South Africa’s October 7th general strike – A Marxist balance sheet

The 7 October general strike called by Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) came against the background of an all-out assault on the working class by the ANC (African National Congress) government and the bosses over the six months of the lockdown. The government had refused to pay public sector workers the increase agreed in the three-year 2018 collective agreement – a wage theft that was the most audacious attack on the working class since the government’s walkout from the wage negotiations in 1999.

Around 2.2m jobs have been lost, mainly in the private sector, but also through the termination of contracts of thousands of precarious workers in public sector slave-labour schemes like the Expanded Public Works Programme, Early Childhood Development and School Governing Bodies.

As a result of the government’s lockdown measures, by May almost one million people in Johannesburg, SA’s economic hub were in need of food aid in addition to the 12-15 million who had been going to bed hungry every night in the country even before. Thousands are experiencing callous non-compliance with pandemic health and safety protocols by management, long delays in the non-payment of unemployment insurance and temporary relief scheme payments, and arbitrary reductions in care and child support grants, as well as the termination of school meals. This has caused enormous hardship with hundreds of thousands more starving.

Rising anger

The rising anger was reflected both amongst organised workers and in working class communities more broadly. Prior to the 7 October general strike, there had been a month of protests by Cosatu’s major healthworkers’ union Nehawu, including strike action at the National Health Laboratory Service, responsible for Covid-testing, over inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Community protests had increased significantly – from an average of two per day before the lockdown, to eight per day under it.

The ANC’s PPE-corruption scandal set alight the smouldering anger of workers and society broadly after the government’s R500 million pandemic emergency budget was descended upon, like hyenas in a feeding frenzy, by corrupt ANC officials and politicians. Acutely aware that there is a powder keg waiting to explode, President Ramaphosa was obliged to try and defuse public outrage. In his weekly newsletter, he admitted that when it comes to corruption the ANC government was “accused number one”.

Against the background of an attack simultaneously on all sections of the working class – the employed, the unemployed, organised and unorganised, children and the aged – there was a legitimate expectation of a thunderous response from the leadership of the organised working class. All the explosive ingredients for a massive response from the working class were present.

Reflecting this pressure, Cosatu leaders promised that the economy would be brought to a standstill on 7 October. The strike was supported by all four trade union federations who together claim to represent 2.8 million workers – nearly 25% of the workforce.

But what was the outcome?

The economy was not shut-down – not even partially. Overwhelmingly, 7 October was just a ‘new normal’ day. The public sector general strikes of 2007 and 2010, not to mention previous general strikes, tore through the country like a hurricane compared to the brief light drizzle of 7 October 2020. Even the smaller April 2018 Saftu (South African Federation of Trade Unions) action dwarfed 7 October into insignificance.

In Johannesburg, Cosatu’s march and motorcade of maybe one thousand passed the around 300-strong Saftu rally with provocative shouts of “one country, one federation” interspersed with hypocritical chants for “workers unity”. Later, in Johannesburg, separate Cosatu/Fedusa and Saftu marches converged for a rally where the leaders all sang songs of unity. But they were not, and could not, have been singing from the same hymn book of working-class unity in the struggle against capitalism and the ANC government. What was on display was not unity but the divisions between the federations.

The federations called marches and pickets in major cities. We estimate that not many more than 10,000 nationally could have participated in these. Despite much rhetoric – and the potential for a massive mobilisation –7 October was in practice little more than a day of action by a layer of trade union leaders, some shop stewards and some worker activists. The mass of trade union members, if they were even aware of the strike, were not motivated to sacrifice a day’s pay to participate.

It is necessary to face this hard truth – to analyse and understand it. Far from harnessing the anger of the masses and organising the “fight back” promised by Saftu, the 7 October ‘general strike’ revealed anew the crisis of leadership facing the working class. In order to overcome the current weaknesses in the workers’ movement we need to explain why this happened.

Cosatu

The Cosatu leadership had no intention of trying to harness the working class’s anger. They were not trying to position the organised working class to give leadership to the unemployed and starving communities. Their calculations were far more cynical.

Throughout the pre-general strike protests, the Nehawu leadership desperately avoided the issue of public sector pay, which was clearly a decisive issue. It is also the issue that goes right to the heart of the contradictions of the Tripartite Alliance and instantly calls into question the Cosatu leadership’s political support for the ANC government.

The 7 October strike announcement gave the Nehawu leadership the cover for cancelling a health sector-wide strike they had announced for 10 September. Such an action was far too dangerous to risk. It had the potential to spread across the public sector and place the restoration of the public sector pay rise front and centre. The 7 October strike call was also careful to avoid the issue of public sector pay – it was originally called against corruption. But as the weeks passed the aims of the strike continued to shift and slide depending on which Cosatu leader was being interviewed. Now and then the anger of public sector workers over pay broke through.

Again, revealing the manoeuvres of the bureaucracy, on 2 October the Cosatu and Fedusa (Federation of Unions of South Africa) leaderships announced a new joint public sector “programme of defiance” over the cancelled pay rise. However, this would be action short of a strike, consisting rather of lunch-time pickets and work-to-rule. This announcement, five days before the 7 October strike, without even mentioning it, was clearly intended to de-mobilise public sector workers, diverting them away from strike action and ensuring that 7 October did not become the starting point for an explosion of struggle from public sector workers.

Even after this self-sabotage, the Cosatu leadership had to ensure that 7 October remained limited to a “letting off steam” exercise. In its demands, Cosatu was against ‘everything’, so made no clear demands for anything. Compromised beyond redemption, nevertheless, the Cosatu leadership issued the most extravagant threats that the strike would bring the country to a standstill. At the same time, they (dis)organised it to ensure the very opposite – that it would be business as usual.

Workers were asked to engage in a stay-way, to remain at home, to comply with Covid lockdown health protocols, instead of demonstrating their power on the streets. The Cosatu leadership would parade through the cities in motorcades! Cosatu’s justification for the stay-at-home was based on fears of breaking the lockdown regulations. But this was an excuse. The working class is more than capable of organising protests that abide by genuine health and safety concerns, for example, by marching in strictly isolated contingents of 500 with marshals assigned the additional duty of ensuring social distancing, mask-wearing and the availability of sanitiser at rallies. But the Cosatu leadership did not want to go to war. It wanted to keep the peace between the classes – between the capitalist bosses and their ANC government and the working class. The federations were united in one thing only – to keep their members off the streets.

Saftu

Cosatu’s announcement of the 7 October strike was made whilst Saftu’s August NEC was in session. In reality, Saftu was outmanoeuvred, exactly as we warned they would be in our Open Letter published the week before. But nevertheless, as the ANC government’s popularity plummeted in the face of popular outrage, the general strike offered Saftu the opportunity to demonstrate class solidarity and simultaneously expose the Cosatu leadership’s role in both the workplace and on the political front. But if the Cosatu leadership was determined to labour like a mountain only to produce a mouse – to, in reality, sabotage its own strike, diminish its impact and defuse its political significance – the Saftu leadership had no intention, perhaps even no conception, of how to seize the moment. The Saftu leadership allowed a significant opportunity to be missed.

After the Saftu affiliates’ revolt against the de facto suspension of the federation’s leadership structures under the lockdown, there were legitimate expectations that Saftu would awaken from its lockdown slumber by placing itself on a war footing against the bosses and the government. The calling of a public sector general strike should have been an outcome of the August NEC, but unfortunately, it was not. Saftu correctly announced its intention to support the 7 October strike whilst simultaneously announcing its intention to plan its own programme of action culminating in its ‘own’ general strike on 2 December, to be followed by three-day mass action in March 2021. But the 7 October general strike should have been used as a dress rehearsal and preparatory mobilisation for 2 December.

It should have used the Marxist approach of the united front tactic: not to fraternise with the Cosatu leadership but to reach out to its members over the heads of their leaders, to expose their crimes, uniting with the Cosatu rank-and-file. Saftu members could have fraternised with Cosatu members, engaging them on why they should come over to the new federation. They should have been armed with leaflets, for distribution in every workplace, explaining Saftu’s approach to working class struggle, comparing and contrasting it with Cosatu’s. Saftu could have appealed to the Cosatu rank-and-file, over the heads of their leaders, and asked them to support the resolution unanimously adopted at the 2018 Working Class Summit – to launch of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

It could have been used as an opportunity to demonstrate Saftu’s recognition of the political significance of the establishment of the new federation; that it represented a break not only with class collaboration in the workplace but also on the political plane. Saftu’s August NEC should have set a date for the re-convening of the Working Class Summit. Armed with this approach, comradely appeals could have been made to Cosatu members to send their own delegates. Instead, the Saftu leadership dilly-dallied, sending out guidance to affiliates only seven days before the strike. There was no serious mobilisation.

Even worse, it is reported that on the eve of the strike, the general secretary of Numsa (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the largest single trade union in South Africa) announced that Numsa would not support the strike, echoing the Cosatu leadership’s position on Covid-19 regulations. This amounted to strike-breaking and undermined a decision taken democratically and unanimously by the Saftu NEC, with not a single affiliate opposed.

Encouragingly, however, Numsa’s president attended on 7 October and addressed Saftu’s opening rally. A Numsa contingent from Ekurhuleni defied their general secretary and joined the Saftu march. Even more significantly, at the closing rally, Numsa members trampled on the flag of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, which is headed by their union’s general secretary.

Why are the union federations adopting his approach?

Ultimately the basis of the position of the leadership of all the federations – the ANC-aligned Cosatu, the non-aligned Fedusa and Nactu, and the ‘independent but not apolitical’ Saftu – is political. Despite the differences amongst them, not one federation is based on an understanding that the root of the crisis in society is capitalism, and that the strategic objective of all struggle must be the socialist transformation of society.

Through its membership of the Tripartite Alliance, Cosatu is trapped in class collaboration in pursuit of a “National Democratic Revolution” – the first of the SACP’s two-stage theory. In practice, this means the indefinite postponement of the second stage, the socialist revolution, as the NDR attempts to “transform” the economy through the creation of a black capitalist class.

Fedusa’s and Nactu’s ‘independence’ is merely a cover for abstention from the political aspect of the class struggle – leaving the management of the economic dictatorship of capitalism in the hands of the political representatives of the capitalist class.

Within Saftu, the sharpness of the factional differences between the reformists who believe the crisis of capitalism can be overcome through Keynesian state intervention measures, like fiscal stimulus packages, and the dominant Numsa faction’s NDR conception, obscures the fact that these positions intersect around a common acceptance of capitalism. Both believe better capitalism is possible.

Saftu, whose founding ideology is “Marxist-Leninism”, would do well to heed the words of these giants of the working class.

“Anyone who read Marx and failed to understand that in capitalist society, at every acute moment, in every serious class conflict, the alternative is either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat, has understood nothing of either the economic or the political doctrines of Marx.”

Lenin, The Third International and its Place in History (April, 1919)

Lenin led the first socialist revolution, the 1917 Russian Revolution, the greatest event in human history, to date. But one hundred years later, the leaders of the South African working class, from different vantage points, almost all say that neither the economic prerequisites nor the working class is ready!

Workers’ Party

In spite of the Saftu NEC’s failure to address the workers’ party question during its August meeting, it could have been raised subsequently before 7 October. A leading member of the Marxist Workers Party (MWP), representing the Greater Eldorado Park United Civic, in a Zoom meeting of the WCS steering committee, on 2 October, proposed setting a date for the convening of a second Working Class Summit (WCS) to get moving on the workers’ party.

Unfortunately, Saftu general secretary Vavi agreed with the arguments of one of the left organisations to reject this proposal, on the absurd grounds that a workers party should not be “imposed from above”. The decision to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme was taken democratically and unanimously by the 1,000 delegates representing 147 community, trade union and student organisations present at the 2018 Working Class Summit. The WCS Summit’s composition was designed precisely to ensure democratic debate so that no one organisation, including the powerful trade unions, could dominate another. This built on democratic decisions in Saftu’s structures, including at its founding Congress in 2017.

Arguments to the effect that the SRWP’s failure in the 2019 elections is a cautionary tale about rushing to launch completely miss the point about the SRWP’s failure. Its haste was determined by its leadership’s mission: to obstruct the formation of a mass workers’ party around Saftu and the WCS using the Stalinist methods they were trained in by the SACP (South African Communist Party).  Having failed to collapse the WCS Summit, the Numsa leadership ignored its outcome and proceeded to launch the SRWP the following December, in violation not only of the Saftu founding resolution it was bound by but behind the backs of Numsa members themselves. This too amounted to strike breaking.

Forward to 2 December!

There are less than seven weeks to go before Saftu’s 2 December general strike. The mobilisation for that event, preparation for which should have been well underway by now, is already lagging behind. Against the background of Saftu’s poor performance on 7 October, a successful general strike is far from assured. There is a danger that another flop could have a demoralising effect and undermine the three-day action planned for March 2021.

But it is not too late. There is enormous anger in the working class at being asked to pay the bill for the crisis of capitalism. Whatever concessions the government may be forced to make on the 2020 wage increase (e.g. by the courts), they are very clear: there will be no wage increases for the next three years, during which they intend to impose cuts so savage that they will achieve a primary budget surplus (i.e. before interest payments) by 2023.

The ANC government and the bosses have no intention of retreating. The capitalist system cannot be reformed. It must be overthrown. The ANC government cannot be reformed. It must be removed from office.

The irreconcilable contradictions between the interests of the working class that founded Cosatu, and the capitalist ANC in the Tripartite Alliance are at breaking point. An appeal must be made to the rank-and-file of Cosatu, Nactu and Fedusa to join the 2 December action. The creation of workplace- and sector-based industrial locals that unite workers regardless of union affiliation can be used to make working class unity a fact on the ground and liberate workers from the manoeuvres and hesitations of their leaders.

The foundation of Saftu’s approach must be to link the struggle on workplace issues with the political struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. All the forces already in the WCS process, and those not yet, must unite to ensure the success of the 2 December action, the reconvening of the Working Class Summit and the launch of a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

The CWI relies on the donations from working class people around the world to fund our campaigns.Please donate towards building the CWI.