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South Africa general strike signals turning point for workers
In the biggest mobilisation since the early 1990s, on 10 May the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) led more than four million workers - half the workforce - in a general strike that brought major centres and several towns to a standstill for several hours. Weizmann Hamilton of the Democratic Socialist Movement, South Africa, reports.
CALLED TO protest against what COSATU general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi described as a "bloodbath of job losses", the general strike signifies a turning point in the political relations within the Tripartite Alliance between COSATU, the South African Communist Party and the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
It is the beginning of open opposition to the ANC government's policies by COSATU. At the end of this road lies the end of the Alliance itself, when the question of the political independence of the working class and COSATU and the need for a mass workers, party forces itself unavoidably onto the agenda.
The biggest demonstration was in Johannesburg, where 150,000 gathered in the city centre, delaying the commencement of the march to the Stock Exchange and to the Gauteng Provincial Legislature by over two hours.
The marches were distinguished by their discipline. With the exception of a minor incident in Kwa Zulu Natal, the general strike went off without incident. Generally, there was a serious mood with the leadership surprised by the large turnout even in the smallest towns.
After five years of 'democracy' more than half of South Africans earn less than R300 ($43) a month, half of all schools have no electricity or equipment, 15 million are illiterate, hundreds of thousands are homeless and living in squatter camps. Millions are living with Aids as 1,500 a day are infected. Whereas the government had promised to redistribute 30% of the land, the current figure is only 2%.
The general strike reflected the anger of workers who had voted the ANC to power expecting the fulfilment of its pre-1994 elections slogan "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs". Unemployment is conservatively estimated at running at 30%, and is more likely anywhere between four and six million (40%-60%).
As a direct result of its neo-liberal Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy, tariff reductions have seen thousands sacked in textile and clothing. More than 300,000 have lost their jobs in the mining industry over the last few years. The government has also destroyed 170,000 jobs and is placing the axing of a further 120,000 jobs on this year's public-sector wage negotiations.
Whilst carrying out these attacks against the working class they have followed a programme of the enrichment of the capitalists and a new black elite through privatisation and over R8 billion tax concessions in the last five years.
The government insists on repaying the debt inherited from the apartheid regime because "we cannot renege on our obligations" for fear of the reaction of foreign investors - that consumes over 20% of the budget.
The general strike was the culmination of a campaign of rolling mass action that commenced in March but was largely ignored by the media including the government controlled television. The rolling campaign of mass action developed immediately after president Thabo Mbeki's ANC government was re-elected with an even bigger majority in June 1999. Within less than a month the bosses, sacked tens of thousands of workers and used provocative disciplinary measures including the first ever use of the lock-out clause in the new Labour Relations Act.
Provocatively, the the ANC government had ever undertaken they walked out of the annual public-sector wage negotiations and unilaterally imposed a derisory increase. It led to the first ever public-sector general strike, involving even the predominantly white-led conservative unions in joint action with the COSATU unions for the first time ever. The demand for a general strike - for 48 hours - was first raised in this context.
The workers' mood and the massive support for the 10 May strike radicalised the speeches of the COSATU leadership.
Addressing workers in front of the Stock Exchange, COSATU president Willie Madisha announced that the bosses had six days to respond to their demands. "If you don't listen we will be back and after six days we will fight until we win. The strike is about poverty, joblessness and the greed of capitalism." He threatened an indefinite general strike if their demands are not met.
The actual demands around which the strike was called are very weak and can easily be met without altering the situation - the reduction in the rate of tariff reduction, consultations with workers over redundancies and privatisations, etc.
The bosses' main problem is the timing of such concessions. To do so in the face of a general strike is highly problematic. It may appease the trade union leadership but the workers are to the left of the leadership. In reality, the working class came out to warn the bosses that they would retreat so far and no further.
There will be no respite ahead. The South African economy is sinking into deeper crisis. Mbeki is determined to speed up privatisation and to hold the line on wages and to set an example in the public sector to the bosses on wages, conditions and jobs.
Mbeki and the ruling class are in a no-win situation. But his arrogant over-confidence will accelerate the process of political differentiation, placing the question of a mass workers' party on a socialist programme to the fore.
In The Socialist 19 May 2000: