South Africa: Striking public servants defy threats

June 8, 2007

More than 1 million public servants across South Africa have embarked on the largest public sector industrial campaign in the country's history. On June 1, more than 700,000 workers downed pens and clipboards for an indefinite stoppage, while another 300,000 "essential workers", who are prohibited from striking, joined huge nationwide marches, pickets and other protest actions. While the immediate demand is for a significant pay increase, an important undercurrent of the mass action is working-class and poor people's growing dissatisfaction with the pro-rich policies of the African National Congress (ANC) government.

The strike follows months of drawn-out negotiations. Public sector affiliates of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), as well as a number of usually more industrially and politically conservative trade union federations, are united in their demand for an across the board pay increase of 12%, increased housing and medical allowances, and the abolition of the two lowest pay grades, so that the 40,000 workers on these levels are paid at the next highest levels. This would increase the minimum annual pay of a public servant from R36,000 to R46,200 (A$5960 to $7650). Public servants' pay, especially for the lowest paid, has been falling behind double-digit food price rises and unaffordable housing costs.

While the ANC government's public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi is now offering a 6.5% pay increase, up from 6% on the day the strike began, this is still a miserable 1% above the government's most conservative inflation index (which excludes housing mortgage payments and downplays food prices). The government also wants a four-year agreement, to avoid "disruption" of the 2010 soccer World Cup to be held in South Africa, rather than the unions' call for annual negotiations.

Public servants are also angry that the government is considering recommendations to boost the pay of senior politicians by a whopping 57%. There is also a massive pay gap between the lowest-paid public servants and the highest paid, whose salaries exceed R700,000 ($116,000). While its neoliberal policies have produced a R100 million budget surplus this year, the government has continued to cut taxes to big business and high-income earners, while refusing to increase ordinary workers' pay or to fill more than 320,000 public service job vacancies, especially in the HIV/AIDS-ravaged health system. Poor people face water and electricity cutoffs because they cannot afford to pay for these services. Meanwhile, a tiny layer of capitalists, more often that not linked to the ANC, have become extremely rich.

Teachers and health workers are the militant backbone of the strike. More than 90% of the members of the 220,000-strong South African Democratic Teachers Union and the 194,000-strong National Education Health and Allied Workers Union endorsed the strike call. Schools throughout the country are closed. Despite being classified as "essential workers", nurses and other health workers have been picketing hospitals to ensure that only emergency services are being maintained. This has resulted in every isolated incident of "violence" or "intimidation" being blown out of proportion by the capitalist media and seized on by the government.

State-employed doctors, other health personnel, court workers and other government workers are also taking action. Some police and prison warders, members of the COSATU-affiliated Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, also deemed "essential workers", are on a "work to rule" campaign.

The response of the ANC government to the strikers has been aggressive. It sought court orders to expand the legal definition of "essential workers" to prevent immigration officers and other government workers joining the strike. Fraser-Moleketi invoked the "no work, no pay" provisions of the Labour Relations Act to threaten the withholding of pay to those who are working to rule or imposing bans.

Even before the start of the strike, Fraser-Moleketi was warning that the security forces were to be mobilised in the event of "intimidation". Fraser-Moleketi continues to threaten criminal charges against health workers, while health and education department officials have threatened workers with disciplinary action or the sack for their participation.

On June 1, police attacked picketers at the Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, injuring several with stun grenades. On June 4, picketing nurses at Durban's Addington Hospital were attacked with rubber bullets and stun grenades. Twenty strikers were arrested. COSATU condemned the police attack as "brutal". South African army medics have been sent into several hospitals in an attempt to break the strike.

"Why are they giving themselves 50%? What about the poor people like us?", asked Flora Simakuhle, a cleaner at Cape Town's Groote Schuur Hospital, speaking to the South African Press Association on June 1. "We voted for them [the ANC]. They live in luxury, we still live in poverty." "We are very angry at that lady [Fraser-Moleketi]", said another cleaner. "Geraldine, how much are you getting?", asked a placard carried by a picketer.

Support for the strikers is increasing, with the 280,000-strong National Union of Mineworkers and the South African Municipal Workers Union discussing joining the strike in solidarity. COSATU has called on the general public to participate in protests. The South African Council of Churches has called for support: "In a country where the rich continue to get richer and the poor get poorer, it is befitting that the lowly placed and those who earn little are listened to."

The mounting dissatisfaction with the ANC government is being reflected inside the South African Communist Party (SACP), which, with COSATU, is part of the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC. Since 2005, the SACP leadership allowed a critical discussion to unfold within the party on the class nature of the ANC government and on the SACP's relationship with it. In one important document, the SACP characterised the ANC as having been hijacked by those committed to capitalist development and who have rejected socialism. At the same time, the SACP has launched a series of campaigns and has been openly critical of ANC policies. The SACP's membership has doubled to more than 50,000 since July 2002.

In late May, the SACP's key 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 their positions. The resolution will be discussed by the SACP's 12th national congress to be held in July.

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