The African National Congress (ANC) government in South Africa has used the army, police and the courts to try and break a 1.3 million strong public sector workers’ strike. The action involves teachers, civil service workers and health workers.
The army moved in to take control of 37 state hospitals on Monday of this week. Dozens of strikers were arrested on picket lines.
But, as Socialist Worker went to press on Tuesday, strikers remained defiant as the strike entered its sixth day of all-out action.
This was despite a court order granted to the state over the weekend prohibiting workers in essential services from participating in the strike.
Mugwena Maluleke, from the Cosatu trade union federation said, “We will strike until the government comes to its senses.”
The local government workers’ union, Samwu, issued a statement on Monday saying that it will join the strikes in solidarity if there is no “meaningful resolution”.
These strikes are perhaps the most militant and significant in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. The immediate issue is a pay rise and a housing allowance increase.
The unions are demanding an 8.6 percent wage increase—one percent above inflation. They also want a doubling of the housing allowance to 1,000 Rand (£88) a month.
But behind that lies bitterness at the slow pace of change over the last 15 years.
The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) said last week, “We are moving to the front, all workers to the picket line.” It announced a programme of action including marches, picket lines, mass meetings and negotiation reportbacks and the establishment of strike committees.
The media and the government are portraying the strikers as selfish and reckless, claiming they are responsible for a number of deaths in state hospitals.
This has given the police confidence to launch widespread attacks on strikers using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon, which on Friday last week left six picketing teachers injured—two with head wounds.
Claire Ceruti, an activist in the Keep Left group, has been visiting picket lines in solidarity.
“My first impression is, compared to the very big public sector strike in 2007, that there is much more participation this time,” Claire told Socialist Worker.
“I went to picket lines at the Helen Joseph Hospital. In 2007 there was no picket line—today they are blockading the gates. Teachers are occupying the highway.
“The police have been incredibly heavy-handed. They attacked strikers at the hospital without any warning.
“There is a high level of understanding among strikers that patients are not the enemy—they are strikers’ parents and family members.
“The government is to blame for this situation.”
Strikers are pointing out that money was found for the World Cup, even when it went billions of Rand over budget, but won’t pay workers a decent wage.
“The reality in South Africa is that workers are still struggling to catch up after the deprivation they suffered because of apartheid,” said Claire.
As the strikes continue, workers are getting angrier.
“I remember during the 2007 public sector strikes, the union rallies started with speakers calling out ‘Viva ANC’ but not getting much of a positive reaction,” Claire added.
“This time round, they aren’t even saying it—such is the depth of anger from their members.”
Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini called the public sector strikes “a wake up call to the government”.
The trade union movement played an important role in the election of Jacob Zuma, who replaced Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa.
“The unions thought Zuma would be more sympathetic and less of a neoliberal than Mbeki,” said Claire.
“There is a huge amount of anger at Zuma. He has come out attacking the strikers saying, ‘We can fire everyone’.”
The South African strikers are part of the resistance to the global crisis.
The arc of resistance runs from Europe to Africa. They deserve our support.
- 1.9 million people live in shacks—15 percent of the population1
- 48 percent of South Africans live on less than 322 Rand a month (£28.36)
- The top 20 paid directors at companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange get 1,728 times the average income of a South African worker
- Chief executives at South African banks have been raking it in. Tom Boardman at Nedbank took home 43 million Rand (£3.7 million) in 2009
Send messages of support via Fikile Majola, general secretary of Nehawu, one of the biggest public sector unions, at firstname.lastname@example.org