[Marxism] South African trade unionists confront Zuma

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 19 11:59:36 MDT 2010

South African Public Sector Workers Launch All-Out Strike
Written by Jorge Martin Thursday, 19 August 2010

More than a million South African public sector workers started an 
all-out national strike for better wages and conditions on 
Wednesday, August 18. The present wave of strikes shows that the 
South African workers are not prepared to accept promises anymore 
and it's time for the Zuma government to deliver the change it was 
voted in for.

More than a million South African public sector workers started an 
all-out national strike for better wages and conditions on 
Wednesday, August 18. Hospitals and schools in particular were 
affected, with lively pickets closing down installations 
throughout the country. The unions (mainly COSATU-affiliates 
NEHAWU and SADTU, as well as some ILC affiliates) are demanding an 
above-inflation 8.6% wage rise, as well as a R1,000 housing 
allowance and other improvements in their conditions.

The all-out strike follows a successful one-day warning strike on 
August 10th, which saw 15,000 workers march in Cape Town and 
another 20,000 in Tshwane. The day of action led the government to 
revise its wage offer up to 7%, which the unions rejected as being 

At both these rallies there was a real sense of anger that the ANC 
government of Jacob Zuma is not delivering for the people who 
elected him. Zuma came to power after having won the Polokwane 
conference of the African National Congress in 2007. At that time, 
an alliance between the rank and file activists from ANC local 
branches, the trade unionists organised in COSATU, and the South 
African Communist Party, managed to defeat the right-wing clique 
around president Mbeki, which was widely despised as the symbol of 
the right-wing policies carried out by the ANC government.

The majority in the ANC and COSATU thought that the replacing 
Mbeki with Zuma would bring about a change in policies, but at the 
same time were not prepared just to wait and see. Immediately 
after the elections in 2009 there was a spate of strikes and 
protests in the poorest communities over the lack of delivery of 

Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still an 
extremely unequal society with a massive gap between the rich and 
the poor (which has actually widened since the end of the old 
regime), and according to some studies, 70% of the population live 
under the poverty line. One million workers lost their jobs in 
2009 when the economy contracted by 1.8%. Real unemployment stands 
at about 40% (the official rate is 25%).

Shortage of housing is still a chronic problem, with official 
government figures estimating that 2.1 million units are needed to 
house the 12 million people who have no decent housing and live in 
informal settlements. This is a big part of the current dispute of 
the public sector workers, many of whom do not earn enough to buy 
a house and do not qualify for RDP housing programmes.

There is a strong feeling amongst the workers, and particularly 
the trade union members, that this is their government, that they 
put Zuma in power and that therefore he should respond to their 
interests and their demands. The government, however, has launched 
a media offensive against public sector workers, alleging that 
their demands cannot be met because of lack of funds, attempting 
to portray the issue as one of the wages of already “privileged” 
workers versus services for the poor, etc.

One striking worker had this to say in response: “The president 
and the Ministers earn thousands, yet the person who keeps the 
country's wheels running, is earning peanuts. We are not able to 
apply for bonds, buy cars, and provide decent education for our 
kids due to our salary scale.”

As a matter of fact, ministers earn as much as R143,000 a month, 
while many public sector workers barely survive on 7,000. In an 
example quoted in the Times Live, Thabiso Mokoshane, 39 years of 
age and head of the languages department at Kensington Secondary 
in Devland, near Soweto, earns R13,000. But after tax deductions 
and making his bond repayment he only takes home about R4,000 for 
a family of three. These “privileged” conditions are the 
underlying reason for the strike.

On the first day of the strike, the government used the police 
against striking workers. In an incident outside a Soweto 
hospital, the police fired rubber bullets and used water cannons 
against strike pickets. The South African Democratic Teachers 
Union SADTU also denounced the use of rubber bullets against 
striking teachers in KwaZulu Natal. Trade unionists were also 
blocking major highways in Gauteng. Living up to the great 
revolutionary tradition of the South African workers, in the 
Greater Durban area, trade unionists organised flying pickets. 
Calling themselves “Bafana Bafana” (the nickname of the national 
football team during the recent World Cup), they moved from one 
place to another, shutting down government buildings and 
hospitals. “We have shut down St Aidan's, RK Khan, Inkosi Albert 
Luthuli, Addington and King Edward hospitals,” said Bafana Bafana 
spokesman Sivuyile Ntshoko, who is also the chairman of the King 
Edward branch of the National Education, Health, and Allied 
Workers' Union (Nehawu), as reported by Sapa news agency.

In a separate dispute, 31,000 members of the National Union of 
Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in the car industry have been 
engaged in an all-out strike since August 11th, demanding a 15% 
wage increase. The union is also demanding the banning of the use 
of labour brokers in this highly unionised industry, as well as a 
fully paid 6-month maternity leave, and overtime pay rates for all 
work over the 8 hour working day from Monday to Friday. NUMSA has 
now threatened to spread strike action to parts manufacturers, 
retail sellers and garages.

It is not possible to say how these disputes will end. There is 
certainly a massive build up of anger on the part of the workers 
and the beginning of the strike has already shown their 
willingness to struggle. The Zuma government will be under 
pressure from big business to show it can withstand the pressure 
of organised labour. The leaders of COSATU will come under 
enormous pressure from bourgeois public opinion to make 
concessions. In 2007, a similar strike by public sector workers 
lasted for a month before an above-inflation deal was reached, 
which meant a partial victory for the workers.

Contradictions in the Alliance – socialist programme needed

The strike of public sector workers shows all the contradictions 
of the Tripartite Alliance between ANC, COSATU, and the Communist 
Party. While Zuma's ANC government has taken an intransigent 
position toward the demands of the workers, there are plenty of 
SACP and COSATU members sitting in parliament as ANC 
representatives, including some of them serving as ministers. SACP 
and COSATU leaders should pose the question bluntly: whose 
interests does this government serve? The interests of the workers 
or the interests of the capitalists?

If there is no money to pay decent wages to public sector workers 
(nurses, hospital workers, teachers, etc), to provide all with 
decent homes, a decent education and decent jobs, this is because 
even though apartheid was done away with, capitalism remains. A 
small minority of blacks have massively enriched themselves and 
joined the capitalist class, some of them through the so-called 
Black Economic Empowerment deals. For example, in one BEE deal 
recently announced, AcelorMittal will transfer 25% of its shares 
to black investors, including shares worth R900 million to Zuma's 
son, Duduzane Zuma.

A handful of ANC leaders and nascent black capitalists have 
benefited from these deals (and some former COSATU leaders as 
well), while for the overwhelming majority of South African 
working people, living conditions have not substantially improved, 
if at all.

Industrial action should be combined with a serious and thorough 
campaign for socialist policies within the ANC. On the basis of a 
clear socialist programme, SACP and COSATU members should organise 
a left wing socialist caucus within the ANC, which would very 
quickly get the overwhelming support of the majority of the ANC 
activists and rank and file (as was proven at the Polokwane 

The ANC Youth League has already come out in favour of the 
nationalisation of the mines. Whatever criticisms one may have of 
the shortcomings of the proposal or even of YL leader Malema, this 
idea should surely be taken up by the SACP and COSATU leaders, who 
could put a motion to parliament to discuss the issue and 
accompany it with a campaign of mass mobilisations around this demand.

So far, COSATU and SACP leaders have backed the Alliance, 
mobilising the core working class and poor vote for the ANC, while 
the ANC leaders in power have pursued capitalist policies. It is 
time that the relationship is reversed, but that requires a change 
in the political orientation of the SACP. Instead of the old 
argument about the need for an abstract “national democratic 
revolution” before the question of socialism can be posed, there 
should be a clear recognition that within the limits of 
capitalism, neither national liberation, nor meaningful democracy 
is possible. The struggle for socialism should be put at the top 
of the agenda, that is, the nationalisation of the banks and 
insurance companies, the mines, and big monopolies that still 
control the South African economy, so that they can be put under 
democratic workers' control. This would allow the working out of a 
democratic plan of the economy to address the urgent problems of 
housing, jobs, education, health care and land redistribution 
which have been left largely unsolved in the last 16 years.

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