South Africa: Two day general strike set for October

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has called a two-day general strike for 1-2 October, to protest against the ANC government’s privatisation programme.

The following is a slightly edited version of a special bulletin on the general strike produced by the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), the South African section of the CWI. This bulletin is already finding a warm reception from workers, students and youth.

End Privatisation, ‘Gear’ and Capitalism

The two-day general strike on 1-2 October, must, with the support of every worker, youth, and student in the country, be the beginning a fight-back against privatisation, the neo-liberal ‘Gear’ programme, and capitalism itself.

The experience of the past five years has exposed government propaganda – that privatisation would lead to improvements in the quality of service delivery, lower prices, greater access to basic services and job creation – as entirely false. The opposite has been the case.

A Municipal Services Project (linked to Canada’s Queen’s University) survey "reveals a desperate situation where families are forced to choose between paying their service bills and other essentials such as food and clothing" (MSP press statement March 19 2002).

In fact the ANC government’s privatisation policies are adding to the mountain misery inherited from apartheid period. As an added insult, the government accuses those not paying of being guilty of a so-called "culture of non-payment". To break this "culture", the government is now using the methods of the apartheid regime – water and electricity cut-offs, evictions, forced removals, and the confiscation and sale of household goods enforced by brutal state violence.

According to the MSP report: "It is estimated that close to 10 million South Africans have experienced cut-offs of their water for non-payment of bills and the same number have had their electricity cut off. "Over 2 million people have been evicted from their homes for non-payment of water and electricity bills and a further 1.5 million have had their property seized for the same reasons."

In scenes reminiscent of the apartheid era, the intervention of private security, Red Ants, police, and even the army to break the growing resistance is now common in townships in every corner of the country.

Revive the fighting traditions of Cosatu

Regrettably, despite the fact that organised workers have themselves been affected by these attacks, the Cosatu leadership has until now stood aside and watched with its arms folded as the government wages war on the very people that elected it to power.

This is why we welcome the decision by the September Central Wits Regional Shop Stewards’ Council to support the Anti-Privatisation Forum and to invite it for discussions on mounting a common struggle against privatisation. This must be the first step towards reviving the founding traditions of Cosatu, based on the understanding that the struggle in the workplace was inseparable from that in the townships.

But we in Cosatu must also draw the wider political conclusions of the struggle against privatisation and Gear. This must be the beginning of a political process that takes Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance [ANC, Cosatu, and the communist party, the SACP] and leads to the formation of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

The August 2001 two-day general strike was originally the launch of a rolling campaign of mass action that was to have continued with a general strike every quarter until privatisation and Gear were scrapped. Unfortunately, under ANC pressure, this programme was suspended. This was despite bitter attacks on Cosatu leaders by senior government ministers, including SACP central committee members.

The Cosatu leadership caved in under this pressure due to their determination to maintain the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance. The ANC is now an openly capitalist party committed to the promotion of the interests of neo-liberalism and globalisation. This means the Cosatu leadership plays the role of prison warders, preventing workers from breaking out of the Tripartite Alliance jail to join township communities resisting the social and economic war being waged on them by the bosses and the government.

Despite the fact that they are leaders of an organisation created by and historically committed to representing the interests of the working class, the Cosatu leadership shares the outlook, aspirations, and ambitions of the ANC leadership who are committed to neo-liberalism and capitalism. The majority of Cosatu leaders believe there is no alternative to capitalism. This is the reason that a number of Cosatu unions are involved in investments in the private sector — in some cases in the very industries they organise in. This is the explanation for the successive setbacks workers have suffered in the public sector, with wage cuts, attacks on conditions of service, and a retrenchment programme disguised as restructuring. It is the reason for the revelations of rampant corruption in many unions. It is the reason for the appalling decline in the level of service to members and the almost complete absence of workers’ control. It explains the apparent inability of Cosatu to halt casualisation, wage cuts, and retrenchments.

The October general strike, less than four months after the Ekhuruleni lekgotla (a summit meeting held between Cosatu and ANC leaders over the question of privatisation), is an expression of the growing anger amongst workers and youth over the gulf in the distribution of wealth between the poor and rich, especially that of the main beneficiaries of black economic empowerment – the emerging black capitalist class.

Opposition within the communist party

This process reflected itself, in a distorted way, even in the SACP – a party whose main role is to provide a left cover for the ANC’s right wing policies and to ensure, like a faithful shepherd, that the working class flock does not stray out of the Tripartite Alliance kraal. Cronin’s (a SACP leader) attack on the ANC and Mbeki [the South African president], the singing of anti-Mbeki songs [by SACP delegates at a recent meeting], and the removal of Mbeki’s cabinet loyalists from the central committee, shows how, despite its real role, the SACP leadership does at times reflect the growing discontent of the masses.

Despite the scandalous and even racist attacks against Cronin [by some Mbeki loyalists], he was not proposing a break between the SACP and ANC; he was merely a loyal soldier warning the ANC leadership of the growing gulf opening between it and the masses. It is precisely because such criticism raises the question of the future of the Tripartite Alliance, which the SACP is committed to defending, that he capitulated so pitifully afterwards with the leadership’s full support.

Despite the changes on the central committee, it continues to be dominated by Mbeki’s key cabinet members, such as national chairperson and Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula. Under his government department, the police have now begun to employ stun grenades to disperse peaceful demonstrations. It confirms the SACP leadership is incapable of providing an alternative to the masses.

The effects of the ANC government’s policies having already led to mass poverty, and are now worsening the situation with astronomical increases in food prices, widespread hunger, and the prospect of mass starvation. The deepening crisis in the world economy makes the situation even worse. Even before a US attack on Iraq, the oil price has increased (which the government has passed onto the consumer without the slightest hesitation) meaning further burdens on the working class.

It cannot be ruled out that the government may attempt to contain the situation by some reforms, by, for example, implementing Cosatu’s demand for a basic income grant (BIG). But such is the scale of the crisis that the BIG will be the equivalent of emptying the ocean of poverty with a teaspoon.

Privatisation and neo-liberalism are the current method of managing capitalism preferred by the capitalist class internationally. In the face of the enormous pressure now building up against these policies in SA and internationally, it cannot be ruled out that they will make some concessions. But this will be an attempt to introduce reforms from above to stop a movement of workers and youth from below.

Poverty, malnutrition, and starvation can only be eradicated on a permanent basis through the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. This requires a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme, not only in SA but also throughout the world.

There is growing concern that the Cosatu leadership are using general strikes – this is the third one in as many years – to let off steam and then to abandon the original demands and campaign strategy. The May 2000 general strike was called to protest against proposed changes to the LRA [Labour Relations Act]. The leadership subsequently accepted President Mbeki’s invitation to participate in the Millenium Labour Council, where they agreed to essentially the same proposals, against which the general strike had been called. Despite the very limited gains from the MLC agreement, the blood bath of job losses did not stop. The August 2001 general strike was followed by a futile attempt at reconciliation at Ekhuruleni, with the Cosatu leadership creating the impression that privatisation can be accepted provided the government consulted labour.

Workers need political and class independence

The forthcoming general strike should be the beginning of the process of asserting Cosatu’s political and class independence – of defending the living standards and conditions of workers and youth they are supposed to represent against the attacks of the ANC government. The rolling campaign of mass action should be revived in its original form and continued until privatisation and Gear are scrapped. The Cosatu rank-and-file should, in fighting for workers’ control and democracy in the unions, wind up all private investment companies, sack the directors that have enriched themselves, and take the funds and profits back under union control.

We, as Cosatu members, must join forces with community organisations like the APF to resist cut-offs, and work to recreate the township locals [democratic committees or councils of struggle] to supplement the industrial locals. We must ensure that independent candidates stand in the coming local government elections, on a programme of fighting privatisation. Successfully elected representatives should be open to democratic recall. Most important of all, Cosatu members should set up discussion groups and committees to prepare for the establishment of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

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