy cars, and provide decent education for our kids due to our salary scale.”

As a matter of fact, ministers earn as much as R143,000 a month, while many public sector workers barely survive on 7,000. In an example quoted in the Times Live, Thabiso Mokoshane, 39 years of age and head of the languages department at Kensington Secondary in Devland, near Soweto, earns R13,000. But after tax deductions and making his bond repayment he only takes home about R4,000 for a family of three. These “privileged” conditions are the underlying reason for the strike.

On the first day of the strike, the government used the police against striking workers. In an incident outside a Soweto hospital, the police fired rubber bullets and used water cannons against strike pickets. The South African Democratic Teachers Union SADTU also denounced the use of rubber bullets against striking teachers in KwaZulu Natal. Trade unionists were also blocking major highways in Gauteng. Living up to the great revolutionary tradition of the South African workers, in the Greater Durban area, trade unionists organised flying pickets. Calling themselves “Bafana Bafana” (the nickname of the national football team during the recent World Cup), they moved from one place to another, shutting down government buildings and hospitals. “We have shut down St Aidan's, RK Khan, Inkosi Albert Luthuli, Addington and King Edward hospitals,” said Bafana Bafana spokesman Sivuyile Ntshoko, who is also the chairman of the King Edward branch of the National Education, Health, and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu), as reported by Sapa news agency.

In a separate dispute, 31,000 members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in the car industry have been engaged in an all-out strike since August 11th, demanding a 15% wage increase. The union is also demanding the banning of the use of labour brokers in this highly unionised industry, as well as a fully paid 6-month maternity leave, and overtime pay rates for all work over the 8 hour working day from Monday to Friday. NUMSA has now threatened to spread strike action to parts manufacturers, retail sellers and garages.

It is not possible to say how these disputes will end. There is certainly a massive build up of anger on the part of the workers and the beginning of the strike has already shown their willingness to struggle. The Zuma government will be under pressure from big business to show it can withstand the pressure of organised labour. The leaders of COSATU will come under enormous pressure from bourgeois public opinion to make concessions. In 2007, a similar strike by public sector workers lasted for a month before an above-inflation deal was reached, which meant a partial victory for the workers.

Contradictions in the Alliance – socialist programme needed

The strike of public sector workers shows all the contradictions of the Tripartite Alliance between ANC, COSATU, and the Communist Party. While Zuma's ANC government has taken an intransigent position toward the demands of the workers, there are plenty of SACP and COSATU members sitting in parliament as ANC representatives, including some of them serving as ministers. SACP and COSATU leaders should pose the question bluntly: whose interests does this government serve? The interests of the workers or the interests of the capitalists?

If there is no money to pay decent wages to public sector workers (nurses, hospital workers, teachers, etc), to provide all with decent homes, a decent education and decent jobs, this is because even though apartheid was done away with, capitalism remains. A small minority of blacks have massively enriched themselves and joined the capitalist class, some of them through the so-called Black Economic Empowerment deals. For example, in one BEE deal recently announced, AcelorMittal will transfer 25% of its shares to black investors, including shares worth R900 million to Zuma's son, Duduzane Zuma.

A handful of ANC leaders and nascent black capitalists have benefited from these deals (and some former COSATU leaders as well), while for the overwhelming majority of South African working people, living conditions have not substantially improved, if at all.

Industrial action should be combined with a serious and thorough campaign for socialist policies within the ANC. On the basis of a clear socialist programme, SACP and COSATU members should organise a left wing socialist caucus within the ANC, which would very quickly get the overwhelming support of the majority of the ANC activists and rank and file (as was proven at the Polokwane conference).

The ANC Youth League has already come out in favour of the nationalisation of the mines. Whatever criticisms one may have of the shortcomings of the proposal or even of YL leader Malema, this idea should surely be taken up by the SACP and COSATU leaders, who could put a motion to parliament to discuss the issue and accompany it with a campaign of mass mobilisations around this demand.

So far, COSATU and SACP leaders have backed the Alliance, mobilising the core working class and poor vote for the ANC, while the ANC leaders in power have pursued capitalist policies. It is time that the relationship is reversed, but that requires a change in the political orientation of the SACP. Instead of the old argument about the need for an abstract “national democratic revolution” before the question of socialism can be posed, there should be a clear recognition that within the limits of capitalism, neither national liberation, nor meaningful democracy is possible. The struggle for socialism should be put at the top of the agenda, that is, the nationalisation of the banks and insurance companies, the mines, and big monopolies that still control the South African economy, so that they can be put under democratic workers' control. This would allow the working out of a democratic plan of the economy to address the urgent problems of housing, jobs, education, health care and land redistribution which have been left largely unsolved in the last 16 years.