SOUTH AFRICA PUBLIC SECTOR WORKERS’ STRIKE
SOUTH AFRICA PUBLIC SECTOR WORKERS’ STRIKE
ANC Government Bows To Popular Pressure
(By Eko John Nicholas)
On Friday 1st June 2007, the South Africa public sector workers embarked on an indefinite mass action to campaign for a 12% salary increase. The strike, which lasted for almost 4 weeks, was unprecedented in the history of South Africa, for it represented the biggest and longest strike ever since the ANC government came to power in 1994 and attracted nearly one million workers across the country. The protest/mass action led by Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU), notwithstanding the inability of its affiliates to respond to calls of making it a general strike, and the refusal of the leadership of the National Union of metal workers of South Africa- a pro-president Thabo Mbeki – to support the strike action not minding their acclaimed sympathy for the public sector workers, recorded a huge success as businesses in major cities in South Africa were brought to complete halt. Public sector workers marched and demonstrated in 43 towns and cities across the country. Industrial activities were grounded and the taxi associations and bus companies in area like Kwa-zulu Natal showed their support by pulling all buses and taxis off the road.
As a prelude to the strike action, about 300,000 workers had demonstrated on Friday 25 May in protest against the government’s miserable 6% salary offer, to mobilize the workers for an indefinite strike action, whilst the government arrogantly and vehemently refused to increase the workers salary, insisting that anything above 6% was unaffordable. Yet, a government commission on remuneration recommended that the president’s salary be increased by 57%, whilst those of ministers should be between 30% and 50%! This double standard on the part of the ANC led government incensed the workers, who consequently took to the streets to demand 12% salary increase following series of failed negotiations in which the government refused to shift ground.
Although, the ANC government had constantly made a lot of noise about the South Africa booming economy, when it comes to funding essential services and paying decent and living wages to the workers, it does not reflect any fundamental change. This argument about affordability by the government was contradicted by the first budget surplus and another government budget windfall, after the South Africa Revenue services had yet again, exceeded its revenue collection target, leaving the government with an unexpected R11 billion extra it did not budget for. The Minister of Finance, who announced that there was no enough money to fund a 9% increase, punctuated these pleas of ‘poverty’ and ‘affordability’. This disclosure attracted a rebuke from the Minister of Public Service and Administration and other government officials. This assertion notwithstanding, the ANC government went ahead to issue warnings to managers to comply with orders to dismiss essential service workers, who went on strike in a bid to stall the workers’ protest without acceding to their demands, despite evidence of excess money in its coffer.
Determined to frustrate the striking unions, the government resulted to intimidation of workers, blackmailing, the use of tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to attack peaceful demonstrators and striking workers. The Mbeki led ANC also showed contempt towards the unions, including cajoling workers on the contents of its paltry pay package and on the “economic implications” of a double-digit salary increase. The workers, who were undaunted by these antics of the government, displayed enormous power in the public sector and, for the first time, the government was forced by the mass action to improve its offer from its original 5.3% to the final 7.5% salary increase.
The attitude of ANC government, just like any other government committed to the implementation of pro-rich, anti-poor, neo-liberal capitalist policies of privatisation, commercialisation, liberation, deregulation, etc, induced by IMF/World Bank does not give a hoot about the needs of the working poor in the society. The ANC is only committed to big businesses and the profit interest of few rich black Africans and their foreign collaborators at the detriment of the South African people, who live in abject poverty in the midst of inexhaustible wealth. This was further confirmed by the outcome of the debates at the ANC conference, held in the heat of the strike action, where though, majority of ANC members supported the public sector workers’ demands, it did not even debate the strike action at the conference. The important issue at hand was how to keep the ANC party on the course it had been threading over the first 13 years of post-apartheid democracy: To create the conditions for the rise of a rich black capitalist class in South Africa, through IMF/World Bank induced neo-liberal capitalist polices, which were completely endorsed at the conference. Not even the proposal for free education, or on a basic income grant was supported at the conference.
The strike, which was suspended on Thursday 28 June, did not achieve its objective of a 12% pay increase, but it did record a huge success by bringing pressure to bear on the government, to improve its offer from its original 5.3% to the final 7.5%, notwithstanding its arrogant posturing before and during the strike action. This struggle already undermined by the rise in inflation to 6.5%, interest rate to 13%, a further increase in the fuel price and with food inflation sets to go even higher than the current 20%, would have made nonsense of the 7.5% increment. This, consequently, brought about a split in COSATU. While the National Education Health and Allied Workers, COSATU’s second biggest public sector affiliate (and four other smaller COSATU affiliates including the police and prisons Civil Rights Union) led the capitulators, its biggest affiliate, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) led the resistance on the reduced demand for 10% pay increase.
COSATU and the union leadership should note that the tactics of declaring an indefinite strike without posing the question of power is unsustainable. And it is one of the reasons why limited actions, warning strikes, etc are desirable. This shortcoming besides, the workers, by their huge success, had once again demonstrated the fact that they hold the key to opening up a new society, where the yearnings and aspirations of the poor mass majority of South African people can be adequately taken care of, as against the profit driven society of the big business currently holding sway in the country. Therefore, the workers of South Africa should commence the process of building a new working class political party that will comprise students, market women, farmer, peasants etc, with a different character and ideology from the present ANC, which has become the party of big business against its original objectives at its formation, to wrestle power from these common rogues and profiteers so as to guarantee better life on permanent basis for the poor working class majority of the South African people, through the nationalization of the commanding height of the economy and subjected to democratic control and management of the working class.
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