South African pay dispute a test of strength
Green Left Parramatta
glparramatta at SPAMgreenleft.org.au
Thu Sep 2 10:04:34 MDT 1999
The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (http://www.greenleft.org.au),
Australia's radical newspaper.
South African pay battle a test of strength
By Norm Dixon
More than 800,000 teachers and public servants stopped work and
570,000 strikers and supporters participated in marches and
pickets across South Africa on August 24. The national public
sector strike, the largest strike since the demise of apartheid,
was over the African National Congress government's imposition of
a below-inflation wage rise on the country's 1.1 million public
According to COSATU estimates, at least 200,000 workers gathered
outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, around 100,000 mobilised
in Mafikeng, 50,000 in Mmabatho, 45,000 in Durban, 40,000 in Cape
Town, 40,000 in Bloemfontein, 50,000 in Pietersburg and 20,000 in
In an unprecedented show of working-class unity, public sector
unions affiliated to the conservative, historically
white-dominated Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA)
agreed to join forces with the COSATU unions for the August 24
stoppage. Approximately 40% of FEDUSA's 550,000 members are
The mood was captured in an August 24 report in the South African
Independent newspaper: Members of the SADTU [South African
Democratic Teachers' Union] -- an old hand at strike action --
marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria alongside members of
more conservative unions -- the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie
and the National Professional Teachers' Organisation ...
Teachers, some dancing and chanting, others walking demurely
alongside ... First-time strikers said any initial discomfort
soon disappeared when they felt the strength in solidarity and
were warmly greeted by onlookers.
The battle between public sector workers and the ANC government
is an important test of the government's ability to restrain
wages and the trade union movement's strength and willingness to
defend and advance workers' living standards.
On July 29-30, 300,000 members of the three COSATU-affiliated
public sector trade unions -- National Education, Health and
Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU), SADTU and the Police and Prisons
Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) -- stopped work in support of an
average 10% pay rise. The ANC government had offered an average
6.3% increase, which is below the inflation rate of 7.3%.
Public service and administration minister Geraldine
Fraser-Moleketi argued that a larger increase would result in
further reductions in government spending on education and health
Following the July stoppage, the 12 unions involved met and
agreed to revise the claim to an average 7.3% raise, and 8.3% for
teachers and the lowest paid. In response to the unions'
moderation, Fraser-Moleketi on August 6 announced that the
government would impose its pay offer, backdated to July 1,
without further negotiation.
The NEHAWU described the ANC government's unilateralism as the
worst style of labour relations practice reminiscent of the
apartheid style of governance.
If unions allow the government to impose a settlement, NEHAWU
president Vusi Nhlapo warned, the government will no longer
enter into any serious negotiations with unions and will
constantly wield the axe of unilateral actions on privatisation,
restructuring of the public service and wages policy. Private
employers would seize the precedent to cut workers' real wages.
The public sector pay struggle was an important issue at the
COSATU special congress held in Midrand on August 18-20. In his
opening address, COSATU acting president Peter Malepe criticised
the government's bully tactics and stated that COSATU cannot
afford a defeat of the public sector workers who make up nearly
one-third of our members. This congress must ... tilt the balance
of forces in favour of the workers.
The election of Willy Madisha, president of the 210,000-strong
SADTU, to the post of COSATU president also boosted the public
sector workers' confidence. A resolution proposed by NEHAWU,
SADTU and POPCRU that condemned the government and called for
solidarity was passed by the 2200 delegates on August 20.
The South African Communist Party (SACP) continues to send mixed
signals to its working-class and impoverished supporters. Many of
COSATU's top leaders are SACP members, including president
Madisha, who is a central committee member, and general secretary
Zwelinzima Vavi. Many leaders of NEHAWU, SADTU and POPCRU are
also members of the SACP.
Rank and file SACP branch members mobilised to leaflet and paste
up posters to build the stoppage. SACP general secretary Blade
Nzimande, in his address to the COSATU special congress,
criticised the government and called for it to return to the
On the other side, Fraser-Moleketi, the minister leading the
attack on public sector workers, is SACP deputy chairperson.
Essop Pahad, minister in the Office of the President and an SACP
central committee member, has toed the government line as
President Thabo Mbeki's spokesperson.
The SACP-dominated Gauteng provincial cabinet said on August 24
that it fully supports the position adopted by the national
government on the current labour action. It added that the
provincial government would monitor the situation and record
those absent from work to ensure that the principle of no work,
no pay is enforced.
Since the strike, Fraser-Moleketi has remained intransigent,
saying that the government was prepared to begin talks on a new
wages policy that would include a performance-linked system of
pay progression for public servants -- code-words for trading
off conditions and jobs for pay rises.
In a separate dispute, 25,000 workers employed by South Africa's
partly privatised telecommunications corporation, Telkom, and the
post office held a week of strikes and protests from August 16 to
demand pay rises of up to 14%. Telkom has offered 8.1%.
For further information on the public sector dispute, visit
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