South Africa: the struggle against privatisation

FRFI 164 December 2001 / January 2002

Loyalty to the African National Congress (ANC) no longer makes sense to ordinary workers in their everyday life as they face the ANC government as an employer – a boss who attacks them at work and at home. The 15-year alliance between the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU; the largest South African union federation, with 1.8 million members), the ANC (the ruling party) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), is under great strain.

On 29 and 30 August more than 5 million workers went on a two-day general strike called by COSATU against privatisation. Unlike in the UK, in South Africa political strikes are allowed if the long-winded procedures are followed under the terms of the Labour Relations Act (LRA). This is one of the gains made by the victory of the struggle against apartheid and the installation of a ‘worker-friendly’ government in 1994.

Today the honeymoon between government and organised labour is not only over but the marriage itself is under threat of dissolution as ANC policy increasingly moves to the right. When the ANC took over power it adopted a social programme called the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which was drawn up jointly with COSATU, the SACP and the progressive civics. But within two years the ANC abandoned this distributionist pro-worker programme and adopted the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Programme (GEAR), put together with the help of World Bank officials, which prioritised growth over redistribution and profit over people’s needs.

At the centre of GEAR is privatisation, trade liberalisation and reliance on foreign investment as an economic development strategy. Since GEAR was adopted more than a million jobs have been lost both in the private and public sector. Government social expenditure and company taxes have been reduced, with the result that the rich are literally getting richer and the poor poorer in the ‘new’ South Africa.

Recently organised labour has been facing direct attacks such as the amendments of the LRA to create a ‘flexible’ labour market, work on Sunday without overtime pay, exemptions from the LRA for employers who employ fewer than 50 workers etc. Public sector workers were forced to accept a 5% pay increment by a government using divide-and-rule tactics, political blackmail and brinkmanship. Fifteen workers were recently burnt to death locked inside a small Johannesburg factory due to the failure of government labour inspectors to enforce safety standards as deregulation replaces the protection of workers’ rights.

It was not an easy step for workers to go on a two-day strike. The bosses’ policy of ‘no work, no pay’ means that workers lost two days’ much-needed wages. Many workers also ran the risk of losing their jobs as employers get confident to attack workers given a boss-friendly government and an unemployment rate which stands at 38%. Striking against an ANC government is also not easy for workers because many of them risked their lives and livelihoods to put that government into power. Moreover, worker leaders in COSATU always endorse and glorify their alliance with the ANC and repeatedly talk about the need for South Africa to be internationally competitive and attract foreign investors. So, in a way, it did not make sense for the same leaders to suddenly say: go on strike for two days. Nonetheless, the workers heeded the call and went on strike.

The ANC did everything possible to stop the action. The strike was a severe embarrassment to the government because it happened during the UN World Anti-Racism Conference. As usual, top-level meetings of the Alliance were called to avert the strike but to no avail. Attacks and character assassination then followed the failed attempts at persuasion with the ANC singling out COSATU President Willie Madisha and senior researcher Neva Makgetla for scapegoating. Smuts Ngonyama, the ANC spokesperson, publicly attacked COSATU leaders for being ‘ultra-leftist’, ‘counter-revolutionary’, wanting to ‘break the Alliance’ and set up a ‘workers’ party’, thus playing into the hands of the ‘right-wing’. This shameful tirade culminated in Madisha collapsing and spending days in hospital due to nervous tension. It transpired that the COSATU President had also been receiving death threats on his mobile phone.

The general strike was a great success with 60% of workers staying away from work. They showed that they had the power to effectively challenge the government because they produce the wealth. There have been many campaigns by communities hit by the government’s neoliberal policies such as water and electricity cut-offs and evictions from houses. But this was the first time labour came out clearly in struggle against the government after years of enforced slumber due
to the machinations of the Alliance whose role today is to stop resistance to the attacks on the working class.

After the strike, the leaders of COSATU, under attack from President Thabo Mbeki who demands full collaboration with his neoliberal agenda, re-affirmed the sanctity of the Alliance. During the strike this pusillanimous leadership failed to mention nationalisation, workers’ control and the need for a working class party. But these words were probably there silently in the minds of the millions of workers who defied the bosses’ state which the ANC is now running. Soon the community struggles will join with the struggles of the workers and a new revolutionary period will be ushered in post-apartheid South Africa.

Trevor Ngwane


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