The strike by nearly one million South African public sector workers is having massive political implications. Cosatu union federation members have struck for three weeks demanding a 12 percent pay rise.
This is increasing pressure on the ANC government, which has pushed through neoliberal policies during its time in office since the end of apartheid. The South African Communist Party (SACP) is part of the government. But the strikes have led to increasing numbers of SACP activists questioning the party’s role.
“Are we going to live this life forever, having to go to the streets and then back to the round table to act as if we are friends again with those in government?” said one SACP member.
He believes this is a key question raised by the public sector strikes, which have been the biggest since the end of apartheid.
Establishment South African commentators are talking as if Zwelinzima Vavi [a Cosatu leader] organised the strike for his own political ambitions.
The Cape Argus newspaper said, “The strikes are part of the hostilities between those who want former deputy president Jacob Zuma as the next president of the ANC, and those who want [president] Thabo Mbeki or one of his anointed in that office.”
In fact, the strike is becoming a make or break event in a much bigger clash, of which the “succession battle” for president is only a small part. The strikes present the biggest challenge to Mbeki’s neoliberal programme so far.
The strikes have much to do with the frustrations of trade union members and leaders who believed that they could persuade the ANC government to implement their suggestions for accommodating workers’ needs alongside those of big business.
When Vavi fell out with Mbeki over the sacking of Zuma in 2005, and this avenue of influence was closed, the union leaders’ new fighting talk gave many members confidence that their union would back them in a strike. This mood is opening the door to a rebirth of self-activity during strikes.
“What has been interesting about this strike is the high morale on the ground, and the feeling of them and us,” said Tebogo, a socialist on strike. “The question everyone raises is why are the bosses getting so much while we remain poor?”
The fact that there are many “partial strikers”, who work some days and attend rallies and toyi-toying (dancing) on other days, shows that a new layer of people are being attracted to the revolt against inequality.
Now the major challenge is to pull them closer to the movement.
The strike is also producing new solidarities. While the security guards fought alone for two months last year, the municipal workers’ union last week won a court injunction that allows the union to take solidarity strike action.
The Treatment Action Campaign, which campaigns for HIV/Aids medical care, supported the public sector workers.
In Soweto, strikers are working together with members of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee.
The government seems to have decided to dig in and take on the unions, including Cosatu. Those unions that hoped for a quick show of power and a speedy settlement have had a shock.
For the government, two things are at stake. First, the public service workers are being used to set an example of wage restraint for the rest of the working class.
Second, it wants to beat one of the strongest sections of a growing revolt whose key themes are poverty, democracy and equality.
The riots preceding the local elections in 2005 were rebellions against poor sanitation and a government that was not listening. Tyres are still regularly being rolled out to block streets to prevent evictions.
Last year, three long strikes by some of the poorest contract workers grew partly from outrage at executive pay.
This time, strikers complain that the government “only thinks of itself”.
Strikers are keeping a sharp eye on what parliament and the president will do about the recommendation that parliamentarians should get increases of 30 percent.
Even though Vavi continued to refer to the public service minister and SACP member Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi as “comrade Geraldine”, the cabinet Fraser-Moleketi is in took the gloves off from day one.
They labelled the strike as “violent”, hoping to panic the public. Every case of picketing is automatically seen as “intimidation”. Police have used aeroplanes to “monitor” picket lines and in several cases have teargassed them.
Thousands of health workers who joined the strike – nurses, cleaners and clerks – were served with dismissal letters. Hospital workers are not being allowed to make arrangements for skeleton staff in most cases, in a bid to drive a wedge between the strikers and the public.
In a moment of extreme irony, President Mbeki decried “the unions’ message of selfish own interest”. This is creating a chasm between the government and people who once voted for it. A political flavour is creeping into the strikes with placards referring to the Soweto uprisings against apartheid in 1976.
One said, “Remember, we are the 1976 generation”. Another read, “No 12 percent, no vote in 2009”.
Both the SACP and the Young Communist League (YCL) are influential in the unions and were well received by strikers. But their leaders apparently have more to learn from their bad experiences with “comrade” Geraldine and “comrade” Mbeki.
They still see the leadership dispute in the ANC as a main part of the battle and Jacob Zuma as their man.
A number of public service workers are ANC members and it’s hard to see how Mbeki can retain leadership of the ANC at its congress later this year.
However, presenting Zuma as the alternative is like offering a vegetarian a piece of chicken as an alternative to beef. Not only is Zuma implicated in corruption over an arms deal, but he still won’t come out clearly in support of the strikes.
After a recent speech to the police union about the growing gap between rich and poor, he said he could not say if the public sector strike is justified because he was “not part of the negotiations”.
Later he said that the strike “was giving South Africa a bad name”.
But the SACP and the YCL are having to relate to the struggles on the ground. This is encouraging those in the party who want a more radical interpretation of the struggle for socialism than simply editing ANC policy.
The Gauteng region of the SACP voted overwhelmingly for the party to go it alone in the 2009 elections.
The strike has raised broader questions about society. A number of people accept that we need to go much further than changing the top of the ANC.
“If we had not given the ANC a blank cheque then we would not have experienced a situation like this,” says one SACP member. “It’s time to raise the working class banner and to tackle the question – what kind of South Africa do we need after the succession debate?”
Debate in the unions: ‘The ANC must end its silence’
The Cosatu union federation is officially a partner in South Africa’s ANC-led government.
But the state’s attacks on the strike has caused it to criticise the ANC.
A Cosatu Western Cape press statement released last week said, “The silence of the ANC is deafening in the wage dispute that is tearing apart our country.
“The high handed manner that government is dealing with this strike is turning the most loyal supporters of the ANC against it.
“The ANC has not said a word about the fact that government has paid public service workers low salaries over the last ten years and as a result has virtually crippled public service delivery.
“All of this while the government has a budget surplus and is giving tax cuts to the wealthy every year.
“The ANC is supposed to be the party for the poor and marginalised yet its ministers act in defence of the wealthy schools while neglecting poor schools.
“The ANC must stand up and ensure that it forces the government to act in the interest of public service delivery.
“It must stop being silent as the government blatantly acts in the interest of the wealthy.
“Never have we heard the ANC talk about the difficult conditions that the teachers and nurses have to work under, but they are quick to condemn strike action by public servants who are trying to improve the system.
“This crop of politicians have shown themselves to be unfit to lead our government in the interest of the poor.
“The ANC needs to replace them before it is contaminated with the greed that drives many public officials.
“This strike and the response of the state has shown our people how dishonest politicians are.”
Claire Ceruti is a member of South Africa’s Keep Left organisation