South Africa: Public sector strike “suspended” by union leaders

Break the Tripartite Alliance – For a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme

“If you carry out your threat and strike you will defeat us; but if you do so have you weighed up the consequences? A strike will be in defiance of the government of this country, and by its very success, will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, they must be ready to take on the functions of the state or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?” (Emphasis added)

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, in 1919, to union leaders threatening a general strike. Rather than mobilising the working class, the union leaders capitulated (Quoted from ‘The 1926 General Strike: Workers taste power’, by Peter Taaffe).

After three weeks of determined struggle, the South African public sector workers’ strike has been suspended. The union leaders’ position is that they have still not accepted the ANC government’s offer of a 7.5% salary increase and R800 (US$ 110) housing allowance and would be consulting their members on it over the next 21 days. In terms of the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining constitution, a draft resolution tabled by a party falls off if it has no majority support after 21 working days. Although this implies the possibility of a resumption of the strike, it is highly unlikely that the leadership has any intention of calling the members out onto the streets should the resumed negotiations fail. Nor is it likely that the membership would respond. The strike is effectively over. Workers are bitter and angry, not only at the government, but also towards their leaders.

Prior to the suspension of the strike, in an extraordinary exhibition of verbal gymnastics, the union leadership appeared to refuse to accept their members’ rejection of the government’s 7.5% salary increase and R800 housing allowance offer. They argued that the workers had not fully understood the full package offered by government and insisted on a second round of report-backs. On the substantive issue of salaries and the housing allowance, in other words, the union leadership has in fact capitulated. What will be negotiated over the next 21 days will be issues such as the terms for a return to work and other matters for future bargaining. The government has already, in fact, offered an amnesty for essential service workers who defied the court interdict. Instead of being dismissed, they will receive final written warnings which will be removed from their personnel records after six months. In addition, the unions will be demanding that there be no deductions in terms of the no-work no-pay policy.

As in 2007, when millions of workers also took action, for many workers this will feel, if not a defeat, then certainly an opportunity lost. Although a week shorter in duration than the 2007 mass action, the 2010 strike more than matched it in intensity, combativity and militancy. For most of the 21 days the strike held solid in defiance of government arrogance, state repression, including court interdicts, rubber bullets, and the use of water cannon and the arrest of over 300 workers. If anything, the government’s ‘kragdadigheid’ and insulting propaganda, trying to take advantage of actions involving health workers and educators, reinforced the determination of the workers.

As the bosses pledged support for the ANC government’s intransigence and exerted pressure by warning of dire consequences for the economy should the government capitulate, the courage of the public sector workers inspired pledges of a solidarity action from workers in local government and the private sector. On the social landscape, the lines of class division stood out in sharp relief: the government and the bosses on the one side and the working class on the other. Forced to reflect the mood of the working class, Cosatu – the main trade union federation – threatened to bring the economy to its knees in a general strike in solidarity with the public sector workers, if government did not meet the public sector workers’ demands.

For the left wing doomsayers on the fringes of the working class movement, everything short of the overthrow of capitalism is a defeat. Unwittingly they echo the views of capitalist analysts who, particularly in the last week of the strike, repeatedly predicted the end of the strike on the basis that they workers had already lost more in the no-work no-pay deductions than what they would gain through the salary increases.

However, even on the narrow issue of the wages, to regard the fact that 7.5% is only half of the workers’ original 15% demand, and is 11% short of the workers’ final revised demand of 8.6%, as a defeat, is to take an entirely one-sided, ‘economistic’ view of the outcome of this strike. From an initial 5.2%, the government was forced to move twice to reach 7.5%, an increase worth more in real terms today than in 2007 given that the official rate of inflation is currently 3.7%; an issue that capitalist economists have repeatedly condemned workers for.

Pressure of million-strong strike

Despite the government’s hard-line stand, its claims that there was no money, that any increase in the salary offer to public sector workers would have to be taken from budgets allocated to other service delivery priorities, including job creation, alongside a vicious propaganda campaign by the capitalist media, the pressure of the million-strong public sector strike forced the government to retreat.

More importantly, the workers did not settle for this offer. It was rejected overwhelmingly by Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) union members and half of the smaller Independent Labour Caucus (made up of mainly former white conservative unions). This was not so much a settlement as an imposition – a deal struck between the trade union leadership, led by Cosatu, and the ANC government. Workers have every right to feel betrayed.

But it is in the political sphere that the true significance of the 2010 public sector strike lies. The very fact that it was a strike against the government of Jacob Zuma, a president that was portrayed by the SACP (South African Communist Party) and Cosatu leadership as pro-working class and in whose ascent to power the role of the public sector workers through their action in 2007 was pivotal, means that politically this strike began on a higher level than in 2007.

To argue, as Andile Mgxitana does (Sunday Times (South Africa) 05/09/10) does, that the intra-Tripartite Alliance conflict that formed the background to this strike was like the wrestling matches in the television show, WWE (i.e. a fake contest with predetermined results) is to completely misunderstand the interplay of class and political processes at work. The public sector strike was, in the first instance, as much a conflict between the classes as the strikes in the private sector.

At the same time, however, it was a political strike – a public affirmation by the public sector workers, and indeed, as the solidarity pledges by workers in the private and parastatal sectors indicated, by the entire working class. It concerned the conclusions they have reached: that the ANC government is not a workers’ government but a government of the bosses.

History, as Marx explained, does not simply repeat itself in an endless replay of processes, with the same outcomes. The 2010 strike was built on the experience of 2007. The performance of the Zuma administration had demonstrated, as the Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI South Africa) warned, that in terms of economic policy, it was a continuation of Mbeki’s capitalist government. The stance adopted by the Zuma government in the 2010 public sector strike obliterated any difference from Mbeki’s, rendering its class character indistinguishable from its predecessor. If anything, its capitalist character is even more pronounced, reflected in escalating corruption, the looting of the state and a culture of entitlement within the political and economic elite.

Where the 2007 public sector strike was pivotal in cementing the Zuma coalition, ending Mbeki’s reign and precipitating the first split in the ANC since it came to power (and the biggest so far in its history), the 2010 strike has shattered a fracturing coalition. It brought, for the first time, Cosatu into collision with its ideological mentors, the SACP (South African Communist Party). A process of political differentiation has been set into motion that will end, in time, in the break-up of the Tripartite Alliance. It will prepare the conditions for the emergence of a mass workers’ party, uniting organised workers, the poor involved in service delivery protests and youth and students fighting financial and academic exclusions from tertiary education institutions.

As Lenin pointed out, an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory. Workers have learned far more in the past three weeks than in the entire period since the end of apartheid – about the class character of the ANC and the role of the Tripartite Alliance. The speed with which the government fell back onto the negotiating tactics of the Mbeki administration, as well the adoption of an even more hard-line attitude and the use of kragdadigheid (a show of strength), accelerated the development of consciousness.

In addition, much more than in 2007, workers are very angry at their leaders. The Gauteng regional Sadtu (South African Democratic Teachers Union) leader’s statement, in advance of the official announcement, that the strike had been called off because certain leaders had sold the workers out, reflects a widespread view amongst workers. Unlike 2007, this time there is likely to be rank-and-file action to recall some leaders in the forthcoming congresses of several unions. The DSM will be circulating a model resolution in Cosatu unions summarising the political conclusions from this strike and calling for the rank-and-file to take Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance and to establish committees to launch a campaign for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

General Strike

In fact, the possibility of a general strike played a critical role in determining the course of events on the side both of the union leadership, as well as government.

Faced with this threat, and despite claims that the public sector workers’ demands were excessive, unaffordable and would damage public finances, the government increased its offer by 0.5% to 7.5% and the housing allowance from R700 to R800. Such was workers’ anger and determination, however, that the offer was rejected outright by members of the Cosatu-affiliated teacher union, Sadtu, and by an overwhelming majority of the three other Cosatu affiliates, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) and the Democratic Nurses Organisation (Denosa). The smaller Independent Labour Caucus was split 50-50, meaning that more than 75% of workers across all unions had rejected the revised offer. The scene was thus set for the general strike to proceed.

Fearful of the political implications of a general strike against the ANC government and the threat to the Tripartite Alliance (between the ANC, SACP and Cosatu), the Cosatu leadership stepped up efforts to end the strike. In fact, from the onset the Cosatu leadership did not have the stomach for this battle. However, they felt obliged to reflect the fury of the workers, with trenchant denunciations of Zuma’s salary and, in Vavi’s words, the predatory elite feeding at the public trough like hyenas, while engaging desperately with government behind the scenes to secure a deal. News reports were dominated by the focus on efforts by the trade union leadership to sell the offer to the members, against the instruction of their members! The leaders had re-`defined their role as mediators between their members and the government instead of their members’ representatives!

The ILC spokesperson called upon workers to “do the right thing and return to work where they should be”. The Cosatu leadership, having been embarrassed by the fact that the ILC’s biggest affiliate, the Public Servants Association, which, in a break with tradition had gone on strike independently of, and before the Cosatu unions, is now preparing to follow the ILC back to work hiding their own political cowardice under the skirts of their more conservative but weaker counterparts .

The Cosatu president, who had the greatest difficulty concealing his distaste for his members’ courageous determination to battle the government, emphasised the return to work clauses in the offer providing for exemption from no-work no-pay deductions if they can give “reasonable” explanations for absence from work during the strike.

The Cosatu leadership capitulated in spite of the fact that, in the private sector, the federation’s most powerful affiliates, the metal and mine workers unions are currently on strike in the tyre, petrol retail and mining industries having rejected 6-8% wage offers, demanding increases ranging from 10 to 15%. The National Union of Metal Workers has just concluded a victorious 8-day strike in the motor industry after winning a 10% increase and, most significantly, a ban on labour brokers when it has become clear that the ANC has begun to retreat from its resolutions adopted at the 2007 conference in Polokwane, in the Limpopo province, to ban labour broking through legislation in parliament. All Cosatu was required to do was to activate the section 77 (of the Labour Relations Act providing for the right to strike over socio-economic issues) notice filed months ago to protest against excessive electricity price increases.

In spite of the fact that the conditions for a solidarity general strike are highly favourable, the Cosatu leadership, like the Grand Old Duke of York, marched their soldiers half way up the hill only to lead them down again, in an attempt to engineer a headlong retreat.

Widening divisions in Tripartite Alliance

The Cosatu leadership feared that a general strike would open up the widening cracks in the Tripartite Alliance into an unbridgeable chasm and create pressures to form a political opposition workers’ party. This idea forced itself onto the political agenda by the shattering of the coalition of forces that recalled Mbeki and brought Zuma to power. In fact, the realignment of bourgeois politics which began with the 2008 formation of the Congress of the People – the biggest split from the ANC in its history — and the recent marriage between the Independent Democrats (led by ex-Pan Africanist MP Patricia De Lille and the white-led Democratic Alliance flush with its victory in claiming the Western Cape Province in the 2009 elections – the only province not governed by the ANC) have broken the spell of ANC political hegemony and legitimised the idea of an opposition to the “party of liberation”.

In the past, the Cosatu leadership took refuge from the political implications of the protest against the government’s neo-liberal economic policy, Gear, privatisation and even the 2007 public sector wage strike – the longest and, until now, most politically significant in recent SA history — behind the fiction that they were protesting “against the government, not the ANC”. The 2007 rebellion against Mbeki, fuelled by the class polarisation it indirectly expressed, provided a handy cover for this spurious piece of political evasion.

But as, the DSM has warned, the Zuma administration would be the last hide-out for the Cosatu leadership. It is caught on the horns of a dilemma. It can stay within the Tripartite Alliance and adhere to the rules of engagement between the Alliance partners, which the ANC leadership is attempting, through this strike, to re-write. Or the Cosatu can depart from the Alliance and be forced by the logic of the decision to go into opposition.

With the Zuma administration, in any case, committed to a reformist economic programme, Cosatu had campaigned for a so-called industrial strategy to place the economy on an alternative capitalist growth path towards job creating economic growth and poverty eradication. With Cosatu at war with erstwhile Zuma coalition ally, the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), with the National Union of Mineworkers rejecting the ANCYL’s demand – stolen from Cosatu — for nationalisation of the mines, and with the public sector strike having brought Cosatu into collision with its ideological controllers, the SACP, what would Cosatu’s programme be if its leaders simply wanted to create an opposition labour or social democratic party working within capitalism?

Recoiling for these reasons from the idea of breaking from the Tripartite Alliance, a number of Cosatu leaders are warning Zuma that he too can be recalled as Mbeki was. The problem, they say, is not with the ANC, but with the leaders they elect. In this way, they perpetuate the illusion that the class character of the ANC has not yet been decided. The reality is that it does not matter who is elected into the leadership, the ANC is a capitalist party and therefore bound to attack the working class. While the 2010 edition has reinforced the lessons of the 2007 public sector strike for the rank-and-file, for the leadership these lessons remain a closed book sealed with seven seals.

Should the surrender of the Cosatu leadership hold, it will amount to no more than a truce – a postponement of the reckoning between the classes that the crisis of capitalism guarantees. As the World Bank warned, an economic recovery to return to the pre-recession conditions could take 15 years. Reserve Bank Governor, Gill Marcus, added that the SA economy never recovered from the recession and is headed for a double dip decline. Further redundancies, short time and lay-offs are inevitable. The conditions that produced the arguments used to justify government’s current stance on the workers’ demands on salaries and benefits, like housing, will worsen. The same arguments about a “lack of fiscal space”, an “unsustainable public sector remuneration bill” and “a narrow tax base and the limits of social welfare spending” will apply with renewed force. There is therefore no prospect of the negotiations conducted, with or without trading insults, which will produce a satisfactory outcome regarding wages or benefits. Vacancies are unlikely to be filled and retrenchments cannot be excluded. The problem lies with the government’s capitalist polices.

This is what the SACP, if it were a communist party, worthy of the name, should be pointing out and make the case for socialism. Instead the SACP, with its debilitating ideological grip on the Cosatu leadership, while pledging perfunctory support for the public sector workers, and then only after being criticised by the Cosatu leaders for their silence, has also attacked the excesses that have occurred (attacks on non-striking workers and pulling staff out of operating theatres in Stalinist language as “counter revolutionaries”). This exposes the distance between a party that claims it is the official leader of the working class and the workers themselves. The SACP has studiously avoided placing itself in a position where the possibility of it contending for power in parliament, in its own right, is posed.

Zuma: After me, who?

Zuma appears to have used the collapse of the coalition that brought him to power by posing the question to the Cosatu leadership: After me, who? To this, the Cosatu leadership had and has no answer. What is more certain is that in questioning the motive behind the indefinite public sector strike, Zuma was posing the question more directly, after the manner of British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, to the British trade union leaders in 1919, when confronted with the threat of a general strike.”

… if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, they must be ready to take on the functions of the state or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?”

Like his 1919 British counterpart, Zuma has called the Cosatu leadership’s bluff…with the same results. The Cosatu leaders have been frightened into running away from their own shadows. Zuma’s condemnation of the idea of an indefinite public sector strike applies much more to an indefinite general strike that appeared to be inherent in the action threatened by the Cosatu leadership, than one confined to the public sector.

Despite the capitulation of the British trade union leaders in 1918, under the impact of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the Labour Party in Britain adopted a clause (Clause 4, Part 4) in its rules, committing the party to the socialist transformation of society. A general strike took place eight years later, in 1926.

The Cosatu leadership may succeed in ending the public sector strike and averting a general strike for now. But what this public sector strike, and the successful strike wave in the private and parastatal sectors, shows is that the willingness of the workers to struggle is unbroken. However this struggle ends, it merely postpones a further reckoning between the working class and the bosses in the private sector and their political managers of their system, the ANC government.

The bosses are reacting to the crisis of capitalism, the worst since the Great Depression in the 1930s, in the only way they know how – to make the workers pay through short time, lay-offs, retrenchments and savage cuts in social welfare spending. The ANC government is managing the economy in accordance with the dictates of capital.

The working class has no alternative but to resist. If their leaders in the trade unions stand in the way they will be swept aside. There is enormous anger amongst Cosatu public sector workers over the role of their leaders. The Cosatu leadership appears to believe that history merely repeats itself. But there will be consequences for the betrayal of 2010 – for that is what the leadership is preparing.

Contrary to the Polokwane illusions fostered by the Cosatu leadership, equality in relations between the Alliance partners was never possible, nor would the strategic centre (of decision-making powers) ever have been relocated to the Alliance. From the point of view of the ANC, the role of Cosatu in the Tripartite Alliance is to act as the prison warder of the working class – to deliver the working class to the bosses, bound hand and foot in chains (called the “national democratic revolution”).

The liberation of the working class can be achieved only through the break-up of the Alliance, the establishment of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme to unite organised workers, the poor masses involved in service delivery protests, youth fighting for jobs and students resisting financial and academic exclusions, in a struggle to abolish capitalism in South Africa. This must be part of an international struggle, to lay the foundations for the creation of a society of genuine social solidarity and prosperity for all.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


September 2010