SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 157 - April 2012

South African workers return to centre stage

WHEN SOUTH Africa’s largest and most militant union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), organised a one-day general strike on 7 March it was embraced by the working class as a long-awaited rush of fresh air. Cosatu had been avoiding the question for months and called off several previously announced strikes. Despite what can, at best, be described as a half-hearted mobilisation by the union leaders, there was a big turnout for the marches in Johannesburg (100,000), Cape Town (20,000) and Durban (20,000). Demonstrations were held in 29 other cities and towns in what is said to have been the largest protest since the anti-apartheid movement of the early 1980s.

Many industries, in particular mining, metal and other manufacturing industries, as well as retail stores, were severely affected. Workers took the opportunity to express their anger against the super-exploitative practice of labour broking (the outsourcing of employment to manpower companies), and the effective privatisation of the motorways through an ‘e-tolling’ system. They also displayed a more generalised anger at the relentless attacks on living standards and at the shameless corruption and self-enrichment of the ‘politically connected’. South Africa is the most unequal country on the planet, with one half of the population receiving 92% of the national income while the other half gets 8%.

A large part of the workforce, up to 30%, is employed by labour brokers or under similarly precarious conditions. Typically, they work for as little as a third of the wages of permanently employed workers, without any job security, pay progression, benefits or organisational rights. This is enriching an army of parasitic middlemen. Labour broking is a tool to divide the working class, already ravaged by a 40% unemployment rate, and to intensify its exploitation.

In its 2009 election campaign, the government of the African National Congress (ANC), led by president Jacob Zuma, promised that labour broking would be banned. Last year, it proposed amendments to the labour laws, including outlawing temporary employment for work of more than three months’ duration, and different pay for similar work, and introducing other regulations which would effectively end labour broking.

The government has been under intense pressure from horrified employers to abandon the amendments. But they have also been rejected by the Cosatu leadership, which demands an explicit ban – although, without a programme of concerted action, this amounts to little more than radical posturing. Workers, however, are desperate for an effective way to counter the neo-liberal onslaught and many have bought into Cosatu’s stance.

The negotiations have dragged on and the employers’ side has already made inroads, with an extension of the time allowed for temporary contracts to six months. And the fact is that most of the gains that are already inscribed in the labour laws are not being enforced.

The introduction of a new road-toll system, due to be introduced in Gauteng province (which includes Pretoria and Johannesburg) in April before being rolled out in other provinces, will mean dramatically increased costs of living, not only for motorists. It will also drive up prices generally. Anger is widespread against this plan, including among the middle class.

The Cosatu leadership had shied away from calling a general strike, despite the stepping up of action with the massive public-sector strike in 2010, and as the logical conclusion of the strike wave of 2011. When the strike eventually took place, after two stillborn efforts, the union leaders’ approach was hesitant. There was practically no public mobilisation or campaigning, with not a single poster of leaflet appearing in Johannesburg, and leaflets distributed only late on the afternoon the day before the strike in Durban. Outside of what appears to have been a patchy mobilisation within Cosatu’s affiliates, campaigning was limited to the media, and most of this was done at the last minute.

The Cosatu leadership, for all its love of radical phrases, even appeared shy to state that this was a general strike, speaking instead of ‘national marches’. Only the day before the march did the leaders communicate, through the media, that this was a general strike notice. As a result, the threatened shutdown of the economy was far from complete.

The large turnout shows the willingness and ability of the working class to fight. And, despite its half-heartedness, the Cosatu leadership the leadership tried to gain maximum credit for its ‘militancy’. In his speech in Johannesburg, Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, called the strike "a warning shot" and promised follow-up action, including blockading the motorways, to massive cheers. Cosatu’s president, S’dumo Dlamini, speaking in Durban, said a second strike could be held in August. The strike has certainly wetted the thirst of workers and youth, who are itching to take action.

The Cosatu leadership is riddled with divisions that appear to be deepening rapidly. On the surface, these relate most directly to the looming leadership battles in the ANC, Cosatu’s political partner. Cosatu was joined in the action by the ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, who has been expelled recently from the ANC by its disciplinary committee. The presence of Malema was welcomed by many on the march in Johannesburg. On the other hand, in Limpopo, Malema’s home province, strikers reportedly refused to be addressed by ANC figures associated with Malema.

The attempt by the right-posturing-as-left demagogue Malema to join the Cosatu leadership in riding the working-class tiger adds a complication to the development of the working-class movement. But this can be clarified in the course of the struggles, which will no doubt be unleashed in South Africa over the next few years.

Further big class struggles will see the organised workers rejecting the policies of class collaborationism, and the rank and file campaigning for democratic control of their unions and for the formation of a mass party of the working class. Such a party could unite all the fighting strands of the working class - in communities, workplaces and social movements – and struggle with independent class policies for a government of workers and poor people.

Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI South Africa) reporters


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page