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Issue 43, November 1999

SA workers challenge ANC neo-liberalism

THE BIGGEST mobilisation of workers since the defeat of apartheid took place on 24 August 1999. Nearly 600,000 public-sector workers marched through South Africa's major cities in protest at a government-imposed wage award below their demand for 7.3%. It was the first time that national mass action had been sanctioned by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) against the African National Congress (ANC) government since it came to power in 1994.

The three Cosatu-affiliated public-sector unions and the other nine more conservative unions were brought together in an unprecedented show of unity. It became South Africa's first ever public-sector general strike.

The mass action occurred against a background of redundancies across all sectors of the economy. Hardly a month after the ANC's massive election victory on 2 June (when the ANC won 66.36% of the vote and a bigger majority than in 1994), they announced 50,000 jobs losses in telecommunications, railways and mining.

Jobs have been axed throughout the ANC's first five years in government: 29,000 in engineering in the first six months of this year; 20,000 textile jobs in 1998; 50,000 in construction since 1997; 150,000 in mining in the last two years (350,000 since 1987); and 170,000 in the public-sector over the last five years. Together with the thousands who have been evicted by white farmers seeking to circumvent their obligations under the new labour and land tenure laws, the net job losses exceed half a million.


The timing of the redundancies, and the provocative tactics of the government in the public-sector dispute, are part of a strategy designed to allay the bosses' fears that the government might undertake populist measures. Thabo Mbeki's government has gone on the offensive against Cosatu, its major partner in the Tripartite Alliance (made up of the ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party - SACP), with the aim of weakening Cosatu's power and political authority. Such has been the ferocity of the attacks that some newspapers have cautioned the government about the implications of its actions.

The government's attitude towards the public-sector unions in negotiations bordered on contempt. Its opening offer turned out to be its final offer while, after more than six months of talks, the unions reduced their demand from 15% to 7.3%. Cynically, the minister of public service and administration, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi (national deputy chairperson of the SACP), denounced the public-sector workers for making wage demands which could only be met by cutting services for the poor.

The Mbeki government has sent a clear signal to the bosses that it will speed up its implementation of Gear - its strategy for Growth, Employment And Redistribution. Gear has entailed privatisation, downsizing, wage cuts, lower corporation tax, the removal of tariff barriers and easing of exchange control regulations. But, instead of attracting foreign investment, money has flowed out of South Africa, with leading corporations relocating their stock exchange listings to London. The rise in mass poverty, contrasting with the enrichment of a new black elite, has made South Africa the second-most unequal society in the world after Brazil, according to the UN.


The Cosatu leadership has been politically disoriented by involvement in the Tripartite Alliance. While denouncing Gear in words, it has failed to mount any serious resistance to this generalised attack on the working class. Coincidentally, a special Cosatu congress to elect a new leadership - called after Cosatu's general secretary and president had been 'redeployed' to government - took place the week before the public-sector strike. Compelled to reflect the workers' anger, the Cosatu leadership criticised the ANC government for its stance. In response, guest speaker, defence minister 'Terror' Lekota, denounced the public-sector unions for lacking 'revolutionary discipline', which only inflamed the workers' anger.

Against a background of public sympathy for the public-sector workers, and with Cosatu flexing its muscles, there was the perfect platform to call for a general strike. Unfortunately, the very success of the public-sector mobilisation appears to have convinced the Cosatu leadership to pull back. The unions have suspended action in favour of mediation. The government's stubbornness may yet force the unions back onto the streets, but this seems unlikely at the moment.

The Cosatu central executive committee announced a programme of monthly mobilisations of different sectors in different provinces culminating in a general strike in May 2000! It made no mention, however, of the public-sector dispute. In reality, the militant noises in support of public-sector workers notwithstanding, the Cosatu special congress marked a further shift to the right ideologically. Resolutions adopted at the congress denounced job losses, for example, without reference to Gear.


The SACP also opposes Gear in words but has not called for action to oppose it. It proclaims itself as the leadership of the working class but is really in the vanguard of the neo-liberal offensive against it. SACP central committee members have been deployed in positions vital to Gear's successful implementation: Jeff Radebe, minister of public enterprises, who has said that 'on privatisation we are not just hot, we are red hot'; Alec Erwin, minister of trade and industry, who was responsible for dismantling tariff barriers which resulted in thousands of job losses in the textile and clothing industries; Sydney Mufamadi, minister of local government, who is planning to sell-off public services in Johannesburg; Sam Shilowa, former Cosatu general secretary, due to privatise the provincial government in Gauteng; and Ronnie Kasrils, who aims to sell-off huge tracts of forests in the biggest such privatisation exercise in the world. No wonder the 18 July SACP central committee, which met during the public-sector dispute, stated: 'members of the CC include senior members of the government and of public sector trade unions, who currently find themselves in the midst of a difficult negotiations process. The CC agreed that it would be invidious for the SACP to adopt a fixed position on the wage issue - the unions and the government must negotiate'!

The ANC government's imposition of its wage offer is a serious attack not only on collective bargaining and trade union rights, but on democracy itself. Cosatu was the spinal column of the workers' movement which defeated white minority rule and apartheid. Without Cosatu the ANC's victory would not have been possible. A dangerous precedent has been set with parliament deciding public-sector wages. The credibility of public-sector collective bargaining has been undermined. And the Tripartite Alliance has been exposed as a political trap for the organised working class.


It has added confidence to the bosses' attacks on organised labour. Already the mining group, Durban Roodepoort Deep, have fired 10,000 miners at the Hartebeestfontein mine for 'questioning the terms and conditions of their transfer after the mine was sold to DRD by Avgold'. (Star Business Report, 21 August 1999) In violation of an agreement made after recent strike action, Columbus Stainless suspended 17 Numsa (miners' union) members and threatened to dismiss any workers who take solidarity action. Telkom used the lock-out provision in the new Labour Relations Act - the first time this has happened - against the Communication Workers Union (affiliated to Cosatu) after settling with the white-dominated conservative unions.

The government pleads poverty yet has dismissed calls for debt cancellation. Department of finance director general, Maria Ramos, says this debt was incurred 'legitimately' and must be repaid! One in every five rand spent by the government goes to service the debt inherited from the corrupt regime of apartheid criminals.

Finance minister, Trevor Manuel, cut corporate tax by a further 5% on top of previous cuts in the March budget. This is worth R2 billion: 'In the case of a company like South African Breweries, for example, this meant a tax bonsela of more than R500,000 a day for a year'. (Star Business report, 6 August 1999) That is more than enough to meet a 10% wage demand in the public sector. At the same time, the government is proposing to spend R27 billion on arms procurement!

  Socialist Alternative - the South African section of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) - is campaigning amongst rank-and-file trade union members for the socialist renewal of Cosatu: to return this great trade union movement to its fighting traditions of struggle, solidarity and socialism. Even now the call for a general strike would meet with a massive response. The battle for the soul of the ANC has been irreversibly lost. It is time to end the Tripartite Alliance and prepare for the launch of a workers' party on a socialist programme.

Weizmann Hamilton

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