South Africa: Workers launch new revolt

Thousands of people take part in a national strike, in Cape Town on April 25.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who took office in February from Jacob Zuma, is facing a rebellion within the union movement over proposed changes to the labour laws.

Zuma was forced out of office amid accusations of corruption. But the new president’s agenda remains closely tied to the interests of South African capital and multinationals.

Trevor Ngwane is a long-time active socialist who was part of the organizing committee for a huge march and national strike on April 25 called by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU). He spoke with Lee Wengraf about the mass workers' mobilisation across South Africa on April 25.

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Could you give a quick overview of the role that the African National Congress (ANC) has played since the fall of apartheid?

The ANC has done some good things. For example, with Nelson Mandela at its head, it put together and led the first democratic government in South Africa in 1994 that got rid of all of the race-based laws.

It also came up with progressive policies concerning things like gender issues. For example, gay marriages are allowed in South Africa. It also came up with some programs around social issues, such as water, electricity and health.

But even as the ANC was doing that, it moved away from a social welfare state approach. In 1996, it adopted a neoliberal program.

As a result, we see the prioritisation of profit over people’s needs in the form of privatisation, financialisation and corporatisation of government services. This has meant people losing secure access to basic things such as water, electricity, housing, health care and education.

How has the trade union movement responded to this challenge? The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the major trade union federation, has historically been very close to the ANC, but now there’s an important new federation, SAFTU. What are some of the dynamics around this?

Unfortunately, COSATU has been timid in its response to neoliberal policies. Its hands have been tied by its desire to be in the ANC’s good books.

It has largely played the role of containing labour militancy as people questioned anti-working-class policies. It has also failed to reach out to the unemployed and working class communities for a combined, unified strategy against attacks on standards of living and social services.

As a result, contradictions within its alliance with the ANC and within COSATU itself emerged. A few years ago, its largest affiliate — the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) — was expelled from COSATU. Later, COSATU even expelled its own general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.

NUMSA, Vavi and some other unions founded SAFTU, which called the general strike on April 25. So there’s a realignment of social forces and political dynamics in the labour movement.

How has Ramaphosa’s new presidency factored into SAFTU’s strike call?

Ramaphosa’s project is to contain and tame labour. In 2012, we had the Marikana massacre. In that strike, platinum miners demanded an end to the cheap labour system inherited from apartheid.

The ANC government’s response was to shoot and kill 34 strikers. Ramaphosa was an executive director at Lonmin, the company against which the workers were striking. Ramaphosa put pressure on the government to deal more harshly with the strikers.

Ramaphosa, who is a billionaire capitalist, is now president. He has excellent credentials in the [anti-apartheid] struggle, but he is a neoliberal. He is championing the amendments to the labour laws, which restrict the right to strike.

Can you describe the minimum wage proposal, and why there is so much opposition to that part of the bill?

The labour movement embraces and wants a national minimum wage. However, Ramaphosa is setting it too low, at 20 Rand per hour, which amounts to about US$1.60.

The general strike was against what is viewed as a starvation-level national minimum wage. There is a mood among the working class to fight for their needs — and the national minimum wage is seen as an insult to this.

What is the public perception of Ramaphosa, and what kinds of challenges or opportunities do you think that poses?

We must distinguish between the public opinion of the working class and the poor, and then the middle class, especially the upper-middle class. The opinions aren’t the same, but remember that the middle class has quite a bigger voice — they dominate the media, and they have a degree of influence over the working class and the poor.

Ramaphosa took over from Zuma, who was not able to finish his term of office as president because of corruption accusations. In South Africa, it is called “state capture”, whereby crony capitalists manipulate state structures and government contracts to line their pockets.

There was a big movement in South Africa — across classes — against this corruption. When Ramaphosa took over from Zuma, there was a sense of relief among the working class and great hope among the middle and upper-middle class, certainly by the bosses, that Ramaphosa was going to sort out the economy.

Zuma was projected as this rustic, Trump-like figure, a kind of backward-looking president. So the upper-middle class thinks Ramaphosa is the answer. But the working class remembers Ramaphosa as the butcher of Marikana, so they don’t have much hope.

At the march on April 25 in Johannesburg, which [had] between 10,000 and 15,000 people, many of the songs were against Ramaphosa, and many were about the Marikana massacre.

How did the call for the strike come about, and how was the coalition around that built? And what's your assessment of the results?

It’s interesting how the coalition was built and how the strike was built because now SAFTU seems as if they were the key players. They were indeed the key players, because they are a big trade union federation, but the coalition was initiated by the Casual Workers’ Advice Office, which is a small, NGO-like, left group that works with precarious workers.

They called a meeting, and various groups, including unions and community organisations, attended. They felt that the union movement was doing nothing about these labour bills. And the worst part was that COSATU apparently had agreed, behind the backs of its members, to these changes.

The message was well received and the coalition was formed. Another union called GIWUSA [General Industries Workers Union]; United Front, which organises communities; and other groups joined the coalition.

In the process of forming the coalition, SAFTU was also invited. It was discovered that SAFTU had a certificate for a general strike. This became the basis for organising around a general strike.

There was a lot of debate inside the coalition: To what extent should SAFTU be the face of the strike? But in the end, we thought SAFTU should be the face because we want SAFTU to be a strong, fighting, militant trade union federation as an alternative for COSATU.

Vavi, SAFTU’s general secretary, played his part. He is a good public speaker.

But I must emphasise that it wasn’t so much the job done by SAFTU, but the general mood in the working class. Of course, someone must call a strike, but the response was more than what even the SAFTU leaders expected. The workers are angry, and they want to take action.

In the industrial heartland near Johannesburg, where there are lots of metal industries, the shutdown was about 80%. Certainly there were no workers in the city centre on the day of the strike.

It was maybe 40% participation in smaller cities like Cape Town and Durban, and it could be higher in cities like Port Elizabeth because NUMSA is strong there. So I'd say that in general, it was maybe 60% stay-away, which is a huge success, because we have the problem of casual, precarious workers who are sometimes not that keen to strike.

What do you think the actions on April 25 indicate for the prospects for the left and what are some of the next steps from your perspective?

For the labour movement organisationally, it is about a baptism of fire for a new trade union federation, SAFTU, and the pushing aside of COSATU. COSATU won’t disappear, but I think it has been shown to be a “lame duck”.

The strike showed the extent of anger and combativity among the working class. It might even be a marker for a turning point in the class struggle as we can expect more attacks on workers’ living standards. Already, Ramaphosa has increased the level of VAT [value-added tax] from 14% to 15, which is a direct attack on the poor.

Also, there are a lot of protests by working-class communities in the townships and villages. Although they are fragmented, they seem to be changing in character.

Recently, in the North West province, the people marched and demanded the removal of their premier, who has been forced to step down.

I think the working class movement is finding strength, and the strike is giving it a centre of authority. It allows the workers and unemployed fighting in different parts of the country to feel they are part of a bigger movement to improve their lives.

[Reprinted from Socialist Worker (US).]