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Biggest Public Sector Strike In South Africa's History
THE FRONT page headline of This Day read "Total Shutdown" as schools throughout the country were deserted. All the teaching unions joined with the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu - the 1.8 million strong Congress of South African Trade Union's biggest public sector affiliate), to take mass action in their second "chalks down" in as many weeks.
Weizmann Hamilton, (Democratic Socialist Movement, CWI, South Africa)
Marches were organised in over 20 towns and cities throughout the country as the majority of the 800,000 unionised government employees struck in a show of unprecedented non-racial workers' unity in South Africa's biggest public sector strike in history.
Reports from all the marches reported a burning anger directed particularly towards the Public Service and Administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, because of her arrogant negotiating style and derisory 6% wage offer. She has become the target of struggle songs previously directed against the apartheid regime.
At the Union Buildings rally in Pretoria she was howled down and workers booed as she shouted the traditional struggle slogan "amandla!" (power) and left in tears after plastic missiles and other objects were hurled at the podium.
SADTU'S 100,000-strong 2 September national strike provided the spark that lit the veld-fire of government employees' anger raging across the country. The ingredients for the strike had been prepared on the one hand by the acrimonious climate in the six months of failed negotiations, and on the other by sharpening class antagonisms within society.
The negotiations had been taking place in a cauldron of discontent simmering since the government's unilateral implementation of its wage offer in 1999 after Fraser-Moleketi had walked out of the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council.
The deterioration of conditions of service over the past five years, as well as the decline in infrastructure and the quality of service delivery in health and education have resulted in an exodus of teachers and health workers leaving the service to go overseas.
In addition, the accelerating class polarisation, particularly within the black population with newly-enriched black millionaires who flaunt their wealth ostentatiously and now make up a significant component of millionaires (who now number over 700 compared to 100 in 1994), inflamed the sense of alienation and exploitation felt by the masses.
Electricity and water cuts, evictions for non-payment for rent and rates, containment of wage increases and retrenchments have continued to provoke the masses. Since the ANC's election landslide in April 2004 there has been public outrage over corruption and an attempted cover-up scandal.
As the ANC celebrated 10 years of democracy and its 70% landslide, there was an outbreak of student protests against cuts in financial aid across the country starting at the prestigious University of the Witwatersrand. The DSM-linked Socialist Student Movement called mass meetings at 'Wits' and on 9 September, organised a 500-strong day of action for free education in Durban.
A week before, police opened fire with bird-shot on high school students protesting against poor services in the Free State, killing a 17-year-old. There have been outbreaks of protests on housing in Protea Glen in Soweto and Diepsloot just outside Johannesburg. A youth protecting his mother from being manhandled by police there to protect officials coming to cut their electricity was shot dead by police.
In the mid-year season of wage negotiations thousands of workers in the private sector have been on strike or merely threatened strike action to secure wage increases higher than that offered to public sector workers.
AS THE negotiations deadlocked and Sadtu declared for a strike, the other education union, Nehawu, (National Education Health and Allied Workers Union) sent out a circular to the provincial structures calling for a mandate to settle as, given that only two provinces had a mandate for strike action, "there was no prospect of a strike now or in the immediate future".
An infuriated rank-and-file in a number of provinces participated in the 2 September Sadtu marches with no guidance or support from head office. A DSM comrade on the Pretoria region executive sent a letter to head office denouncing the circular as a betrayal and a sell-out. He accused the Nehawu leadership of turning the membership into strike-breakers and an agent of the African National Congress (ANC) government.
So shaken was the leadership that the public spokesperson actually wrote back. While defending the national office bearers' right to express their view, he actually said he disagreed with their position and believed the union should strike. Within five days of the first circular, the officers sent out a second circular claiming that their position had been misinterpreted as being against a strike! Astonishingly the circular repeated the same position while acknowledging that if the membership wished to strike then that would be the position of the union.
At the special national executive committee called on the eve of the strike, the officials' miserable protestations were swept aside by the overwhelming vote for strike action in every single one of the nine provinces.
AN IMPORTANT feature of this strike is the political conclusions workers are drawing.
President Thabo Mbeki had denounced the strike, but in a way that will make the ridiculous political position of the Cosatu leadership, (ie that this was not a strike against the ANC but against the government as employer), impossible to sustain.
He pointed out that the very same Cosatu leaders who had campaigned for an ANC vote were now leading strikes against it. It will no longer be possible for the leadership to pretend that the ANC suffers from dual personality disorder - that the ANC as a political party and the ANC as government are two different political persona. Both in Pretoria and Cape Town the slogan "viva ANC" was conspicuous by its absence. ANC flags were nowhere in sight.
Rank-and-file workers are beginning to witness with their own eyes what the DSM has been warning about for some time - that whilst the Tripartite Alliance (between the ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party) was being promoted and maintained in the name of unity, it has become a source of disunity. The outline of the consciousness necessary for the re-assertion of the class independence of the working class through the break-up of the Tripartite Alliance is beginning to take shape. The situation is pregnant with the possibility of a mass workers' party, albeit in the first month.
The survey carried out by Cosatu's research arm, into whether workers would support the establishment of a mass workers party to stand in the elections, found 33% in favour in September 2003 - just over six months before the last general election. No doubt, today, hardly six months after, with the lessons of the public-sector battle burned into workers' consciousness, that figure would be significantly higher.
The workers may not win this dispute, although there is no reason for them not to, provided the leadership was prepared to fight. But the leadership is itself fearful of the political implications of escalating the action. It would tear away at the credibility of the Tripartite Alliance with whose maintenance many of their careers in the corporate world and senior government posts are tied up.
A concession is not ruled out however, as sections of the ANC leadership may regard the collapse of the Tripartite Alliance as undesirable and premature despite the ANC's 70% majority in the last elections.
However, even if the workers are defeated, they will have lost after a fight. They will have learned profoundly important lessons from this strike. The class polarisation and the political differentiation that is following will continue.
In The Socialist 25 September 2004:
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