As much as half of South Africa's workforce participated in a 24-hour nation-wide general strike called by the 1.8 million strong Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) on May 10th.
According to COSATU's own estimates four million workers followed the call to strike. Support for the strike was stronger in the highly industrial region of Witwatersrand (which includes Johannesburg) with 90% of the workers participating and 150,000 marching through the streets of Johannesburg. Western and Eastern Cape registered between 70 and 75% of the workers following the strike, and in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Northern Province and Northern Cape the level of support was around 50%. In areas like Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith, Newcastle, Durban and Empangeni and in companies like the South African Motor Company, DaimlerChrysler, half of the mines, Coca-Cola, etc. the support for the strike was almost total 90-100%). There were numerous marches all over the country with 50,000 in Pretoria and Cape Town, 20,000 in Port Elizabeth, 10,000 in Nelspruit, 5,000 in East London and Queenstown.
The main reason for the strike was to protest against the massive destruction of jobs which in the last 10 years had totalled 1 million, half of them since the ANC government came to power in 1994. COSATU demanded "the amendment of the Labour Relations Act to make retrenchments a mandatory issue for negotiations with the union", the "change of the Insolvency Act to protect workers in cases of company liquidations", to "halt the unilateral restructuring (i.e. privatisation) of government or state-owned companies", and to "put an end to the accelerated tariff reduction programme to bring South Africa in line with our WTO commitments". Finally COSATU also called for a "thoroughgoing discussion amongst the key stakeholders in the economy in order to find long-term solutions to the structural problems which continue to bewild our economy".
This strike is the culmination of a programme of mass action and demonstrations organised by COSATU since January this year to highlight the problem of jobs losses. Unemployment is now running at 40% (up from 35% in 1994), and 50% of the population are below the 301 Rand poverty line.
But while jobs were the main issue for the general strike, this reflects a deeper and increasing anger and frustration at the policies of the ANC government and specially with GEAR, the mis-named Growth Employment and Redistribution programme which amounts to a policy of cuts in state expenditure, privatisation of state-owned companies and the lowering down of tariff barriers.
Opposition to the ANC government
As we already warned in July 1999 after the victory of the ANC in the general elections: "In the next few years the ANC government will increasingly enter into conflict with the trade unions and the ANC's social base on issues like budget cuts, privatisation, housing, labour rights, etc. The opposition which has already developed during the first ANC term will be nothing compared with the clashes in the next period" (South Africa: ANC victory, masses expect action, July 1999).
Shortly after these lines were written we saw the mass mobilisation of public sector workers for a decent wage increase. The privatisation of council services specially has generated a lot of opposition. The South African Municipal Workers Union has mobilised thousands against Igoli2000, the "restructuring plan" for Johannesburg council.
In, fact, despite certain limited achievements of the ANC government, the general trend has been one of job losses, increased criminality and above all a more unequal distribution of income. For instance the top earning 20% of the households account for 65% of the total income, while the poorest 20% represent only 3%. This makes South Africa one of the most unequal societies on earth, and the gap between rich an poor is actually increasing. According to a recent study on income distribution the poorest 40% of black households saw a drop of 21% in income between 1991 and 1996, meanwhile the richest 10% households saw their income increase by 17% (and the proportion of black households amongst this 10% at the top increased from 9% to 22%).
Such is the opposition against the ANC government's policies that ANC general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe went as far as to express his support for the general strike at the May Day rally in Johannesburg. But this was seen as a purely electoralist move as the ANC leadership is worried about the results of the forthcoming council elections. This is why the main emphasis of Motlanthe's speech in front of a hostile crowd was on "the need for COSATU's and the South African Communist Party's (SACP) continued support for the Alliance". However, the government, including ministers who are members of the SACP like public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, firmly condemned the strike.
So, despite the efforts of leading ANC figures to try to present the strike as aimed only at businesses and not the government, COSATU president Willie Madisha was clear in saying that "we are unhappy with Gear and its disastrous impact on workers. So how can the strike be aimed at business only? The government is responsible for the acts [Labour Relations Act and Insolvency Act] and Gear so we are also targeting it".
There is a growing understanding of the fact that capitalism is unable to solve any of the acute problems facing South Africa, and instead is worsening the situation. This is the case not only amongst working class activists but even amongst the most intelligent bourgeois commentators. Thus the editorial of the Financial Mail (12.5.00) gave a very gloomy account of the situation: "South Africa is drifting. The conventional market economics adopted by the ANC when it dumped nationalisation have not delivered more jobs or more investment, and the party is vulnerable to anti-capitalist agitation among its core, poor constituency. The free market is not to be taken for granted in South Africa." The editorial then goes on to review the situation in Zimbabwe "rapidly disintegrating economically" and concludes that "we are also in trouble in this country unless the wealth gap closes". The solution advocated by the Financial Mail is "the social democratic systems that propelled Germany and Japan to such great economic heights". Thus we have the irony of the mouthpiece of capital advocating keynesian policies and a "wide and efficient welfare net", worried about the potentially revolutionary consequences of the economic crisis, while the ANC leaders in government are the most staunch defenders of the policies of the IMF and the World Bank!
Capitalism is the cause of the jobs crisis
SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, is quite right in saying that "the fundamental cause of job losses is capitalism. Capitalism aims for maximum profits and not a living wage. Companies cut costs and retrench workers to make profit ... In 1999, the government decreased company tax by 5% from 35% to 30%. This cut gave R8 billion back to the bosses. This money has not been used for job creation. Instead, big companies are taking their money to Western countries for easy and quick profits. In July 1999, South African industry is producing only 78% of what it could produce. Our country has a huge 'demand' for more of everything - housing, medicines, school textbooks, jobs, etc. But for the bosses this 'demand' does not count because this 'demand' does not have money" (Daily Dispatch, May 1st, 2000).
In the same way, COSATU president Willie Madisha in his May Day speech in Johannesburg explained how "in the long term, the system based on exploitation of the majority by a small powerful minority has no future. Development based on this brutal system is unsustainable as it only serves to widen the gap between rich and poor. The challenge we face is not just to put a human face to capitalism but to uproot and replace it with a human system based on social ownership of the means of production - socialism!"
The problem is that despite all the references to socialism and the harsh criticisms of the capitalist system, the leaders of COSATU and the SACP do not have a worked out alternative to the policies of the ANC government and they do not distance themselves enough from it.
This arises from a wrong appraisal of the current situation in South Africa. What we have is the leadership of the ANC in government pursuing openly capitalist policies and basing themselves on that very small layer of the black population which has benefited from the end of apartheid by becoming black capitalists themselves. This government has not started some "national democratic revolution" which has to be deepened and strengthened as a first step towards the socialist transformation. On the contrary, the ANC government policies only benefit big business and international capitalism and they are designed precisely with that aim in mind.
Clear socialist programme needed
Therefore the task of COSATU and SACP leaders should be not the "strengthening of the revolutionary tripartite alliance" but rather breaking with the capitalist wing of the ANC and coming out clearly in favour of an alternative socialist programme. Instead of this we have SACP and COSATU leaders sitting in a government which is carrying through an open capitalist policy against the working class.
The most recent SACP documents produced for discussion at the forthcoming Strategy Conference say that "the state can discipline, manage, encourage, and promote capital, the allocation of capital and the distribution of surplus". This is a utopian dream. On the one hand the ANC government has clearly adopted the view that "capital must be encouraged", that "favourable conditions must be created", in order for investment to take place. And there is actually certain truth in this. Capitalists do not invest in order to create jobs, not even in order to produce goods, but above all in order to make profits. If they can make more profits by investing abroad they will do it, and if they can make more profits by speculating in the stock exchange why bother with productive investment. And there is nothing the state can do about this. As the old saying goes "you cannot control what you cannot own".
The current offensive of capital all over the world which goes under the name of "neo-liberalism" is not the result of the viciousness of big business but rather the result of the crisis of capitalism. In order to maintain the same level of profits they must force down the tariff barriers in the third world countries, privatise their public utilities, deregulation of the labour market etc. The only alternative to this is not some sort of state intervention in the economy, but the wholesale nationalisation of the main sectors of the economy to put them under a democratic plan of production aimed at solving the pressing needs of the majority of society rather than the profits of a few.
In fact the policies of "state intervention in the economy" and a "mixed economy" basically amount to a social democratic solution, which has already been ditched by capitalism in the West as it led to massive state debt and budget deficits and as a result, high levels of inflation.
The implementation of a socialist programme of nationalisation of the economy would be made relatively easy by the enormous concentration of capital which characterises the South African economy where a dozen capitalist groups dominate most of the economy. Such a programme would not be popular with the new black bourgeoisie and would attract hysteric attacks on the part of big business, but it would definitely be extremely popular with the millions of workers and youth who went on the streets on May 10th and with the millions who voted for the ANC in the hope that they would achieve economic liberation as well as democratic rights.