South Africa: Public sector strike highlights post-apartheid’s contradictions

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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

Notwithstanding 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.”

Indeed, 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.

During 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.

In 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.

Some 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 subsidy.

The cabinet 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.

`Labour aristocracy’?

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 battles.

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 cabinet.

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 world.”

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 ( is director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban.]


Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 08/23/2010 - 14:23


Media statement issued by Malesela Maleka, SACP spokesperson

August 22, 2010 -- From the outset of the current public sector strike, the SACP has consistently indicated its support for what we regard as a legitimate struggle for a living wage in the wider context of the struggle for decent work. The SACP also fully agrees with our comrades in COSATU that the wage gap between upper echelons, on the one hand, and the majority of workers, on the other, in the public sector (as in the private sector) is unjustified and unjustifiable.

The SACP also fully agrees with COSATU statements that, in the course of exercising their legitimate right to strike and to picket, workers must avoid any acts of violence and physical intimidation. Life-threatening actions like the invasion of operating theatres, the blocking of access to public emergency services, or the abandonment of new-borns in ICUs are completely alien to the traditions and values of our struggle.

Even during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, MK operatives, for instance, were instructed at all times to go out of their way to avoid collateral injuries and deaths and even to abort missions when there was a risk of death to innocent civilians. It is the unions themselves that must now take the lead in condemning acts of grave indiscipline which are, in effect, counter-revolutionary, and a serious set-back to the working class struggle. Workers who are involved in counter-revolutionary and anti-people activities, workers who conduct themselves as witting or unwitting agents provocateurs, should be disciplined and if necessary expelled from their unions.

At the same, we also call on our comrades in the police and other law enforcement agencies to conduct themselves with maximum restraint. We call on government and the unions to move speedily to find an effective settlement to the present dispute.

Above all, we call on all of our formations not to play into a right-wing neoliberal 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. This means that, from all sides, we need to remain focused on what unites us - our key strategic priorities. When the relationship of our democratic government and public sector workers is reduced to an employer-employee relationship then our revolution is in trouble. Over the past decade-and-a-half the SACP has consistently criticised government (and to some extent the ANC) for often failing to consolidate, mobilise and, indeed, treat, key sectors like teachers and health-care workers as the core protagonists of any genuine democratic transformational programme.

The current strike, and other major strikes this year, have all high-lighted one of many critical challenges we face. It is no accident that in all of these strikes, it is the housing allowance issue that often looms largest in worker demands. The great majority of organised workers, not least those in the public sector – among them police, nurses, teachers – find themselves with a serious housing problem. Most of these workers are trapped in a housing limbo – they do not qualify for state-provided subsidised housing on the one hand, and they are rejected by the banks when they apply for mortgage bonds on the other. Part of an answer may well be to increase housing allowances – but it is doubtful if this, on its own, will ever help to close the grave gap in the housing market.

In this regard, we call on workers to join the SACP in our ongoing financial sector campaign. Let us inject fresh energy into this campaign, and particularly let us engage government and banks, including relevant publicly-owned Development Finance Institutions, to ensure that house-loan policies are transformed, and that there is a massive construction of appropriate mixed-income and well-located housing, including rental housing. The SACP has called for the formation of a dedicated publicly-owned Housing Bank.

Instead of flinging irritable insults at each other, while the private sector and anti-worker elements sit back and laugh, let us, once more, forge a militant strategic unity within our Alliance, and between government and the working class.

Issued by the SACP.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 08/23/2010 - 14:25


AUGUST 22, 2010

The Young Communist League of South Africa (uFasimba) is concerned with government’s knee jerk reaction to the strike, resorting to instruments such as the court to halt the Public sector mass action. We view this as antagonistic and affirmation that the state still serves and protects class interests of an elite few to the detriment of our people; some of which are enjoying the life of luxury within the public sector itself.

This is in no way a conducive solution for all parties involved. It does not assist in finding a long-term progressive solution which will benefit all stakeholders. Conditions of employment are still severe for most of Public sector workers and yet government has vanity expectations about service delivery from them. Finding petty reasons to deviate from the core problems as demonstrated by Minister Richard Baloyi through his arrogance, will only pro-long mass actions and create further hostile relations between government and workers.

We urge government to consider the ramifications of pro-longing the strike and more importantly take into account our poor masses that only have public services as a means to life. Its highly opportunistic and distorted that workers be blamed as they have the right to demand a decent living wage and protest if need be.

The gap between government senior officials and government workers has become no different from that of the private sector in terms of relations and wages.  This can only create more tensions and stalemates in negotiations.

We re-affirm our unwavering support to workers in the public sector and hope that they will not be deterred by apartheid style antics used to silence them.

Issued by the YCLSA Head office