BY NORM DIXON
More than five million workers, students and poor South Africans joined the August 29-30 national strike against the African National Congress government's privatisation plans, in what was clearly a massive success for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which called the two-day shutdown.
The success of the action has triggered unprecedented attacks on COSATU by ANC cabinet ministers, the most vocal being "comrade ministers" belonging to the South African Communist Party.
According to COSATU's monitors, around 70% of workers observed the strike. Despite big business and government claims that most sectors of the economy were unaffected by the strike, capitalist press reports could not hide the fact that major cities were all but deserted.
As well as COSATU's two million members, the stoppage was backed by the 500,000-strong National Council of Trade Unions, the South African National Civic Organisation, the South African Non-Governmental Organisation, national student organisations and the mushrooming anti-privatisation activist groups in townships across the country.
The SACP had also resolved to "fully support" the general strike, even though its members in cabinet are leading proponents of privatisation and the government's neo-liberal economic program.
The federation said the massive turnout illustrated the South African people's opposition to privatisation. The government hopes to raise more than 18 billion rand ($4.5 billion) this financial year through the sale of state-owned enterprises.
The state-owned electricity utility Eskom, South Africa's railways Spoornet, and its parent entity Transnet, telecommunications provider Telkom, and arms manufacturer Denel are all on the ANC government's privatisation chopping block.
In Johannesburg on August 30, 35,000 COSATU members and supporters marched to the offices of Gauteng provincial premier Mbhazima (Sam) Shilowa. Marchers were angered when they discovered that Shilowa, a former COSATU general secretary and a senior leader of the SACP, had left for Durban to attend the United Nations World Conference Against Racism rather than stay to accept a memorandum from the strikers.
In Pretoria, 30,000 workers converged on the Union Buildings to deliver their demands. When public service minister (and SACP central committee member) Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi attempted to speak, she was shouted down with boos and cries of "Hamba, hamba!" ("Go away, go away!"). Police whisked her away.
In Durban, 30,000 COSATU supporters marched to Durban City Hall on August 29. They chanted slogans that singled out public enterprises minister (and SACP central committee member) Jeff Radebe. Radebe is in charge on the ANC government's privatisation drive. More than 20,000 marched in Nelspuit. In Cape Town, 10,000 marched.
The most impressive support for the strike was registered in the impoverished Eastern Cape province, where 90% of workers participated, and in the Northern Cape, where 80% turned out and 20,000 demonstrated.
Before and after the massive show of opposition, ANC government ministers lambasted COSATU and its leaders, making a mockery of its status as a member of the Tripartite Alliance (with the ANC and SACP).
Prior to the strike, South African President Thabo Mbeki posted an article on the ANC's web site that dismissed the trade unions' argument that the privatisation policy was in defiance of the views of the ANC's alliance partners.
"Whose interest do they serve to abandon the morality of revolutionaries, so that they can use workers as cannon fodder to launch an offensive aimed at defeating their own liberation movement", Mbeki fumed.
On August 23, five ministers held a press conference to denounce the strike. Chaired by "Comrade" Radebe, the ministers accused COSATU's leaders of "hypocrisy" and of "misleading" its members. They claimed that COSATU had agreed to privatisation in meetings with the government.
Radebe said it would a "dereliction of duty" for the government not to pursue its privatisation policy. He said the government had "no intention" of changing its policy.
COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi responded by saying that Radebe was a "frustrated and lying man". Many unions condemned the government's statements and backed COSATU's stand.
One of the strongest reactions came from the South African Municipal Workers Union, which stated "Government is foolish to think that workers are ill educated that we will embrace privatisation and offer ourselves up as sacrificial lambs to the World Bank-GEAR [the ANC's Growth Employment and Redistribution] policy. It is a fact that the only forces currently benefitting from GEAR are foreign consultants, multinational corporations and a very few fat cats."
On August 26, the government spent hundreds of thousands of rands to publish full-page advertisements criticising the planned strike in the preceding Sunday's newspapers.
Following the strike, Fraser-Moleketi and trade and industry minister Alec Erwin (also a leader of the SACP) claimed the strike was a failure. Fraser-Moleketi said the ANC government remained committed to "restructuring state-owned assets".
"There is certainly no error in the government's thinking on privatisation, as [COSATU] allege", Erwin stated.
The SACP's betrayal of the workers' movement deepened on August 24, when the party's deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin sided with the government: "As the ANC alliance, we are trying to advance a progressive agenda under very complex global and local conditions. It's a capitalist world which we can't abolish with the wave of a flag or through slogans."
According to press reports, Vavi and COSATU president Willy Madisha had been prepared to call off the August 29-30 general strike in return for the government simply agreeing to a moratorium on privatisation and giving "an indication that the issue could be discussed seriously".
However, finance minister Trevor Manuel and Radebe disregarded such offers of moderation when they met with Vavi and Madisha on August 17. The meeting ended earlier than scheduled because of the ministers' intransigence.