South Africa: Public sector strike highlights crisis

The two major civil service unions on strike against the South African government have vowed to intensify pressure in a struggle pitting more than a million workers against a confident government leadership fresh from hosting the World Cup.

Along with many smaller public sector unions, educators from the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and nurses from the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) have picketed schools, clinics and hospitals, leading to widespread shutdowns from August 18.

Skeleton teams of doctors and military personnel were compelled to send non-emergency cases home.

In several confrontations with police, workers have been shot with rubber bullets and water cannon. On August 21, the courts ordered workers to return to jobs considered “emergency services”. In dozens of hospitals and clinics, military health workers took over.

South African President Jacob Zuma threatened mass sackings and attacked the workers. “Even during the campaigns against the apartheid government we did not prevent nurses from going to work”, the leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) stated.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) issued a statement defending the strikers but requested the labour movement and ANC desist from “flinging irritable insults at each other, while the private sector and anti-worker elements sit back and laugh”.

Zuma enjoys reasonably high popularity, but recent reports about vast profits in “black economic empowerment” deals for his son, nephew and inner-circle allies are fuelling anger.

NEHAWU’s press statement lambasted Pretoria’s hedonistic state managerial class: “We read on a daily basis government’s wasteful expenditure on World Cup tickets, cars, hotels, parties and advertising.”

Pretoria subsidised the World Cup to the tune of US$5 billion. Corporations sponsoring the soccer tournament took home more than $4 billion in profits, tax-free without exchange controls.

South Africa’s economy in under increasing stress and marked by extreme inequality. More than 1 million of the 13 million workers in South Africa’s formal economy have lost their jobs since 2008.

In spite of the pressure, workers have become surprisingly militant, winning above-inflation wage settlements from the state-owned transport and electricity utilities in recent weeks, assisted by pressure they applied before and during the World Cup.

With inflation at 4.5%, the government’s latest offer to the striking public sector workers of a 7% annual increase plus a rise in the monthly housing allowance would ordinarily be a strong settlement.

Some unions would be happy with a 8.6% raise and a higher housing assistance increase. But NEHAWU’s demands include an 11% wage increase (backdated three months) and a housing allowance more than double the government’s offer.

The government responded on August 18: “We had to make a choice between increasing the salary bill to unaffordable levels by meeting the union demands and cutting other urgently needed services. It’s a choice between improving the wages of state employees and continuing to address the service delivery needs of poor communities and the unemployed.”

The unions have called for higher taxes on business and the rich, which have fallen sharply from 1994 levels. Unions also point out other places wherestate waste and corporate subsidies could be cut.

Vast spending on infrastructure has come under strong criticism, especially given that the four major components mainly benefit elites at the cost of infrastructure for poor people (and the environment).

These are two new coal-fired power plants financed partly by the World Bank, a fast-train from the Johannesburg airport to the main financial district, an airport in Durban and new dams for big mining and agricultural interests

Public transport continues to decay and electricity prices are rising by 25% each year to pay for the new power plants. Yet two corporations, BHP Billiton and Anglo American, will continue receiving the world’s cheapest electricity (one seventh of the price ordinary workers pay).

The unions’ greatest disappointments with Zuma’s government are its amplification of neoliberal economic policies such as exchange control liberalisation and monetarism (high interest rates), and its failure to ban labour brokers who supply hundreds of thousands of cheap, casualised “outsourced” workers at far lower wages.

Also reflecting the widening social divides are the several thousand protests that police record each year. Many have flared up spontaneously as localised “service delivery” riots, with results that include vandalism of municipal offices and even xenophobic outbreaks.

Unfortunately, no major urban social movement has emerged to capture and channel the frustrations into a sustained, democratic force.

This is mainly due to the residual township loyalty to the ANC, even in these protest-rich communities, and a decade-old split between the (now fading) radical “new social movements” in South Africa’s cities and the ANC.

The new movements had hoped that the most left-leaning forces in the SACP and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) would break away from the ANC. But instead they only attacked its leader, former president Thabo Mbeki, and helped replace him with Zuma.

Having thrown Mbeki out of power in September 2008, COSATU and the SACP expected more than the handful of marginal seats they received in the cabinet.

The feeling of betrayal was made explicit in the widely circulated Ruth First Memorial Lecture delivered on August 17 by COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, one of the most radical voices in contemporary South Africa. In 1982, anti-apartheid activist and SACP member Ruth First was assassinated by an apartheid regime letter bomb.

Vavi paid tribute to First: “Her contempt for private ownership of the means of production, for exploitation and for all forms of oppression is evident in all of Ruth First’s undertakings.”

Vavi continued: “Ruth First would be shocked to learn that 16 years after our emancipation we have not moved decisively away from an economic system she died fighting against. She will seriously ask whether it was worth all the sacrifices she made when she learns that ... South Africa (is) now the country with the biggest inequalities in the world ...

“What will annoy Ruth First most is that despite this mounting and unfolding catastrophe, she would have heard some of the leaders who were at some point serving with her in the [SACP] Central Committee, assuring private capital, locally and abroad during their endless trips, that the economic fundamentals are in place and the country will stay the course despite mounting evidence that this market fundamentalism is dismally failing humanity ...

“She would ask where her SACP is, and why it has not led a united working class in a struggle to change the direction we seem to be taking.

“She would ask where all other democrats have gone to after reading about the proposed Protection of Information Bill that, if it goes through in its current form, will make a mockery of her work as a journalist committed to fighting injustice.”

The top two SACP leaders, Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin, have defended Zuma’s attacks on the media and access to information.

The pressures in South Africa’s economy and society will keep growing. And the wedges now being driven between the ruling partner and its COSATU and SACP allies will not be easily healed.

[A longer version of this article can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Patrick Bond is director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban.]