South Africa: General strike against privatisation

The struggle against privatisation in SA has entered a qualitatively new stage. At the end of August Cosatu will be holding a two-day general strike to protest against the government’s plan to privatise the Electricity Supply Commission (ESKOM).

This is a development of enormous political significance. Although the general strike is in protest against the privatisation of Eskom, it is in fact a protest against the government’s entire privatisation programme. Privatisation is the nuclear warhead of the neo-liberal arsenal the government has been using in its war against the working class over the past 5 years. In that sense the general strike is a protest against the government’s macro-economic strategy known as the Growth Employment and Redistribution strategy (Gear).

Gear has devastated the lives of the SA working class. Introduced to replace the mildly reformist Reconstruction and Development Programme, Gear’s aim was to bring SA macro-economic policy in line with the prevailing neo-liberal Washington consensus: to slash government expensiture in pursuit of a zero-deficit budget by 2002, downsize the publc sector, lower wages and undermine conditions, outsource and privatise. The lowering of tariff barriers by the Minstry of Trade and Industry (headed by a central committee member of the South African Communist Party as are all the ministries key to the implementation of the various aspects of Gear) has resulted in the loss of a million jobs in the clothing, textile and leather indutries alone since 1990.

After coming to power in 1994, the ANC not only continued the social and economic war waged on the working class by the Apartheid regime, but intenified it. Tariff barriers have been lowered at a rate faster than that demanded by the World Trade Organisation. Far from attracting foreign investment, it has led to a flight of capital with 5 of the top ten companies on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange relocating their head offices overseas.To maintain the limit on public spending in the health sector, the government has refused to supply free drugs to Aids sufferers despite the fact that SA has the highest number of HIV/AIDS sufferers in the world.

The result is that SA is competing with Brazil for the position of the most unequal society in the world. Unemployment is estimated at between 6 – 8 million, more than 40% of the economically active populaton. 57% live below the poverty line with 18 million people earning less than R350 (less than 35 pounds) per month when the minimum living level for a low income family of five is very coservatively estimated at R1 400 (under 14 pounds) a month.

The significance of the general strike is further heightened by the fact that through the proposed privatisation of Eskom the govermment is planning to give their privatisation programme a real lift off. The privatisation that has taken place so far – mainly in local government – is small beer compared to what they are planning this year and the potential bonanza they are anticipating from the proceeds of the sale. Eskom’s privatisation is part of a package including also the telecommunication (Telkom), arms procurement (Armscor) and transport (Transnet) parastatals. Big business at home and abroad have been happy with Mbeki’s public pledge as a defender of the neo-liberal faith. But they want to know now is where is the beef?

This is the first two-day general strike since the ANC came to power. Far more explicitly than the one day general strike against job losses last year, this action is directed againt the ANC government. Cosatu is part of what the media misleadingly describe as the "ruling" Tripartite Alliance. Cosatu may be part of the Alliance but it is certainly not ruling. Its role is to police the working class securing acquiesence to the policies of its "senior" Alliance partner, theANC. All the Cosatu leadership have been demanding so far is to be consulted about privatisation, not to oppose it in principle. Pressure from below has made it impossible for them to continue to act as a political rubberstamp for anti-working class policies.

The turning point was when the ANC national executive committee publicly rejected Cosatu’s demands for a moratorium on privatisation and gave their unqualified backing to the government’s plans. It was no longer possible for the Cosatu leadership to hide behind nonsensical explanations that the problems lay with individual ministers or the ANC as a government and not the ANC as a political party.

The Cosatu leadership found themselves caught between their public humiliation by the ANC from the top and the burning anger of the working class from below. The working class is experiencing the consequences of privatisation through the bitter reality of everyday life. As part of Eskom’s preparation for privatisation, the goverment has instituted a policy of "cost recovery". People who cannot pay their tariffs are cut off. Where people responded by illegally reconnecting, the cables connecting them to the grid are physically removed and metres ripped from the walls of their homes. Pensioners on the government’s pittance of R570 (less than 57 pounds) a month have their electricity cut off days before pension payout day with demands for reconnection fees of upto R1 500 (150 pounds)!

Homes are being sold to recover arrears, furniture is being sold in public auctions to enforce the policy of cost recovery. This policy is being applied ruthlessly and indiscriminately and backed up by private armed security who have already shot at people killing two known so far for attempting to resist. The privatisation of water, in particular the merciless application of the "cost recovery" policy, has resulted in water-cut offs.

In a rural area in Kwa Zulu Natal last year, a subsidised water supply in place since before the end of apartheid was summarily terminated with a demand by the government for a R51 reconnection fee. Only one thrid of the population in the area could afford it. The remainder went to dams and rivers. The result? The biggest cholera epidemic in the country’s history – 105 000 infections which has so far claimed the lives of 220 people. The anger of the working class is based on this experience not some abstract "ideology" as the government so insultingly suggests.

Privatisation has also been accompanied like a shadow by corruption. In particular the government’s "black economic empowerment" stratetgy – the enrichment of a rich minority of aspirant capitalists in the name of the black majority – has seen ugly confrontatioins as the differernt empowerment companies struggle like pigs for a place to put their noses in the public trough.

The strike wave that is currrently sweeping through the country is an expression of a volcano that is coming to life. The lava spewing out will leave the political landcscape changed forever. The Tripartite Alliance may survive – a meeting has been called before the general strike to repair relations – as a cosy agreement between the leadership at the top. But at the bottom it is finished. In time the Cosatu leadership will have to break from the Alliance or risk splitting Cosatu itself.

The DSM’s call for a campaign of mass non-payment in the Anti-Privatisation Forum – a coalition of community and left political organisations based mainly in Gauteng at this stage but planning to spread nationally – has been accepted. The APF’s Soweto affiliate, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee led by former ANC councillor Trevor Ngwane expelled for public opposing the ANC’s local government privatisation programme, is organising a rally in Soweto to launch the service payment boycott campaign this weekend. The APF is coordinating illegal reconnections called Operation Khanyisa (Zulu for "light up"). It has successfully begun to place the de facto mass non-payment driven mainly by an inability to pay, on an organised conscious footing based on a refusal to pay.

The DSM will be on the platform. We will be calling for suport for Cosatu’s action and to call upon Cosatu to break form the Alliance and to pepear to form a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

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August 2001