South Africa: Public sector workers’ strike enters third week

Huge popular support for action puts ANC government under pressure

A public sector strike in South Africa entered its third week, with workers remaining determined to maintain pressure on the government to substantially improve its pay offer. The overwhelming majority of South Africa’s one million public sector workers started an indefinite mass action campaign in support of a 12% salary increase, on Friday 1 June. With the majority of Cosatu (Congress of South Africa Trade Unions) affiliates not responding to calls to make this a general strike, industry was not brought to a halt. Only the SA Municipal Workers’ Union took secondary action in solidarity with their public sector counterparts. The National Union of Mineworkers’ Central Committee decision to support the strike could not be carried through as the union had not give the necessary 10 days’ notice to ensure the strike would be "protected" (legal).

Scandalously, leadership of the National Union of Metal Workers of SA, which is pro-SA President Mbeki, claimed that though they sympathised with the public sector workers, they were preparing for their own wage negotiations. They also claimed their lawyers advised them that the union would be interdicted if they took secondary action, as they would have difficulty proving a "nexus" between the metal/auto/energy industry and the public sector to justify secondary action.

Despite this, South Africa’s major urban centres were brought to a complete standstill as public sector workers marched and demonstrated in 43 towns and cities across the country. The taxi associations and bus companies in Kwa Zulu Natal showed their support by pulling all busses and taxis off the roads. The public sector strike, involving nearly 800,000 workers, is, by far, the biggest strike in South Africa’s history.

Ironically, the hysteria in the media, and the gross exaggerations by government spokespersons about "violence" and "intimidation" surrounding the strike, actually contributed to businesses closing down. Although there have been some violent incidents (a school principal was sjambokked [whipped] for not striking and, in one instance, some hotheads pulled health workers out of the Intensive Care units) these have been isolated.

State violence

In fact, the violence has come mainly from the state forces, using stun grenades against peacefully demonstrators in Durban and Cape Town. As reporters (as opposed to political commentators writing from the comforts of their newsrooms) observed, the demonstrations were peaceful, disciplined, high spirited and even good-humoured. Reacting to the dismissal of health workers, one poster taking a swipe at Minister of Health, Manto Tshabala-Msimang, over her promotion of quack remedies for HIV/Aids, and who recently underwent a successful liver transplant, read, "Dr Beetroot Garlic, we gave you our live with love now we want it back by force".

Although yesterday was more a national day of action than a general strike, a general strike is inherent in the situation. The summary dismissals of health workers (for defying the ban on striking in essential services) have only hardened the resolve of the unions. The National Education Health and Allied Workers Union pledged the strike will not end until all workers are reinstated. The Police, Prisons and Civil Rights Union (Popcru) resolved at its conference, earlier this week, they would defy the essential services laws, and join the strike, if the government does not meet workers’ demands.

Some journalists are denouncing this as a political strike claiming the Cosatu leadership is using workers for their pro-Jacob Zuma agenda [Zuma is one of main ANC opposition figures to the Mbeki leadership]. These critics also claim Cosatu hope to have some advantage going into the month-end ANC policy conference, where the government’s economic policy will come under severe criticism, and the succession conference at the end of the year, which will decide who takes over the ANC presidency and, therefore, presidency of the country. Yet, at a demonstration in Johannesburg, earlier this week, attempts to rally support for Zuma were met with a much muted response.

A public sector strike, directed as it is against the government, is, of course, inherently political. Inevitably, the pro-Zuma faction in Cosatu and the ANC may be hoping that this strike will advance their anti-Mbeki cause. But the accusation of a political agenda is just as true of the Mbeki faction, as the treacherous role of the Numsa leadership shows. It is widely believed that the majority of ANC branches support the strikers’ demand and that the ANC General Secretary, Kgalema Motlanthe, and the Cosatu union leaders had agreed to settle the pay dispute at 8%. But the Minster of Public Service and Administration enjoys the backing of the president, Thabo Mbeki, and has, so far, ignored the evidence before her eyes of growing support for the strikers.

For the overwhelming majority of workers, the Zuma-Mbeki conflict is not the issue. The fact is that South Africa’s ‘economic boom’ is entering its 8th year and workers have seen no real benefits. All they experience is deepening poverty and growing unemployment, alongside the ostentatious wealth of the new elite and fantastic profits and outlandish pay to executives. This is why there is such overwhelming public support for the strike.

Government fears example of victorious workers

Civil society organisations, including the South African Council of Churches have pledged support for workers’ demands. Even newspaper editorials acknowledging that the government, with budget surplus and tax revenue overruns of R11 billion, can afford the public sector workers’ demands. Clearly, the government, as the agent of big business, is afraid of the example that a double-digit wage increase would set for the private sector. At the same time, they do not want to be seen to be backing down in the fact of workers’ pressure.

But their arguments that wage increases cause inflation have been severely undermined by the increase in inflation to 6.3%, even before the wage negotiations are concluded in the public sector and before they started in the private sector. Despite the government’s hard line on the strike, it has increased its offer, albeit in tiny increments, and now puts forward a wage deal at 7.25%, which was recommended by ‘independent mediators’. But these tiny increments have been like Chinese torture to an infuriated workforce. The government may well be compelled to retreat and to offer 8%.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) – the CWI in South Africa – visited striking workers in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. We distributed two pamphlets on the issues, and our newspaper, Izwi la Basebenzi, is a best-seller.

DSM leaflet: Support public sector workers demand for a decent wage (pdf, opens in new window).

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June 2007