After biggest ever public sector strike

The morning edition of the Johannesburg daily The Star (16th September 2004) reported, "South Africa’s biggest strike kicked off with an extraordinary sight this morning - middle aged white teachers toyi-toying outside one of Johannesburg’s top schools…57 of 58 teachers at Parktown Girls High Schools, led by principal Anthea Cereseto, waved placards, donned t-shirts and toyi-toyied before heading for Pretoria to join the march."

The front page headline of This Day read, "Total Shutdown". Despite claims by Public Service and Administration Minister, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, that schools would remain open throughout the country, they were deserted on the day of the strike. All teachers’ unions joined the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), the 1.8m strong Congress of South African Trade Union’s biggest public sector affiliate, to take mass action in their second "chalks down" in as many weeks.

Marches were organised in over 20 towns and cities throughout the country, as the majority of the 800,000 unionised government employees went on strike in a show of unprecedented non-racial workers’ unity. This was South Africa’s biggest strike in a single sector in history. Cape Town, (50 000), Durban (45 000) and Pretoria (90 000) all had more than double on marches on the 2 September teachers’ strike, two weeks before.

Reports from all the marches described a burning anger directed particularly towards the Minister, whose SeSotho surname, Moleketi, has been punned into the Afrikaans "moeilikheid" (meaning trouble) - an expression of the universal bitter animosity felt by workers because of her arrogant negotiating style and derisory 6% wage offer. She has become the target of struggle songs previously directed against the apartheid regime. At the Union Buildings rally, in Pretoria, workers who had been toyi-toying all the way along Vermeulen Street, chanted, "Voetsek Moeilikheid - (voetsek is a derogatory word used to chase away a dog). The marchers stopped to hand over a memorandum to the Minister of Finance, at the Treasury headquarters. At the rally Moleketi was howled down and workers booed as she shouted the traditional struggle slogan, "amandla!" (‘Power’). She left in tears after plastic missiles and other objects were hurled at the podium.

Sadtu’s 100 000-strong 2 September national strike provided the spark that lit the veld-fire of government employees’ anger raging across the country. Like a hurricane, whose course, size and impact is never precisely predictable even when expected, the ingredients for the strike had been prepared by previous events - on the one hand, by the acrimonious climate in the 6 months of failed negotiations, and, on the other hand, by sharpening class antagonisms within society. The negotiations had been taking place in a cauldron of discontent simmering since the government’s unilateral implementation of its wage offer in 1999, after Fraser-Moleketi walked out of the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council.

Union leaders hold back

Despite the explosion of anger at the special Cosatu congress, coinciding with Fraser-Moleketi’s 1999 walk-out, the Cosatu leadership held back from the 48-hour general strike delegates demanded. This left the public sector workers to fight alone. This was to become a failed attempt to reverse the government’s attack, despite what was then the biggest public sector strike. That capitulation weakened the unions in subsequent salary negotiations. Bitter divisions between Sadtu and the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) leadership erupted, with accusations and counter-accusations. The Nehawu leaders, in particular, were determined to win the beauty contest as the government’s favourite sweethearts. The government was subsequently able to win a multi-term 3-year agreement, entailing just-above inflation increases but also cuts in housing allowance, medical aid, sick leave and the imposition of a new pay progression system, with the full agreement of the union leadership.

The deterioration of conditions of service over the past 5 years, as well as the decline in infrastructure and the reduction in quality of service delivery in health and education, have resulted in an exodus of public sector workers leaving the service to go overseas. In addition, widening class polarisation, particularly within the black population, inflamed the sense of alienation and exploitation felt by the masses. For example, newly-enriched black millionaires flaunt their wealth ostentatiously and now make up a significant component of millionaires (there are now over 700 compared to 100 in 1994).

Electricity and water cuts, evictions for non-payment for rent and rates, containment of wage increases and retrenchments, have all continued to provoke the masses. In the period since the ANC’s election landslide there has been public outrage over corruption and an attempted cover-up in the "Travelgate" scandal. A parliamentary official attempted to gag the Mail & Guardian newspaper from releasing the names of those involved in this scandal. Now the ANC is reported to be threatening to sue another paper, This Day, in connection with the publication of the names of the 30 parliamentarians, under investigation by the Scorpions (South Africa’s equivalent of the FBI), for making deals with travel agents worth hundreds of thousands of Rands. They allegedly used the travel vouchers to take their families and partners on luxury cruises and overseas holidays.

Student protests, private sector strikes

As the ANC celebrated 10 years of democracy in South Africa, and its 70% landslide in the last elections, there was an outbreak of student protests against cuts in financial aid across the country. These protests started at the prestigious University of the Witwatersrand. The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM)-linked Socialist Student Movement (SSM) called mass meetings at Wits. On 9 September, SSM organised a 500-strong ‘day of action’ for free education in Durban. A week before, police opened fire with bird-shot on high school students protesting against poor services in the Free State, killing a 17-year-old. There have been outbreaks of protests on housing in Protea Glen, in Soweto, and in Diepsloot, just outside Johannesburg. A youth protecting his mother from being manhandled by police, during protests against officials coming to cut off their home electricity supply, was shot dead by police.

In the mid-year season of wage negotiations, thousands of workers in the private sector have been on strike or merely threatened strike action to secure wage increases higher than that offered to public sector workers.

This strike exhibited two important features of the change in consciousness in the working class. Firstly, in the relationship between the rank-and-file and the union leadership and, secondly, in regards to the political plane. The new Nehawu leadership, elected at its June congress as the public sector wage negotiations became bogged down, came to power to replace a leadership that had been seen as corrupt and had turned the union, in the words of the Cosatu General Secretary, into the "lapdog" of the ANC government. But this new Nehawu leadership, forced into the boxing ring like a reluctant fighter, took cover at the first sign of trouble. As the negotiations deadlocked, and Sadtu declared for a strike, the Nehawu leaders sent out a circular to the union provincial structures calling for a mandate to settle. They argued that given that only two provinces had a mandate for strike action "there was no prospect of a strike now or in the immediate future". They had looked into the water, saw the calm of the past five years on the surface, mistook the image of their own cowardice for that of the membership, and issued a weather forecast that made no provision for a hurricane.

An infuriated rank-and-file, in a number of provinces, participated in the 2 September Sadtu marches, but with no guidance or support from head office. A member of the Democratic Socialist Movement (South African affiliate of the CWI) on the Pretoria Nehawu regional executive sent a letter to the union head office denouncing the circular as a betrayal and a sell-out. He accused the leadership of turning the membership into strike-breakers and into an agent of the ANC government. So shaken was the leadership that the union’s public spokesperson actually wrote back. While defending the national office bearers’ (NOBs) right to express their view, he actually said he disagreed with their position and believed the union should strike.

Within 5 days of the first circular, the NOBs sent out a second circular claiming that their position had been misinterpreted as being against a strike. Astonishingly, the circular repeated the same position, while acknowledging that if the membership wished to strike then that would be the position of the union. At the special national executive committee, called on the eve of the strike, the NOBs miserable protestations were swept aside by the overwhelming vote for strike action in every single one of the nine provinces.

Even the Sadtu leadership, whose actions appeared on the surface to reflect a greater combativity, seemed to have approached the strike like the Grand old Duke of York, marching their soldiers halfway up the hill and down again. At the special bargaining council meeting, called on the 3 September, they were prepared to settle, along with their Nehawu counterparts, and the rest of the eight public sector unions, for the very 6% they had called the workers out against.

Workers offered a ‘loan’

Scenting blood, the Public Service and Administration Minister, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, attempted to avenge the government’s embarrassment at the overwhelming sympathy for the very successful teachers’ strike on 2 September, by forcing a leadership already on their knees onto their bellies. She stuck to her 6% but insisted on a 3-year agreement, with years 2 and 3 increases limited to inflation. She lit a blue flame with the outrageous proposal that should inflation fall below this year’s level next year, salaries would have to be cut! The workers were being offered a loan!

Even for this spineless leadership this was too much. They might have been able to sell, with much difficulty, a 6% deal, on the basis that the government had at least increased its offer from its opening offer of 4.5% and the commitment to extend medical aid and housing benefits to the majority. But if they had gone back to the membership with a 3-year deal, with what amounted to a cut in real terms for the next two years, they would have faced a revolt. As Sadtu General Secretary, Thulas Nxesi, pointed out, "we have a membership to take account of". A leadership, till then huddling together in a corner united in surrender, had no alternative but to come out fighting.

The leadership was caught between the hard place of government intransigence, and the volcanic rock of rank-and-file anger. The success of this strike was due entirely to the determination and class solidarity of the membership. Had the Nehawu membership not defied their leadership during Sadtu’s strike it could potentially have damaged public sector unity within the Cosatu affiliates. It would have caused long-lasting damage which would have spread throughout Cosatu. The membership has, in fact, saved Cosatu from a process of an agonising disintegration.

The second, equally, if not more important, feature of this strike is the political conclusions workers are drawing. This strike took place as President Mbeki was basking in the glory of hosting the first session of the Pan African Parliament. Mbeki did not attack the strikers during this prestigious event, in the way he attacked strikers during a previous World Summit on Sustainable Development. On that occasion, Mbeki, indignantly and insultingly, talked about a municipal workers’ strike "embarrassing SA in front of international visitors".

ANC low profile on strikes

Mbeki denounced the recent strike in a way that will make the ridiculous political position of the Cosatu leadership - that this was not a strike against the ANC, but against the government as employer - impossible to sustain. He pointed out that the very same Cosatu leaders who had campaigned for an ANC vote were now leading strikes against it. It will no longer be possible for the union leadership to pretend that the ANC suffers from dual personality disorder -- that the ANC as a political party and the ANC as government are two different political personas. Both in Pretoria and Cape Town, the slogan "viva ANC" was conspicuous by its absence. ANC flags were nowhere in sight. Even the SACP had a very low profile and has repeated the mealy-mouthed appeals of 1999 to both sides to sit down and resolve their differences.

Having drawn back the two biggest unions, Nehawu and Sadtu, from the brink of a near-total breakdown of class solidarity, rank-and-file workers are beginning to witness with their own eyes what the DSM has been warning about for some time - that whilst the Tripartite Alliance (between the ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, SACP) was being promoted and maintained in the name of unity, it has become a source of disunity. The outline of the consciousness necessary for the re-assertion of the class independence of the working class - through the break-up of the Tripartite Alliance - is beginning to take shape. The situation raises ever more urgently the necessity to build a new mass workers’ party.

A survey carried out by Cosatu’s research arm, into whether workers would support a the establishment of a mass workers’ party to stand in the elections, found 33% in favour in September 2003 - just over 6 months before the last general election. No doubt, today, with the lessons of the public sector battle burned into workers’ consciousness, that figure would be significantly higher.

The Cosatu leadership, in the face of the government digging in its heels, has called a 2-day public sector ‘stay-away’ for Monday and Tuesday next week. Called in haste during the rally itself, it might not be well-supported and also the government is rigorously implementing the no-work, no-pay policy. The Cosatu leadership is creating, consciously or unconsciously, the conditions for accepting the settlement on the basis that, despite their anger, workers could not sustain industrial action.

Much better would have been a rolling campaign of mass action based on one day a week, involving workers reporting for duty until 10 o’clock, leaving for a rally, and returning at lunch. This would simultaneously have made the administration of the no-work. no-pay policy an administrative nightmare, maintained the momentum of 16 September, and served as a basis for a general strike of the private, public and parastatal sectors.

The workers may not win this dispute. However, provided the leadership was prepared to fight, the workers could win. But the leadership is fearful of the political implications of escalating the action. It would tear away at the credibility of the Tripartite Alliance. However, whatever the final results of the strike public sector workers have been involved in a struggle which has taken place against the wishes of their leaders and through their own pressure. They shall have learned profoundly important lessons from this strike. Class polarisation and political differentiation will continue. A concession is not ruled out, as sections of the ANC leadership may regard the collapse of the Tripartite Alliance (which could be threatened by a drawn out dispute) as undesirable and premature, despite the ANC’s 70% majority in the last elections.

The most conscious sections of workers and youth will search for a political alternative to the capitalist policies of the ANC government through struggles such as these. The Democratic Socialist Movement will participate in these struggles providing socialist ideas and strategy to help develop the movement to end the poverty and unemployment that still blights South Africa.

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