ANC’s mishandling of covid crisis shows need for co-ordinated working class fightback

Gauteng's EPWP workers march through Tshwane in February 2020

Symbolic protests by left activists took place on 1 August in South Africa because of a growing feeling that something must be done. The country has been in lockdown for over four months but we are only now entering the ‘peak’ of the pandemic. The government has lost control of the virus. Hospitals are full. Health workers do not have the PPE that they need; 13,000 of them have been infected and 100 have died. But the African National Congress’s ‘crony cadres’ spend their time looting money from health services. Regulations on school opening, tobacco, taxis and travel, make less and less sense.

Three million jobs have been lost. There is widespread hunger, and desperation in communities. The UIF and SRD social grant are a drop in the ocean. Public sector pay and jobs are under attack. The ANC’s Supplementary Budget promises devastating funding cuts to schools, municipal services and other public services in the years ahead.

If the ANC government is left in charge of managing the pandemic, if capitalism and the profit motive continue to determine what is, and what is not, ‘possible’, the working class is heading for disaster. The working class needs to take charge. But how can the mass of the working class be mobilised to do this? Because that is what it will take to switch tracks and avoid the oncoming train-smash.

Appeals to the ANC government to “do the right thing” will not work. Patiently explaining to them why they should change policies is hopeless. They know exactly what they are doing. They are acting in the interests of the capitalist class, both domestic and international, to ensure that the burden of the crisis is passed to the working class. The working class must be put on a war footing to fight back!


Before the pandemic, there were important green shoots for a more widespread, organised and co-ordinated working class fightback. The Saftu trade union federation was founded in 2017. In April 2018 Saftu led an enormously successful Section 77 strike. The enthusiasm and momentum created by this strike led to Saftu hosting a Working Class Summit (WCS) in July 2018. The Summit brought together significant worker-delegations from Saftu’s twenty plus unions, representing 700,000 members, with working class community and youth organisations. In total, 147 organisations were present. It is true that they were a mixed-masala. But as a beginning, the Summit had real potential. Both Saftu and the WCS have passed resolutions in favour of creating a mass workers party.

But unfortunately, things slowed-down. 2019 was a year of treading-water even as the issues facing the working class became sharper. Job losses accelerated. The government declared its intention to attack public sector pay, slash budgets for service delivery, and dismantle state-owned enterprises, starting with SAA.

At the start of this year, before the pandemic hit, there were belated attempts at a revival. A meeting of the WCS Steering Committee in February produced a Programme of Action, including, crucially, the recommendation to Saftu’s NEC to call for a public sector general strike on 30 April. Unfortunately, in the uncertainty of the pandemic and lockdown all of this has been forgotten.

To regain momentum, and re-arm the working class for the new era of pandemics, lockdowns and capitalist crisis, the Marxist Workers Party proposes that the Saftu leadership must set a date for a special SAFTU congress and a ‘working class summit 2’

The efforts of working class activists should all be focused on trying to push the Saftu leadership along this road. It will have to be campaigned for. That campaign should be as organised as possible and be focused, in the first instance, on Saftu’s membership.

It is a mistake to put energy into trying to carve-out a ‘working class-wing’ of the Covid-19 People’s Coalition and create some kind of popular front. The Coalition is led by the middle class, including an NGO/charity-wing funded by the liberal capitalist class. Participation in the Coalition is a step-backwards and lets working class leaders off the hook. It cannot put the working class on the necessary war-footing. The only way out of the current crisis is to organise for serious class struggle to force the ruling class to make concessions and back-down from its attacks. This will not happen by helping to bury the working class’s independent banner, which was so carefully being re-raised after the founding of Saftu, the WCS, and the adoption of resolutions in favour of a mass workers party by both.

Public sector general strike

The potential for a public sector general strike has been enormously increased as a result of the pandemic. By accelerating the economic crisis, it has prepared the ground for a decisive showdown between the ANC government and public sector workers years earlier than might otherwise have been the case. The inevitable attacks must now be compressed into a much shorter timetable. At the same time, the pandemic has increased public sector workers’ grievances. The tensions in the Alliance between Cosatu and the ANC are becoming unbearable. The steady and significant increase in the membership of the Saftu-affiliated public sector union, Nupsaw, is an important ‘canary in the mine’.

The mood of Cosatu members has been fatally poisoned by the tearing-up of the three year pay deal. The Cosatu leadership was forced to put on a loud show of opposition. But it has stopped short at words and court cases. The ANC government’s attempt to pressure local government to follow-suit, and withhold agreed pay rises, is hitting the rocks. In Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and Mogale City, Samwu members have taken action. Tshwane has already retreated and agreed to pay the 6.25% increase. If the ANC government does not retreat at national level, the pressure to follow Samwu’s example will become unstoppable.

In the meantime, the discontent of public sector workers is visible in other ways. The leaders of Cosatu’s unions keep stumbling in their balancing-act between soothing the frustration and anger of their members, and their career-driven determination to defend the ANC government. The flip-flopping of the leadership of the Sadtu teachers’ union over the re-opening of schools is one example. The threat of national action on the issue of PPE by the Nehawu union, with over 100,000 members in the health sector, is another. The completion of the complete realignment of the pre-Marikana trade union landscape is posed.

But that landscape must be consciously sculpted to ensure its new features do not become new obstacles. The position that Saftu takes is crucial. A bold position is needed.

SAFTU should call a general strike 

The demands should include (1) workers’ control of the health and education sectors to fight corruption and manage the pandemic in the interests of the working class, (2) re-instate the public sector pay rise, (3) no job losses or privatisation at SAA, Eskom or the other SOEs, and (4) permanent jobs and a living wage for all EPWPs, CHWs, ECDs and CWPs.

The Saftu leadership should announce its belief that a public sector and SOE general strike is urgent and necessary and then campaign for it amongst the membership. We believe that workers will rally to the idea, filling-out the organisational details, including the final timetable.

Saftu is a minority in the public sector therefore a skilful approach to Cosatu will be necessary. A distinction must be made between the Cosatu leadership and the rank-and-file. A proposal for a united front between Saftu and Cosatu should be made publicly. It is true that the Cosatu leadership has a track-record of flirting with such fronts and then pulling-out at the last minute. In other words, we cannot trust them. But let them be the ones to refuse unity in struggle in front of their members. On the ground, regardless of the position taken by the Cosatu leadership, Saftu members should set-up strike committees and invite Cosatu members and shop stewards to participate in planning the strike.

Community mobilisation

Mobilising the public sector is the key to mobilising the entire working class at this point in the class struggle. A public sector general strike would be a platform from which to appeal to the entire working class – the workers in the private sector (many of whom may well join the strike anyway, especially if a bridge is built via the SOEs), the unemployed, the communities and the youth.

But the organised working class in the trade unions is the only possible centre of gravity for the working class more broadly. Without the workers whose hands are directly on the means of production and distribution, there is a certain limit to how far the struggle for working class management of the pandemic can develop. As important and necessary as protests of youth, the unemployed and communities are, they are essentially a demand for resources that these groups do not have direct access to. It is otherwise for organised workers in a workplace.

The strike committees that would be necessary in a public sector (and later general) strike would of course take control of the workplace during the strike, deciding what work is, and is not done, who can and cannot enter, what services will be offered, to whom, and what goods will be moved where etc. By inviting in community activists to participate, the structures for working class control of the management of the pandemic begin to appear before our eyes.

Nevertheless, the ground for an alliance between community structures and the organised working class can be prepared now. The EPWP workers, Community Health Workers, Early Childhood Development workers and Community Works Project workers are a vast worker-army. They are based in communities, including in clinics, schools and nurseries, and have detailed knowledge of local areas. They could form the backbone of community controlled Covid-brigades as many have already taken significant steps toward self-organisation, as for example the CHWs organised in Nupsaw, or the Gauteng EPWP Workers Forum. Working class activists should help deepen and extend this work.

Workers’ Party

The pandemic, the lockdown and the economic crisis are demonstrating anew that society is not run in the interests of the working class majority. The PPE tender corruption has been a further sickening confirmation. In this increasingly desperate situation, the task of mobilising the power of the working class to fight back must be the aim of every serious working class activist. But then what? The question of a political alternative must be addressed. A socialist mass workers party must be built.

All roads come back to this issue. For example, in Saftu’s statement on the IMF loan, they conclude by saying “…a future government should declare this loan as an Odious Debt. A future government will expect the IMF to take responsibility for its cancellation…” What future government, comrades? Unless the working class prepares one itself, future governments will always be those of the class enemy – of the bosses and the capitalist class. The only road to a future workers’ government lies via a workers party!

Saftu has a resolution in favour of creating a workers party. The WCS adopted one too. The task is to implement these resolutions. In Saftu’s latest ‘Workers Conversations’ broadcast, Karl Cloete said that “we wish as Saftu that we would all break-out of our sectarian castles and work earnestly on the fragmentation which stifles the unity of the working class”. We agree! The working class is yearning for unity. This is what the 2018 WCS represented.

All left political formations, including the SRWP, should be willing to carry this spirit into the implementation of the Saftu and WCS workers party resolutions. Karl Marx said that revolutionaries “have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole”. The creation of a mass workers party, embracing and uniting all the fighting battalions of the working class, is unquestionably in the interests of the “proletariat as a whole” in the struggle for socialism. To stand aside from this task, or worse, to obstruct it, in order to protect the prestige and privileges of the leaders of just one of the working class’s parts, would be criminal.


The MWP calls for the urgent re-convening of the Working Class Summit to discuss this and the other urgent issues we have raised in this statement.

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August 2020