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General strike in South Africa

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Issue 1764

General strike in South Africa

The majority still fight for change

AROUND THREE million South African workers were expected to take part in a massive general strike on Wednesday and Thursday this week. It is directed against the ANC government’s plans to privatise key utilities and services in line with the demands of the IMF, World Bank and international corporations.

COSATU, the union federation at the heart of the protest, has produced a poster which reads, “We did not fight for liberation so that we could sell everything to the highest bidder.” Willie Madisha, the president of COSATU, says, “Government policies are destroying our economy and our communities. Privatisation will put the cost of services beyond the reach of the poor and will further increase unemployment because of the inevitable job losses.”

The government is moving to privatise the phone company Telkom in the next few months. It is likely to be followed by many other services including electricity and water. The ANC government unleashed a blistering attack on the unions last week. Cabinet ministers called a special briefing to say that COSATU’s position “defied logic”.

In response the federation’s leadership vowed to go “toe to toe” with both the government and the ANC, condemning ministers’ “utter arrogance and contempt”, and saying, “Only mass action will make them listen.” Accusing the government of a “sorry failure” in understanding workers’ concerns, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said COSATU was being made to look “irresponsible and mad” by “lying” public enterprises minister Jeff Radebe. The strike has focused a sense of disillusion with how little has changed in South Africa.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994 a small minority of black people have moved into well paid jobs. A tiny elite have even entered boardrooms. But the majority are still waiting for change.

An official government report revealed that the distribution of income and wealth in South Africa is still among the most unequal in the world. The poorest 50 percent of the population receive only 11 percent of total income, while the top 7 percent pocket over 40 percent. Millions of workers live in desperate poverty.

Around a million jobs have been destroyed since 1994 and unemployment is almost 40 percent. Anti-privatisation campaigns are developing massively inside the black townships. Groups like the Anti Privatisation Forum, based around Johannesburg, and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee are growing.

This week’s strikes are a symptom of the anti-capitalist mood across the world, in Africa, Asia and South America as well as Europe and the US.

Offering nothing to poor fuels dissent

THE STRIKES, and the arguments over government policy, are causing huge political rows. These are testing the “tripartite alliance” between the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Members of the same political party find themselves on different sides in key arguments.

Two key ministers implementing the hard policies on privatisation are members of the Communist Party, still an influential organisation in South Africa. Public enterprise minister Jeff Radebe is an SACP central committee member. The minister of public service and administration, Geraldine Fraser-Molekati, is SACP deputy chair.

Radebe is the man most associated with aggressive confrontation with the unions over the sell-offs. In New Labour tones he recently said, “The industrial objective of the government requires that we crowd in private sector resources.” But the man leading the strikes against Radebe, Zwelinzima Vavi of COSATU, is also a member of the SACP.

At a highly controversial summit meeting of the alliance, an ANC leader revealed that “trust has broken down” within the alliance. He said debates were “reminiscent of the ANC negotiations with the National Party [during the apartheid era] because we are starting to question each other’s real intentions”.

The vast majority of ordinary SACP members are totally opposed to privatisation. This has forced the Communist Party leadership to tack leftwards in words in an effort to prevent civil war breaking out inside its organisation. Last year on privatisation the SACP central committee issued a sycophantic statement welcoming “the development of a comprehensive policy framework on restructuring state assets”.

This year on the eve of the strikes the party rushed out a document saying, “As a party of socialism the SACP is both ideologically opposed to privatisation in principle and programmatically we are concerned about many features of the current restructuring of state assets. “The SACP calls on all members, leaders, workers, and all South Africans to ensure that the general strike becomes an overwhelming success.” However, at the same time the party said that ministers and government officials who are members of the SACP will implement the government policies of privatisation.

In another sign of dissent, the alliance’s Economic Transformation Committee, a key policy think-tank, says the government’s partial privatisation policy will “certainly improve infrastructure for the top end of business and well off communities. But this policy is unlikely to do anything positive for the poor.”

Millions took to streets

“WE REJECT with complete contempt the government’s assertion that the anti-privatisation strike next week is “unnecessary”. Over the past four years alone, hundreds of privatisations have been forced upon poor countries by the World Bank, and most have already failed. It is the government who is blindly refusing to learn from international experience. Government should in no way even begin to imagine that it is only COSATU leaders who are against privatisation.

There were more than four million workers out on the streets last year to protest against over one million job losses caused by the GEAR macro-economic policy which was written for the government mainly by World Bank economists. Hundreds of thousands of unemployed people and students who see no future for themselves under GEAR willingly joined the stayaway. The very same GEAR policy stipulates that all services and state assets should be privatised. This will put services out of the reach of poor communities forever, and thousands of workers out of jobs.

The only forces currently benefiting from the government’s GEAR policy are foreign consultants, multinational corporations, and a few fat cats. The government’s statement that they “make no apology about the fact that black business people gain” from the disposal of state assets is shocking in the context of the poverty reports that are released on a regular basis.

The fact is that people continue to die from cholera because government refuses to provide water, and in the Eastern Cape families are dying of malnutrition. If, during the World Conference Against Racism, the government would like to portray to the world that the poverty-stricken masses of South Africa are actually content with our destitution then COSATU should not be forced to participate in this lie.”

  • South African Municipal Workers Union

ANC woos bosses

THE government’s privatisation policies expose its commitment to neo-liberal economics. The ANC promised to transform post-apartheid society in the interests of the black majority. But it has directed its efforts towards wooing business. President Thabo Mbeki made it clear that he would carry out free market policies ruthlessly.

He warned that he would be particularly hard on strikes. Mbeki said the government would increase privatisation and cut public spending. Mbeki set up an advisory International Investment Council (IIC) made up of 13 leaders of some of the world’s biggest corporations.

He congratulated these super-rich bosses for being South Africa’s “all-weather friends”.

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