South Africa: One-day general strike shows workers’ willingness to fight back

200,000 march across South Africa

When South Africa’s largest and most militant trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), organised a one-day general strike on March 7, the first such action in over ten years, after avoiding the question for months and calling off several previously announced strikes, it was embraced by the working class as a long-awaited rush of fresh air. Despite what can, at best, be described as half-hearted mobilisation by the trade union leaders, there was a big turn-out for the marches in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, and marches were also held in 29 other cities and towns. With a total of 200,000 people on the streets across the country, this is said to have been the largest protest since the early 1980s’ anti-apartheid mass movement.

The biggest march, in Johannesburg, drew about 100,000 workers. Around 20 000 marched in Cape Town and another 20,000 in Durban. Many industries, in particular mining, metal and other manufacturing industries and retail stores, were severely constrained.

Workers took the opportunity to express their anger against the super-exploitative practice of labour broking (the outsourcing of employment to manpower companies) and against the effective privatisation of the free-ways through an ‘e-tolling’ system which is to be introduced in Gauteng province next month (these were Cosatu’s two main demands). But marchers also displayed a more generalised anger at the relentless, creeping attacks on workers’ standard of living, and at the shameless indulgence of the ‘politically connected’ in corrupt self-enrichment. South Africa is the officially most unequal country on the planet, with one half of the population receiving 92% of the national income while the other half gets 8%.

Pecarious conditions

A very large part of the SA workforce – up to 30% – are employed by labour brokers or under similarly precarious conditions; typically working for as little as a third of the wages of permanently employed workers, without any job security, pay progression, benefits or organisational rights, which is enriching an army of parasitic middle-men. In SA, as in the rest of the world, labour broking is a tool to divide the working class, already ravaged by a 40% unemployment rate, and to intensify its exploitation. The Zuma ANC-government promised, in its 2009 election campaign, that labour broking would be banned. Proposed amendments to the labour laws which would ‘regulate’ the labour broking industry to the point that it would be paralyzed – a ‘ban’ in all but name – were announced by government, last year (outlawing temporary employment for more than 3 months and different pay for similar work, defining the company contracting the labour broker as ‘the employer’, etc). While government, under pressure from horrified employers, attempts to bury the amendments, which appears to be regarded as some form of embarrassing ‘mis-draft’, in silence and endless procedure, they have also been rejected by the Cosatu leadership which will accept nothing but an explicit ‘ban’. As negotiations drag on, the employer side has already made inroads with extending the time allowed for temporary contracts to six months. In the view of the Democratic Socialist Movement (the CWI in SA), Cosatu’s position amounts to radical posturing and actually assists the bosses in their objective of having the ‘regulation’ proposals withdrawn altogether. Instead we call for a campaign for the adoption, implementation and enforcement of the amendments relating to labour broking – an effective ban, on paper – and to use it as a platform to fight for a real blow against labour broking. For no matter how clearly a ban is spelled out, the fact is that most of the gains that are already inscribed in the labour laws are not being enforced. Workers are desperate for an effective way to counter the neo-liberal onslaught they face in the form of labour broking and many have bought into Cosatu’s stance.

The introduction of a new road-toll system (for now in Gauteng, but if it goes through there it is likely to be followed in other provinces), which will mean dramatically increased costs of living, not only for motorists but drive up prices generally, is an attack on the working class in the same spirit as the encroachment of labour broking. Anger is widespread against this including amongst the middle class.

Despite the Cosatu leadership…

The outstanding question of a general strike has been hanging as shadow over the struggles of recent years and became increasingly impossible to ignore. The Cosatu leadership shied away from it, despite the obvious stepping up of the massive public sector strike in 2010, and again as the logical conclusion of the strike wave of 2011. When the strike eventually took place, after two still born efforts, the union leaders’ approach was strikingly hesitant. There was practically no public mobilisation or campaigning, with not a single poster of leaflet appearing in Johannesburg, and leaflets distributed only late on the afternoon the before the strike in Durban. Outside of what appears to have been a patchy mobilisation within Cosatu’s affiliates, campaigning was limited to the media and in the newspapers, and even most of this was done at the last minute. The Cosatu leadership, for all its love of radical phrases, even appeared shy to state that this was a general strike, speaking instead of ‘national marches’. Only the day before the march did the leaders clearly communicate the message, through the media, that this was a general strike notice protecting every employee in the country, regardless of union affiliation. As a result, despite the demonstration turnout, the threatened shut-down of the economy was far from complete. The Johannesburg march was joined by people from the street for whom the sight of the march was the first they heard of the strike.

Wetted the thirst of workers

The large turn-out, despite this half-heartedness on part of the leadership, shows the willingness and ability of the SA working class to fight. At the same time, the leadership tried to gain maximal militancy credit from the action. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, during his speech in Johannesburg, called the strike “a warning shot” and promised follow-up action, including blockading the freeways, to massive cheers. Cosatu’s President S’dumo Dlamini, speaking in Durban, said a second strike could be held in August. The strike has certainly wetted the thirst of workers and youth, who are itching to take action. The Cosatu leadership, which is riddled with divisions that appear to be deepening rapidly – on the surface, relating most directly to the looming leadership battles in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), its political partner – was also joined on the strike action by the ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who was last week expelled from the ANC by its disciplinary committee. The presence of Malema, who is campaigning against the re-election of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, as head of the ANC at the ANC’s national conference, which will be held in December this year, at the march in Johannesburg, was welcomed by many of the marchers. In Limpopo, Malema’s home province, strikers reportedly refused to be addressed by ANC figures associated with Malema.

The right-posturing-as-left demagogue Malema’s attempt to join the Cosatu leadership in riding the working class tiger adds some complication to the consciousness of the working class, but none that does not stand to be clarified in the course of the struggles, which will no doubt be unleashed in SA over the next few years.

Further big class struggles will see the organised working class rejecting the policies of class collaborationism and the rank and file campaigning for democratic control of their unions and for the formation of a mass party of the working class. Such a party can unite all the fighting strands of the working class – in communities, workplaces and social movements – and struggle with independent class policies for a government of workers and poor people.

The DSM participated in marches in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, with a pamphlet, which was well-received.

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March 2012