Spartacist South Africa No. 5

Spring 2007


Bitter End to Defiant Public Sector Strike

The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 895, 6 July 2007.

For four weeks, at least 700,000 teachers, hospital workers and other public service workers struck against the South African government headed by the African National Congress (ANC). A coalition of 17 unions participated in the strike. The largest of the unions are affiliated with the mainly black Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), but there were also independent unions, including some that had never called strikes before, thereby uniting workers across racial lines. The strike, the largest since the end of the apartheid government in 1994, was widely popular, particularly among the country’s impoverished masses. The strikers shut down most of the schools and hospitals in the country and braved police attacks and arrests as well as a government ultimatum to return to work.

Many workers are bitter at the settlement. Although the unions had originally asked for a 12 percent wage increase, the final settlement was only 7.5 percent, not much more than the rate of inflation. One analyst noted that it could take until after 2010 for teachers to recoup the money they lost during the strike. In protest, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), while returning to work, refused to sign the agreement.

The strike highlighted that despite the change in the political and judicial superstructure since apartheid rule, South Africa today is a neo-apartheid capitalist state: the black masses live in Third World poverty while most whites enjoy First World conditions. The white capitalists, and their senior partners in the City of London and on Wall Street, now along with a small layer of black elite, live off the exploitation of the working class. Since 1994, the bourgeois state has been run by the Tripartite Alliance consisting of the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Behind the failure to unleash the forces necessary to achieve victory in the strike—private sector mining, industrial and commercial unions—was the fact that the reformist union tops did not want to deal a decisive blow against the government of which they are a part.

The economy has been booming, but this has done little to improve the situation of the masses of working people. Unemployment is at least 40 percent. More than a third of all women between the ages of 25 and 29 are HIV-positive. This reflects not only the grinding poverty of the majority of the populace but also the deliberate neglect of AIDS treatment by the Thabo Mbeki regime. Commenting on the growing gulf between rich and poor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, once closely associated with the ANC, was compelled to observe, “I’m really very surprised by the remarkable patience of people,” adding that it was hard “to explain why they don’t say to hell with Tutu, [Nelson] Mandela and the rest and go on the rampage” (Financial Times, 28 June).

Strikers, most of whom lack savings, were left to rely on their own resources or in many cases were forced to turn to loan sharks to survive. While there were virtually no union strike funds, the COSATU bureaucrats have invested millions of rands in the Johannesburg stock exchange in their futile schemes to achieve union influence over the boards of directors of capitalist concerns. Courageous picketers defied government strikebreaking in order to shut down schools and hospitals. Several thousand nurses and other health workers were sacked on the grounds that they were violating laws prohibiting workers who did essential services from striking. The settlement reinstates them to their jobs, but with a final warning attached to their work record. The unions must demand: No reprisals against the strikers!

The police and army were mobilized on a large scale to patrol hospitals and schools. Army medics were used to do the jobs of strikers. Police assaulted pickets, beating strikers and hurling stun grenades; military helicopters were employed. In KwaZulu-Natal, SADTU members were shot. Suraya Jawoodeen, secretary of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union in Western Cape province, asserted that the cops “have used more violence against strikers than during apartheid” (Mail & Guardian online, 15 June).

Just as in the past, when workers around the world supported the struggles of the oppressed in South Africa against apartheid, the present battle got the attention and support of unions internationally, including Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City, the Service Employees International Union in the U.S., UNISON in Britain, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Nigeria Labour Congress.

The strike demonstrated again the Marxist truth that the core of the state—the cops, the courts, prisons and army—is an armed apparatus that the ruling class uses to maintain power. However, the COSATU bureaucrats as well as the SACP treacherously treat the cops as a bona fide component of the workers movement. As the strike was going on and the police were brutalizing pickets, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi addressed a conference of the cop “union,” the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU), claiming outrageously that “we have to pay tribute to POPCRU as a mainstay of the public-service unions.” POPCRU was a member of the public-service union coalition. But POPCRU did not go on strike. Rather, it assisted the government in its attempts to break the strike. This underscores that the police—black as well as white—are agents of organized ruling-class violence against the working class and all the oppressed. Our comrades of Spartacist South Africa forthrightly demand: Police, security and prison guards—out of the unions!

One reason that the strike ended as it did was because the public workers were left to strike on their own. The powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA)—both of which are part of COSATU—as well as chemical and petroleum workers continued to work, even though all these unions were already threatening strikes against companies with whom they have contracts. A watershed in the strike occurred on June 13, when there was supposed to be a general strike by COSATU unions in solidarity with the public service unions. However, NUMSA, the NUM and several other unions refused to strike, using cowardly pretexts such as that they hadn’t given the required seven-day strike notice.

As this case proved, the COSATU bureaucrats were all for “solidarity”—as long as it was acceptable to the bourgeoisie and its courts! The false idea that one has to observe the rules of the bosses and their state is contradicted by the experience of many South African workers, who on numerous occasions defied the edicts of the apartheid state. During the current battle as well, thousands of health workers regarded as providing “essential services” went on strike, knowing full well that they could be fired for doing so.

Had NUMSA, the NUM and other unions that represent workers in strategic sectors of the economy struck alongside the public workers, it would have brought the country to a grinding halt. It also would have created a political crisis for the ruling Tripartite Alliance. But this is exactly what the SACP/COSATU tops do not want.

At the same time that COSATU organizes millions of workers, its leadership forms an integral component of the same government that is carrying out attacks on its members. Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SACP, noted, “Some of our international allies have asked us as to how come a government led by an allied formation faces such a massive public service strike led by an allied trade union federation.” While affirming the SACP’s support for the public workers strike, Nzimande was quick to assure his ANC allies that “this does not mean that the SACP supports any or every strike by virtue of being a workers’ strike” (Umsebenzi Online, 20 June).

This is certainly true. One notable example took place in 1990, in the period when the “power-sharing” deal that ended apartheid was being worked out between the Randlords, the ANC and the Western imperialists. Then-SACP leader Joe Slovo and SACPer Moses Mayekiso were flown into East London to quash a powerful workers occupation at the Mercedes-Benz plant. The SACP wanted to make crystal clear that it would guarantee the sanctity of private property in the face of any proletarian challenge.

The SACP is a reformist workers party. In order to placate its working-class base, the SACP has been forced to become more critical of Mbeki. At the same time, the SACP tops are ultimately loyal to the bourgeois order. In order to justify its participation in the government, the SACP has to pretend that the Tripartite Alliance is something other than what it is: a bourgeois government. The SACP claims that “the post-1994 democratic state is not inherently capitalist, it is in fact, a sharply class-contested reality” and that the workers can somehow achieve “hegemony” or control over that state. This is designed to obscure the basic Marxist truth that modern society is divided into two main classes—the capitalist exploiters and the exploited proletariat—whose interests are irreconcilable. In allying themselves to the bourgeois-nationalist ANC, the SACP and the COSATU tops perform an invaluable service for the capitalist rulers in keeping the country’s powerful working class tied to the capitalist order. And as participants in the governing Tripartite Alliance, the SACP and COSATU bear responsibility for the anti-working-class austerity implemented by the government.

Within the ranks of the SACP there is increasing restlessness with the party’s servile subordination to the ANC. A March meeting of the party’s Gauteng Provincial Council recommended a resolution for the SACP’s upcoming 12th national congress that asserted: “Therefore, the Council overwhelmingly resolved that the SACP must contest elections from 2009 at all levels by fielding its own candidates.... We cannot continue outsourcing this important function of the Communist Party” (emphasis in original). According to the South African news Web site (3 June), a similar resolution was passed by the Port Elizabeth district of the SACP. However, although it says that SACP candidates should run in their own name rather than on the ANC slate, the Gauteng resolution asserts that the “revolutionary alliance led by the ANC” is “an historic and important alliance that should be preserved.”

Genuine working-class independence requires not only organizational independence from capitalist parties like the ANC but also political opposition to them. But the SACP is and has long been politically subordinated to the bourgeois-nationalist ANC. Being allied to the ANC means accepting a common program, i.e., one that necessarily subordinates the workers and the oppressed to the capitalist order. Calls for “going it alone” while preserving the class-collaborationist alliance with the ANC can only be an attempt to refurbish the tarnished credentials of the alliance, at a time when it is facing huge anger at the base of society. The point is not to reform the ANC by futilely searching for a “pro-worker” alternative to Mbeki. An ANC run by Jacob Zuma would be just as anti-working-class as the current ANC. We call to break with the Tripartite Alliance and to forge a Leninist-Trotskyist party that fights for a workers government. This does not mean placing in power a labor government that administers capitalism, like the British Labour governments, but a revolutionary struggle that overthrows the capitalist order, as the Bolsheviks did in 1917.

A fundamental argument raised by reformists against such a perspective is that such a revolution would be isolated and crushed by the imperialists. It is true that in the post-Soviet period the imperialists have become more emboldened and arrogant. However, workers revolution in South Africa would reverberate powerfully among the oppressed working masses, from black and other workers in the U.S. to Latin America and Europe. It would revive revolutionary class struggle internationally. Only the extension of workers revolution to the advanced capitalist countries would provide the material basis for the establishment of a genuine socialist society, one in which poverty has been abolished and classes are no more. To that end there must be an instrumentality, a world party of socialist revolution. That is why we Spartacists fight for the reforging of the Fourth International.