By Norm Dixon
As the African National Congress (ANC) prepares to hold its first national congress since winning an overwhelming majority in the April elections, there has been no let-up in the wave of struggles by workers, students, the landless and homeless demanding a rapid end to the dreadful legacy of apartheid.
Faced with militant demands from the working class and poor, but bound by pledges that necessary improvements to the black majority's living conditions will not be made at the expense of the capitalist class's accumulated wealth, ANC ministers in the government of national unity are increasingly turning their backs on their supporters.
The ANC's huge election victory, and Nelson Mandela's inauguration as South Africa's first black president, marked the final demise of the repressive apartheid system after decades of bitter and determined struggle. The disenfranchised and oppressed reacted with unbridled celebration and euphoria when, for the first time in their lives, they were able to cast a vote and see their chosen representatives take the reins of government.
While formal apartheid has come to an end, the economic and social legacy of apartheid remains. The tremendous wealth of South Africa's white capitalist class was built over centuries on the basis of the super-exploitation of black labour made possible by white minority regimes. That legacy cannot be overcome rapidly unless that ill-gotten wealth is tapped by the new government. The mass of ordinary South Africans have been inspired by the election victory to intensify their struggles to achieve this.
Most South Africans believed their vote for the ANC was also a vote for a massive and rapid redistribution of wealth. The ANC's program for the elections, the reconstruction and development program (RDP), included promises that within five years: a minimum of 1 million houses would be built; running water and flush toilets would be provided to more than 1 million families and clean water would be available within 200 metres of every home; 2.5 million rural and urban homes would be electrified; an adequate pension for those over 60 would be in place; a public works program to create 2.5 million real jobs would be established; and 10 years of free and compulsory education would be available for all.
The key clause that reassured big business it would not be called upon to pay for these vital reforms — the commitment to maintain "macro-economic stability" — was ignored by the vast majority of voters. This pledge, if it becomes the overriding aim of the government, would make fulfilment of the RDP's ambitious goals a virtual impossibility in the short or medium term.
While the top leaders of the ANC have bent over backwards to appease local and international big business, the mass movement has mobilised for a rapid elimination of the legacy of apartheid. The left of the liberation movement — most importantly the South African Communist Party, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and important sections of the ANC, as well as the PAC and some far left organisations — have come out in favour of struggle to win the key promises contained in the RDP.
The wave of mass struggles that began soon after the elections has continued. A militant six-week strike by car workers, which began on August 1, ended with employers agreeing to pay a 10% increase. The dispute cost employers at least 2.7 billion rand. Despite eventually accepting the employers' final offer, the car workers' union NUMSA described the outcome as a victory, noting that the strike resulted in the highest increase in the history of collective bargaining in the car assembly sector.
In late August, truck drivers, members of the Transport and General Workers Union, blockaded all major roads in and out of KwaZulu/Natal in protest at low pay (R350 or A$130 a month), long hours and no facilities. The blockaders were sharply critical of the TGWU and the ANC government. Many turned to a rival union, the Turning Wheel International Workers' Union, led by the Trotskyist Workers Organisation for Socialist Action. The dispute was settled when members of both unions appealed to ANC labour minister Tito Mboweni to mediate. A second blockade occurred in mid-September.
Also in late August, thousands of workers at hospitals throughout Durban, members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union, went on strike demanding the payment of a promised 5% wage increase and the employment of Africans in management posts. Workers defied a call by NEHAWU leaders for an end to the strike once the government agreed to negotiate, prompting NEHAWU to threaten to withdraw their membership. The striking workers accused NEHAWU of being "too soft" on the government due to its alliance through COSATU with the ANC.
In September, bus drivers in Johannesburg abandoned hundreds of municipal buses in the CBD, bringing the city to a standstill. Strikes were reported in several rural areas, at many of Dulux Paints' factories dotted around the PWV capital, and at the AECI explosives plant. Thousands of miners employed at the giant Kloof mine near Johannesburg marched on September 14 in protest at the sacking of a union leader.
During the COSATU congress in early September, deputy finance minister (and SACP member) Alec Erwin and the minister responsible for the RDP, former COSATU general secretary Jay Naidoo, called on workers to exercise wage restraint. Trade minister Trevor Manuel appealed for workers to help South African industry become more competitive.
President Nelson Mandela departed from his prepared speech and urged unionists to "tighten their belts" and emulate Asian countries: "For the good of the country and in order to create economic opportunities, they are prepared to take low salaries ... Unless we sacrifice ... it is going to be difficult to get our economy to grow."
In late September, residents in "coloured" townships around Johannesburg embarked on militant protests demanding lower rents and rates, and that electricity arrears be written off — measures already won by African residents in Soweto.
Protesters burned down the electricity accounts office in one township, and at least 14 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets and bird shot at protesters. ANC PWV Premier Tokyo Sexwale accused the residents of being "racist" and opposed to the RDP. "If they want to play games we will respond, and it won't be nice", Sexwale threatened.
Sexwale's outburst drew angry responses from community leaders. The chair of the South-western Joint Civic Association, Basil Douglas, said the premier had violated an undertaking to resolve the grievances at provincial cabinet level. He said Sexwale's description of protesters did not befit a leader describing his own people (Sexwale said the protesters had "talons and tails", a comment widely interpreted as racist).
On November 1, homeless people organised by the Johannesburg Tenants Association (JUTA) began occupying empty office buildings in downtown Johannesburg. JUTA is demanding that the buildings be made available for low rental housing. The ANC-led PWV government has opposed the occupations and is threatening evictions and legal action.
The PWV government has also forcibly cleared an informal settlement to the north of Johannesburg, offering emergency accommodation only to the very elderly and children.
Meanwhile, deputy president Thabo Mbeki has signalled that the government is considering a program of privatisation of "unproductive" state assets as a way of raising money to fund the RDP. The suggestion was bitterly criticised by COSATU as a "garage sale", and the SACP described the suggestion as "unthinkable".