Militant strikes in South Africa


By Norm Dixon Municipal workers and nurses have continued to take militant industrial action despite repeated threats of dismissal and legal action by African National Congress-led national, provincial and local governments. Press reports indicate that sections of the ANC are attempting to convince the Congress of South African Trade Unions to reign in its affiliates before the November local government elections. The most determined and militant industrial action has been undertaken by 50,000 municipal council workers across several South African provinces, most notably Gauteng, of which Johannesburg is the capital. On September 25, Johannesburg's 20,000 council workers, members of the Municipal Worker' Union (SAMWU), joined the strike by workers in the rest of Gauteng, Northern Province and North West Province which began on September 18. The workers were demanding a 7.8% — R280 (A$100) a month — increase for the lowest paid. SAMWU's Johannesburg branch spokesperson, Weizmann Hamilton, told the Johannesburg Star that his members had joined the strike in sympathy with other municipal workers and in protest at a recent proclamation which undermined centralised wage negotiations in favour of municipality based talks. Hamilton said this would mean pressure for workers' wages and the quality of services to differ in affluent white areas compared impoverished townships. SAMWU earned the wrath of South Africa's big business press and the All-party Greater Johannesburg Transitional Metropolitan Council (TMC) when thousands of strikers gathered in central Johannesburg on September 26 before marching through the city creating good-natured mayhem. Police fired tear-gar and stun grenades to clear blockaded streets. In the days that followed, workers held daily mass meetings in central Johannesburg. The Alberton Town Council threatened strikers with the sack and the TMC threatened "disciplinary action". The strike spread to Pretoria and parts of KwaZulu/Natal on September 28. In Pietersburg, the capital of Northern Province, police shot dead one striker and injured four others. ANC Gauteng regional secretary Paul Mashatile blamed the strike on "underhand methods by certain groups trying to discredit the ANC" before the local government elections. " Johannesburg SAMWU members suspended their strike on October 3 after officials agreed to scrap the controversial proclamation. The strike ended in other locations on October 4. SAMWU's lowest paid workers won an increase of R253 a month. Nurses went on a national 24-hour strike on September 29 after a cabinet meeting in Pretoria rejected pay increases. Nurses had earlier waged a militant struggle throughout Gauteng and other provinces for a 33% wage increase and the appointment of more nurses. Public service and administration minister, a member of the ANC, Zola Skweyiya said that the cabinet decision "reinforced President Mandela's statement that funds were not available in this financial year" for a wage increase. National health minister Dr Nkoszana Zuma slammed the strike as "illegal" and issued letters to the strikers threatening dismissal, loss of pension benefits and, should patients die, two years jail. As in the earlier strike, 1700 nurses at the huge Baragwanath hospital in Soweto led the national walk-out. Strike action in Gauteng continued until October 2. A work to rule campaign continues. Ten thousand nurses in the Eastern Cape remain on strike, crippling the province's health system. The ANC provincial government has dismissed the strikers. This was endorsed by the ANC head office in a statement issued on October 10. It conceded "nurses' grievances are legitimate and must be addressed. There remain anomalies in salary levels, and health workers are expected to work exceptionally long hours. These conditions are an inheritance from National Party misrule, in which the public health sector was deliberately run down and under-resourced." The government would address these concerns "during the next financial year", the ANC statement promised. Despite this, the "Eastern Cape government was left with no option but to act firmly against the strikers. Coming in the wake of these assurances from the ANC-led Government of National Unity, the renewed strikes are incomprehensible and must be discouraged. The ANC has warned that the legitimate grievances of health workers should not be used by opportunistic elements who have no real interest in the delivery of affordable and accessible health care to the vast majority of our people." Meanwhile, according to a report in the October 5 Johannesburg Star, the ANC's Gauteng leadership will hold talks with COSATU to try to halt strike action. An unnamed ANC source told the newspaper that strikes had done nothing for the "ANC's image, for business confidence, even the unions' cause ... certain leaders have been seen to lead workers into acts which have done nothing but make the ANC's name rubbish."

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