Hundreds of thousands march in Johannesburg in the first day of COSATU's 48-hour general strike

A massive march marked the first day of the 2-day general strike called by COSATU in South Africa to protest against the privatisation plans of the ANC government, and against job losses and poverty which have been aggravated by the recent increases in the prices of staple foods. Report from Johannesburg by Jorge Martin.

A marathonian march marked the first day of the 2-day general strike called by COSATU in South Africa on October 1 and 2. The strike has been called to protest against privatisation plans by the ANC government, against job losses and poverty, aggravated by the recent increases in the prices of staple foods.

At 9 am thousands of workers started to assemble at Library Gardens. Thousands of other workers assembled at their union headquarters and then marched to Library Gardens. The biggest delegations were probably from the mineworkers' and metalworkers' unions (NUM and NUMSA), but there were also big contingents from the teachers union (SADTU), the municipal workers (SAMWU), the transport workers (SATAWU), the public sector workers (NEHAWU) and many others. The mood was very militant, with singing of revolutionary songs and slogans. Contingents of rank and file workers and shop stewards arrived from the main unions, with red banners and many wearing red T-shirts from their own unions, the SACP and other organisations. Present also were contingents from the Landless People's Movement (LPM), the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) which also supported the COSATU strike. The student organisations COSAS and SASCO had also expressed their support and were present at the march.

By 10.30 am the march started its long route. Tens of thousands of workers filled the main streets of Johannesburg. COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi gave the figure of 70,000 demonstrators. It is difficult to judge, but the massive march might have numbered up to 100,000 people. This was the biggest march in Johannesburg in a long time, said Vavi. Reports from other parts of the country are still sketchy, but Vavi reported that more than 30 marches had taken place, the smallest of which had at least 5,000 people.

The first stop was outside the Spoornet building, the transport parastatal. There were speeches and a memorandum was handed over to a Spoornet Human Resources Manager, since no CEOs bothered to turn up to receive the workers' demands against privatisation. The irony here was that the HR Manager who received the memorandum was herself a "comrade" (that is an ANC member and possibly a former trade unionist). She was put under a lot of pressure to give a concrete answer to the demands and was given the microphone to address the crowd, but limited herself to say that the memorandum "would be handed over to the government". The mood of the trade unionists was angry.

The same scene was repeated outside the electricity parastatal Eskom and the telecommunications parastatal Telkom. In 1997, the ANC government privatised 30% of Telkom. Since them, according to official statistics 2.7 million new households have been connected, but of those 80% have been cut off for lack of payment! One of the reasons for this, apart from the rising unemployment, is the fact that the partly-privatised company has increased the price of local calls by 35%. The anti-working class and anti-poor character of this measure can be seen in the fact that in the same period international calls have gone down by 40%! Meanwhile 17,000 workers have been made redundant by Telkom. Now the government is preparing to privatise 30% of electricity parastatal Eskom and end cross-subsidisation (a tariff system by which industries and richer neighbourhoods subside cheaper electricity prices for townships and poorer areas). It has been calculated that this would lead to a 50% price increase and thousands of job losses. Already in preparation for privatisation, the company has applied a very harsh policy of "cost-recovery" which has meant that hundreds of thousands of households have had electricity supply cut off because they could not afford to pay. It is against these electricity cut-offs that the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (part of the APF) was created. The SECC has been fighting disconnections by illegally reconnecting households. One of the Telkom managers who received the memorandum had the cheek to start his speech to the workers with the traditional chants of "Amandla" ("all power to the people") and was booed by the crowd who had just heard a Telkom trade unionist explain how having comrades from the movement as managers did not change at all their intransigent and provocative attitude towards the trade union representatives.

A representative from the South African Broadcasting Corporation was also called on the stage to receive a memorandum. COSATU, together with the Communication Workers' Union and the actor's union Equity have been protesting against unfair coverage of labour issues in the SABC news programmes, the lack of programmes in four of the African languages, the lack of coverage of African culture and music, and also the appalling working conditions and lack of rights for actors working for SABC.

Finally after more than five hours of marching and singing, the demonstration arrived at its final destination where a rally took place. There were speakers from TAC, the student organisations SASCO and COSAS, and finally from COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi who handed a memorandum to Gauteng premier Shilowa. The speaker from COSAS was very clear when he defended the student demonstrations which had taken place earlier in the year in defence of free education. The Premier of Gauteng at that time had tried to criminalize the students said Julius Malema, president general of COSAS. There might have been a few incidents at the demonstrations but the students have the right to protest, he insisted.

COSATU's general secretary Vavi in his speech explained the reasons why the federation is fundamentally opposed to privatisation. However, he insisted that they were not against the ANC or the ANC government. He even affirmed that they were "not questioning the good intentions of government and its aim of building a better life for all." "We do not doubt the bona fide of the government," he insisted, "but when we disagree on some policies we must be able to say it and there is nothing counter-revolutionary in that." This shows clearly that the COSATU leaders still think it is just a question of minor differences on concrete policies. In fact, the ANC government has been committed since the very beginning to pro-capitalist policies. It is true that there had been some (limited) delivery in certain fields, but this has been rapidly undermined by increased poverty and rising unemployment. The policies applied by the ANC government under the name of GEAR have been those of privatisation, the lower of tariff barriers, repayment of the apartheid debts, creation of Free Trade Zones, "fiscal prudence", all in the name of "economic stability" and "attracting foreign investment". The result of these policies is clear for everyone to see: one million jobs destroyed, increased casualization of labour, doubling of the official unemployment rate, water and electricity cut-offs, etc.

This is not a question of one or two wrong policy choices, but rather of a government policy which is in fundamental contradiction with the interests of those who elected it, the masses of working people and the poor. Whether these policies are applied in good or bad faith is not the issue, the results on the living conditions of workers and the poor are the same. In fact, while COSATU leaders try to minimise their "disagreements" with the ANC government, the ANC leaders launched an all-out attack against the government. On Friday, September 27, Thabo Mbeki, speaking at the ANC Policy Conference, made it very clear that "the ANC is not a vehicle for achieving socialism" and he added that those who disagreed were free to leave the organisation. He then spoke of a conspiracy of international and national ultra-left elements who wanted to infiltrate the ranks of the movement, and who saw the government as the enemy, having adopted a neo-liberal policy. This ultra-left, he said, plays the same role as the right-wing opposition to the government, since both see it as their enemy. While he did not mention the SACP or COSATU by name, this was clearly an attack on them, and also on those who mobilised against the World Summit on Sustainable Development. On Sunday, more ANC leaders attacked COSATU's strike. ANC general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe (correctly) described the two-day action as "a political strike against the government".

To this attack Zwelinzima Vavi replied that "if it protesting against electricity cut-offs in Soweto is to be an ultra-left, then we are ultra-left, if protesting against 1 million job losses is to be an ultra-left then we are bound to be ultra-left," and he added "then we are ultra-left, but as shown today, there are many of us."

Finally, after having to listen to all the speeches, the Premier of Gauteng Mbhazima Shilowa, a former general secretary of COSATU, who has now abandoned his previous radical language, was handed a memorandum and invited to speak. He started badly, when he replied to COSAS that "you cannot be proud of looting". At this point he was interrupted by loud booing and hissing on the part of the thousands of workers present who were in no mood to accept any provocation from Shilowa. They were shouting "you traitor", "uMbeki ukuthengile" ("Mbeki has bought you"), "shut up capitalist stooge" and "asikufuni" ("we don't need you"). This reflects the real attitude of the workers towards the ANC government at different levels, which is one of increasing anger at seeing the people they elected, many coming from the trade union movement itself, applying policies which are in direct contradiction to the interests of workers. This was also reflected in the new songs that have emerged and are sung at mass demonstrations. One talks about Thabo Mbeki, saying that "Thabo does not know what he wants, we gave him a hand, we gave him the whole arm, we gave him our breasts and he still doesn't know what he wants." A more strongly-worded song was sung at the demo by one of the NUMSA branches which said "Mbeki's testicles we are going to grab them and throw them out of the window"! Some of the placards, official and hand-made, were also quite clear. One said "Privatisation is born again apartheid", while an older COSATU one read "We did not fight for liberation so that we can sell the assets we won to the highest bidder."

The initial indications of the widespread support for the two-day general strike and the massive turnout at the demonstrations proves once again that the workers in South Africa are not prepared to give the ANC government they elected any more breathing space, and this has been the case already for some time. This strike after all is not the first that COSATU have organised under the ANC government. Until now, after every general strike the COSATU leaders have met with ANC and SACP leaders and have come up with a resolution saying that intra-Alliance differences had been smoothed out and that everything was OK. The patience of the workers however is coming to an end, and at the same time, the belligerent attitude of the ANC government leaves COSATU leaders with very little room for manoeuvre to reach a compromise. What is clear is that the deteriorating conditions of the working class and the poor (for which the ANC government policies are largely to blame) are going to push them into action. A period of heightened class struggle has opened in South Africa.