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South Africa: Workers gatecrash capitalists' party
IN THE biggest strike wave since 1996, South African workers recently went onto the offensive demanding a share of the economic boom.
Indicative of the workers' mood was the decision of the South African Municipal Workers Union's (SAMWU) 100,000 members to build on their successful one and three-day strikes in August with an indefinite strike in support of a demand for a 9% wage increase.
Weizmann Hamilton, Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI South Africa)
The local government strike was marked by violent clashes with police. Workers used their now standard tactic of "cleaning the bins" - littering the streets with the rubbish they are normally responsible for clearing.
Angered by police intervention in the previous strikes, workers went on the rampage in Benoni and Germiston on the East Rand outside Johannesburg, overturning rubbish bins, ripping up traffic lights and attempting to storm the municipal building.
SAMWU's indefinite strike coincided with the first national strike by mine workers since 1987, in support of a demand for a 12% wage increase, which crippled the gold mining industry.
100,000 members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the gold mining sector downed tools, joined by the 16,000-strong mainly white artisans' unions, Solidarity, and the United Association of South Africa.
Biggest strike wave since 1996
The strikes in the gold mining industry and local government follow ed hot on the heels of relatively successful strikes at South African Airways (SAA) and the supermarket giant Pick 'n Pay, as well as numerous smaller disputes.
These strikes forced the bosses to make improved offers to head off strikes in the coal and platinum mines, South African Revenue Services, South African Laboratory Services and SAA pilots.
The strike wave was driven not only by conditions in their specific industries, but by the sharp social polarisation as a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich has opened a chasm between the classes. Workers are determined to gate-crash the party of the capitalists and the new black elite and take their share.
In the mining industry for example, conditions appeared not to favour strike action. According to the Labour Research Service, above-inflation increases have enabled wages in the gold mining industry to increase by 24% in real terms between 2000 and 2004.
However, with the gold price determined in US dollars, the bosses argue that the strength of the currency has undermined profits, led to the lowest production levels since 1931 and forced them to retrench (sack) over 7,000 workers in unprofitable mines in the last year alone.
Numbers employed are down by a third over the past five years. Basing itself on the decline in the official inflation rate to 3.5% and the difficulties in the industry, the Chamber of Mines initially offered 2.5%.
The NUM dismissed this offer as a "spit in the face". In response to the subsequently increased offer of 4.5%, NUM leader Manktashe pointed out: "We are not negotiating inflation [but]... wage increases. We are looking at workers being able to survive."
Pick 'n Pay's Chief Executive Sean Summers expressed frustration over the South African Commercial and Allied Workers Union's (SACCAWU) lack of gratitude in rejecting their offer of 7.9% or R310.00 (£25.00) a month.
Summers argued that the offer was well above the inflation rate (of 3.5%) and higher than the average settlement in the industry. Summers further claimed that Pick 'n Pay had never retrenched workers and was planning to open more stores.
But workers' anger has been fuelled as much by the wage offer as the bosses' attitude, which ranges from being patronising to open contempt. The differential between workers' average income and that of senior executives has now reached 1:242.
Responding to the Pick 'n Pay offer, SACCAWU general secretary, Bones Skulu pointed out: "Pick 'n Pay's trading profit increased by 15.9% between 2003 and 2004 and [again] by 24.1% in 2004 and 2005. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO's) increase of 19% on his annual remuneration of R12 million (over £1 million) alone could pay 667 workers a month's salary or one worker for almost 56 years, based on an average of R3,415.73 (£292) per month. Worse still the CEO's increase alone could pay an increase [for] 5,700 workers based on the demand for R400.00 (£34) or 12%."
Local government has become notorious for corruption, a dismal failure to deliver services and above all the inflated salaries paid to municipal managers. Since June last year protests over non-delivery of service have spread across the country on a monthly basis to six out of the nine provinces.
The protests in the oldest squatter camp in Cape Town, QQ, were ignited by the indignity of residents having to ask for the use of toilet facilities from neighbouring squatter camps and townships because they do not even have the primitive bucket system still used by over 200,000 people in the country.
The Durban municipal manager gets an annual package of R1 million before bonuses - twenty times that of the council's lowest-paid worker. As the Star newspaper labour columnist Terry Bell points out: "This is the background against which the anger and the frustration of the workers should be judged. They are not demanding the overthrow of the system; all they want is a 9% pay rise. This would put an extra R207.00 (£17) into the pockets of the lowest-paid. That is roughly equal to what top managers are paid every 35 minutes."
The arrogance of the SAA airline management is reflected in the fact that throughout the six months of negotiations, they pleaded poverty and made a 6% offer on the basis of the previous year's losses. When the SAA CEO Khaya Ngqula proudly announced on 6 July that they had made R1 billion (£85 million) profit, workers' anger exploded.
Totally underestimating the determination of the workers, Ngqula went on a weekend trip to a luxury resort with his family as the strike commenced.
Ngqula has come under severe criticism from the press for his handling of the strike and his notorious extravagance. Not for him the inconvenience of a seat on the airline he heads.
His habits include chartered flights from his second home in the south of France to London where he puts up at the exclusive Dorchester Hotel. He uses a helicopter to travel from meetings between Johannesburg and Pretoria - a distance of no more than 60km!
Management was stunned when 75% of all flights were grounded as the strike held solid, with public support, forcing them back to the negotiating table with an improved offer.
Workers are responding, not just to the immediate problems in the workplace, but also to wider processes taking place in society - in particular the sharp class polarisation.
What can only be described as an orgy of self-enrichment, previously the exclusive preserve of the white capitalist class, now involves the new black elite. The latter in particular flaunt their newly acquired wealth with arrogance and denounce working-class communities demanding decent wages and basic services.
This strike wave occurred as the trade union confederation Cosatu was preparing for the commencement of the rolling mass action campiagn for jobs and against poverty kick-started by the successful 27 June general strike and set to continue until February 2006, with a round of provincial general strikes to begin on 3 October in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces.
Although precipitated by the wage-negotiation season, there can be little doubt that the working class' confidence was boosted by the success of the general strike.
Attacks on working class
Organised workers' attitudes have been hardened by the government's determination to press ahead with labour market 'reforms' despite the rejection of the proposals by the ruling party African National Congress' (ANC) June National General Council - the highest decision-making body in between conferences.
The proposals include removing the protection provided by the Labour Relations Act (LRA) against unfair dismissal for young workers starting work for the first time, as well as for workers in all companies employing less than 200.
This would mean that 90% of workers could be fired at will. It would amount to the smashing of the LRA and a return to the conditions that prevailed under apartheid.
These proposals are the bosses' reward for their relentless pressure on the ANC leadership to roll back even the limited gains of the post apartheid period. The 'reforms' were welcomed by the bosses' Financial Mail with the words: "the unthinkable has been said".
These proposals amount to a declaration of war against the working class and are a symbol of the polarisation that has provided the social basis for the general strike, the strike wave and the explosive confrontations that have occured between the Tripartite Alliance of the ruling ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu.
It is the stark reality that the irreconcilable contradictions between the working class, on which Cosatu rests, and the capitalist class, whose interests the ANC represents, guarantees a collision between them over the wealth produced by the labour of the working class.
This explains the complex interplay of conflicts - between the working class and the bosses in the workplaces; between the Tripartite Alliance and the ANC over economic policy, HIV/Aids, Zimbabwe and within the ANC itself over the Zuma saga.
(President Thabo Mbeki sacked Deputy President Jacob Zuma, after he was implicated in the corruption trial of Durban businessman Schabir Shaik. This decision has seriously divided the ANC over the issue.)
As the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), CWI South Africa, has argued, many workers in the Cosatu rank-and file have drawn far-reaching conclusions about the class character of the ANC.
They are being held prisoner in the Tripartite Alliance by a leadership that has drifted far from the ideas of socialism that Cosatu was founded on.
The launch of the anti-poverty coalition by Cosatu in the Western Cape is not a mass workers' party. It does, however, for the first time since the 1980s struggle against apartheid represent a coming together of workplace and community struggles. This is despite the attempts of the SACP and the Cosatu leadership to stop workers' demands on Cosatu to break from the Alliance.
The DSM will continue to campaign for the rank-and-file to take Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance and to establish a mass workers' party on a socialist programme.
In The Socialist 15 September 2005: