South Africa: Powerful general strike against bosses

Militant action needed to stop "jobs holocaust"

In a magnificent show of force, 100, 000 workers brought central Johannesburg to a complete standstill, on Monday 27 June, in answer to the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (Cosatu) general strike call. In Cape Town, the square where workers traditionally gather for protests and rallies could not contain the estimated 60,000 workers who turned out. Thirty thousand workers demonstrated in the small town of Klerksdorp. Cosatu estimates that 2 million workers went on strike, with 500,000 demonstrators marching in 20 town and cities across the country.

The capitalist class, the press and the media, including the South African Broadcasting Corporation television service – now increasingly acting openly as a propaganda channel of the African National Congress (ANC) government – hoped for a repeat of the poor turnout during the last general strike (against privatisation) in 2002. But they were rocked back on their heels by a solid demonstration of working class power and solidarity.

An unusual feature of the strike was the participation of the mine workers, who in the past have participated minimally in general strike action. This time, the mining industry was crippled, along with the clothing, textile and automotive and engineering sectors, whose workers are engaged in wage negotiations that may lead to strike action.

The general strike was called in protest at what the commercial television station E-TV described as a "jobs holocaust". Rising joblessness has now reached crisis levels. Over the last decade, 153,000 jobs have been lost in the mining industry, 195 000 in agriculture and 100,000 in clothing and textiles. The textile industry, "according to Cosatu, lost 17 000 jobs in the past year alone" (Mail and Guardian 24-30 June 2005). Thousands more face job losses in mining and manufacturing, as bosses force workers to pay the price for lower profits which they blame on the strength of the currency, the Rand. Production in the mining industry has plunged to the lowest levels since 1931. A quarter of the country’s manufacturing capacity has been shut down.

Deepening poverty

The increased job losses are deepening the poverty of most of the working class. Unemployment stands at between 6 and 8 million. The South African Reserve Bank puts the unemployed at 46.6% for males and 53.4% for females. An incredible 43% have been unemployed for over three years. As Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, points out: "For every worker who loses his or her job, five to ten people suffer impoverishment and hunger. Mass unemployment means our communities are being torn apart by joblessness, poverty and despair" (Mail and Guardian, 24-30/06/05).

Seventy nine per cent rely on other persons for income support, including child support, disability grants and old age pensions. Such is the level of desperation that people are reported to be falsifying their HIV/Aids status by borrowing positive tests in the hope of qualifying for disability grants.

Capitalist commentators have been preoccupied with the so-called successes in the government’s economic policies. The institutions of world capitalism, the IMF, World Bank and the WTO, as well as the G8, are all very impressed with the way in which the SA economy is managed. Interest rates are the lowest in decades, inflation has been within the target range for twenty months, the budget deficit has been reduced, exchange controls have been all but dismantled, tariffs have been abolished and big business has been granted tax breaks amounting to a staggering R74 billion, over the past decade. The currency, the Rand, has recovered from around R14 to the US dollar, four years ago, to more then doubling to the current trading value of around R6.80.

With property prices skyrocketing, vehicle sales setting new records and the retail sector struggling to cope with demand for electronic goods, the economy is said to be booming. Growth is forecast to increase to an average of 4.3 %, this year, up from 3.7% in 2004. Business confidence shows continual increases and Moodys has become the second international agency to upgrade SA’s investment rating. Some economists are even predicting growth will reach 6% — the rate at which it is claimed unemployment can be stabilised by absorbing to 400,000 who join the labour market every year.

But the "success" has been achieved through a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. This boom is completely bypassing the working class. It is as if the rich inhabit a different country. While over half of South Africa’s 46 million people lack the basic necessities of life, "business has never had it so good", as economist, Iraj Abadian put it. The latest survey on directors’ fees, conducted by the Labour Research Service, reveals that the average fee earned by executive directors, excluding gains from share options, increased from an average of R2.6 million in 2003 to R3.7 million, last year. This amounts to a 38 percent increase. In 2003, it took a worker earning the average minimum wage 111 years to earn what the average director earns in one year. With the huge increase in executive directors’ fees last year, it takes that same worker 150 years to earn the average annual fee of a director.

As the June edition of Cosatu’s, The Shop Steward, points out: "The share of workers earning under R1,000 a month has remained virtually constant even in the formal sector, at about 25%, that is … one worker in four earns under R1,000 a month. Even in the unions, half of our members get less than (the University of SA’s poverty datum line) R2,500 a month. Low pay is reflected in the declining share of wages and salaries in the national income. In 1994, workers got 51% of the national income; in 2004, their share had fallen to 46%."

The government’s neo-liberal policy, Gear, (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), has wreaked havoc on the living standards of the working class. Privatisation, commercialisation, casualisation, limits on public spending in health, education, housing, the deliberate sabotage of the Supreme Court order roll out of anti-retrovirals to treat HIV/Aids, the imposition of cost recovery for the delivery of basic services and rampant corruption, have provided the combustible material for the explosion of social unrest that has begun.

The government and the bosses had begun to believe that they had broken the back of working class resistance after the failure of the October 2002 general strike and the subsequent decline in the level of strikes. But at a subterranean level, working class anger has mounted. Since September last year, protests against the lack of service delivery have broken out. Beginning in the Free State province, in what the Sunday Independent described as the "November insurrection", these protests have now spread throughout the country, affecting 6 out of the 9 provinces. Township residents, emulating the methods of struggle of the 1980s, have blockaded highways with burning rubber tyres and emptied sanitation buckets on the lawns of council offices and the lawns of corrupt councillors. Student protests against unaffordable tuition fees, and financial exclusion from tertiary education institutions, are now becoming an annual event.

Tensions in the ANC

This week’s general strike occurred against the background of the outbreak of a virtual civil war in the African National Congress [ANC – the ruling party], following President Mbeki’s dismissal of the Deputy President Jacob Zuma, and his indictment under corruption charges. In Kwa Zulu Natal, 16 June commemorations of the Soweto Uprising [mass protests in 1976 against the former racist Apartheid state, initiated by Black youth in the townships, which were brutally attacked by the regime] were used to express opposition to Mbeki and to support Zuma. Mbeki’s ally, Premier S’bu Ndebele, was forced to leave the stadium under a hail of missiles. Similar scenes were witnessed in the province of Mpumalanga. At the 50th anniversary celebration of the Freedom Charter, in Kliptown, Soweto, the day before the general strike, the loudest applause was reserved for Zuma, while Mbeki had to put up with heckling and booing during his speech.

Despite the Cosatu and South African Communist Party leaderships rallying behind Zuma, these protests were much more an expression of opposition to Mbeki than support for Zuma. The Johannesburg march resounded with slogans and struggle songs, such as "Zuma for president", led by the leadership.

Regrettably, the opportunist position adopted by the Cosatu leadership on Zuma, was supplemented by reformist demands for the devaluation of the Rand, a "buy South Africa campaign" to compel clothing retailers to source 75 % of their products from SA suppliers, and the imposition of tariffs on cheap textile and clothing imports from China. The Cape Town march stopped outside several retail outlets and bosses were called out to sign a pledge to buy 75% of their products from local sources. Of course, the bosses have dismissed these demands, and so has the government in relation to the currency.

The Cosatu leadership was also at pains to insist that the strike was against the private sector and not the ANC. Yet, the date was brought forward to precede the ANC’s National General Council (the highest decision-making body between its 5-yearly conferences), which will be considering proposals to introduce a flexible labour market, by formalising separate conditions and wages for different groups of workers on 30 June. The proposals include removing the protection from unfair dismissal for all young workers starting work for the first time and for workers in companies employing less than 200. Proposals also include reviewing the automatic extension of collective agreements to all companies in a sector, even if they are not members of the bargaining council.

The adoption of the LRA was a step forward and still offers some limited rights. But only 30% of workers are covered by bargaining council agreements. Even then, 80% of all applications for exemption from collective agreements are granted. So, there is already a de facto two-tier labour market. Given that 90% of workers are employed in companies with 200 or less workers, the proposals in the ANC’s discussion document amount to an attempt to smash the LRA. They will destroy even these limited gains and return conditions to those that prevailed under Apartheid. The Financial Mail headlined their analysis of the ANC’s discussion document with the words: "The unsayable has been said". The right-wing white Democratic Alliance has pledged its full support for the proposals. A South African Chamber of Business spokesperson argued yesterday that SA should follow the US example, whose economic success he attributes to the power of the bosses to tell workers "You are fired!"

Yet, while chanting slogans in support of socialism, the government’s neo-liberal Gear policy was mentioned only once. In spite of the opportunity provided by the Freedom Charter celebrations, not one leader mentioned nationalisation – the heart of the charter.

Reformist policies

It is clear, however, that the leadership has no intention of raising these issues. In every decisive confrontation with the government – over privatisation, Gear, public sector pay and Zimbabwe, the Cosatu leadership has capitulated. It is this cowardice that has emboldened the bosses and the government. Many workers believe this paralysis is caused by the fact that many of Cosatu’s leaders are using their time in the unions as an apprenticeship for senior positions in government and in the corporate world. This is linked to, and rooted in, the ideological degeneration of the Cosatu leadership. They have lost all confidence in socialism and have been absorbed into the state apparatus. The SACP has only served to reinforce their reformism.

The Sunday Times urged Mbeki to face down this tide of populism. Mbeki, his authority now openly challenged, is determined to oblige. His appointment of the new Deputy President, Phumzile-Mlambo Ngcuka, the wife of the former head of the National Prosecuting Authority, who is widely held responsible by Zuma’s supporters for his dismissal, will only inflame tensions in the ANC. Phumzile-Mlambo Ngcuka was embroiled in the so-called ‘Oilgate scandal’. This concerned payments to her brother by a company in the oil business. The new Deputy President indicated that she is cast in the Mbeki mould when she threatened to introduce legislation to criminalise "spreading alarm" following revelations by Earthlife Africa of radioactivity in the land around the Pelindaba nuclear power plant while she was Minister of Minerals and Energy.

The general strike is the first move to kick-start Cosatu’s rolling campaign of mass action, which will entail monthly protests until February, next year. The divisions in the ANC, and between it and the Tripartite Alliance in the South African Communist Party (SACP), will become unbridgeable. Just as the SACP leadership was unable to suppress the demands of the Young Communist League for a special congress to debate the SACP standing separately in the end-of-year local government elections, the Cosatu leadership will ultimately be compelled to confront the question of a split in the Alliance.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM – CWI in South Africa), will campaign for the rank-and-file to organise to take Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance and to prepare for the establishment of a mass workers’ party, on a socialist programme.

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June 2005