Despite concerted attempts by the leadership of the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance (with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions) to downplay the event, and a boycott by the SACP and governing African National Congress (ANC), 1 300 representatives from 70 organisations came together to form a new coalition to fight job losses and poverty on Monday 22 August. Organisations that attended ranged from those known to be against the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance, like the Anti-Eviction Campaign, to the New Women’s Movement, a grassroots working class womens’ organization, which considers itself politically non-aligned.
Workers from the fishing industry, led by a former staunch ANC supporter, are now bitterly disillusioned with the ANC. Other organisations present, included churches, NGOs, the Treatment Action Campaign - which has been enormously successful in forcing the government to develop a roll-out plan for the treatment of HIV/Aids - Right to Work campaigners, Women on Farms, Youth in Action, the Landless Peoples Movement and also activists from other recent housing protests.
In the words of Western Cape Cosatu Provincial Secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, “The representatives of these organisations filled the city hall to capacity and generated a kind of camaraderie and spirit last felt in the struggle days of the anti-apartheid movements and the heady early days of democracy” (The Star 01/09/05).
With red banners outlining demands for housing, jobs, a basic income grant, land, health care and housing, the meeting was composed of mainly genuine grassroots organizations, reflecting the self-organisation of working class communities against the impact of government’s disastrous neo-liberal capitalist policies on their lives. Most significant of all, was the sizeable turnout of Cosatu shop stewards in a meeting free of traditional ANC struggle songs, ANC t-shirts or slogans.
Although NGOs, like the Alternative Information Development Centre, played a prominent role in the preparation for the launch, the idea of the coalition was initiated by the Cosatu Central Executive Committee, with Tony Ehrenreich leading the Steering Committee. In a process reminiscent of the adoption of the Freedom Charter, organisations were required to table their demands at the meeting.
Platform speakers were limited to little more than introductory remarks to give as many delegates as possible the opportunity to address the meeting. A long queue formed, as representatives lined up enthusiastically to present demands, such as for an end to privatisation by the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and the call for free education made by students attending. The fishing industry workers condemned the fishing quota system, established supposedly to promote ‘black economic empowerment’, which in fact cripples these workers through limiting how much fish they can catch and which allows the rising black capitalist elite more lucrative avenues for enrichment. These quotas limit fishing rights for local fishermen and their livelihoods have been destroyed as a result, while creating fabulous riches for the new black elite. The Anti-Eviction campaign called upon the meeting to be clear about both the root cause of poverty and unemployment -- capitalism and the neo-liberal Gear policy – and the ANC government’s responsibility for this.
These demands were to be collated and presented for further discussion at another mass meeting, to be held in the week of the 20th September, where the draft declaration and principles were to be further discussed and adopted. Since its launch, however, the Coalition has been pulled in different directions, in a political tug-of-war between those who wish to strangle it at birth, and those determined to implement Cosatu’s 8th Congress resolution which called for the formation of coalitions against poverty. For the moment the coalitions live.