BY NORM DIXON
The Congress of South African Trade Unions has confirmed that its 1.8 million members will strike on August 29 and 30 to protest against the African National Congress government's privatisation program.
Not only has COSATU slammed the ANC government's neo-liberal economic policies, but government ministers belonging to the South African Communist Party (SACP) have been singled out for unprecedented criticism.
On August 16, COSATU held the first of a series of regional strikes, marches and pickets in Gauteng, Western Cape, Northern Province and North West Province. Another round will take place on August 21 in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and the Free State.
In an interview published in the July 29 Sunday Times, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi warned that top leaders of the SACP, who as ANC government ministers are responsible for speeding the implementation of privatisation and harsh economic austerity policies, were placing "the credibility of the [SACP] on the line".
ANC ministers who are members of the SACP include: Jeff Radebe, the minister in charge of privatising public enterprises; trade and industry minister Alec Erwin, a key architect of the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) economic strategy; and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, minister of public service and administration. At least four other SACP members are in the cabinet. Many other SACP members are ministers in provincial governments, including several premiers.
"When workers look at these communists, all they see is a threat to their jobs", Vavi bluntly stated.
The COSATU leader admitted that COSATU had "taken a soft line" when the ANC part-privatised the telecommunications utility Telkom and South African Airways. "But experience [of privatisation] has made us change our minds. Sometimes we have given in to blackmail very easily", he said.
Vavi declared that COSATU would now "die fighting against" the further privatisation of Telkom, as well as any moves to sell-off public health services, education, municipal services, transport services and infrastructure, water provision and electricity. "If you run any of these on the basis of market principles — that is to get a return for shareholders — and not to provide a service to the poor, [then] you are heading for trouble", he said.
The ANC government is determined to sell the rest of Telkom and break-up the electricity utility Eskom into separate corporatised entities in preparation for privatisation. The SACP's Radebe is the minister charged with achieving this — and he is doing so with gusto.
Radebe told the August 10 Financial Mail that he saw no contradiction between heading the South African government's privatisation program and being a member of the SACP's central committee. "I shared [the privatisation policy] — first with the politburo early last year and also with the central committee. We even had a colloquium between the SACP and the Communist Party of China to discuss some of the challenges we are facing ... In the past 18 months, [China] has had IPOs [share offerings] for 145 state-owned enterprises, listing them in Tokyo, London and New York." Radebe has visited China to study its experience of privatisation.
COSATU's decision to go ahead with the strike came after Radebe's department refused to agree to COSATU's demand that a "freeze" be placed on privatisation. "We did not fight for liberation so that we could sell all we won to the highest bidder", Vavi said on August 2.
Relations between COSATU and Radebe have reached such a low point that the union federation has "severed ties" with the SACP minister and his department. Unperturbed, Radebe has instead sought to negotiate agreement on privatisation with individual union leaderships in the affected enterprises. In response to COSATU's confirmation of its two-day national strike, the ANC national executive provocatively reaffirmed Radebe's privatisation policies.
COSATU had announced its intention to strike two months earlier, a move that many shop stewards interpreted as a signal from the COSATU leadership to the ANC government that it would call off the strike if the government was prepared to "negotiate".
COSATU's failure to turn its many anti-privatisation speeches, press statements and resolutions into mass action has led increasing numbers of militant shop stewards to become openly disenchanted with the trade union leadership. Calls for COSATU to be politically independent of the ANC, even to formally leave the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance, are often heard when shop stewards gather.
Vavi's tough statements reflect the growing pressure that is building within South Africa's still powerful working-class movement for COSATU and the SACP to seriously challenge the ANC's pro-capitalist, anti-worker economic policies.
Vavi, most other top COSATU leaders and the majority of the top ranks of most individual trade unions are also members of the SACP. Last year, the SACP expelled Dale McKinley, the party's Johannesburg branch chairperson, for making public statements similar to Vavi's about the role of SACP ministers.
It is becoming apparent that the SACP has a softer line on privatisation than COSATU. The minutes of a July 16 meeting of the alliance partners reveal that COSATU is opposed privatisation in all its variations: the sale or partial sale of state assets, the introduction of private competitors in areas previously the monopoly of state utilities, outsourcing, contracting out and corporatisation.
The SACP, on the other hand, stated it would assess the "restructuring of state assets" on a "case-by-case" basis. It also stated that the party did not "argue against restructuring" as a principle and did not insist that "there is no role for the private sector". SACP deputy general secretary (and MP) Jeremy Cronin described these different stances as simply "a matter of semantics".
As Vavi has recognised, the SACP is paying a high price for its failure to distance itself from the ANC government's right-wing policies. The party's membership has dropped to just 18,000 — down from a claimed membership of 70,000 in 1994.
Despite boasting hundreds of well-paid national and provincial parliamentarians, provincial and national ministers, a few premiers and many top public servants in its ranks, the party's monthly newspaper, Umsebenzi, this year failed to appear until July, due to "financial difficulties". According to SACP sources who spoke to Green Left Weekly, the party has just 13 full-time staff.
However, the SACP remained unmoved by Vavi's criticism of its ministers. "Those members work for the ANC-led government and will not at anytime implement SACP policies", SACP spokesperson Mazibuko Jara defiantly declared in the July 29 Sowetan. "The SACP does not operate as a cabal in the ANC or government", he said.