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issue 60, October 2001

South Africa's anti-privatisation strike

THE STRUGGLE against privatisation in South Africa has entered a qualitatively new stage. At the end of August the 2m-strong Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) held a two-day general strike to protest against the government's plan to privatise the Electricity Supply Commission (ESKOM). Tens of thousands of workers joined protest demonstrations in Johannesburg and other cities, as schools, transport and factories were hit.

This is a development of enormous political significance. Although the general strike was in protest against the privatisation of Eskom, effectively it was a protest against the government's macro-economic strategy, known as the Growth Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR), with privatisation at its heart.

GEAR has devastated the lives of the South African working class. Introduced to replace the mildly reformist Reconstruction and Development Programme, GEAR's aim was to bring economic policy into line with the prevailing neo-liberal Washington consensus: to slash government expenditure in pursuit of a zero-deficit budget by 2002, downsize the public sector, lower wages and undermine conditions, outsource and privatise. The lowering of tariff barriers by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, also part of GEAR, has resulted in the loss of a million jobs in the clothing, textile and leather industries alone since 1990. Ironically, this ministry, as are all the ministries key to the implementation of the various aspects of GEAR, is headed by a central committee member of the South African Communist Party (SACP).


After coming to power in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) not only continued the social and economic war waged on the working class by the apartheid regime, but intensified it. Tariff barriers have been lowered at a rate faster than that demanded by the World Trade Organisation. Far from attracting foreign investment, it has led to a flight of capital with five of the top ten companies on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange relocating their head offices overseas. To maintain the limit on public spending in the health sector, the government has refused to supply free drugs to Aids sufferers despite the fact that South Africa has the highest number of HIV/AIDS sufferers in the world.

The result is that South Africa is competing with Brazil for the position of the most unequal society in the world. Unemployment is estimated at between six to eight million, more than 40% of the economically active population. Over half the population, 57%, live below the poverty line with 18 million people earning less than R350 (less than £35) per month when the minimum living level for a low income family of five is very conservatively estimated at R1400 (under £140) a month.

The general strike was particularly significant because, through the proposed privatisation of Eskom, the government is planning to give their privatisation programme a real lift off. The privatisation that has taken place so far - mainly in local government - is small beer compared to what they are planning this year. Eskom's privatisation is part of a package including the telecommunication (Telkom), arms procurement (Armscor) and transport (Transnet) parastatals. Big business at home and abroad have been happy with Mbeki's public pledges as a defender of the neo-liberal faith. But what they want to know now is, where is the beef?


This is the first two-day general strike since the ANC came to power. Far more explicitly than the one-day general strike against job losses last year, this action was directed against the ANC government. Cosatu is part of what the media misleadingly describe as the 'ruling' Tripartite Alliance. Cosatu may be part of the Alliance but it is certainly not ruling. Its role is to police the working class, to secure its acquiescence to the policies of its 'senior' Alliance partner, the ANC. All the Cosatu leadership have been demanding so far is to be consulted about privatisation, not to oppose it in principle. Pressure from below has made it impossible for them to continue to act as a political rubberstamp for anti-working class policies.

The turning point was when the ANC national executive committee publicly rejected Cosatu's demands for a moratorium on privatisation and gave their unqualified backing to the government's plans. It was no longer possible for the Cosatu leadership to hide behind nonsensical explanations that the problems lay with individual ministers, or 'the ANC as a government' and not 'the ANC as a political party'.

The Cosatu leadership found themselves caught between their public humiliation by the ANC from the top and the burning anger of the working class from below. The working class is experiencing the consequences of privatisation through the bitter reality of everyday life. As part of Eskom's preparation for privatisation, the government has instituted a policy of 'cost recovery'. People who cannot pay their tariffs are cut off. Where people respond by illegally reconnecting, the cables connecting them to the grid are physically removed and meters ripped from the walls of their homes. Pensioners on the government's pittance of R570 (less than £57) a month have their electricity cut off days before pension payout day with demands for reconnection fees of up to R1500 (£150)!


Homes are being sold to recover arrears, furniture is being sold in public auctions to enforce the policy of cost recovery. This policy is being applied ruthlessly and indiscriminately, backed up by armed private armed security who have already killed two people for attempting to resist. The privatisation of water, in particular the merciless application of the 'cost recovery' policy, has resulted in water cut-offs.

In a rural area in Kwa Zulu Natal last year, a subsidised water supply in place since before the end of apartheid was summarily terminated with a demand by the government for a R51 reconnection fee. Only one third of the population in the area could afford it. The remainder went to dams and rivers. The result? The biggest cholera epidemic in the country's history - with 105,000 infections - which has so far claimed the lives of 220 people. The anger of the working class is based on this experience, not some abstract 'ideology' as the government so insultingly suggests.

Privatisation has also been accompanied like a shadow by corruption. In particular the government's 'black economic empowerment' strategy - the enrichment of a rich minority of aspirant capitalists in the name of the black majority - has seen ugly confrontations as the different empowerment companies struggle like pigs for a place to put their noses in the public trough.

The strike wave that is currently sweeping through the country is an expression of a volcano that is coming to life. The lava spewing out will leave the political landscape changed forever. The Tripartite Alliance may survive as a cosy agreement between the leadership at the top. But at the bottom it is finished. In time the Cosatu leadership will have to break from the Alliance or risk splitting Cosatu itself.


The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), the South African section of the CWI, calls for a campaign of mass non-payment. Within the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) - a coalition of community and left political organisations based mainly in Gauteng at this stage but planning to spread nationally - this has now been accepted. The APF's Soweto affiliate, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee led by former ANC councillor Trevor Ngwane, (expelled for publicly opposing the ANC's local government privatisation programme) recently organised a rally in Soweto to launch the service payment boycott campaign. The APF is co-ordinating illegal reconnections in a campaign called Operation Khanyisa (Zulu for 'light up'). It has successfully begun to place the de facto mass non-payment driven mainly by an inability to pay, on an organised conscious footing based on a refusal to pay.

The DSM was on the platform at the Soweto rally. We called for support for Cosatu strike action and for Cosatu to break from the Alliance and to prepare to form a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

Weizmann Hamilton,
Democratic Socialist Movement - CWI South Africa

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