South Africa: Workers demand their share of economic boom in biggest strike wave since 1996

Strike action shows workers are not prepared to see wealth polarization continue

In the biggest strike wave since 1996, workers are on the offensive demanding a share of the economic boom currently under way in SA. The South African Municipal Workers Union’s (Samwu) 100 000 members have built on their successful one- and three-day strikes earlier this month with an indefinite strike in support of a demand for a 9% wage increase.

This local government strike has been marked by violent clashes with police. Workers have used their now standard tactic of “cleaning the bins” — littering the streets with the rubbish they are normally responsible for clearing. Angered by police intervention in the previous strikes, workers went on the rampage in Benoni and Germiston on the East Rand outside Johannesburg on Monday, overturning rubbish bins, ripping up traffic lights and attempting to storm the municipal building.

In the previous three-day strike the anger of the workers unfortunately led to the beating to death of a truck driver suspected of strike-breaking. 10 strikers were injured as police fired rubber bullets yesterday, two of them seriously.

Samwu’s indefinite strike coincides with the first national strike by mine workers since 1987, in support of a demand for a 12% wage increase, which has crippled the gold mining industry. 100 000 members of the National Union of Mineworkers in the gold mining sector downed tools at midnight on Sunday. The NUM is set to be joined by the 16 000-strong mainly white artisans unions, Solidarity, and the United Association of South Africa whose members have all voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action in ballots.

The strikes in the gold mining industry and local government are taking place against the background of the biggest wave of industrial action in SA since 1996. These follow hot on the heels of relatively successful strikes at South African Airways and the supermarket giant Pick ‘n Pay, numerous smaller disputes, and may be followed by workers in the coal and platinum mines, South African Revenue Services, South African laboratory services and SAA pilots.

A feature of the strike wave is that workers have been driven into action not only by conditions in their specific industries, but by the sharp social polarisation in society as a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich has opened a chasm between the classes. Workers are determined to gate-crash the party of the capitalists and the new black elite and take their share.

In the mining industry for example, conditions appeared not to favour strike action. According to the Labour Research Service, above inflation increases have enabled wages in the gold mining industry to increase by 24% in real terms between 2000 and 2004. However, with the gold price determined in US dollars, the bosses argue that the strength of the currency has undermined profits, led to the lowest production levels since 1931 and forced them to sack over 7 000 workers in unprofitable mines in the last year alone with numbers employed down by a third over the past 5 years. Basing itself on the decline in the official inflation rate to 3,5%, and the difficulties in the industry, the Chamber of Mines, initially offered 2,5%.

The NUM dismissed this offer as a “spit in the face”. In response to the subsequently increased offer of 4,5%, Manktashe pointed out: “We are not negotiating inflation (but)… wage increases. We are looking at workers being able to survive.” (City Press 7/8/05)

Pick ‘n Pay’s Chief Executive Sean Summers expressed frustration over the South African Commercial and Allied Workers Union’s (Saccawu) lack of gratitude in rejecting their 7,9% or R310.00 (£25.00) a month. Summers argued that the offer was well above the inflation rate (of 3.5%), and higher than the average settlement in the industry. Summers further claimed that Pick ‘n Pay had never retrenched workers and was planning to open more stores.

But workers’ anger has been fueled as much by the wage offer as the bosses’ attitude which ranges from being patronising to open contempt. Despite the woes of the gold mining industry, the differential between worker’s average income and that of senior executive has now reached 1:242.

Responding to the Pick ‘n Pay offer, Saccawu general secretary, Bones Skulu pointed: “Pick ‘n Pay’s trading profit increased by 15,9% between 2003 and 2004 and (again) by 24,1% in 2004 and 2005. The CEO’s increase (of 19% on his annual remuneration of R12m (over £1m)) alone could pay 667 workers a month’s salary or one worker’s for almost 56 years based on an average of R3 415.73 (£292) per month. Worse still the CEO’s increase alone could pay an increase of [for] 5 700 workers based on the demand for R400.00 (£34) of 12% (Mail & Guardian 29/7-4/8/05).

Failure to deliver

Local government has become notorious for corruption, a dismal failure to deliver services and above all the inflated salaries paid to municipal managers. Since June last year protests over non-delivery of service have spread across the country on a monthly basis to 6 out of the 9 provinces, the latest of these in the oldest squatter camp in Cape Town, QQ, whose residents are reduced to the indignity of asking residents in nearby squatter camps and townships for the use of toilet facilities because they do not even have the primitive bucket system still used by over 200 000 people in the country.

The Durban municipal manager, for example, gets an annual package of R1m before bonuses — twenty times that of the council’s lowest paid worker (Star 15/7/05). As Star labour columnist Terry Bell further points out: “This is the background against which the anger and the frustration of the workers should be judged. They are not demanding the overthrow of the system; all they want is 9% pay rise. This would put an extra R207.00 (£17) into the pockets of the lowest paid. That is roughly equal to what top managers are paid every 35 minutes.”

Anger explodes

The arrogance of the SAA management is reflected in the fact that throughout the six month of negotiations, they pleaded poverty and made a 6% offer on the basis of the previous year’s losses. When SAA CEO proudly announced that they had made R1billion (£85m) profit on July 6, workers’ anger exploded. Totally underestimating the determination of the workers, SAA CEO Khaya Ngqula, went on a weekend trip to a luxury resort with his family as the strike commenced.

Ngqula has come under severe criticism from the press for his handling of the strike and his notorious extravagance. Not for him the inconvenience of a seat on the airline he heads. His habits include chartered flights from his second home in the south of France to London where he puts up at the exclusive Dorchester Hotel. He uses a helicopter to travel from meetings between Johannesburg and Pretoria – a distance of no more than 60km!

Management was stunned when 75% of all flights were grounded as the strike held with public support, forcing them back to the negotiating table with an improved offer.

Workers are responding not just to the immediate problems in the workplace, but also to wider processes taking places in society – in particular the sharp class polarisation. What can only be described as an orgy of self-enrichment, previously the exclusive preserve of the white capitalist class, now involves the new black elite. The latter in particular flaunt their newly acquired wealth with arrogance and a sense of entitlement particularly when they denounce when working class communities demand decent wages and basic services.

According to the 2005 report by the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the Human Sciences Research Council and the UN Development Programme: “SA, despite being one of the 50 wealthiest nations in the world, is one of only a handful countries whose human development index (HDI) ranking has declined since 1995,…from 93 in 1992 to 115 in 2003….In 1997, ‘workerless households’ were home to about 5,8m. By 2002 this had grown to roughly 7,4m. There has also been a marked increase in the number of working poor (those who have jobs but earn less than US$2/day, from just over 900 000 in 1995 to 2m in 2003.” (Financial Mail 8/07/05).

According to Professor John Simpson of the Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing at the University of Cape Town, “… between 1998 and 2004 spending by upper income blacks (more than R154 000 –[£13 367]) a year, rocketed by 368% whereas spending by whites at the same income level grew a mere 16%….The past few years have brought into sharp focus the reality of two contrasting societies – one middle class with many getting richer and the other poor with many now poorer than ever … Last year the richest 20% of SA households were responsible for 65% of all household spend…the poorest 20% spent a mere 2%.”

The Labour Research Service’s 2005 Bargaining Indicator’s report reveals that “it will now take a worker earning the average minimum wage about 150 years to earn what the average director earns in one year compared with last year when it was 111 years” (Star Business Report 10/06/05).

The Sunday Times (17/07/05) in an article headlined “SA’s Wealth Explosion” report that according to the 2005 World Wealth Report “a total of 8 000 South Africans have become dollar millionaires in just 12 months… a rate matched only by Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. They are among the record 12 000 dollar millionaires created in the country over the past three years by the property boom, a strong rand and black economic empowerment.”

As mineworker, Anthony Mpeka, originally from Lesotho and who rises at 4.30am everyday, explained, he has worked in the mines for 20 years and is tired of earning peanuts at less than R3 000.00 (£265.00) a month (City Press 7/08/05).

New general strike

This strike wave is occurring as Cosatu is preparing for the second general strike on 29th August, following the success of the one on 27th June that kick-started its rolling campaign of mass action for jobs that is set to continue until February next year. Although precipitated by the wage negotiation season, there can be little doubt that the working class’ confidence was boosted by the success of the June 27 general strike. Organised workers’ attitudes have been hardened by the government’s determination to press ahead with labour market reforms despite the rejection of the proposals by the ANC’s June National General Council – the highest decision-making body in between conferences.

The bosses’ appetite for profits and wealth has grown with the eating of the last few years in particular and they are not yet satisfied. Relying on the World Bank “Doing business in 2005” survey, which awards South Africa a “difficulty of firing” index of 60 (compared to 50,6 for sub-Saharan Africa and 26,8 for the OECD), they continue to complain about the difficulty and cost of firing workers — R14billion a year according to Andrew Levy and Associates– (Financial Mail 1/7/05).

Their relentless pressure on the ANC leadership has now paid off with the circulation of a discussion document on labour market reforms, with the Financial Mail describing the ANC’s position in the words “the unthinkable has been said”. The proposals include removing the protection provided by the Labour Relations Act (LRA) against unfair dismissal not to apply to young workers starting work for the first time as well as for workers in all companies employing less than 200. This would mean that 90% of workers could be fired at will. It would amount to the smashing of the LRA.

These proposals amount to a declaration of war against the working class and will set the scene for explosive confrontations in the next period, introducing renewed tensions into the Tripartite Alliance of the ruling ANC, the South African Communist Party and Cosatu. The Cosatu and SACP leadership have vigorously denied the main item on the Sunday Independent 7th August, 2005 front page – that the United Democratic Front, the masses’ main political vehicle prior to the ANC’s unbanning, is to be re-launched later this month in the Western Cape as part of Cosatu’s rolling campaign of mass action. While it is unlikely that the leadership would initiate such a process, the very fact that it is under discussion is an indication of the growing class alienation being felt towards the ANC inside Cosatu.

As the Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI in South Africa) has argued, the advanced layers in the Cosatu rank-and file have drawn far-reaching conclusions about the class character of the ANC. They are being held prisoner in the Tripartite Alliance by a leadership that has drifted so far from the ideas of socialism that Cosatu was founded on, that they have not even dared to raise the demand for the nationalisation of the mines and the textile industry when the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Charter being celebrated this year provides them with the perfect opportunity to do so. The DSM will continue to campaign for the rank-and-file to take Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance and to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

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August 2005