South African pay dispute a test of strength

Green Left Parramatta glparramatta at
Thu Sep 2 10:04:34 MDT 1999

The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (,
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
 sector workers.

 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
 negotiating table.

 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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