South Africa: Sackings fuel national strike, protests

June 14, 2007

Up to 2 million workers have hit back at the African National Congress (ANC) government's sacking of striking health workers, its deployment of army strikebreakers and increasing police violence against strikers. On June 13 the more than 700,000 teachers, nurses, health workers and other government workers on strike for higher pay were joined by hundreds of thousands of other unionists and supporters in a nationwide solidarity strike. Hundreds of thousands of people marched across the country.

The public-sector affiliates of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), together with members of other union federations, walked out on June 1 for a pay increase of 12%, better housing and medical allowances, and an increase of the minimum annual pay of a public servant from R36,000 to R46,200 (A$5960 to $7650). Public servants' pay, especially the lowest paid, has fallen behind increases in food prices and housing costs for a decade. However, the government insists that any pay increase must be linked to its conservative inflation index (which excludes housing mortgage payments and downplays food prices).

On the eve of the June 13 sympathy strike, public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi relented slightly and raised the government's pay offer from a below-inflation 6.5% to 7.25%. The offer was immediately rejected by the unions. On June 8 the unions decided to revise their pay demand downwards to 10%.

The solidarity strike brought defiant workers into the streets of at least 43 major cities and towns. More than 25,000 marched through Johannesburg and 20,000 marched in Pretoria. In KwaZulu-Natal province, Durban and Pietermaritzburg were brought to a standstill by large demonstrations. In Cape Town, as more than 25,000 workers gathered, the right-wing Democratic Alliance-controlled city council's police attempted to prevent a march from taking place.

Across the country, the militant South African Municipal Workers Union and other unions took strike action and joined the marches. Bus and train workers joined the strike in most centres, as did kombi-bus taxi drivers. Due to laws that severely restrict "secondary strikes", the powerful mineworkers' and the metalworkers' unions did not join the strike but did participate in the marches.

Workers' anger has been stoked by mounting state repression. Picketers have come under repeated attack by police using water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades and batons. The ANC national government provocatively mobilised large numbers of armed soldiers on June 13. In a revealing statement, spokesperson Colonel Sydney Zeeman told the June 13 Cape Town Argus that the army had "deployed units nationwide in our traditional role of providing support for the police. It is a very big deployment." Zeeman could only be referring the "tradition" established under the hated Apartheid regime!

The government secured court orders to widen the legal definition of "essential workers" so as to deny around 300,000 of the country's more than 1 million public servants the right to strike. Many nurses, doctors and health workers have defied the orders.

On June 9, Fraser-Moleketi and health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang sacked 638 health workers who had not returned to work. Fraser-Moleketi claimed that the sackings are "in the interests of the patients and the country".

COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in response vowed, "We will not settle the strike until all threats have been withdrawn and every person who went on strike goes back to a workplace". Thulas Nxesi, general secretary of the 220,000-strong South African Democratic Teachers Union, told workers at the June 13 Johannesburg rally, "Any injury to one is an injury to all. Dismiss one, dismiss all!"

The government has mobilised army medics as strikebreakers in hospitals. Soldiers are also doing the work of non-medical hospital staff, including porters, cleaners and cooks. Thousands more, decked out in bullet-proof vests and armed with automatic weapons, are stationed at pickets lines outside hospitals and schools.

On June 13, the South African Communist Party (SACP) publicly condemned "state-led violence directed at workers" who have demonstrated peacefully during the strike. "These actions are provocative in the extreme and are aimed at demoralising workers through intimidation ... We also call upon all senior government leaders to condemn all acts of violence and intimidation from whichever quarter it emerges, including the police. We must desist from one-sided, anti-worker and selective condemnation of violence, whilst turning a blind eye to state-initiated violence against striking workers ...

"The actions of government have thus far showed little commitment on its part, and instead have resorted to tactics that are tantamount to union and worker bashing, and sowing divisions within the ranks of the workers through termination of employment and appropriation of the media to smash and bash unions ... Whilst we all do not like to see the disruption of public services, the SACP will always be on the side of the workers on their demand for decent living wage."

COSATU president Willie Madisha, also an SACP central committee member, told the Pretoria rally that government ministers had forgotten where they had come from and should resign. Zwelinzima Vavi, also an SACP leader, has made similar calls.

These sharp rebukes highlight not only the growing political tensions that exist between the neoliberal, pro-rich ANC regime and its "allies", the 1.8-million member COSATU and the 50,000-strong SACP, but also within the SACP leadership. Several prominent SACP members are also cabinet ministers in the ANC government and are leading the attacks on striking workers.

The minister for safety and security, responsible for directing the actions of the police, is Charles Nqakula, the SACP's national chairperson. Nqakula shamelessly declared on June 12 that he was "going to continue to deploy members of the South African Police Service, who will be assisted by units of the South African National Defence Force ... to deal with protection of all workers who want to go to work".

Nqakula sits on the government committee, with Fraser-Moleketi, that is overseeing the "negotiations" with the striking unions. On June 8, Nqakula, Fraser-Moleketi, defence minister Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota and national police commissioner Jackie Selebi were jeered by striking workers as they visited the Kalafong hospital near Pretoria, escorted by armed police and soldiers. The ministers were there to visit army scabs inside the hospital.

Ronnie Kasrils, another SACP central committee member, is in charge of the country's spy agency, which is unlikely to be sitting on its hands during the dispute. Transport minister Jeff Radebe and local government minister Sydney Mufamadi are maintaining cabinet solidarity despite their SACP membership.

There is also a widespread perception that Fraser-Moleketi remains a member of the SACP. This has been reported by some sections of the South African press, and many SACP and COSATU members believe she is a member or are unsure. Socialist newspapers around the world have also repeated the assertion that she remains in the SACP. SACP spokesperson Masela Maleka told Green Left Weekly this was not the case. Fraser-Moleketi left the party sometime after 2002, when she was not re-elected as the party's national deputy chairperson, he said. Oddly, however, the SACP seems reluctant to publicly clarify Fraser-Moleketi's membership status.

The antics of the SACP's "comrade ministers" will make it harder for those in the SACP leadership who are resisting demands for a reassessment of the Tripartite Alliance between the ANC, COSATU and the SACP. In May, the SACP's influential Gauteng provincial congress overwhelmingly voted for the party to run its own candidates in elections from 2009, and that SACP members who are ANC ministers abide by the policies of the SACP or resign from their positions. The resolution will be discussed by the SACP's 12th national congress in July.

Meanwhile, the public sector strike is likely to escalate further. Unionised police and soldiers, members of the COSATU-affiliated Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union and the South African Security Forces Union, have threatened to join the strike, despite being legally defined as "essential workers" and outlawed from striking. Wage disputes in the mining and manufacturing industries, and among local government workers, are also on the horizon.

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