Commentary on South Africa
CharlesB at CNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Wed Sep 5 12:33:20 MDT 2001
September 1, 2001
The COSATU General Strike and the Treachery of the
By Eric Mann <ericmann at mindspring.com>
DURBAN (August 30) -- South Africans have raised marching
for freedom to an art form. Today 100 WCAR/NGO Forum
delegates, myself included, responded to a call by the
Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to join the
Durban march against privatization of public services.
Singing and dancing in a combination cultural, political,
military event, we marched for four hours. Didn't know Zulu
chants? No problem, they taught us. In the second day of a
national political strike, the streets of Durban were filled
with wave upon wave of union contingents -- some 30,000
This was not a trade union rally for a better contract; it
was a nation-wide political strike of black working class
and poor people for the future of their country. The call to
strike? "We did not fight for liberation so that we could
sell everything we won to the highest bidder!"
As the World Conference Against Racism NGO Forum prepares
for the formal UN agenda, the United States continues its
political interference, attempting to dominate the UN agenda
even as it refuses to participate. (See my first dispatch On
to Durban: Putting the Heat on the U.S.)
But for the moment, my attention is fixed on the struggle of
the host country, South Africa, to actualize its revolution.
This complex and open struggle over South Africa's
post-apartheid future is shaping the debate over racism, the
world conference, and the consciousness of the delegates.
I am in the process, which of course will be long, of trying
to sort out the enormous revolutionary significance of the
vibrant, passionate left debates occurring before my eyes.
For now, I want to convey the intensity and content of
debate that in just five days in the country has challenged
my consciousness and hopefully yours as well.
The COSATU-led two-day general strike on the eve of the UN
Conference Against Racism is the focus of struggle. As we
got off the plane in Durban, the blaring headlines in the
South African newspaper declared "'COSATU leaders are liars'
-- Mbeki." In another headline COSATU charged, "distortions,
half-truths, and character assassinations," in response to a
statement released by government ministers accusing COSATU
of trying to sabotage the world racism conference.
This is not a morality play, but a strategy play -- with
implications for the entire world. The immediate subject of
the debate? The strike is demanding that "the government
hold the sale of state assets while a new privatization
policy is worked out." To this Thabo Mbeki, the president of
South Africa who once was an important figure on the world
left, responded "one of the lies they [COSATU] tell us is
that our government has betrayed policies agreed upon by the
broad democratic movement with regard to the issue of
restructuring state assets, thus, they argue that because of
this we have betrayed the objectives of a better life for
all." Mbeki accused the COSATU leaders of using its members
"as cannon fodder in an intensive effort aimed at defeating
their own liberation movement."
In response, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM/a member of
COSATU) General Secretary Gwede Mantashe said the strike
would send a message to the governing African National
Congress (ANC) that "a mandate to govern is not a blank
cheque." Leading 300,000 mineworkers across the nation into
the strike, he charged, "we are fast approaching a stage in
our movement where there are those who want to centralize
power in order to kill off organizational structures. It is
to the advantage of those in power to have weak structures.
They are very nervous. A clear picture is emerging of an ANC
that was elected by the left working class and is governing
for the right-wing middle class."
The current struggle is not over "privatization in general";
all the parties of the united front Alliance -- ANC, COSATU,
and the SACP (South African Communist Party) -- have agreed
to the privatization of resources to some extent. COSATU is
arguing that the process has gone too far, that since the
government replaced the Reconstruction and Development
Programme with the Growth, Employment and Redistribution
(GEAR) Programme, private capital is still fleeing the
country while basic services -- food, water, energy, housing
-- are being denied. The poor cannot afford to make any
payments and subsidy is urgently needed.
Mbeki's argument as best I can understand is that
privatization is a tactic to attract and retain urgently
needed domestic and foreign capital -- either as an
inducement or as a necessary concession. In that context,
Mbeki's rhetorical jibe at COSATU as those who "claim easy
victories over the colonial and apartheid legacy"
essentially argues that the ANC is in governance now and
those who think that it is so easy should try it. The basis
for this argument is that there are white racists throughout
the country including still-armed white paramilitary groups.
Tribal warfare is on the rise throughout Africa; the ANC is
compelled to find ways to placate some conservative forces
among the ZULU people represented by the Inkatha Freedom
Party and not alienate them further from the ANC government.
Some in the ANC argue that capital is fleeing South Africa
and the new government needs national and foreign
investment: privatization opens up new avenues for capital
investment, reduces state expenditures, and creates new
opportunities for taxation. Without possible support from a
no-longer existing Soviet Union or the People's Republic of
China, they say that the main goal is to consolidate the
anti-apartheid revolution, strengthen the power of the
government, and create a viable economy.
In contrast, the COSATU leadership argues that while aware
of these contradictions, far too many concessions are being
made to international capital and to a burgeoning and, in
their opinion, rapacious Black bourgeoisie. Some COSATU and
SACP members argue that the state faces a challenge -- if it
does not seize or commandeer or purchase at fair prices the
resources of whites, if it does not tax capital and risk
capital flight, it may find itself with no capital and risk
a lifetime of indebtedness to the World Bank. For now,
COSATU is beginning as all social movements do with a demand
that the government stop privatizing, and leaving the ball
in the government's court as to how to deal with the
The growing political conflict between COSATU and the ANC
government should not be interpreted as a split. At this
point these are still tactical contradictions between
strategic allies. The complex tripartite alliance between
the ANC, COSATU and the SACP is defined as a "strategic
partnership." To understand the complexity, it helps to know
that these are not simply three separate coalition partners:
* All COSATU and SACP members are in the ANC, many
of whom hold office including ministerial level positions in
the national government.
* Many COSATU leaders and members are also members
of the SACP.
* Several key ministers in the ANC government
including some who have supported the GEAR program and the
present focus on privatization are members of both SACP and
COSATU. And some of them have taken a very hard line against
the left, in "defense" of the government's policies.
While there are some who talk as if the ANC is a
petit-bourgeois party, it is in fact a multi-class party
whose membership is overwhelmingly black working class.
Whether the Mbeki leadership serves the interest of the
Black working class is another question.
At the same time, it is widely agreed that COSATU and the
SACP are losing some credibility with the rank and file
members and the overall working class as the growing
poverty, homelessness, and deterioration of social services
is reaching national crisis proportions. Something bold had
to be done to impact government policy. In this context, the
two-day general strike is a major show of force by the
majority of the COSATU leadership to establish its own
power, its own independence in the united front.
The widespread sense of betrayal by the government is
reflected in observations by a hotel employee I interviewed
who expressed his anger at the Truth and Reconciliation
Process. "Many of us lost our fathers and mothers, lost our
livelihood, and yet all the white people had to do was to
say they were sorry and admit their guilt and they got to
keep their jobs, their pensions, their everything and we
still have nothing except an apology. We thought we would be
compensated and instead now they are taking away our
The clear positive is that everybody I have talked to says
that this is genuine mass struggle from below. While the
official COSATU line is "moratorium" until they "reclarify"
what privatization means, the masses of marching workers
seem to be saying, "Let us clarify it for you." "Hands off
the parks, hands off the schools, hands off hospitals,
telecommunications, energy, water. Basic needs cannot be
Watching thousands of workers in the streets, I am moved by
the motion of the masses and by the fact that socialism is a
mass question. Almost every union had a slogan about
socialism on their banners that spread across the street.
"Fight for national liberation and socialism!" The line put
out most clearly was, "we can't keep talking about socialism
if we give away the building blocks of socialism; and the
building blocks are all the basic services needed for
survival of the working class controlled by the working
class through the government." Whether or not they can hold
on to these building blocks remains to be seen.
Contrary to Mbeki's fear that the general strike would
embarrass the host nation, the openness of this struggle --
before an international audience -- brings credit to South
Africa. It highlights the pressure imposed on national
liberation movements, especially when they succeed, to
submit to the treachery of the international marketplace.
The South African revolution emancipated its people from
colonial and white minority domination. Yet, the
exploitation of nations that is the very foundation of
imperialism sets the stage for South Africa's political
struggle over the terms of its integration into the global
economy. Those watching the UN World Conference Against
Racism can find no better illustration of the presence of
the United States in spite of its absence.
Eric Mann has been an anti-racist, civil rights,
environmental, and labor organizer for 35 years. He is a
veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a
Democratic Society, and spent ten years as a United Auto
Workers assembly line worker. He is presently a member of
the Planning Committee of the L.A. Bus Riders Union and the
director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. The views
expressed in this article are his own.
Copyright (c) 2001 Eric Mann. All Rights Reserved.
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