By Norm Dixon
South African industry ground to a halt during a general strike on November 4-5, called to protest against the introduction of a new indirect tax that will hit the poor hardest. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is demanding that the apartheid regime halt restructuring designed to entrench white capitalist control of the economy.
Even the most conservative sources conceded that up to 95% of black workers in South Africa's key industrial areas participated. Commuter trains in Cape Town, which on a normal working day are crammed with more than half a million black workers, shuttled into the city empty. Johannesburg was like a "sleepy Sunday" according to one newspaper report. The central business areas of Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London were like ghost towns.
"This is the biggest strike ever in this country", said the general secretary of COSATU, Jay Naidoo. "The people are fed up ... This is a vote of no confidence in the government."
The general strike was preceded by several months of activity against the Value Added Tax (VAT), which came into effect on September 30. On that day more than 100,000 people took part in protest marches. In Cape Town, 10,000 marched and more than 100 people were arrested.
The VAT, which replaces the General Services Tax, is set at 10% — 3% less than the GST. But basic foods and services were exempt from the GST, while only brown bread and corn meal do not attract the new tax. COSATU has estimated the cost of living for the poor will rise immediately by a minimum of 5%.
A coalition of more than 100 organisations led by COSATU called the general strike and organised the earlier protests. The coalition included many white groups, some quite conservative.
The wider issue is the refusal of the regime to consult with the trade union and democratic movements over a range of decisions to restructure the economy. COSATU sees the VAT, like the push to privatise state assets and deregulate the economy, as an attempt to prevent a future democratic government taking control of the economy.
The campaign has added momentum to moves to unite the trade union movement. COSATU, which has 1.2 million members, and the 250,000-strong National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) have worked closely together in the anti-VAT coalition.
COSATU is a member of the Tripartite Alliance with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, while NACTU is linked with the Pan Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement.
The two federations on September 13 agreed to form a joint leadership committee to facilitate cooperation. NACTU general secretary Cunningham Ngcukana has since announced that NACTU affiliates dustry unions to lay the basis for unity with COSATU.