SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

South Africa’s biggest ever public-sector strike

THE MORNING edition of the Johannesburg daily, The Star, reported: "South Africa’s biggest strike kicked off with an extraordinary sight this morning – middle aged white teachers toyi-toying outside one of Johannesburg’s top schools… 57 of 58 teachers at Parktown Girls High Schools, led by principal Anthea Cereseto, waved placards, donned t-shirts and toyi-toyied before heading for Pretoria to join the march". (16 September) The front-page headline of This Day read, Total Shutdown.

Contrary to the assurances of the public service minister, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, schools throughout the country were deserted. All teaching unions joined the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) – the biggest public-sector affiliate of the 1.8 million-strong Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – in mass action in their second ‘chalks down’ in as many weeks.

Marches were organised in over 20 towns and cities as a majority of the 800,000 unionised government employees struck in a show of unprecedented non-racial workers’ unity. It was South Africa’s biggest strike ever in a single sector. In Cape Town, 50,000 struck, Durban 45,000, and Pretoria 90,000 – more than double the numbers of teachers on strike on 2 September.

The burning anger was directed particularly towards the minister, whose SeSotho surname, Moleketi, has been punned into the Afrikaans ‘moeilikheid’ (trouble) – expressing the bitter animosity at her arrogant negotiating style and derisory 6% wage offer. She has become the target of struggle songs previously directed against the apartheid regime. In Pretoria, marchers chanted, ‘Voetsek Moeilikheid’ – voetsek is a word used to chase away a dog. At the rally, she was howled down as she shouted the traditional struggle slogan ‘amandla!’(power). She left in tears after plastic missiles and other objects were hurled at the podium.

Sadtu’s 100,000-strong 2 September national strike provided the spark that lit the veld-fire of government employees’ anger raging across the country. A cauldron of discontent had been simmering since the government’s imposition of its wage offer in 1999, after Fraser-Moleketi had walked out of the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council. It swept through like a hurricane, whose course, size and impact is never precisely predictable even when expected.

Despite the explosion of anger at the special Cosatu congress coinciding with Fraser-Moleketi’s 1999 walk-out, the Cosatu leadership held back from the 48-hour general strike delegates demanded. That left the public-sector workers to fight alone. Despite what was then the biggest public-sector strike, it failed to reverse the government’s attack.

That capitulation weakened the unions in subsequent salary negotiations amid bitter divisions between the leaderships of Sadtu and the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu). Nehawu leaders were determined to win the beauty contest as the ANC government’s favourite sweethearts. The government pushed through a three-year deal – just above inflation increases, with cuts in housing allowance, medical aid, sick leave – with the full agreement of the leadership.

The subsequent deterioration of conditions of service and the decline in infrastructure and quality of health and education services have resulted in an exodus of teachers and health workers overseas. In addition, the sense of alienation and exploitation felt by the masses has been inflamed by the newly-enriched black millionaires – who now number over 700 compared to 100 in 1994 – flaunting their wealth ostentatiously.

Electricity and water cuts, evictions for non-payment of rent and rates, containment of wage increases and retrenchments have further provoked the masses. Since the ANC’s election landslide, there has been pubic outrage over corruption and an attempted cover-up in the ‘Travelgate’ scandal – 30 MPs are under investigation by the Scorpions (South Africa’s FBI) for lucrative deals with travel agents for luxury cruises and overseas holidays for their families and partners.

As the ANC celebrated ten years of democracy and its 70% landslide, there was an outbreak of student protest against cuts, starting at the prestigious University of the Witwatersrand and spreading across the country. The Socialist Student Movement (linked to the Democratic Socialist Movement – CWI South Africa) called mass meetings at Wits and a 500-strong day of action in Durban on 9 September. A week before, police opened fire with bird-shot on high-school students protesting against poor services in the Free State, killing a 17-year-old.

There have been outbreaks of protests on housing in Protea Glen in Soweto. In Diepsloot, just outside Johannesburg, a youth was shot dead by police. He was trying to protect his mother from being manhandled by the police, who were guarding officials cutting-off their electricity.

In the mid-year wage negotiations, thousands of private-sector workers have successfully struck, or merely threatened strike action, to secure wage increases higher than those offered to the public sector.

This latest education strike showed up important changes in the workers’ movement. The new Nehawu leadership, elected at its June congress as the negotiations stalled, replaced leaders who were seen as corrupt. In the words of the Cosatu general secretary, they had turned the union into lapdogs of the ANC government.

But the new leadership, forced into the ring like a reluctant fighter, took cover at the first whiff of grape shot. As Sadtu declared a strike, Nehawu leaders sent out a circular arguing ‘there was no prospect of strike now or in the immediate future’. They looked into the water, saw the surface calm of the past five years, mistook the image of their own cowardice for that of the membership, and issued a weather forecast that made no provision for a hurricane.

An infuriated rank-and-file in a number of provinces participated in the 2 September Sadtu marches with no guidance or support from head office. A DSM comrade on the Pretoria region executive sent a letter to head office denouncing the circular as a betrayal and a sell-out. He accused the leadership of turning the membership into strike-breakers and agents of the ANC government.

So shaken was the leadership that the public spokesperson actually wrote back! While defending the right of national office bearers to express their views, he said he disagreed with their position and believed the union should strike. Within five days of the first circular, the national officers sent out a second circular claiming that their position had been misinterpreted. Astonishingly, the circular repeated the same position while acknowledging that if the membership wished to strike then that would be the position of the union. At a special national executive committee, the national officer’s miserable protestations were swept aside by an overwhelming vote for strike action in all nine provinces.

Even the Sadtu leaders, whose actions appeared to reflect a greater combativity, were prepared to settle – along with Nehawu and eight public-sector unions – at the special bargaining council meeting on 3 September, for the very 6% they had called the workers out against.

Scenting blood, the minister attempted to force the leaders already on their knees onto their bellies. She stuck to her 6% and insisted on a three-year agreement with the second and third year increases limited to inflation. She proposed that should inflation fall below this year’s level next year, salaries would have to be adjusted downwards! The workers were being offered a loan!

Even for these spineless leaders this was too much. Sadtu general secretary, Thulas Nxesi, pointed out: ‘We have a membership to take account of’. If they had gone back to the membership with what amounted to a cut in real terms, they would have been lynched. A leadership, until then huddling together in a corner, had no alternative but to come out fighting.

The leadership was caught between the hard place of government intransigence and the volcanic rock of rank-and-file anger. The success of this strike was due entirely to the determination and class solidarity of the membership. Had the Nehawu members not defied their leadership during Sadtu’s strike it could potentially have damaged public-sector unity, causing long-lasting damage throughout Cosatu. The membership saved Cosatu from a process of agonising disintegration.

Another important feature is the political conclusions workers are drawing. President Thabo Mbeki denounced the strike, but in a way that will make the ridiculous position of the Cosatu leadership – that this was not a strike against the ANC but against the government as an employer – impossible to sustain. He pointed out that the Cosatu leaders who had campaigned for an ANC vote were now leading strikes against it.

It will no longer be possible for the Cosatu leadership to pretend that the ANC as a political party and the ANC in government are two different political personae. In both the Pretoria and Cape Town demonstrations, the slogan ‘viva ANC’ was conspicuous by its absence. ANC flags were nowhere in sight. Even the South African Communist Party (SACP) had a very low profile, repeating the mealy-mouthed appeals of 1999 for both sides to resolve their differences.

Having drawn back Nehawu and Sadtu from the brink of a near-total breakdown of class solidarity, rank-and-file workers are beginning to witness with their own eyes what the DSM has been warning about for some time: that whilst the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, Cosatu and the SACP) was being maintained in the name of unity, it has become a source of disunity. The outline of the consciousness necessary for the re-assertion of the class independence of the working class through the break-up of the Tripartite Alliance is beginning to take shape. The situation is pregnant with the possibility of a mass workers’ party, although as yet in the first month.

The survey, carried out by Cosatu’s research arm, into whether workers would support the establishment of a mass workers’ party to stand in the elections, found 33% in favour in September 2003 – just over six months before the last general election. No doubt, today, hardly six months after, that figure would be significantly higher.

The Cosatu leadership has called a two-day public-sector stay-away on 20/21 September [as we go to press]. Called in haste at the rally itself, it might not be well supported as the government is rigorously implementing the no-work no-pay policy. The leadership is creating, consciously or unconsciously, the conditions for accepting the settlement on the basis that, despite their anger, workers could not sustain the action. Much better would have been a rolling campaign of mass action based on one day a week, involving workers reporting for duty until ten o’clock, leaving for a rally and returning at lunch. This would have made the no-work no-pay policy an administrative nightmare, maintained the momentum of 16 September, and served as a basis for a general strike of the private, public and parastatal sectors.

The workers may not win this dispute, although there is no reason they could not if the leadership was prepared to fight. But the leadership is fearful of the political implications of escalating the action. It would tear away at the credibility of the Tripartite Alliance with which many of their careers in the corporate world and senior government posts are tied up. However, even if the workers are defeated, they will have lost after a fight. They will have learned profoundly important lessons. The class polarisation and the political differentiation will continue.

Even so, a concession from the government is still not ruled out, as sections of the ANC leadership may regard the collapse of the Tripartite Alliance as undesirable and premature despite the ANC’s 70% majority in the last elections.

Weizmann Hamilton,

Democratic Socialist Movement,

CWI South Africa


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