Cosatu’s announcement yesterday that it has lifted the suspension on the anti-privatisation programme and will be calling a two-day general strike on the 1st and 2nd October, is a direct result of the impact of the Samwu strike. In effect Samwu has smashed its fist through the paper concealing the cracks in the Tripartite Alliance.

Cosatu call two day general strike as …

SAMWU’S mass action breathes life into anti-privatisation campaign.

Samwu’s titanic three-week wage strike – the longest and most bitter since the ANC came to power involving marches demonstrations and occupations -- ended on 19th July in a compromise agreement with a narrow majority in favour. It provides for a differentiated increase of 9% for those below R3 200 a month and 8% for those above plus a new minimum of R2 100 (up from R1 900). The agreement was rejected by the four (out of nine) provinces where the major cities are located: Gauteng (Johannesburg), Western Cape (Cape Town) and Kwa Zulu Natal (Durban) as well as the traditionally militant Eastern Cape. Even though Samwu did not achieve its original demand of 10% and a minimum monthly wage of R2 200, this was nevertheless a partial victory.

The agreement was inadequate. Inflation has just reached 9.8% turning the deal into a cut in real terms, aggravated by 14% food inflation and the extension of the deal over three years. Despite this it was still seen as significant achievement. This was because the employer body Salga (South African Local Government Association) had been forced to eat their arrogant words and prevented from unilaterally imposing the 8% "final offer" agreed with the traditionally conservative white-led Imatu. By preventing Salga from extending the government’s public sector unilateralism into local government, Samwu has won a victory for the entire labour movement.

Samwu enjoyed enormous sympathy during the strike despite reservations about the damage to property that occurred. Even the tactic of trashing the streets was seen as legitimate. One of the main factors in the support for Samwu, was the conduct of Salga and the revelations of the outrageous packages senior managers awarded themselves.

In a statement of breathtaking arrogance, the Salga CEO said they could not meet Samwu’s demand because this is South Africa not Switzerland! Yet the salaries they are paying themselves are precisely at Switzerland levels.

Top municipal managers earn up to 40 times as much as workers. In the North West province capital of Mafikeng, heads of department awarded themselves increases of more than 100% from R150 000 to R320 000 per year! The Cape The Cape Town City manager earns nearly R1 million a year. The worst example of these officials behaving like pigs with their snouts in the public trough looted the state with uncontrollable greed are to be found in the tiny town of Oklahamba (Bergville Kwa Zulu Natal). It has an income of just R2.1 million per year. Yet it spends R1.35 million on salaries for councilors and its top three officials - over half the budget! The municipal manager receives R404 000 a year.

These salaries confirm that top managers are on a looting spree. They also completely undermine the principle of closing the apartheid wage gap. For black managers, the wage gap was unacceptable only because white managers benefited alone. Now that they too can be enriched, they share the same class hostility to workers’ demands for decent wages by workers.

Much more important than the concession wrung from Salga, however, is the impact the strike has had on broader society. The fact that even a partial victory was achieved through struggle has been an enormous boost to the morale and confidence of not only Samwu workers but all workers. Although called over wages, and not against privatisation, the issue forced itself onto the agenda because the link between government policy of limiting public sector wages and its neo-liberal policies are clear for all to see. The strike has raised consciousness of the sharp class polarisation occurring within society. Most significantly it has exposed the futility of the hope that the truce called in the Tripartite Alliance after last August’s two-day anti-privatisation general strike would produce a negotiated end to the government’s neo-liberal economic policies (known as Gear – Growth Employment and Redistribution).

Mbeki’s condemnation of the Samwu strike further undermined the credibility of the April Tripartite Alliance accord that led to the suspension of the campaign of rolling mass action and quarterly general strikes that were to have followed the August 2001 general strike against privatisation and Gear.

State Violence

The strike claimed the lives of three workers, one of them shot through the head by the Head of Human Resources at the Louis Trichard municipality in the Limpopo Province. (the cause of the other deaths is still under investigation).

A highly significant feature of the strike has been the role of the state. In several parts of the country the police and the courts intervened to attack, undermine and intimidate strikers.

Workers were shot at with rubber bullets, birdshot and live ammunition in Queenstown, Paarl, Johannesburg and Louis Trichard, harassed in the Free State and prevented from marching in Cape Town by a massive police presence.

The courts have had no hesitation in agreeing to employer appeals to take away the right to strike and demonstrate – rights that are fundamental under a constitution that the government boasts is the best in the world. The Cape Town march was banned under an old apartheid law that prohibits demonstrations within one kilometer of parliament.

The private company Johannesburg Water obtained an interdict preventing workers from going on strike on the grounds that they provide an essential service. The private solid waste company PikiTub also obtained a court order against the union.

Pressure on Cosatu to withdraw from the Tripartite Alliance will grow

Whilst the SACP insists that all is well and general secretary Vavi claims Cosatu will not leave the Tripartite Alliance despite the revival of the anti-privatisation programme, objective reality is forcing the forces on which Cosatu rests, organised labour, and those whose interests the ANC represents, big business and the aspirant black capitalist, into collision with each other. Mbeki’s attack on Samwu workers shows very clearly that the ANC leadership’s understanding of liberation is a world apart from that of ordinary workers. His class hostility is the attitude of a party that is now the conscious agent of capitalism. The SACP’s failure to give even a message of support -- they called for a return to negotiations – will not have gone unnoticed by workers.

Unfortunately the multi-year deal copied from the private sector is aimed at demobilising workers. Such deals are also intended to force workers to tighten their belts so that the allegedly independent Reserve Bank can, on behalf of the bosses, achieve its so far illusory inflation target at workers’ expense whilst top executives are get fantastic salaries.

Even though the three-year deal is setback, it is not a train smash. It is quite possible that Salga itself will try to escape from it should inflation go past the 10% limit that allows any party to reopen negotiations. Although this year’s 9% public sector increase was in line with the formula in last year’s three-year wage deal, Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni still criticised it as fuelling inflation. The Cape Town Chamber of Business took the same line on the Samwu wage deal.

The Reserve Bank failed to achieve its inflation target of 3% – 6% last year. Since then the state of the world economy has worsened. A US attack on Iraq for example is likely to increase world oil prices. The Reserve Bank is therefore likely to fail again. The experience of this strike shows that the government and the bosses expect workers to take further cuts, whilst the bosses in both the private and public sector engage in an orgy of self-enrichment.

A battle against low wages is a battle against Gear

Repulsive as the conduct of the top management is, it is merely a boil on the surface of a serious social crisis. At its root is capitalism in the form of the government’s macro-economic strategy – Gear, and privatisation. The ANC has simply continued in the same Gear where the apartheid regime left off. They have reduced central government funding (Inter Governmental Grant) to local government by over 90% since they came to power. This is why local governments, which in black areas in particular have no alternative source of revenue, are following a policy of "cost recovery". This has meant cutting water and electricity, evictions and the sale of household goods to recover arrears. Millions have experienced cut-offs, evictions, downsizing and household goods seizures.

In the stormy world economic events ahead, attacks on workers’ wages, conditions and democratic rights are going to escalate. Unless the unions break out of the political prison of the Tripartite Alliance, they will be completely unprepared for this. Samwu workers must join forces with fellow workers in Cosatu affiliates to campaign for the reactivation of the campaign of rolling mass action and quarterly general strikes against Gear and privatisation agreed last year that were to follow the two-day August general strike. Samwu workers must campaign for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. As a first step they must campaign for the resignation of all councilors who refuse to support an anti-privatisation platform. Samwu must collaborate with working class communities to put up independent candidates. All such candidates must be required to pledge publicly to accept election on the following platform:

  • election subject to the right of immediate recall
  • a salary no higher than that of the average skilled worker
  • an end to privatisation and the restoration of all privatised services to local government
  • for a minimum amount of free electricity and water to meet all needs for hygiene, heating and cooking combined with a block tariff system
  • an end to all water and electricity cuts, downsizing and evictions
  • scrap all rent, bond, electricity, water and service arrears
  • for the restoration of the inter governmental grant to pre-1994 levels

Mass action against privatisation in Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia have led to magnificent victories in what is now probably the most hated programme amongst working class people internationally. In Africa the masses are on the march against it. By linking up with community organisations fighting privatisation, evictions, electricity and water cut-offs this can be achieved in SA too.

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