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Socialism Today 142 - October 2010

South Africa’s public sector: a new wave of struggle

In a massive show of force public-sector workers took strike action over three weeks. Desperate to dampen down the flames of revolt, however, the union leaders succeeded in suspending the action. But the neo-liberal policies of the ANC government, growing anger at the yawning class divide, and the workers’ rising militancy point to a period of intensified struggle ahead. WEIZMANN HAMILTON, Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI South Africa), reports.

AFTER THREE WEEKS of determined struggle, the South African public-sector workers’ strike was suspended in early September. The union leaders’ position is that they have still not accepted the ANC government’s offer of a 7.5% salary increase and R800 ($110) housing allowance and would consult their members. Although this implies the possibility of a resumption of the strike, it is highly unlikely that the leadership has any intention of calling the members out should the resumed negotiations fail. Nor is it likely that the membership would respond. The strike is effectively over. Workers are bitter and angry, not only at the government, but also towards their leaders.

Prior to the suspension of the strike, in an extraordinary exhibition of verbal gymnastics, the union leaders appeared to refuse to accept their members’ rejection of the government offer. They argued that workers had not ‘fully understood’ and insisted on a second round of report-backs. On the substantive issue of salaries and the housing allowance, the union leadership has capitulated. What will be negotiated will be issues such as the terms for a return to work and other matters for future bargaining. The government has already offered an amnesty for essential service workers who defied the court interdict. Instead of being dismissed, they will receive final written warnings which will be removed from their personnel records after six months. In addition, the unions will demand that there be no deductions in terms of the no-work, no-pay policy.

As in 2007, when millions of workers also took action, for many this will feel, if not a defeat, then certainly an opportunity lost. Although a week shorter in duration than the 2007 mass action, the 2010 strike more than matched it in intensity, combativity and militancy. For most of the 21 days the strike held solid in defiance of government arrogance, state repression, including court interdicts, rubber bullets and the use of water cannon, and the arrest of over 300 workers. If anything, the government’s propaganda, trying to take advantage of actions involving health workers and educators, reinforced the strikers’ determination.

As the bosses pledged support for the ANC government’s intransigence and exerted pressure by warning of dire consequences for the economy should the government capitulate, the courage of the public-sector workers inspired pledges of solidarity action from those in local government and the private sector. On the social landscape, the lines of class division stood out in sharp relief: the government and the bosses on the one side; the working class on the other. Forced to reflect the mood of the working class, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu – the main trade union federation) threatened to bring the economy to its knees in a general strike in solidarity with the public sector.

For left-wing doomsayers on the fringes of the working-class movement, everything short of the overthrow of capitalism is a defeat. Unwittingly, they echo the views of capitalist analysts who, particularly in the last week of the strike, repeatedly predicted its end on the basis that the workers had already lost more in no-work, no-pay deductions than what they would gain through salary increases. However, even on the narrow issue of wages, to regard as a defeat the fact that 7.5% is only half of the workers’ original 15% demand, and short of the workers’ final revised demand of 8.6%, is to take an entirely one-sided, ‘economistic’ view. From an initial 5.2%, the government was forced to move twice to reach 7.5%, an increase worth more in real terms today than in 2007 given that the official rate of inflation is currently 3.7%; an issue that capitalist economists have repeatedly condemned workers for.

Deep political consequences

DESPITE THE GOVERNMENT’S hard-line stand, its claims that any salary increase for public-sector workers would have to be taken from budgets allocated to other service delivery priorities, alongside a vicious propaganda campaign by the capitalist media, the pressure of the million-strong public-sector strike forced the government to retreat.

More importantly, the workers did not settle for this offer. It was rejected overwhelmingly by Cosatu members and half of the smaller Independent Labour Caucus (ILC – mainly made up of former white conservative unions). This was not so much a settlement as an imposition – a deal struck between the trade union leaderships, led by Cosatu, and the ANC government. Workers have every right to feel betrayed.

But it is in the political sphere that the true significance of the strike lies. The strike was against the government of Jacob Zuma, a president portrayed by the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu leaderships as pro-working class, and in whose ascent to power the role of the public-sector workers, through their action in 2007, was pivotal. That meant that, politically, this strike began on a higher level than in 2007.

To argue, as some do, that the intra-Tripartite Alliance conflict that formed the background to this strike was a ‘fake contest’ with predetermined results, is to completely misunderstand the interplay of class and political processes at work. The public-sector strike was, in the first instance, as much a conflict between the classes as strikes in the private sector.

At the same time, it was a political strike – a public affirmation by public-sector workers and, indeed, as the solidarity pledges by workers in the private and parastatal sectors indicated, by the entire working class. It concerned the conclusions they have reached: that the ANC government is not a workers’ government but a government of the bosses.

History does not simply repeat itself in an endless replay of processes, with the same outcomes. The 2010 strike was built on the experience of 2007. The performance of the Zuma administration had demonstrated, as the Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI South Africa) warned, that in terms of economic policy, it was a continuation of Thabo Mbeki’s capitalist government. The stance adopted by the Zuma government in the strike obliterated any difference from Mbeki’s, rendering its class character indistinguishable from its predecessor. If anything, its capitalist character is even more pronounced, reflected in escalating corruption, the looting of the state, and a culture of entitlement within the political and economic elite.

Where the 2007 public-sector strike was pivotal in cementing the Zuma coalition, ending Mbeki’s reign and precipitating the first split in the ANC since it came to power (and the biggest so far in its history), the 2010 strike has shattered a fracturing coalition. It brought Cosatu into collision with its ideological mentors, the SACP, for the first time. A process of political differentiation has been set into motion that will end, in time, in the break-up of the Tripartite Alliance. It will prepare the conditions for the emergence of a mass workers’ party, uniting organised workers, the poor involved in service delivery protests, and youth and students fighting financial and academic exclusions from tertiary education institutions.

Workers learned far more about the class character of the ANC and the role of the Tripartite Alliance during the three-week strike than in the entire period since the end of apartheid. The speed with which the government fell back onto the negotiating tactics of the Mbeki administration, and its adoption of an even more hard-line attitude, accelerated the development of consciousness.

In addition, much more than in 2007, workers are very angry at their leaders. The statement of the Gauteng regional South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) leader, in advance of the official announcement, that the strike had been called off because certain leaders had sold the workers out, reflects a widespread view among workers. Unlike 2007, this time there is likely to be rank-and-file action to recall some leaders in the forthcoming congresses of several unions. The DSM will be circulating a model resolution in Cosatu unions summarising the political conclusions from this strike and calling for the rank-and-file to take Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance and to establish committees to launch a campaign for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

General strike

THE POSSIBILITY OF a general strike played a critical role in determining the course of events on the sides both of the union leadership and government. Faced with this threat, and despite claims that the public-sector workers’ demands would ‘damage the public finances’, the government increased its offer to 7.5% and the housing allowance from R700 to R800. Such was workers’ anger and determination, however, that the offer was rejected outright by members of the Cosatu-affiliated Sadtu and by an overwhelming majority of the three other Cosatu affiliates, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), and the Democratic Nurses Organisation (Denosa). The smaller ILC was evenly split, meaning that more than 75% of workers across all unions had rejected the revised offer. The scene was set for the general strike to proceed.

Fearful of the political implications of a general strike against the ANC government and the threat to the Tripartite Alliance, the Cosatu leadership stepped up efforts to end the strike. In fact, from the onset, Cosatu leaders did not have the stomach for this battle. They felt obliged to reflect the fury of the workers, with trenchant denunciations of Zuma’s salary and, in the words of Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu general secretary, "the predatory elite feeding at the public trough like hyenas". But behind the scenes they were engaging desperately with the government to secure a deal. News reports were dominated by the focus on efforts by the trade union leadership to sell the offer to the members, against the instruction of their members! The leaders had redefined their role as mediators between their members and the government instead of their members’ representatives!

The ILC spokesperson called upon workers to "do the right thing and return to work where they should be". The Cosatu leadership had been embarrassed by the fact that the ILC’s biggest affiliate, the Public Servants Association, in a break with tradition, had gone on strike before the Cosatu unions. Now they were preparing to follow the ILC back to work, hiding their own political cowardice under the skirts of their more conservative but weaker counterparts.

The Cosatu leadership capitulated in spite of the fact that, in the private sector, the federation’s most powerful affiliates, the metal and mine workers’ unions, are currently on strike in the tyre, petrol retail and mining industries, having rejected wage offers of 6-8%. The National Union of Metal Workers has just concluded a victorious eight-day strike in the motor industry, after winning a 10% increase and, most significantly, a ban on labour brokers. All Cosatu was required to do was to activate the section 77 notice (the Labour Relations Act section providing for the right to strike over socio-economic issues) that was filed months ago to protest against excessive electricity price increases.

Instead, in spite of the fact that the conditions for a solidarity general strike were highly favourable, the Cosatu leadership marched its soldiers half way up the hill only to lead them down again, in an attempt to engineer a headlong retreat.

Widening divisions in Tripartite Alliance

COSATU LEADERS FEARED that a general strike would open up the widening cracks in the Tripartite Alliance into an unbridgeable chasm and create pressures to form a political opposition workers’ party. This idea forced itself onto the political agenda by the shattering of the coalition of forces that recalled Mbeki and brought Zuma to power. In addition, the realignment of bourgeois politics, which began with the 2008 formation of the Congress of the People – the biggest split from the ANC in its history – and the recent marriage between the Independent Democrats (led by ex-Pan Africanist MP, Patricia De Lille) and the white-led Democratic Alliance, has broken the spell of ANC political hegemony and legitimised the idea of an opposition to the ‘party of liberation’.

In the past, the Cosatu leadership took refuge from the political implications of protests against the government’s neo-liberal economic policy, privatisation and even the 2007 public-sector wage strike – the longest and, until now, most politically significant in recent SA history – behind the fiction that they were protesting "against the government, not the ANC". The 2007 rebellion against Mbeki, fuelled by the class polarisation it indirectly expressed, provided a handy cover for this spurious piece of political evasion.

The DSM warned that the Zuma administration would be the last hideout for the Cosatu leadership. It is caught on the horns of a dilemma. It can stay within the Tripartite Alliance and adhere to the rules of engagement between the alliance partners, which the ANC leadership is attempting to rewrite through this strike. Or it can depart from the alliance and be forced to go into opposition. But then what would Cosatu’s programme be, if its leaders simply wanted to create an opposition labour or social democratic party working within capitalism?

Recoiling for these reasons from the idea of breaking from the Tripartite Alliance, a number of Cosatu leaders are warning Zuma that he can be recalled as Mbeki was. The problem, they say, is not with the ANC, but with the leaders it elects. In this way, they perpetuate the illusion that the class character of the ANC has not yet been decided. The reality is that it does not matter who is elected into the leadership, the ANC is a capitalist party and therefore bound to attack the working class. While 2010 has reinforced the lessons of the 2007 public-sector strike for the rank-and-file, for the leadership these lessons remain a closed book.

Should the surrender of the Cosatu leadership hold, it will amount to no more than a truce – a postponement of the reckoning between the classes that the crisis of capitalism guarantees. As the World Bank warned, an economic recovery to return to the pre-recession conditions could take 15 years. Reserve bank governor, Gill Marcus, added that the economy never recovered from the recession and is headed for a double-dip decline. Further redundancies, short time and lay-offs are inevitable. The conditions that produced the arguments used to justify the government’s current stance on the workers’ demands – the same arguments about a "lack of fiscal space", an "unsustainable public-sector remuneration bill" and "a narrow tax base and the limits of social welfare spending" – will apply with renewed force. No matter how the negotiations are conducted, with or without trading insults, there is no prospect they will produce a satisfactory outcome regarding wages or benefits. The problem lies with the government’s capitalist polices.

This is what the SACP, if it was a communist party worthy of the name, should be pointing out, and making the case for socialism. Instead, the SACP, with its debilitating ideological grip on the Cosatu leadership, only pledged perfunctory support for the public-sector workers after being criticised by the Cosatu leaders for its silence. This exposes the distance between a party that claims it is the official leader of the working class and the workers themselves. The SACP has studiously avoided placing itself in a position where the possibility of it contending for power in parliament, in its own right, is posed.

Zuma: after me, who?

ZUMA APPEARS TO have used the collapse of the coalition that brought him to power by posing the question to the Cosatu leadership: after me, who? To this, the Cosatu leadership had and has no answer. What is more certain is that in questioning the motive behind the indefinite public-sector strike, Zuma was posing the question more directly, after the manner of British prime minister, Lloyd George, to the trade union leaders in 1919, when confronted with the threat of a general strike: "If you carry out your threat and strike you will defeat us, but if you do so have you weighed up the consequences?... For if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, they must be ready to take on the functions of the state or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?"

Like his 1919 counterpart, Zuma has called the Cosatu leadership’s bluff – with the same results. The Cosatu leaders have been frightened into running away from their own shadows.

Despite the capitulation of the British trade union leaders in 1919, the class struggle continued. Under the impact of the October revolution in Russia, in 1918 the Labour Party in Britain adopted a clause (Clause IV, Part 4), committing the party to the socialist transformation of society. A general strike took place in 1926.

The Cosatu leadership may succeed in ending the public-sector strike and averting a general strike for now. But what this strike shows, and the successful strike wave in the private and parastatal sectors also, is that the willingness of the workers to struggle is unbroken. However this struggle ends, it merely postpones a further reckoning between the working class and the bosses in the private sector, and the political managers of their system, the ANC government.

The bosses are reacting to the crisis of capitalism, the worst since the great depression in the 1930s, in the only way they know how: to make the workers pay through short time, lay-offs, retrenchments and savage cuts in social welfare spending. The ANC government is managing the economy in accordance with the dictates of capital.

The working class has no alternative but to resist. If its leaders in the trade unions stand in the way they will be swept aside. There is enormous anger among Cosatu public-sector workers over the role of their leaders. The Cosatu leadership appears to believe that history merely repeats itself. But there will be consequences for the betrayal of 2010 – for that is what the leadership is preparing.

Contrary to the illusions fostered by the Cosatu leadership, equality in relations between the Alliance partners was never possible, nor would the strategic centre (of decision-making powers) ever have been relocated to the alliance. From the point of view of the ANC, the role of Cosatu in the Tripartite Alliance is to act as the prison warder of the working class – to deliver the working class to the bosses, bound hand and foot in chains (called the ‘national democratic revolution’).

The liberation of the working class can be achieved only through the break-up of the alliance, the establishment of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme to unite organised workers, the poor masses involved in service delivery protests, youth fighting for jobs, and students resisting financial and academic exclusions, in a struggle to abolish capitalism in South Africa. This must be part of an international struggle, to lay the foundations for the creation of a society of genuine social solidarity and prosperity for all.

This is an edited version of a fuller article published, on 13 September, on the CWI website


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