By Patrick Bond
August 22, 2010 -- The two major civil service unions on strike against the South African government have vowed to intensify pressure in coming days, in a struggle pitting more than a million members of the middle and lower ranks of society against a confident government leadership fresh from hosting the World Cup.
Along with many smaller public sector unions, educators from the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and nurses from the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) continued picketing schools, clinics and hospitals, leading to widespread shutdowns starting on August 18. Skeleton teams of doctors and military personnel were compelled to send non-emergency cases home.
In several confrontations with police at town centres, clinics and schools late last week, workers were shot with rubber bullets and water cannon. On August 21, the courts enjoined workers to return to jobs considered “emergency services”. In dozens of hospitals and clinics, military health workers took over.
South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma threatened mass sackings and attacked labour movement activists who successfully disrupted health and education facilities: “Even during the campaigns against the apartheid government we did not prevent nurses from going to work”, the leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) stated. The South African Communist Party (SACP) issued a statement defending the strikers but requested the labour movement and ANC desist from “flinging irritable insults at each other, while the private sector and anti-worker elements sit back and laugh”.
Money for World Cup, not for workers
reasonably high popularity enjoyed by the affable Zuma, recent reports about
vast profits in “black economic empowerment” deals for his son, nephew and
inner-circle allies are raising anger. Moreover, NEHAWU’s
press statement lambasted Pretoria’s hedonistic state managerial class: “We
read on a daily basis government’s wasteful expenditure on World Cup tickets,
cars, hotels, parties and advertising.”
Pretoria subsidised the World Cup to the tune of $5 billion, by most estimates,
including more than $3 billion on stadiums that are now widely recognised as “white
elephants”, unable to fill the stands and too expensive for the weakly supported
local soccer teams. (Even cricket and rugby teams which attract more fans are
hesitant to move from their current world-class venues.) Corporations
sponsoring the soccer tournament took home more than $4 billion in profits, tax
free without exchange controls.
June-July, South Africa displayed to foreign visitors and television audiences
an opulence that belied its increasingly stressed economy and extreme
inequality. The recovery from a 2 per cent GDP decline in 2009 is faltering,
with 3 per cent announced growth this year widely derided, as the first half of
2010 witnessed continuing job losses. More than 1 million of the 13 million workers
in South Africa’s formal economy have lost their jobs since 2008.
spite of the pressure, workers have become surprisingly militant, winning
above-inflation wage settlements from the state-owned transport and electricity
utilities in recent weeks, assisted by pressure they wielded before and during
the World Cup. With inflation at 4.5 per cent, the government’s latest offer of
a 7 per cent annual increase plus a $25 rise in the monthly housing allowance (to
$90) would ordinarily be a strong settlement.
unions would be happy with a 8.6 per cent raise and a increase to $130 a month
for housing assistance, but NEHAWU’s demands are
much higher, including an 11 per cent wage increase (backdated three months)
and a $195 housing allowance, as well equality in the state medical aid
responded on August 18: “We had to make a choice between increasing the salary
bill to unaffordable levels by meeting the union demands and cutting other
urgently needed services. It’s a choice between improving the wages of state
employees and continuing to address the service delivery needs of poor
communities and the unemployed.”
In addition to higher taxes on business and the rich (which had fallen sharply from 1994 levels thanks to four neoliberal finance ministers), unions point out other places that state waste and corporate subsidies could be cut. Vast spending on infrastructure has come under strong criticism, especially given that the four major components – two new coal-fired power plants ($35 billion) financed partly by the World Bank, a ($3 billion) fast-train from the Johannesburg airport to the main financial district, a ($1 billion) airport in Durban and new (multibillion dollar) dams for big mining and agricultural interests – mainly benefit elites and come at the cost of infrastructure for poor people.
Public transport continues to decay and electricity prices are increasing by 25 per cent each year to pay for the new power plants. Yet two corporations, BHP Billiton and Anglo American, will continue receiving the world’s cheapest electricity (one seventh of the price ordinary workers pay, thanks to 40-year apartheid-era deals). The two consume more than 10 per cent of the country’s electricity, and environmentalists insist on phasing out energy-gorging smelters, foregoing the second power plant and instead investing in renewable energy.
But while the case for a redirection of state funds is strong, the question arises as to whether a potential “labour aristocracy” will enjoy affluence at a time of ongoing job cuts and misery for the unskilled, unemployed masses. The trade unions’ reply is typically that each worker in turn supports large extended families, insofar as apartheid-era migrancy relations still tie South Africans to kinship networks stretching hundreds of kilometres.
To make matters worse, until the mid-1980s, women were compelled through “pass laws” to remain in rural “bantustan” homelands, while their fathers, husbands and sons laboured in the cities, and the more rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in formerly settler-colonial and plantation economies suffering such migrancy is just one lasting inheritance. Once liberation was won, an “insider” status for the urban workers emerged, including perks for housing, healthcare and pensions.
In turn, trade union leaders point out that no other social
force in South Africa campaigns so actively for broader socioeconomic rights
that benefit the unemployed, such as a proposed National Health Insurance scheme
and Basic Income Grant ($15 per person per month) that would reach the most
marginalised communities. But the unions are mainly losing these social-wage
The unions’ greatest disappointments with Zuma’s government are
its amplification of neoliberal economic policies such as exchange control
liberalisation and monetarism (high interest rates), and its failure to ban
labour brokers who supply hundreds of thousands of cheap, casualised “outsourced”
workers at far lower wages.
In reply, government leaders typically point to a variety of
state social grants (pensions, disability and childcare) that have indeed
achieved a slightly greater flow of funds to the rural poor. But the most
recent authoritative study of poverty, by University of Cape Town researchers
in January 2010, showed an absolute increase in urban poverty.
Also reflecting the widening social divides are the several
thousand protests that police record each year. Many have flared up
spontaneously as localised “service delivery” riots, with results that include
vandalism of municipal offices and even xenophobic outbreaks. Unfortunately, no
major urban social movement has emerged to capture and channel the frustrations
into a sustained, democratic force.
This is mainly due to the residual township loyalty to the
ruling ANC, even in these protest-rich communities, and a decade-old split
between the (now fading) radical “new social movements” in South Africa’s
cities and the ANC. The new movements had hoped that the most left-leaning
forces in the SACP and Congress of South African
Trade Unions (COSATU) would break away from the ANC, but instead they attacked
not the ruling party but its leader, former President Thabo Mbeki, replacing
him with Zuma. Having thrown him out of power in September 2008, COSATU and the
SACP expected more than the handful of marginalised seats they received in the
The feeling of betrayal was made
explicit in the widely circulated Ruth First Memorial Lecture delivered on
August 17 by COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, one of the most radical
voices in contemporary South Africa. In 1982, Ruth First was assassinated by an
apartheid regime letter bomb while in exile in Maputo.
Vavi paid tribute to First’s politics
and prolific campaigning, research and writing: “Her contempt
for private ownership of the means of production, for exploitation and for all
forms of oppression is evident in all of Ruth First’s undertakings, from her
journalistic writings to her scholastic works. National liberation and the
defeat of class exploitation were for her two sides of the same coin.”
Then Vavi turned to an unusual narrative, deploying a
past hero against present liberation movement’s leaders: “Ruth First would be
shocked to learn that 16 years after our emancipation we have not moved
decisively away from an economic system she died fighting against. She will
seriously ask whether it was worth all the sacrifices she made when she learns
that … South Africa (is) now the country with the biggest inequalities in the
Vavi has been hitting raw nerves in the ANC cabinet by
regularly scolding Zuma’s closest political allies for corruption, of both a
personal and political nature: “What will annoy Ruth First most is that despite
this mounting and unfolding catastrophe, she would have heard some of the
leaders who were at some point serving with her in the [SACP] Central
Committee, assuring private capital, locally and abroad during their endless
trips, that the economic fundamentals are in place and the country will stay
the course despite mounting evidence that this market fundamentalism is
dismally failing humanity.”
First was married to SACP leader Joe Slovo, who by the time
of his 1995 death had begun endorsing the ANC’s neoliberal project, especially
in the housing ministry he ran. Said Vavi of First, “She would
ask where her SACP is, and why it has not led a united working class in a
struggle to change the direction we seem to be taking. She would ask where all
other democrats have gone to after reading about the proposed Protection of
Information Bill that, if it goes through in its current form, will make a
mockery of her work as a journalist committed to fighting injustice.”
The top two SACP leaders, Blade
Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin, have defended Zuma’s current attacks on the media
and access to information, including legislation that would chill South
Africa’s scandal-sheet press as well as more serious investigative journalists.
Zuma has long taken a beating in the
media because of his numerous personal, financial, sexual and political scandals.
His lawyers have filed defamation lawsuits against Jonathan Shapiro, whose
brilliant “Zapiro” cartoons depict the president with a showerhead attached to
his head, reminding readers of his sex – and alleged rape – with an HIV+
daughter of a family friend.
While a strike settlement favourable to
the workers is expected within coming days, given how tough the unions are
fighting, the pressures in the economy and society will keep growing. And the
wedges now being driven between the ruling partner and its trade union and Communist
Party allies will not be easily healed.
[Patrick Bond (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in