BY NORM DIXON
The national strike by the more than 110,000 members of the South African Municipal Workers Union entered its second week on July 9. In the face of mass arrests, police violence and a slander campaign by the capitalist media, South Africa's underpaid council workers remain determined to win a living wage.
SAMWU members, who began their first national strike in seven years on July 2, are demanding their minimum monthly wage be increased by R300 to R2200 (A$367) and that all municipal workers receive a 10% wage increase.
The African National Congress-dominated South African Local Government Association has refused to increase the minimum wage and is attempting to impose a 8% increase and a three-year agreement.
In rejecting SALGA's "offer", SAMWU national negotiator Dale Forbes pointed out that inflation in South Africa is currently 9.2% and food prices had jumped 14% in the last year. He added that the accepted poverty line in South Africa is a monthly income of R2400 and even that is inadequate for a worker with a family.
Strike participation is at least 80% of the work force at most municipalities, with around 10% providing union-approved essential services. Council offices and depots throughout the country are being picketed.
There have been large protest marches almost daily in the major cities and in the smallest towns. On July 2, 9000 workers marched in Johannesburg. On July 3, 14,000 marched in Durban, 7000 in Johannesburg, 7000 in Germiston, 4000 in Port Elizabeth, 3000 in East London and 1000 in Pretoria.
Many local communities are supporting the strike, especially in places like Chatsworth in Durban and in Cape Town, where residents have been fighting evictions and water and electricity cut-offs by local governments. SAMWU also has the support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
In an effort to turn other workers against SAMWU, SALGA has threatened to increase council rates by more than 20% if municipal workers win their demands. SAMWU general secretary Roger Ronnie condemned this as "blackmail". He pointed out that SALGA "is silent about the disgracefully high wages" paid to municipal managers, councillors and mayors.
In many councils, managers are paid between R300,000 and R800,000 per year in salaries, allowances and bonuses. It was revealed on July 8 that Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, the mayor of Tshwane and head of SALGA, had just jetted off to Canada for a luxury 10-day "business trip" at a cost of more than R500,000.
In another attempt to undermine the strike, in Emfuleni (formerly Vanderbijlpark) council managers and members of the ANC Youth League dressed in overalls were discovered cleaning the streets.
Ronnie added that "SALGA has attempted to create the impression that it is the wage demands of SAMWU members that prevent local government from delivering on the promises of free services they made nearly two years ago. It is in fact the [national ANC government's economic policy] that is the real culprit. SALGA negotiators have said they cannot give a living wage because they need to comply with this policy".
The strike has been marked by increasing state repression. On July 2, marchers in Durban were attacked with water cannon and a woman SAMWU member was assaulted by police. That same day, police fired shots into the air in Johannesburg and Cape Town. A striker in Cape Town was rendered unconscious when struck in the head by shotgun pellets. Police in Cape Town opened fire again on July 3, injuring two workers.
On July 8, police in Welkom teargassed strikers, while on July 9 in Balliton, KwaZulu-Natal, five workers were beaten by police during an otherwise peaceful march.
In East London on July 5, 368 SAMWU members were arrested and 102 spent the week-end in jail for "illegal picketing" within 500 metres of council property. They were released on July 8 after paying R50 bail each.
Repression has also been severe in Durban, where the ANC government was desperate to prevent disruption to the week-long inaugural meeting of the African Union, which began on July 9. Forty SAMWU members were arrested on July 5 for attending an "illegal gathering". While in the cells, many were beaten by police. They were released after paying bail of R1000 each!
The ANC government on July 8 mobilised the army as scab labourers to clean Durban's streets.
The Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation Forum on July 8 condemned the ANC government's attacks on SAMWU and saluted the union members' "brave stand against poverty wages and conditions". The APF singled out the South African Communist Party members of the ANC government for special mention. It noted that the police minister Charles Nqakula, who has allowed strikers to be arrested, is also SACP general secretary. The local government minister Sydney Mufamadi is also a SACP leader.
South Africa's big business press has concentrated on accusing strikers of littering and "trashing" city streets. While not condoning such petty incidents, SAMWU has pointed out that "in many townships there is no refuse removal service anyway. Litter and garbage which far surpasses the level seen in Durban and Johannesburg piles up outside people's houses every day ... The real embarrassment is not dirty streets but the poverty wages paid to workers who have to keep the streets clean."
[For the latest updates on the strike, go to <http://samwu.org.za/strikepage02.htm>.]
From Green Left Weekly, July 17, 2002.
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