SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 193 November 2015

Bosses’ offensive renewed in South Africa

Capitalism in South Africa is again demonstrating its complete inability to overcome mass unemployment and poverty. Steel and mining bosses have announced job losses which could total hundreds of thousands. Working-class families and entire communities face devastation. The threat of 52,000 gold mining job losses over ten years is being used to refuse wage rises that could lift the mineworkers and their families out of grinding poverty.

The working class must urgently respond with determined and militant struggle to turn back these attacks and defend jobs and living conditions. Lodged in the situation is the potential for steel and mineworkers to unite and organise co-ordinated sector-wide strikes in defence of jobs. The tactic of occupation must also be firmly on the table to prevent plant and shaft closures.

Despite some posturing, the African National Congress (ANC) government is ultimately committed to finding a ‘solution’ that protects both the profits and the property of the bosses. This is underlined when remembering that, via the Industrial Development Corporation, the government owns a controlling stake in SCAW metals, which has issued notice of up to 1,000 retrenchments. It also owns a major share in steelmaker ArcelorMittal SA (AMSA) which is threatening to close its Vereenijing plant.

Unfortunately, the trade union leaders are assisting the government in propping up the very bosses who have run these industries into the ground. Deals signed in August are based upon collaboration with the bosses. Business Day has devoted editorials praising the deals, such is its delight with the union leaders. Neither deal includes a moratorium on retrenchments or closures. Indeed, the boss of SCAW metals has said job cuts are "now unavoidable". He expects 10,000 jobs to go.

The steel deal imposes a 10% tariff on certain types of imported steel. In return for this protection the steel bosses have agreed to investment and to safeguard jobs in those lines of production to which the tariff applies. This in no way contradicts the ANC’s devotion to neoliberal economic policies. It has carefully remained within the boundaries of the tariffs allowed by the World Trade Organisation. From the bosses’ perspective, these deals are intended to buy time to prevent workers from taking action in order to restore their profits through retrenchments and closures.

The leadership of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) undoubtedly came under enormous pressure from its members. But it was a tactical mistake to approach negotiations in this way. The danger is that illusions have been fostered that it is possible to find a ‘solution’ in collaboration with the bosses, or even a capitalist government such as the ANC. This can disarm the working class when the irreconcilable interests of the workers and the bosses inevitably clash.

The mining deal looks just as shoddy. Unions will co-operate in improving productivity, changing ‘inflexible’ labour practices and consent to the sale of so-called distressed assets. All of these measures imply job cuts and the rebalancing of power in the mining sector even further in favour of the bosses. Indeed, both deals send the signal that the union leaders accept that job cuts are inevitable and see their role as simply limiting the scale.

The union leaders’ hesitation to organise a determined struggle reflects their lack of a clear alternative to capitalism. Some leaders have accepted the idea that strikes will only accelerate and increase job losses. Nationalisation is portrayed as the equivalent of detonating a nuclear bomb under the economy. But the demand for nationalisation of the steel and the mining industries under democratic workers’ control is crucial to arm the working class for the struggle to defend jobs. Fighting for democratic workers’ control is distinct from both the corrupt and bureaucratically run parastatals (like PRASA and SAA) and answers the sham partial-nationalisation of the ANC government, which uses its ownership stakes in industry to further the interests of the capitalist class.

Previously, NUMSA also failed to raise the demand during the five-week metal industry wage strike in 2014. Likewise, the leadership of mining union AMCU abandoned the call for the nationalisation of the mines, which was a central demand of the mineworkers following the strikes after the Marikana massacre in 2012.

Without the demand for nationalisation, support for tariffs amounts to asking the working class and middle class to subsidise the profits of the capitalists. In the case of steel used in government infrastructure projects this subsidy would come by tax revenue being diverted to the steel bosses to support higher prices. In the private sector it would come via passing on the increased cost through higher prices for goods and services. AMSA already has a record of manipulating prices to support its profits, and it is unlikely that the ANC government will break with its neoliberal orthodoxy and impose price controls. Indeed, AMSA is demanding far more sweeping tariffs than those so far agreed.

The working class needs a programme of action based on socialist ideas to respond to the failures of capitalism. We do not want to struggle merely to prop up a diseased system. There is more than enough use for the steel, iron ore and platinum produced in South Africa in the development of infrastructure, housing, schools, hospitals, etc. It is the bosses who are proving that profits always come before social need on the basis of their ownership of industry. Society cannot move forward and fix the problems of unemployment, poverty and inequality on this basis. This can only happen if the working class fights for the nationalisation of industry under democratic worker and community control.

Workers must lose no time in organising. Joint committees of steelworkers, mineworkers and communities should be formed to co-ordinate protest action. Demonstrations, pickets and lobbies should be organised to begin marshalling the strength of the working class. Strike action and occupations in response to any retrenchments or plant and shaft closures need to be planned. Finally, workers must take up the question of a new socialist trade union federation and workers’ party as part of this campaign. Unless we organise the working class to take power and run society in the interests of the majority, unemployment and poverty will remain the future for millions.

Shaun Arendse, Izwi Labasebenzi (newspaper of the Workers and Socialist Party)

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