The strike that shook South Africa’s new elite

September 9, 2010

Some 1.3 million South African public-sector workers have suspended their strike after nearly three weeks in a battle that saw the some of the largest police attacks on labor since the fall of apartheid.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) backed the strike, while the country's president, Jacob Zuma of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), abandoned his populist posture and took a hard line against the unions. Zuma, who came to power in 2008 in large part because of union support, went on the offensive against organized labor.

But despite the anti-union barrage from politicians and the media--and rubber bullets from police--workers held on until Zuma's government agreed to reopen bargaining over what it claimed was its final offer. Union leaders, who had failed in an earlier attempt to sell a compromise to rank-and-file workers, used Zuma's retreat as justification for sending strikers back to work while talks continue. The unions want a wage increase of 8.6 percent plus a housing allowance of $139; the government insists on a 7.5 percent raise and $111 housing allowance.

Brian Ashley, a member of the editorial collective for Amandla magazine in South Africa, talked to Lee Sustar about the background to the strike and its political implications.

THERE HAVE been isolated strikes and struggles in the public sector in the past. Why did things boil over now?

WE NEED to go back to the 2007 public-sector strike. There are a number of outstanding issues from that, and also the way in which the government undermined the agreement that had been made and resisted coming to a resolution around the difficult questions of essential services.

The blanket categorization of most public workers as essential meant that the government could intimidate them against taking strike action. The public unions have been arguing for a long time that the government should make an agreement about a minimum level of services that are required, so that in the event of a strike, key workers would remain in place to ensure that life-and-death situations would be addressed. That's one issue.

The second issue was that a number of workers in the public sector demanded greater recognition of the level of status, education and professional qualifications that they hold. Therefore, they required a higher level of remuneration--for example, doctors, teachers and school principals. Eventually, an agreement was made to provide specific remuneration for these personnel.

More than 1 million workers participated in the strike of public-sector workers in South Africa
More than 1 million workers participated in the strike of public-sector workers in South Africa (Peter McKenzie | Panapress)

But this was done in a very tardy way. So although an agreement had been made at the end of the 2007 strike, it was implemented only after further strikes--in particular, by doctors in 2008 and 2009.

The point I'm making is that there was a lot of anger flowing from the previous strike. Of course, a further issue has been the general decline in living standards as a result of the recession and the global crisis, and I think a very important factor in the militancy of the strike has been the way in which the new administration--this is the Zuma administration--has rewarded themselves with luxury motor vehicles, etc.

So you would often see the refrain from strikers: "They want to buy expensive and ministerial Mercedes Benzes and BMWs at taxpayers' expense for over a million rand, live in five-star hotels, and offer us peanuts."

Those were some of the immediate factors that drove the strike. There had been long negotiations in the public-sector bargaining chamber. The public-sector workers initially asked for pay increase of just over 11 percent, and the government came in with just over 5 percent, which is well below the inflation rate.

Another issue was the way in which the negotiations were conducted. The government acted in an extremely high-ended and arrogant manner. It wasn't willing to get into substantial negotiations. As wage talks became bogged down, the government stonewalled.

WHEN ZUMA was running his campaign to oust and succeed former President Thabo Mbeki, he tried to position himself as more responsive to the people, compared to Mbeki's openly neoliberal, technocratic style. There was talk of the revival under Zuma of the Triple Alliance of COSATU, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC. What has been the shift in view of Zuma as the result of the strike?

THIS PUBLIC-sector strike will go down as the moment in which the consensus in the Triple Alliance around Zuma and the new administration was broken. Of course while there's a lot of discussion and debate and speculation as to whether tensions that have been created inside the alliance will break it. And what are we going to see when we look back? This is the time in which the de facto alliance that put Zuma in power and got ride of Mbeki has collapsed.

That situation has unfolding for some time inside what we call the "coalition of the wounded"-- all those forces that came up together to gang up against Mbeki and rally around Zuma. That success started a backlash against the influence of the so-called left in COSATU and inside the ANC itself as well as in policymaking circles.

This backlash steadily increased after the 2009 May elections. As you may know, the ANC Youth League has been at the vanguard of attacking the so-called left in the alliance, backed up by nationalists, populists and members of the new Black economic elite, which is enriching itself through access to state contracts.

So this tension has been growing toward the end of 2009 and really exploded in 2010. Zuma has been unable to address these tensions because he tries to be everything to everybody and makes promises that he can't deliver on.

A range of tensions have arisen between COSATU and the Zuma administration, starting with the state-of-the-nation address that is traditionally given in the beginning of February each year, followed by the budget speech. In these two major policy speeches, it was clear that there was a continuity with the technocratic Mbeki--a continuation of neoliberal policies such as GEAR [Growth, Employment and Redistribution].

So, for example, what angered COSATU was the introduction of a special youth employment scheme, which would facilitate, or call into government, the employment of young people below the bargained minimum standards. COSATU correctly saw this as another means of introducing labor flexibility, or a two-tier labor system. There was also inaction by the government in dealing with the problem of labor brokers, which are very prevalent and influence the casualization of much of the workforce.

This is big departure from the decisions of the 2007 ANC conference in the town of Polokwane. Then, the ANC passed a series of resolutions that prioritized decent work, and called for the introduction of national health insurance, rural development and a whole range of major priorities. But in the budget speech, there was no provision for implementation of national health insurance.

So from February, the policy issues have become more apparent. And as COSATU identified, there has been the advance of the predatory elite taking place through the use of political office to access business interests. The latest such example has been a massive deal in which Zuma's son, along with an Indian family that finances Zuma, acquired a stake in the ArcelorMittal steel company's South African operation.

WHAT WAS the popular reaction to the strike?

THE STRIKE was under massive public attack from the government, the mass media and the middle classes. Workers are accused of causing death and intimidating people from accessing public hospitals, schools, etc.

But if you listen to the grassroots, and the phone-in shows on radio and TV, it's absolutely clear that there was massive support for the strike. And the strike was extremely militant. In spite of the efforts of the trade union leadership to try and settle it, recent government offers were rejected by members until the strike was suspended.

These are very clear indications of the real level of anger on the ground. Some of the anger has to do with the previous loss of legitimacy of the Zuma administration. But the social movements and the left rallied to the strike. It is a strike that involved many unions inside and outside of COSATU. Even the more conservative public-sector unions have been in support of the strike.

WHAT IMPACT has the strike had on the left?

THE STRIKE took place in a period in which there has been a weakening of the social movements that the independent left has been involved in. So what has been very crucial in this strike is that it reminded the social movements and the left of the power of the labor movement, and in particular, of COSATU. Many people joined marches and pickets in defense of the strikers.

The strike raises important issues about the labor movement and the Triple Alliance left. COASTU is increasingly clear that the country faces a predatory elite in the ANC and the state. And it is increasingly worried about the role of the Communist Party, whose general secretary and deputy secretary are government ministers. They are therefore increasingly invisible when they should be taking up these kinds of issues.

There was an important document to emerge from the COSATU Central Executive Committee in August. The implications are that COSTU rejects any bargaining agreement that would lead to wage restraint, and that it plans to unleash next year the mother of all living-wage campaigns.

In other words, COSATU is saying that it will not be constrained by the politics of social consensus. If that takes place, it means we are entering a completely changed situation.

The question is whether this is just militant talk, or the beginning of a break toward a different kind of politics of the left in South Africa. The document speaks to the importance of finding partners outside the Alliance with other progressive forces--that's very, very interesting. Many of us on the left can see how the public-sector strike has radicalized a certain layer of leadership of COSATU.

What we are beginning to say is that something has to give. There were a lot of hopes that Zuma would break with neoliberalism, and not be just a technocrat like Mbeki. Of course, that's not happening. And the SACP has liquidated itself further into the ANC/Zuma project. The SACP is increasingly working to make sure that it doesn't rock the boat.

It seems to me that things are building to a head. There is a recognition that the Alliance is not working, that the ANC is being lost to predatory forces intent on using the state to accumulate--and that if COSATU does not change strategy, the possibility of a split in the union and the formation of a new federation will be a reality within five years.

Now that the strike has been suspended, negotiations will continue with the government. But it is unlikely that workers will be called on to the streets again.

This was a major missed opportunity to shift things. It was possible to bring out private-sector unions and link up with strikes in the metal and mining sectors. It would have changed the situation and made capital visible as the enemy. There is a lot of anger with the calling off of the strike, and we will have to see how we can respond and draw some of these forces into a left political alternative.

Transcription assistance from Matt Beamesderfer

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