Workers Vanguard No. 964

10 September 2010


South Africa: Capitalist Government Shaken by Public Workers Strike

Break with the Bourgeois Tripartite Alliance!

For a Black-Centered Workers Government!

SEPTEMBER 6—Teachers, nurses and other public service workers are furious over today’s announcement that union bureaucrats have “suspended” their three-week nationwide strike for 21 days. Shutting down schools, hospitals and government offices, this battle brought the predominantly black working class into direct conflict with the capitalist government of the Tripartite Alliance—the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

The union tops are desperately trying to get workers, who have been fighting for an 8.6 percent pay hike and a 1,000-rand ($137) monthly housing allotment, to cave in to the government’s terms of 7.5 percent and R800. Last week, workers defiantly rejected that same offer, which was drawn up after South African president Jacob Zuma returned from a trip to China and insisted on an end to the strike. In the Johannesburg area today, our comrades of Spartacist South Africa report, members of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union attending a union rally denounced the sellout, while at a mass meeting of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, local leaders were pelted with eggs by the membership.

Involving 19 COSATU unions and others grouped in the Independent Labour Caucus, the strike, which included white workers, was preceded by walkouts by the independent Public Servants Association on July 29 and 30 and on August 10, when COSATU unions also struck. Public sector workers bitterly recall that after going on strike for four weeks in 2007, many never received the full pay and benefits package promised at the time.

Government spokesmen lecture the workers that there is “no money” to meet their demands. Dripping with sheer class contempt, the London Economist (2 September) intoned: “The above-inflation pay increases that Cosatu has claimed over the past five years have swelled government expenditure and crowded out spending on worthier causes.” This semi-official organ of British and American bankers portrays unionized South African workers as some kind of privileged layer. The reality is that superexploited labor—black, Coloured (mixed race) and Indian—remains the bedrock of South African capitalism, 16 years after the end of white-supremacist apartheid rule.

Before the ongoing strike even started, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi parroted the capitalist rulers’ poverty pleas in trying to head off the strike. Once the strike began, Vavi, under pressure from the base of the unions, mouthed some criticisms of the government and “corrupt” officials. But this was for the purpose of retaining his authority with a restive membership, the better to push through a sellout. Vavi’s service to Zuma & Co. is a clear expression of the role of the COSATU bureaucracy, which heavily overlaps with the leadership of the SACP, as the labor lieutenants of the (overwhelmingly white) capitalist class. As the labor face of neo-apartheid capitalism, their job is to contain class struggle.

Class tensions in South Africa reached a boiling point in recent months amid growing disillusionment with Zuma, who was billed as “pro-worker” by the COSATU and SACP tops. Transnet workers, who run the state-owned freight train network, pipelines and ports, won an 11 percent raise in May after a 17-day strike halted exports. In June, workers at the state-owned electricity generator Eskom also won a 9 percent wage increase and a 1,500 rand housing allowance after they threatened to turn the lights out during the World Cup. Following an auto assembly strike by 30,000 workers in August, some 7,000 members of the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) in the tire industry and 40,000 more at gas stations, auto parts plants and dealerships are currently on strike, bringing production at several auto manufacturers to a halt. More than 8,000 union miners are also on strike.

Uniquely in sub-Saharan Africa, the South African proletariat is powerfully concentrated in mining, manufacturing and other industries. This gives it the potential to lead the oppressed and destitute masses in sweeping away capitalist rule and paving the road to a socialist federation of Southern Africa. Mining companies, banks and other corporations that are the core of South Africa’s economy also dominate countries to the north, including desperately poor Mozambique, where skyrocketing prices for bread and electricity have sparked widespread protests, which were met with murderous state repression last week. In South Africa, immigrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other countries have been the target of mob violence and state repression. There is a renewed threat of mass deportations as the South African government moves to lift a special dispensation for Zimbabweans. It is absolutely essential for the trade unions to defend foreign workers, an elementary act of class solidarity.

We reprint below a leaflet, slightly edited, on the public workers strike issued by Spartacist South Africa on September 2.

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2 September 2010—For more than two weeks, a strike by some one million public sector workers has rocked the country. Nurses, teachers and others have shut down big sections of public services, taking militant action and braving severe state repression to make sure the strike is solid. Under the leadership of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Independent Labour Caucus, the strikers are demanding an 8.6 percent wage increase backdated to 1 April, a housing allowance of R1000 per month, and a one-year contract. These demands are a matter of survival for many workers. With real unemployment over 35 percent and almost 1 million jobs lost since the start of 2009, many public workers support up to ten other family members from their meagre salaries.

The public sector strike coincides with strikes by SAMWU [South African Municipal Workers Union] in the water department and NUMSA in tyre and rubber manufacturing, which both are demanding living wages. The background for the strike’s militancy is widespread anger at the base of society over the deepening inequality and desperate conditions of the oppressed black majority which continue to define neo-apartheid capitalism sixteen years after the government of the African National Congress and its Tripartite Alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and COSATU, came to power promising a “better life for all.”

Beginning a month after the finish of the soccer World Cup, the strike punctures the bourgeois nationalist hype of a “rainbow nation” with “unity” between the exploiters and exploited. The bosses and their government are particularly outraged about this, ranting against the unions for damaging the “image” of the country and supposedly frightening off imperialist investment.

Before the strike, the union leaders bent over backwards to prevent an embarrassment of the Alliance government under Zuma, who the COSATU bureaucracy falsely promoted as a friend of workers and the poor. First they reached an agreement that guaranteed no strikes during the World Cup. After that, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi admitted that the COSATU leadership was willing to settle, and COSATU unions even scabbed on a two-day strike by the Public Servants Association. For industrial unions—one industry one union! Picket lines mean don’t cross!

But the anger of their membership forced the hand of the COSATU tops, who are obviously reluctant to mobilise the full power of their base because they are a component part of the capitalist Alliance government. COSATU called a secondary strike by all its affiliate unions on 2 September, a call which was also supported by the metalworkers union affiliated to the National Council of Trade Unions. The leadership then postponed it and tried to end the strike when a new offer was tabled by the government. But the membership of the largest COSATU unions has defiantly rejected the offer and it looks like the strike will continue.

Including over 300,000 members of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers and other COSATU unions in the private sector, a secondary strike would hit the heart of the economy and bring the capitalists’ profits to a grinding halt. This would be a powerful display of labour solidarity, with resonance beyond the country’s borders with workers internationally facing huge attacks as the capitalists seek to make them pay for the economic crisis. Victory to the public sector strike!

As a hand-made placard by one striker put it in a play on [state-owned broadcaster] SABC’s World Cup slogan, “Feel It—It’s War.” This is a class war, and the bosses are mobilising all the forces of their class rule against the strike. The army has been deployed to the hospitals for scab-herding and intimidating the unions; police have regularly and brutally attacked picket lines with water cannons and shot strikers with rubber bullets; in the first two weeks of the strike, over 180 workers were arrested and tried in summary fashion by “dedicated courts” modelled on those set up during the World Cup. Drop all charges against striking workers and release them now! The unions must demand: No reprisals against the strikers!

The strike demonstrates again the Marxist understanding 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 and other union bureaucrats as well as the SACP leadership treacherously treat the cops as a bona fide component of the workers movement. After more than 100 strikers were arrested on 23 August, Vavi urged members of the cop “unions” Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) and the South African Policing Union “not to allow the employer to use them to crush the strike” (The Southern Times, 27 August). But this is exactly the job of the capitalist police, who are hired thugs of the bosses! We demand: Police, security, prison and border guards—out of the unions!

Whether they’re black or white, the cops are integral to enforcing the oppression of the black majority which remains at the foundation of South African capitalism under neo-apartheid. The same cops that attack the picket lines are regularly used to repress service delivery protests by the unemployed and poor in the townships, and for raids, harassment and deportation—these attacks also fuel anti-immigrant mob violence. The power of the unions must be mobilised in defence against this state terror. For full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

Along with state repression, the government and bourgeois media are conducting a massive propaganda campaign to break the strike. In an attempt to whip up public anger against the strike, they accuse striking nurses of “endangering lives” and attack striking teachers for disrupting the education of learners. This is cynical hypocrisy from a government responsible for the massive under-funding of the public health system which has resulted lately in a rash of infant mortalities because of lack of sterilisation and other basics, and which has exacerbated the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic which kills up to a thousand people a day. Staffing and supply shortages have regularly disrupted treatment—in 2007, only 34 percent of those requiring ARVs [antiretroviral drugs] actually received them, and last year the public sector ARV programme had a 1 billion rand shortfall. Before that, the notorious denialism of President Thabo Mbeki (with Zuma as his Deputy) caused the needless deaths of an estimated 300,000-plus people. The public schools are so under-funded that learners still have to attend classes under trees.

It’s notable that despite the media campaign, the strike remains widely popular among working people and the poor, who are the ones hit the hardest by the disruption of public services. What’s urgently needed is a class-struggle fight for the burning demands of the masses which can unite all the oppressed behind the social power of the unions: For free ARVs for all who need them, now! For free, quality health care for all and free education with a living stipend through to university!

Against the demagogy which is regularly used by ANC leaders to whip up anti-union sentiment among the unemployed, labour must fight to unite the employed and unemployed in mutual solidarity by fighting for jobs for all by dividing the available work among all with no loss in pay. These and other urgent necessities like decent, affordable housing require a fight against the capitalist system which perpetuates poverty and misery, for a black-centred workers government to expropriate the capitalists and run society in the interests of the majority.

The central political obstacle to such a struggle is the working class’s subordination to the capitalist class through the SACP/COSATU alliance with the bourgeois nationalist ANC. The Tripartite Alliance is a nationalist popular front—the South African variant of a governmental coalition binding a reformist workers party to the bourgeoisie. The SACP and COSATU tops perpetuate the illusion that the interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie can be expressed by a common programme, like the “national democratic revolution.” In fact, the class interests of the exploited are irreconcilably counterposed to those of their exploiters. Class divisions are hugely distorted by the lens of racial colour in South Africa, which the SACP and COSATU tops use to openly and shamelessly advance their popular-front alliance with the ANC.

Since it first took office in 1994 following the demise of racist apartheid rule, this government has upheld the neo-apartheid capitalist order by breaking strikes and enforcing austerity. The SACP and COSATU leaderships’ adherence to the Alliance means betraying the interests of the workers and oppressed. When nurses walked out in 1995 to demand better pay and working conditions, a number of SACP/COSATU bureaucrats branded their action a “counterrevolutionary strike.” As Safety and Security Minister in 2007, leading SACPer Charles Nqakula set the army and cops against striking COSATU public employees. More recently the COSATU tops supported government strikebreaking against the wildcat strikes by doctors at public hospitals in May 2009, one of the first acts by the newly elected government under Zuma.

Today, while mouthing support for the strike demands as “legitimate,” a 22 August statement by the SACP trashed the strike and joined in slandering union militants as “violent,” chiming in with the bourgeois lies painting the strikers as responsible for the wretched conditions in public health care and education. In marked contrast to its denunciations of the striking workers, the same statement politely calls “on our comrades in the police and other law enforcement agencies to conduct themselves with maximum restraint”! This has caused anger among the SACP base and union militants, with some expressing worry that with SACP leaders occupying such a prominent place in Zuma’s government they are being co-opted. The task of forging a revolutionary party in South Africa requires breaking the working class base of the SACP from its pro-capitalist programme and leadership.

It’s necessary to understand that the betrayals of the SACP leadership are not an aberration but flow fundamentally from the reformist program of the SACP based on the illusion that the capitalist state can be somehow “transformed” to serve the interests of workers and the oppressed. In reality, this always means taking responsibility for administering the state machinery of capitalist repression and subordinating working class interests to their exploiters, as shown by the appeal in the same 22 August statement: “Above all, we call on all of our formations not to play into a right-wing neo-liberal agenda that seeks to break the organic and strategic unity between Alliance partners, between organised workers and wider popular forces, and between unions and our democratic state.”

Recently, a number of COSATU leaders have postured as more critical of Zuma, reacting to the anger and pressure from their membership with some leaders threatening that Zuma could be removed the same way that Mbeki was. Speaking at a rally of NUMSA workers on 28 August, Vavi declared, “We will not make a mistake again of voting into power our political butchers” (Business Day, 30 August)—pretty cynical when you think of how prominent Vavi was in selling Zuma to the workers. But despite some left-sounding rhetoric, the COSATU bureaucracy’s posturing has nothing to do with a policy of class independence of the proletariat from bourgeois nationalism. Rather, what they’re talking about is using the working class as a pressure on the ANC to adopt policies and leaders which are supposedly “pro-worker.” This was expressed by a Western Cape provincial leader of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), addressing a strike rally on 24 August in Cape Town: “Some people say ‘phantsi ANC’ (away with the ANC), but the problem is not the ANC. The problem is leaders we elect.... We’re telling him [Zuma] he must beware” (, 25 August).

Worker militants must be broken from bourgeois nationalism of all kinds and won to a revolutionary workers party based on political opposition to the ANC. Otherwise it is guaranteed that the working class will continue to be misled by the pro-capitalist tops into supporting its “political butchers.” As we wrote three years ago in analysing the lessons of the 2007 public sector strike: “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” (see Spartacist South Africa No. 5, Spring 2007 [or WV No. 895, 6 July 2007]). At the root of the masses’ miserable living conditions—mass unemployment, homelessness, poverty, cop violence, hellish “health care”—is a capitalist economic system that continues to be based on superexploited, mainly black labour and white privilege.

Spartacist South Africa fights to forge a Leninist-Trotskyist party to lead the struggle for socialist revolution—for a black-centred workers government. This is the only way to open the road to genuine social and national emancipation. Such a government would not be racially exclusive, but would unite the many black tribal and language based groups along with the Coloured and Indian populations while providing ample room and full democratic rights for those whites who would accept a government centred on the black toilers. As part of a socialist federation of Southern Africa, a black-centred workers government would fight to extend revolution to the imperialist centres of the U.S., West Europe and Japan. It will take an international socialist planned economy to lift the urban and rural masses out of poverty and create a classless society of material abundance—the beginning of a communist society. This is the essence of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.