by DAVID WHITEHOUSE | September 14, 2001 | Page 7
THREE MILLION South African workers joined a general strike at the end of August against the African National Congress (ANC) government's privatization of public utilities and basic industries. Privatization has produced skyrocketing water and electricity rates--and hundreds of thousands of layoffs.
The strike, organized by the 2 million-strong Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), left Johannesburg, the country's nerve center, deserted. Tens of thousands rallied and marched in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban. In Cape Town, 10,000 demonstrators shouted down an ANC spokesperson, who later said that the crowd was "rather vicious."
In the capital of Pretoria, a march of 30,000 presented anti-privatization demands to Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi--and then drowned her out with chants of "Hamba! hamba!" ("Go away! Go away!") After fleeing the crowd, Fraser-Moleketi reaffirmed the government's "commitment to restructure state-owned assets."
Days after the strike, South Africans took to the streets in large numbers again to demand action from the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban. COSATU helped organize the demonstrations--and called for a tougher line from the ANC, which worked behind the scenes to appease delegates from Western countries who opposed discussions of reparations for slavery and criticism of Israel's racist apartheid system.
The ANC's enthusiasm for privatization showed up even at the UN conference. It hired a private contractor to book hotel rooms for the delegates--who complained that they were being charged double and triple the usual rates, with the contractor pocketing a big "booking" fee.
Last month's strike marks the biggest rift yet in the so-called "tripartite alliance" of COSATU, the ANC and the Communist Party (SACP). This trio of organizations led the fight against apartheid and took power in 1994.
The alliance tried to frame united policies to lead the country since then. But COSATU has never shared the ANC's enthusiasm for privatization and other free-market "reforms."
As a COSATU slogan for the strike declared: "We did not fight for liberation so that we could sell everything we won to the highest bidder." The ANC's pro-business policies have enriched white-owned enterprises and a tiny handful of Blacks since it came to power in 1994--while the gap between rich and poor has actually grown wider.
The tripartite alliance is scheduled to meet in late September, and militants are calling for COSATU to break from the ANC to form a new workers' party. But COSATU leaders continue to waver. For example, in a rally speech during the strike, National Union of Mineworkers General Secretary Gwede Mantashe said, "We will continue to support the ANC as a movement, but the ANC should not take our support for granted."
The strike reflects a national upsurge of resistance to the ANC's pro-business policies. Activists have adapted direct-action tactics from the apartheid era to resist evictions and utility cutoffs.
Others have stepped up a campaign to repudiate South Africa's debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other foreign bankers--debts that the ANC insists on paying, even though they were run up by the apartheid regime.
The rise of these struggles and the big strike turnout show that COSATU has an opportunity to build a political alternative to the left of the ANC. In fact, COSATU, the SACP and a widening circle of allies say that they will convene a "people's summit" in the coming months to discuss how to carry on the fight against privatization.
But labor movement insiders say that COSATU leaders will probably postpone a move toward political independence until they see the results of the ANC's 2002 party conference. This is a needless delay--and one that could allow ANC leaders time to try to divide COSATU's rank and file from the leadership.
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How IMF policies led to a cholera epidemic
SINCE COMING to power in 1994, the ANC government has been remarkably compliant with the free-market guidelines pushed by the IMF and World Bank. The government of Nelson Mandela set the tone by dismantling trade protections for national industries even more quickly than the IMF demanded.
And the ANC's policy of evictions and utility cutoffs for people who miss payments is even more aggressive than the apartheid regime's. In 1996, Mandela invited World Bank economists to write the ANC's trickle-down economic plan known as GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution)--which includes the privatization plans targeted in the August general strike.
Last year, utility cutoffs led to the ultimate outrage--an epidemic of cholera in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, the area that surrounds the coastal resort city of Durban. The epidemic began when poor residents used bacteria-ridden river water after their taps were shut off for nonpayment.
The epidemic, which has struck more than 15,000 people and killed some 50 poor Blacks, continued as delegates to the UN antiracism conference in Durban took care to drink only bottled water.