Workers feel their power

Wednesday August 6 saw a magnificent display of the power of the organised working class in South Africa. More than 200,000 workers took to the streets in over a dozen cities and towns across the country in a general strike called by the 2-million strong Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in protest against rising fuel, food and electricity prices, soaring inflation and massive hikes in transport costs.

The mining and transport industries were totally shut down. Cosatu’s transport unions ensured no buses or trains moved. In a new development, the taxi industry in most provinces supported the strike, ensuring that the stay-away was complete. With the main march and demonstration taking place in Pretoria, Johannesburg, the country’s economic powerhouse, was reduced to a ghost town. As Business Day ((08/08/08) admitted: “The countrywide mass action showed that the labour federation could bring the economy to its knees.”

This general strike was preceded by a rolling campaign of mass action in the form of a series of provincial general strikes over the month of July. The biggest of these was in Johannesburg, with over 50,000 marching. For workers, this strike was about more than price rises. In the words of Cosatu Mpumalanga provincial secretary, Norman Mokoena, “This is a strike against destructive neo-liberal policies. Enough is enough!” (Star Business Report 08/08/08). A massive home-made cardboard banner reading: “Greedy Capitalists! This is not Zimbabwe!” captured the mood. However serious the issues, DSM comrades described the atmosphere as festive, as workers enjoyed the feeling of solidarity and power of the strike.

Workers’ anger at the astronomical increase in the cost of living has been fuelled by revelations of the price fixing on bread, poultry, dairy products, steel and even surgical instruments! The key workers’ concern is the unprecedented rise in the cost of basic foodstuffs and transport. There have been several spontaneous outbreaks of violent protests as workers’ frustration boiled over, with train coaches torched. In Moloto, north of Pretoria, 31 buses were burnt by commuters angry at fare increases, a shortage of tickets sellers and buses arriving late.

The capitalists’ insatiable desire to profiteer is revealed in the practice of “import parity pricing”. They charge international market prices for goods produced locally – by the privatised steel enterprise, ArcelorMittal. The same conscious price manipulation takes place in relation to fuel in spite of the fact that the privatised Sasol produces 40% of South Africa’s fuel. This situation is of course aggravated by the turn to biofuels under the pretext of stemming the tide of soaring oil prices by turning food into fuel!

The country’s electricity parastatal, Eskom, has been granted permission by the supposedly independent regulator to increase prices massively. Eskom is barely managing to maintain an uninterrupted supply of power since a rolling wave of blackouts last December and January. The electricity crisis is a direct result of the government’s failed neo-liberal policies adopted in 1996. Convinced that international investors would come running, the government placed 70% of Eskom on the market, corporatised it and stopped it from accumulating debt by declining requests to build more power stations. This was in spite of warnings that it would run out of capacity by 2008. But international investors were deterred precisely by what government presented as Eskom’s selling point – that it produces the cheapest electricity in the world. Now workers are paying for this disastrous miscalculation!

Cosatu and the ANC

Unfortunately, the union leadership addressed these class issues virtually only in passing. Very little was heard of Cosatu’s conference resolutions for the nationalisation of Sasol and ArcelorMittal. Their main pre-occupation was the ongoing power struggle within the ANC (ruling African National Congress) between the outgoing president Mbeki and incoming president Zuma. Scandalously, the leadership tried to use the general strike to mobilise support for the corruption charges against the presidential candidate-in-waiting to be dropped!

In the minds of workers, however, irrespective of the leaders’ pro-Zuma rhetoric, it is the experience of the daily toil that is marking a turning point in consciousness, with growing disillusionment in the ANC. A recent internal ANC report revealed a significant decline in support beyond the Western Cape and Kwa Zulu Natal where the ANC has struggled to achieve a majority. The more the masses become alienated from the ANC, the more desperate the efforts of the Cosatu and SA Communist Party (SACP) leadership to remain in the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC. The Cosatu and SACP leaders have become the political prison warders of the working class.

We distributed over 3,000 special leaflets headed “Capitalism Must Go!” and calling upon workers to take Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance to form a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme . The reception was very encouraging with comrades running out of material literally within minutes! This is a clear indication of the potential for our ideas and perspectives, and the growth of our party.

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