South African workers confront 'comrade ministers'
By Norm Dixon
South African worker militants struggling against the African National Congress (ANC) government's austere economic policies, privatisations and job losses are discovering an unexpected opponent — a group of senior leaders of the South African Communist Party (SACP).
South African President Thabo Mbeki has appointed SACP members to key cabinet posts responsible for implementing the government's conservative economic policy (dubbed Growth, Employment and Redistribution — GEAR), speeding up privatisation and "restructuring" of public utilities and restraining public sector workers' wages.
The ANC cabinet contains seven ministers and one deputy minister who are also SACP members. Dozens of SACP members are among the ANC's 266 MPs in the national parliament. It is SACP policy that members elected on ANC lists must abide by the discipline of the ANC.
SACP central committee members holding portfolios include: trade and industry minister Alec Erwin; public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi; public enterprises minister Jeff Radebe; minister for water and forestry Ronnie Kasrils; minister for provincial and local government Sydney Mufamadi; and minister for the Office of the President Essop Pahad.
In a remarkable development, three of the SACP's top office-bearers — party chairperson Charles Nqakula, deputy chairperson Fraser-Moleketi and deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin — are ANC MPs and are not free to speak out against the ANC's policies. Cronin had been the SACP's most vocal, although moderate, critic of GEAR. Only SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande remains free to voice publicly the party's criticisms of GEAR and privatisation.
Former Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) president and SACP central committee member John Gomomo is also an ANC MP. Sam Shilowa, former COSATU general secretary and also an SACP central committee member, has been appointed by Mbeki as the ANC premier of Gauteng province.
In a move that further compromises the SACP leadership's independence, Nqakula accepted the position of Mbeki's parliamentary councillor — a job, according to media reports, that involves being the president's "eyes and ears in the legislature". Another senior SACP central committee member, Thenjiwe Mtintso, as deputy general secretary of the ANC, must also follow the ANC line.
Public servants strike
The SACP's dilemma has been highlighted most recently by the roles played by "comrade ministers" Fraser-Moleketi and Radebe.
On July 29 and 30, more than 300,000 public servants struck to support demands for a 10% pay rise. The decision to strike followed several weeks of mass demonstrations and pickets.
The national strike resulted from Fraser-Moleketi's steadfast refusal to alter seriously the government's wage offer of 4-6.8%, below the inflation rate of 7.3%. She threatened to deduct any wage increase that was won from the education and health services budget.
"A strike in the current climate would be counter-productive and impact on services offered to all South Africans", she said.
"Service delivery is being undermined by the government's macro-economic policy, not our demands", responded COSATU acting president Peter Malepe.
The strike, called by the three largest public service unions affiliated to COSATU, was supported by around 80% of South Africa's school teachers, as well as most hospital support staff. Police, prison staff and nurses classified under labour laws as working in "essential services" held lunchtime pickets. Tens of thousands of workers from non-COSATU unions struck on August 3 and 4.
Radebe is responsible for increasing the pace of privatisation at a time of growing unemployment and mass retrenchments.
Telkom, South Africa's telephone company, which was partially privatised in 1997, has announced that it will sack 10,000 workers. On July 8, the state-owned railway corporation, Spoornet, announced that 27,000 jobs would be eliminated. The ANC government is "restructuring" and "corporatising" the various divisions of the state transport department, Transnet, in preparation for sale.
Spoornet's chief executive, Braam Le Roux, claimed the government had approved the corporation's plan. On July 13, Radebe denied this but refused to rule out the retrenchments.
Soon after Mbeki's June 25 announcement that a 20% stake in South African Airways had been sold to Swiss Air for 1.4 billion rands (US$230 million), Radebe stated his determination to make sure that the government's privatisation program, which is budgeted to raise R4 billion this year, was accelerated. "We are not only hot, we are red hot on this issue", Radebe stated.
On July 19, Radebe announced that management of the postal service would be awarded to a joint venture between the British Post Office and New Zealand Post International. The new bosses must make the service run at a profit. In Britain and New Zealand, that was achieved at the cost of thousands of jobs.
Other SACP ministers seem certain to, or already have, come into conflict with the party's working-class and impoverished supporters. Erwin is an architect of GEAR and, with finance minister Trevor Manuel, is in charge of overall government economic policy, including the massive restructuring of the South African economy in the name of "international competitiveness". This has resulted in more than 500,000 jobs being lost since 1994, especially in the manufacturing and clothing and footwear industries.
Spokespeople for South Africa's capitalist class praised Erwin's reappointment as trade and industry minister on June 17. The one-time "struggle liberal", now born-again neo-liberal columnist for the Weekly Mail and Guardian, Howard Barrell, pointed out on June 18: "Both [Erwin and Manuel] have won the confidence of the markets and their presence in their current portfolios is seen as a measure of the government's determination to stick to its current economic course".
Kasrils and Mufamadi will play a part in the privatisation of municipal water and sanitation services and will find themselves face to face with militant members of the South African Municipal Workers Union. Kasrils will be involved in the sell-off of South Africa's vast state forests. Mufamadi must oversee funding cuts to provincial and municipal budgets.
Responsible for ensuring that ANC MPs — including the SACP members — toe the cabinet line is former Western Cape SACP firebrand Tony Yengeni, who was appointed ANC chief whip in March. Yengeni, who has a reputation as a "populist", told the March 17 Business Day that he has been a strong supporter of GEAR "from the word go".
"I am a champion of the policies of my government. I must stand by them, explain them to the public and make sure they are implemented", Yengeni said. Privatisation is "a good concept, if done properly", he added.
While SACP ministers implement GEAR, the leading bodies of the SACP and the SACP-influenced COSATU continue to pass resolutions and issue numerous statements critical of GEAR and its consequences.
However, the weight of so many senior ANC government office-holders within the SACP's top leadership seems to have paralysed the party's efforts to turn its anti-GEAR and anti-privatisation resolutions into action. This was illustrated by the failure of the July 18 central committee meeting to support the public sector workers.
In a media statement at the end of the meeting, the central committee meekly said: "Members of the CC include senior members of government and of public sector trade unions, who currently find themselves in the midst of a difficult negotiation process. The CC agreed that it would be invidious for the SACP to seek to adopt a fixed position on the wage issue — the unions and the government must negotiate."
The contradictory positions of leaders of South Africa's largest left-wing party are causing concern within its ranks that the party will become discredited in the eyes of militant workers and hamper its ability to lead the struggles of workers and the poor.
Some in the party argue that the SACP must insist that party members in government be bound by SACP policy and that action be taken against members who wilfully ignore the party program. At the moment, the SACP constitution does not allow members active in the ANC to be disciplined.
To achieve this, SACP members may need to be prepared for a significant political struggle within the party. At the SACP's 10th congress in July 1998, Mbeki issued a blunt ultimatum to the SACP leadership that it must either cease its opposition to GEAR and other ANC policies or leave the ANC. The elevation of a significant proportion of the SACP central committee to the cabinet, knowing full well that their job is to implement GEAR and defuse working-class opposition, indicates that many SACP leaders have made their choice.