In what independent television channel, ETv, described as the biggest strike since 1994 (the year the ANC government came to power), the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s one million public sector workers started an indefinite mass action campaign in support of a 12% salary increase on Friday 1 June. The previous Friday, at least 300,000 had demonstrated in protest against the government’s miserly 6% salary offer in what government officials privately admit is the unions’ most successful mobilisation yet. Weizmann Hamilton of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM - the Socialist Party’s counterpart in South Africa) reports.
Even unions with no tradition of struggle saw crushing majorities in favour of strike action. The predominantly mixed race and white National Professional Teachers Association (Naptosa) president Dave Balt pointed out on SAFM radio that his union’s members rarely go on strike. This time, however, Naptosa produced a 90% majority for strike action. 70% of those balloted in fact want the strike to continue for at least three days!
In Kwa-Zulu Natal, three Durban hospitals and two in Pietermaritzburg fell under the complete control of strikers with action continuing over the weekend. Only between 10% and 20% of health workers reported for work in a number of Gauteng province hospitals and the army was called in to maintain some kind of service.
This is the workers’ defiant response to the Labour Court interdict barring health workers from striking under essential service legislation which the government successfully applied for on the eve of the strike.
Police deployed to the Kwa-Zulu Natal hospitals to enforce the interdict stood by and watched as health workers blockaded entrances to hospitals. Themselves barred from striking by the same legislation, police ’worked to rule’ - interpreting their duties as merely to prevent violence.
Workers’ determination is directed simultaneously at government and their own leaders. Their anger has been inflamed by the government’s attitude - a mixture of condescension, arrogance and "kragdadigheid" (Afrikaans for power-mongering/bullying/intimidation).
In a desperate attempt to undermine the strike’s success, management intimidated workers with repeated warnings that the "No-Work-No-Pay" rule would be strictly applied; threats to charge human resources officers who failed to implement salary deductions with disciplinary offences; announcements that leave applications coinciding with the strike would be closely scrutinised and that workers classified as essential services who struck would be dismissed.
The government has been thumping its chest over its economic achievements. The longest economic boom ever; a stock exchange breaking all records; spectacular improvements in tax revenue collection... South Africa is now experiencing a budget surplus for the first time in history pre- and post-apartheid!
But despite the boom and the so-called wage increases, in reality inflation adjustments of the past six years have not prevented a steady erosion of workers’ purchasing power. Food inflation is running at over 20%; the fuel price is going up once again to be followed almost certainly by transport and basic commodities as its effect ripples through the economy.
Under pressure from their members after years of retreats, the union leaders this time submitted their demands as early as October last year. These negotiations follow the end of the second of two three-year multi-term agreements.
The first multi-term was in fact not an agreement at all. The Minister of Public Service and Administration, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, at the time the South African Communist Party deputy chairperson, walked out of the negotiations and unilaterally imposed a 6% wage increase in 1999.
2004 was a second humiliation for workers as a 5.3% increase was imposed after the unions rejected an improved offer of 6% and mobilised what was then the biggest public sector general strike to date, only to capitulate in a most cowardly fashion.
This time the unions demanded a one-year agreement with a 12% increase and implementation brought forward to 1 April (as opposed to 1 July) to coincide with the financial year; the abolition of the first two salary levels, to establish salary level three as the new entry level and the reduction of notches between salary levels from 16 to eight. As union leaders have admitted, members have warned that another capitulation would result in a membership revolt and their removal.
The government has clearly seriously misjudged the mood. The cowardice of the union leadership of the past six years led them falsely to believe that it would be business as usual - a denunciation of the salary offer, followed perhaps by what former Sunday Times editor Ken Owen describes contempt-uously as "street theatre" followed by the customary capitulation.
For the unions there is much more at stake than the 12% wage increase. The inflation-adjustments of the past six years have called into question the credibility of the collective bargaining process and the role of the union leadership. If the Minister of Finance decides in advance of the salary negotiations what the budget for salaries should be, what is the point of the negotiations?
For the African National Congress (ANC) this strike could not have come at a worse time. Relations in the Tripartite Alliance (between the ANC, Congress of South African Trade Unions and South African Communist Party) have reached an all-time low exemplified by another bitter exchange between Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki (of the ANC).
Vavi said that government claims about the economy’s success reminded him of Nazi propaganda. Mbeki replied on his weekly online letter that Vavi was an agent of the Democratic Alliance (the mainly white opposition party).
The battle for the succession to the presidency continues to rip the ANC apart. Over the past month there have been claims of hoax assassination plots against former deputy president Jacob Zuma and the leaking of a report of an investigation (not denied by the National Prosecuting Authority) alleging Zuma’s involvement in a plot with Gaddafi of Libya in a planned uprising to topple Mbeki!
All of this is occurring against the background of a significant increase in the number of service delivery protests. In the forefront of these is the virtual insurrection in the township of Khutsong, near the mining town of Carletonville 70 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg.
Since the March 2006 elections the township has become a no-go area for the ANC with all its councillors forced out of the township and running local government from exile. The community is absolutely determined to resist their forced incorporation into the province of North West out of Gauteng province.
Conscious of the political implications on the credibility and cohesion of the Tripartite Alliance (COSATU’s public sector affiliates make up 60% of unionised workers), the ANC has intervened in a desperate attempt to find a settlement in the current wage dispute. But this is not 2004. The union leadership is on notice.
To complicate matters even more for the government, inflation has risen to 6.3%. This is 0.3% above the wage offer put on the table by a government claiming that their offer was designed to protect the real value of workers’ wages.
The unions have agreed to resume negotiations but the mass action continues with marches and rallies planned in the Western Cape. 80% of teachers are estimated to have gone on strike.
Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, who is probably now the most hated minister in Mbeki’s cabinet, has placed an additional R2 billion on the table and hopes to be in a position to make an announcement of a settlement and an end to strikes in her budget vote speech on 5 June.
But the success of the 1 June strike will have bolstered union confidence and only a substantial improvement in the across-the board salary offer will enable the union leadership to settle. Otherwise the insults against the minister will continue and the nature of the confrontation will change from the disciplined but relatively good-natured march in Johannesburg to the confrontational mood in Cape Town where tear gas was fired at picketers outside a hospital.
The DSM has called upon Cosatu workers to link up with communities in struggle against poor service delivery and to revive the traditions of unity of struggles in the workplace and the townships and to prepare for a general strike in support of the public sector workers.