South African workers confront `comrade ministers'

Green Left Parramatta glparramatta at SPAMpeg.apc.org
Tue Aug 10 10:32:42 MDT 1999




The following article appears in the latest (#371, August 11, 1999)
issue of Green Left Weekly (http://www.greenleft.org.au/),
Australia's radical newspaper.

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 South African workers confront `comrade ministers'

 By Norm Dixon

 South African worker militants struggling against the African
 National Congress (ANC) government's austere economic policies,
 privatisations and job losses are discovering an unexpected
 opponent -- a group of senior leaders of the South African
 Communist Party (SACP).

 South African President Thabo Mbeki has appointed SACP members to
 key cabinet posts responsible for implementing the government's
 conservative economic policy (dubbed Growth, Employment and
 Redistribution -- GEAR), speeding up privatisation and
 ``restructuring'' of public utilities and restraining public sector
 workers' wages.

 The ANC cabinet contains seven ministers and one deputy minister
 who are also SACP members. Dozens of SACP members are among the
 ANC's 266 MPs in the national parliament. It is SACP policy that
 members elected on ANC lists must abide by the discipline of the
 ANC.

 SACP central committee members holding portfolios include: trade
 and industry minister Alec Erwin; public service and
 administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi; public
 enterprises minister Jeff Radebe; minister for water and forestry
 Ronnie Kasrils; minister for provincial and local government
 Sydney Mufamadi; and minister for the Office of the President
 Essop Pahad.

 In a remarkable development, three of the SACP's top
 office-bearers -- party chairperson Charles Nqakula, deputy
 chairperson Fraser-Moleketi and deputy general secretary Jeremy
 Cronin -- are ANC MPs and are not free to speak out against the
 ANC's policies. Cronin had been the SACP's most vocal, although
 moderate, critic of GEAR. Only SACP general secretary Blade
 Nzimande remains free to voice publicly the party's criticisms of
 GEAR and privatisation.

 Former Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) president
 and SACP central committee member John Gomomo is also an ANC MP.
 Sam Shilowa, former COSATU general secretary and also an SACP
 central committee member, has been appointed by Mbeki as the ANC
 premier of Gauteng province.

 In a move that further compromises the SACP leadership's
 independence, Nqakula accepted the position of Mbeki's
 parliamentary councillor -- a job, according to media reports,
 that involves being the president's ``eyes and ears in the
 legislature''. Another senior SACP central committee member,
 Thenjiwe Mtintso, as deputy general secretary of the ANC, must
 also follow the ANC line.

 Public servants strike

 The SACP's dilemma has been highlighted most recently by the
 roles played by ``comrade ministers'' Fraser-Moleketi and Radebe.

 On July 29 and 30, more than 300,000 public servants struck to
 support demands for a 10% pay rise. The decision to strike
 followed several weeks of mass demonstrations and pickets.

 The national strike resulted from Fraser-Moleketi's steadfast
 refusal to alter seriously the government's wage offer of 4-6.8%,
 below the inflation rate of 7.3%. She threatened to deduct any
 wage increase that was won from the education and health services
 budget.

 ``A strike in the current climate would be counter-productive and
 impact on services offered to all South Africans'', she said.

 ``Service delivery is being undermined by the government's
 macro-economic policy, not our demands'', responded COSATU acting
 president Peter Malepe.

 The strike, called by the three largest public service unions
 affiliated to COSATU, was supported by around 80% of South
 Africa's school teachers, as well as most hospital support staff.
 Police, prison staff and nurses classified under labour laws as
 working in ``essential services'' held lunchtime pickets. Tens of
 thousands of workers from non-COSATU unions struck on August 3
 and 4.

 Privatisation

 Radebe is responsible for increasing the pace of privatisation at
 a time of growing unemployment and mass retrenchments.

 Telkom, South Africa's telephone company, which was partially
 privatised in 1997, has announced that it will sack 10,000
 workers. On July 8, the state-owned railway corporation,
 Spoornet, announced that 27,000 jobs would be eliminated. The ANC
 government is ``restructuring'' and ``corporatising'' the various
 divisions of the state transport department, Transnet, in
 preparation for sale.

 Spoornet's chief executive, Braam Le Roux, claimed the government
 had approved the corporation's plan. On July 13, Radebe denied
 this but refused to rule out the retrenchments.

 Soon after Mbeki's June 25 announcement that a 20% stake in South
 African Airways had been sold to Swiss Air for 1.4 billion rands
 (US$230 million), Radebe stated his determination to make sure
 that the government's privatisation program, which is budgeted to
 raise R4 billion this year, was accelerated. ``We are not only
 hot, we are red hot on this issue'', Radebe stated.

 On July 19, Radebe announced that management of the postal
 service would be awarded to a joint venture between the British
 Post Office and New Zealand Post International. The new bosses
 must make the service run at a profit. In Britain and New
 Zealand, that was achieved at the cost of thousands of jobs.

 Other SACP ministers seem certain to, or already have, come into
 conflict with the party's working-class and impoverished
 supporters. Erwin is an architect of GEAR and, with finance
 minister Trevor Manuel, is in charge of overall government
 economic policy, including the massive restructuring of the South
 African economy in the name of ``international competitiveness''.
 This has resulted in more than 500,000 jobs being lost since
 1994, especially in the manufacturing and clothing and footwear
 industries.

 Spokespeople for South Africa's capitalist class praised Erwin's
 reappointment as trade and industry minister on June 17. The
 one-time ``struggle liberal'', now born-again neo-liberal columnist
 for the Weekly Mail and Guardian, Howard Barrell, pointed out on
 June 18: ``Both [Erwin and Manuel] have won the confidence of the
 markets and their presence in their current portfolios is seen as
 a measure of the government's determination to stick to its
 current economic course''.

 Kasrils and Mufamadi will play a part in the privatisation of
 municipal water and sanitation services and will find themselves
 face to face with militant members of the South African Municipal
 Workers Union. Kasrils will be involved in the sell-off of South
 Africa's vast state forests. Mufamadi must oversee funding cuts
 to provincial and municipal budgets.

 Responsible for ensuring that ANC MPs -- including the SACP
 members -- toe the cabinet line is former Western Cape SACP
 firebrand Tony Yengeni, who was appointed ANC chief whip in
 March. Yengeni, who has a reputation as a ``populist'', told the
 March 17 Business Day that he has been a strong supporter of GEAR
 ``from the word go''.

 ``I am a champion of the policies of my government. I must stand
 by them, explain them to the public and make sure they are
 implemented'', Yengeni said. Privatisation is ``a good concept, if
 done properly'', he added.

 While SACP ministers implement GEAR, the leading bodies of the
 SACP and the SACP-influenced COSATU continue to pass resolutions
 and issue numerous statements critical of GEAR and its
 consequences.

 However, the weight of so many senior ANC government
 office-holders within the SACP's top leadership seems to have
 paralysed the party's efforts to turn its anti-GEAR and
 anti-privatisation resolutions into action. This was illustrated
 by the failure of the July 18 central committee meeting to
 support the public sector workers.

 In a media statement at the end of the meeting, the central
 committee meekly said: ``Members of the CC include senior members
 of government and of public sector trade unions, who currently
 find themselves in the midst of a difficult negotiation process.
 The CC agreed that it would be invidious for the SACP to seek to
 adopt a fixed position on the wage issue -- the unions and the
 government must negotiate.''

 The contradictory positions of leaders of South Africa's largest
 left-wing party are causing concern within its ranks that the
 party will become discredited in the eyes of militant workers and
 hamper its ability to lead the struggles of workers and the poor.

 Some in the party argue that the SACP must insist that party
 members in government be bound by SACP policy and that action be
 taken against members who wilfully ignore the party program. At
 the moment, the SACP constitution does not allow members active
 in the ANC to be disciplined.

 To achieve this, SACP members may need to be prepared for a
 significant political struggle within the party. At the SACP's
 10th congress in July 1998, Mbeki issued a blunt ultimatum to the
 SACP leadership that it must either cease its opposition to GEAR
 and other ANC policies or leave the ANC. The elevation of a
 significant proportion of the SACP central committee to the
 cabinet, knowing full well that their job is to implement GEAR
 and defuse working-class opposition, indicates that many SACP
 leaders have made their choice.

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