Democratic Socialist Movement

For Struggle, Solidarity and Socialism in Nigeria

By - DSM

General Strike to support public sector workers

South Africa: Government threatens right to strike…

General Strike to support public sector workers

  • For class independence and workers unity!
  • Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance Now!
  • Build a Mass Workers Party on a Socialist Programme
Pamphlet issued by the Democratic Socialist movement (CWI South Africa)

A week into the public sector strike and it has become abundantly clear that the conflict between public sector workers and the government is in reality, in the words of the front page headline of the Times (11/08/10) “A WAR BETWEEN SOUTH AFRICA’S CLASSES”. The government’s refusal to accede to the public servants’ legitimate demands has nothing to do with affordability. It has everything to do with making workers pay for the concessions forced upon government by the 2007 strike, to break the power of the trade unions and to legitimise the exploitation of workers.

Since last year’s belated settlement of the 2007 public sector strike, the capitalist press has been on an unrelenting and venomous offensive against the increases workers won. All the ills of poor service delivery and low economic growth are not blamed on the government and the neo-liberal capitalist policies for which the capitalists have praised the government so lavishly. The virtual destruction of the education system, the low matriculation pass rates and the crippled health service are blamed on educators and health workers.

Class War

The public sector strike is protected. This means it is a legal strike in terms of the Labour Relations Act. No employer, including the government, may discipline let alone dismiss a worker for going on a protected strike. Contrary to government claims, even workers employed in essential services have the right to strike. Government has deliberately sabotaged negotiations on minimum service levels for essential services by putting forward provocative proposals that would render the right to strike meaningless and penalise trade unions R1m for non-compliance.

This strike was called only after protracted negotiations in which the trade union leadership, especially in Cosatu, had bent over backwards to avoid it; agreeing to postpone negotiations until after the World Cup, collaborating with the government in the expulsion of the Public Servants Association from the negotiations after it had declared a dispute, holding ballots even though it is not a legal requirement for a protected (legal) strike, holding political meetings with their Tripartite Alliance ANC partners at the highest level in a desperate attempt to arrive at a deal which they could sell to the workers. Had the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) leaders bent over backwards any further they would have been flat on their backs!

The government’s response has been:

  • to have teachers shot at with rubber bullets
  • to deploy police with water cannon to disperse health worker pickets
  • to call in the army in to take over services with soldiers deployed as strike breakers
  • to obtain a Labour Court interdict against all eight public sector unions effectively declaring the entire strike illegal with costs being awarded against the unions
  • to condone the call by the ANC Youth League for the arrest of Sadtu (South African Democratic Teachers’ Union) Gauteng leader Ronald Nyathi
  • to claim that all workers employed in essential services and to secure a court interdicted against all essential service workers confirming the anti-working class bias of the courts which awarded costs against all eight unions in the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council
  • to prepare to unilaterally implement its offer threatening the very foundation of collective bargaining, the Labour Relations Act and the country’s constitution

The most sinister threat of all has come from none other than President Jacob Zuma himself. Like some tin pot dictator of a banana republic he has declared that there is no such a thing as an indefinite strike and threatened workers with mass dismissals. If anyone is guilty of intimidation it is Zuma! With riot police and the army let loose, and a protected strike in effect declared illegal by the president, how far are we from verbal threats against democratic rights, to the execution-style killings as in the case of the four so-called illegal miners at the Aurora mines owned by Zuma’s son and Mandela’s nephew? Democracy is threatened by a person who is the president of the country and, as president of the ANC, the leader of the so-called National Democratic Revolution!

This dispute is no longer simply about wages and conditions: it is about the right to strike itself and the democratic rights won in the struggle against apartheid. As in all class struggles, the public sector dispute is about how the surplus wealth produced by the labour of the working class is distributed between the working class on the one hand and their exploiters, the capitalist class, on the other.

It is now clear that wage settlements at higher levels in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) than for public sector workers (Eskom 9%, Transnet 11%) and Local Government 13%, were reached before the World Cup to isolate the public sector. The South African Municipal Workers Union’s, Samwu, offer of solidarity action to support the public sector workers must be taken up by all unions inside and outside Cosatu. Cosatu’s section 77 notice to Nedlac to strike against the electricity price increases is directly linked to the public sector workers’ demands – to protect themselves from the onslaught of the increases in the cost of basic goods and services that will inevitably follow the enormous increase in electricity tariffs granted to Eskom. All trade unions, independents as well as of all federations, must now mobilise their members in a 48-hour general strike followed by a rolling campaign of mass action until the government meets the public sector workers’ demands.


Every single one of the vile accusations levelled against workers by the government and its capitalist backers must be rejected with the contempt they deserve. Claims that workers’ demands are selfish and unreasonable come from billionaire business men women and tenderpreneur politicians enriched overnight by big business BEE handouts and the looting of the state.

Government’s cynicism is breathtaking! Affordability was not a consideration when, upon taking office, a Zuma administration that portrayed itself as pro-poor, spent millions on luxury cars, and proceeded not only to ape but outdo the contemptible behaviour of the Mbeki administration. The government spent R97 billion on “travel and procurement, including spending on conferences, parties and team building exercises […] in 2008” (Times, 20/08/10). Like their predecessors, government ministers and senior officials continue to spend hundreds of thousands of rands on five-star accommodation and pointless conferences. Ministers and government officials continue to use their positions to loot the state, tendering for government contracts through companies owned by them, their families and friends, creating what Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has described as a “predatory” government.

Lack of money was not an issue when state-owned enterprise (SOE) executives awarded themselves massive salary packages. Eskom increased salaries and bonuses in the year to March. Fired Eskom CEO Jacob Maroga even received a bonus, not for excellent performance but because he performed poorly and needed to be incentivised to do better! Senior government department managers went on a spending spree buying tickets worth millions for friends and families. Government felt free to spend billions on the Word Cup knowing all along that they would cut the budget for public servants’ salaries to fund it. Government talks about priorities. How can the Gautrain, which can only be afforded by the rich, be more important than the efforts of public servants to overcome poverty?

According to Treasury’s official figures, R33bn ($4.5bn) was spent on the World Cup. Analysts say it could have been anywhere between R50bn and R80bn ($10.9bn) if spending by host cities is included. R6 billion was spent on three white elephant stadiums that may have to be demolished because running costs are so high that tenants cannot be found for them. FIFA boasted that this was the most profitable World Cup in history with income exceeding €1bn ( for the first time ever. Yet the corrupt FIFA bosses were effectively allowed to take over the country, exempted from taxes, and allowed to stop even small traders from benefitting from the event. Government boasts that 66, 000 construction jobs were created and billions paid out in wages benefitting poor households. But as the Human Sciences Research Council’s Centre for Service Delivery points out, “four of every five of all 2010 workers are back on the street, with no skills transfer” (Sunday Times 22/08/10)

The government has agreed to pay national planning commissioners who will retain their positions in academia and business while working part-time for the NPC will be earning up to R160, 000 a year to attend ten meetings a year with accommodation and travel expenses paid for by the state. This equates to R13, 333 per month, more than twice the lowest paid government worker’s monthly earnings of R4, 946!

The government’s argument that it cannot afford the increases workers are demanding is merely an echo of the voice of their capitalist masters. Their common refrain is that low wages, along with the right of the bosses to hire and fire as they please, will lead to more job creation. In accordance with the logic of this argument the cheap labour system that underpinned apartheid and that continues today should have led to full employment. Yet a million jobs have been lost since the recession began in 2008. Only four out of ten adults are employed. Of these, 70% earn less than R2, 500 ($340) a month. Evidently workers are not poor enough for the liking of the capitalist class.

With no end to the crisis in sight, and with an economy continuing to throw more onto the scrap heap of unemployment, those fortunate enough to have jobs like civil servants, have to increase their meagre salaries to support not only themselves but jobless family members who fall into the wrong age group to qualify for government’s miserable social welfare grants. Workers on average support 8 to 10 dependents.

No Money?

The government’s stance on the workers’ wage demands shows it is acting as the agents of the capitalist class, whose interests they consciously represent. There is no truth to the claim that there is no money. The problem lies in the government’s neo-liberal capitalist policies. The government gives money to the capitalists and then turns around to tell us there is no money for wage increases. Capitalists have enjoyed a bonanza of R70bn in tax breaks as government has reduced corporate taxes from 45% to 28% today thus reducing tax revenue. Government continues to follow these policies despite the fact they have plunged the world economy into the deepest crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Neo-liberal capitalism requires cut backs in social spending including especially on wages, whilst allowing capitalists free rein to profiteer to their hearts’ delight.

The government pleads poverty yet has eased exchange controls regulations enabling the capitalists to smuggle billions out of the country. According to research done by the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development Programme (CSIDP) at Wits University “As much as 23% of SA’s wealth went abroad in 2007. These outflows amounted to R450bn that could have been used for domestic investment, job creation and economic development (Business Day 21/08/10). Their research reveals further that capital flight, which also occurred under apartheid, has worsened since 1994. Not only has the government like an obedient doorman opened the country’s borders for capital flight, it has actually condoned the criminal activities of these capitalists as they plunder the country’s economy. CDISP points out that the allegedly independent Reserve Bank has offered these capitalist thieves an amnesty for a 10% fee through a “voluntary disclosure programme” coming into effect on 1st November.

Anti-working class bias

At the same time such is the desperation of the poor that workers have resorted to the dangerous practice of illegal mining to survive. Yet whilst the capitalists are offered “stay out of jail” cards for serious economic crimes, four zama-zama miners who engaged in illegal mining to survive after the Aurora mine, owned by Zuma’s son and Mandela’s nephew, had failed to pay workers for months, were ruthlessly gunned down at the Grootvlei mine. The Aurora spokesperson justified this as necessary to protect their assets!

Whilst banks are treating the debt counselling programme with contempt and ruthlessly pursue indebted clients, repossessing homes, cars and furniture, government encourages big business to loot the economy. Whilst workers striking for a decent wage are attacked with water cannon and rubber bullets, the capitalists are forgiven for a fee with no guarantee that they will fully disclose their crimes. As a result “more resources have left SA than have been retained for investment and job creation.” (ibid)

Arcelor Mittal’s acquisition of Imperial Crown Trading (ICT) for R9bn enriching, amongst others, Zuma’s son and deputy president Kgalema Motlhante’s girlfriend reveals in the most repulsive manner this government’s class character, its priorities, its slavish worshipping of big business and contempt for the working class. Arcelor has now been placed in a position where it can continue to buy iron ore for next to nothing, whilst charging prices for steel produced in SA as if it is imported (import parity pricing). Rather than pay even half the market related price for iron ore that ICT had increased it to, they threatened to shut down the Saldanah Bay steel plant and destroy 4000 jobs. Profiteering through Import parity pricing is practiced in many other branches of industry including cement and food. Sasol produces 40% of SA’s fuel needs yet is allowed to charge pump prices as if the fuel is all imported. The cellular monopolies have been allowed to get away with only minor reductions in inter-connection fees that bear no relationship to the cost of switching calls between different networks. There is no tear gas and water cannot for Cell C, Vodacom and MTN executives for their contemptuous defiance.

More than a year after the release of the report into of the commission into banking industry fees, its recommendations, amongst others that penalties for debit order defaults (from which the banks make R1bn a year) should be capped to R5 per transaction, has not been implemented. The Competition authorities are unable to cope with the flood of price fixing for which the culprits are fined but get away with because they simply pass the penalty on to consumers through increased prices.

In the meantime more than a year after 100 allegedly illegal miners died in the Harmony mine in Welkom, there has been no inquiry. As Terry Bell points out (Star 20.08.10) “..the dead were working miners. They did not descend clandestinely, by ropes deep down forgotten shafts, deep beneath the ground. In their overalls and wearing lamp-bearing hard hats, they went down in the mine company cage to do the job they were paid for. Only their employer was not the sub-contractor licensed by the mine-owners to (employ workers) to dig and die for gold.” These zama zama mineworkers were killed whilst in the employ of labour brokers. Yet the ANC government fears capital so much that it cannot bring itself to implement the Polokwane resolution to ban labour broking.

Political Conclusions

We cannot accept that we must tighten our belts because of an economic crisis we have not caused. The capitalists and their government must take full responsibility. The 2008 world financial crisis was no more than the trigger for a crisis prepared by the mounting contradictions of capitalism that had been building up for decades before then. The crisis was accelerated by the bosses’ neo-liberal policies. In SA, the newly-elected ANC government flirted briefly with the mildly social democratic reformist RDP, before retying the knot of capitalist economic policy history with the neo-liberal “normative economic policies” of De Klerk’s Nats, by adopting Gear in 1996 – a policy with which Zuma’s government has continued where Mbeki left off.

Like the lightning before a thunderbolt, the public sector strike has illuminated the political landscape with blinding clarity. The past few weeks have revealed beyond doubt the class character of this government. As the political managers of a capitalist system in crisis, the ANC government is acting as a loud speaker for the bosses who are determined to make the workers pay for the crisis of their system.

The stance of the Zuma administration on the public sector workers strike has erased all distinction between it and the Mbeki administration. Baloyi’s incremental approach to salary negotiations, including, preceding the current R70 increase in housing with an insulting R10, is not a personal failing. It is necessitated by the objective reality that this government governs on behalf of capital. Astonishingly Baloyi cites the Mercedes Benz luxury cars used by the apartheid regime as if this legitimises their behaviour. On behalf of government he blackmails workers with the argument that their demands will prevent job creation. This is as ridiculous as Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi’s argument that it is legitimate to offer workers low wages because it raises their consciousness.

Baloyi is now poised to mimic Fraser-Moleketi’s unilateral implementation of 1999, the first time that an ANC led government imposed a wage deal rejected by both Cosatu and non-Cosatu trade unions . He is preparing to do so by a deliberate misrepresentation of the constitutional facts by claiming falsely that 21 days after signing the agreement the resolution “becomes implementable.” The Public Sector Central Bargaining Council (PSCBC) constitution says no such thing; in fact without a majority after 21 working days, the resolution falls away. Is it an accident that Baloyi has recruited the services of Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi’s 2007 bouncer, Kenny Govender, to prostitute the PSCBC constitution and unilaterally implement the offer?

Fraser-Moleketi’s unilateral implementation in 1999 detonated an explosive reaction from not only the public sector workers leading to the first anti-government protest by public sector workers since the ANC came to power. Announced during a special Cosatu congress sitting at the time to elect a successor to Mbhazima Shilowa, (released to become Gauteng premier) it also led to calls for a 48 hour general strike, averted only after opposition by senior SACP leaders in the public sector unions.

A unilateral implementation would be a declaration of war. It would inflict irreparable damage on the credibility of collective bargaining. Government calls upon workers to accept increases that by its own admission will still leave workers on low pay, because of the current adverse economic conditions. Government will give workers jam tomorrow when the economy picks up. But when is this tomorrow? All the signs are that things are getting worse. The country is bleeding jobs. Manufacturing is shrinking. Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus has poured cold water on claims that there is an economic recovery underway. In fact she is warning of a double dip recession pointing to the slowdown in Europe which accounts for one third of SA’s exports. The World Bank predicts that the world economy will take from five to fifteen years to recover ground lost during the 2008 recession holding back a SA economy so closely integrated with the advanced capitalist economies.

Unfortunately, despite the incisive criticism of the government by Cosatu general secretary Vavi, the Cosatu leadership continues to cling to the illusion that the ANC is a “revolutionary movement with a working class bias.” The deafening silence of the SACP (South African Communist Party), has forced Cosatu leaders, general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, president S’dumo Dlamini and Nehawu general secretary Fikile Majola to all express their disappointment. The SACP’s response has been to insult the Cosatu leaders, stating that “people cannot whine like hungry babies.”

The Cosatu leadership’s denialism about the class character of the ANC is the reason that the preparation for the strike has been so hesitant, confused and chaotic. The leadership did not want this strike and still do not. Nehawu (National Education Health and Allied Workers Union) general secretary Fikile Majola openly admitted that they feared the effect that a strike would have on the federation’s relationship with Zuma. Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini’s performance on television following Zuma’s denunciation of the strike was pitiful. Instead of condemning Zuma for stating effect that workers do not have the right to strike, comrade Dlamini was almost apologetic for stepping on Zuma’s toes. Incredibly, he conceded government reserved the right to fire workers for engaging in a protected strike complaining only that he had a problem with the timing of Zuma’s statement. The Mail and Guardian (20 and 26/08/10) revealed shockingly that the Cosatu leadership’s deal with the government was to accept the current offer, but after they had been given an opportunity to strike first! The deal fell through because government tabled the 7% and R700 offer prematurely!

The relationship between the Cosatu leadership and the ANC government is increasingly seen both inside and outside the federation as collusion with the employer. The actions against public sector workers are consistent with the increasingly vocal demands for banning trade union rights for soldiers, health workers, police and teachers. There has always been an authoritarian undercurrent flowing through the veins of the ANC. The capitalist crisis has provided the conditions for that current to rise to the surface.

It has become impossible to defend a relationship in which the government as employer has become openly hostile to worker rights and unapologetically pro-capitalist. Cosatu’s standing in the eyes of working class is being eroded by Cosatu’s collaboration with a capitalist and by definition anti-working class government. This is why the action by the conservative Public Servants Association, a former white union with no tradition of struggle has been much more in tune with the mood of workers on the ground than the Cosatu leadership’s.

In fact Cosatu’s call for an indefinite strike is an attempt to recover lost credibility. Whilst an indefinite strike corresponds to the depth of rank-and-file anger, the DSM believes that the action was not properly planned. It would have been better to declare the action as indefinite but to initially organise the action to take the form of rolling mass actions with workers coming out on strike once or twice a week. This would make it possible to sustain the action over a longer period and complicate the ability of the state to impose the no-work no-pay rule.

There appears also to have been no properly thought-out strategy to on how to deal with the essential service issue and the inevitable propaganda offensive from the state and media. We do not believe it is helpful for comrade Majola to merely predict that people will unfortunately die. Of course the government will engage in hysterical denunciations and attempts to demonise the workers. The Health Minister has already denounced the health workers as murderers. This is sheer hypocrisy as the needles hospital deaths are a daily occurrence anyway as a result of the government’s criminal policies. Against the government’s declining popularity, its kragdadigheid will not win it public support.

But a strike is a battle for the heart and minds of the especially the working class public. Our struggle must be conducted in a manner that maintains the moral high ground. The government appears to have learned nothing from 2007 in relation to health workers. After mass dismissals they were forced to re-instate them. The threat to dismiss health workers en masse is self-defeating. It may satisfy their authoritarian thirst for power. But will aggravate the crisis in the health care system.

As in KwaZulu-Natal in 2007, health workers should circumvent the government’s obstruction of a minimum service level agreement at the PSCBC, by entering into direct negotiations at the place of work to agree on a minimum service.

Similarly, we do not believe it is in the best interest of teachers and public sector workers as a whole to open themselves up to the accusation that they do not care about the consequences of the strike on learner especially those preparing to write matric. We believe it was highly irresponsible for the government to have re-arranged the school calendar to accommodate the World Cup. However, support for the strike would be strengthened by teachers reaching out to learners and parents to make arrangements outside school premises and official hours to assist particularly the matriculation exams.

The public sector strike represents a turning point in the political situation. The Polokwane illusions around the December 2007 defeat of Mbeki by Zuma have been shattered. The Zuma coalition lies in ruins with bitter recriminations against the SACP by the ANC Youth League, criticism of the SACP by Cosatu, insults against Cosatu by the SACP and attacks on the Zuma cabinet by Cosatu.

The Cosatu leadership has lost its political sense of smell. The ANC is not only riddled with a corruption infecting the federation, drawing it into the factional strife that is tearing it apart, it is a consciously pro-capitalist party obliged to attack the working class in defence of a system in crisis which has won the SA the world cup of inequality with the biggest gap between rich and poor on earth. As we had predicted, the Zuma coalition would not be able to re-invent the ANC as a pro-working class party. Against as we foretold, the Zuma coalition consisting of formations resting on incompatible class forces, has no long term future and was bound to collapse.

Cosatu is in mortal danger unless it breaks from the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC and SACP. Cosatu is trapped in class collaborationist partnership. From having been the best of friends in the battle against Mbeki, the most charitable thing that can be said now is that Cosatu the SACP and the ANC Youth League are the best of enemies.

Unless Cosatu is taken out of the Tripartite Alliance the federation will disintegrate. Already five affiliates are on a crisis watch list. The task of taking the federation out of the Alliance cannot, however, be left in the hands of the leadership. The rank-and-file must spearhead the process.

We call upon workers in all unions to form support committees to defend the public sector workers.

  • For a 48-hour general strike to support the public sector workers
  • Lift the interdicts against all unions
  • Meet the demands of the workers in full
  • Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance now
  • For a mass workers party on a socialist programme