Tens of thousands of South African public sector workers marched throughout the country yesterday as part of an all-out strike over pay and conditions.
The strike, involving more than a million workers, is in its second week and is gaining momentum despite massive state intimidation—including the arrest of more than 200 strikers and the use of the army and police to break up mass picket lines.
Mike Louw from the National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) spoke to Socialist Worker about the demonstration in Cape Town yesterday.
“We had a fantastic demo—over 20,000 workers marched to the Ministry of Public Services and Administration to hand over a memorandum. We have sent the government a loud, clear message: we will not give in.
“All public sector unions have pledged to intensify the strike and all unions affiliated to Cosatu [the South African trade union federation] have agreed to take part in secondary action in solidarity with us.
“Workers are extremely angry at the lies and insults put out by the government—but they have only served to stiffen our resolve and determination.”
The stakes are incredibly high.
The marches took place as every single Cosatu-affiliated trade union issued their employers with the intention of joining a general strike on Thursday of next week.
“In seven days the wheels in mining that turn and bring gold and diamonds to the surface will stop grinding,” said Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu general secretary.
“Cosatu will not allow the defeat of public workers this year. We will not allow you to go back to work without victory in your hands. If we do, everyone else will take advantage of you. Bosses and politicians will say whatever they want about you.”
The call for solidarity action is having an impact as union after union announces their intention to join the general strike.
Even the police union, Popcru, has said that its members in non-essential services will join the strike, defeating attempts by the government to use the court to stop them.
And the army union, Sasfu, has also agreed to join the action, while condemning the state for using the army to break the strike.
In the province of Mpumalanga, in the north east of the country, trade unions have come together to announce that they will join the general strike vowing not to retreat until the demands of the workers are met. They said, “The Mpumalanga economy will grind to a halt…enough is enough. The battle lines are drawn.”
And the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has said that it will join the strike and “ensure that every mining operation, every construction site and every energy worker joins the public sector strike.”
The Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union is also calling on its 70,000 members to join the strike.
And taps could run dry from Monday as water workers start a national strike after pay negotiations ground to a standstill.
The strikes are being driven by the inequality and poverty which still dominate South African society, despite the ending of the system of apartheid 16 years ago. South Africa now holds the shameful world record for the biggest gap between rich and poor.
And the strikes have also exposed the faultlines in the relationship between the African National Congress, South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu ruling alliance. The increasing view that their leadership in government have become corrupted by power and wealth helps drive workers’ action on.
Despite publicly refusing to give in to union demands, Richard Baloyi, the public service and administration minister, held crisis talks with trade union leaders in a desperate attempt to resolve the strike.
The government is backtracking in the face of massive anger and opposition from workers, but also because the strike has the potential to bring the government to its knees.
Not since the fall of apartheid has there been such a significant period of working class struggle in South Africa.
Cosatu’s Vavi in his speech to marching strikers on Thursday expressed this tension, saying, “The alliance is again dysfunctional. The centre cannot hold. It is unable to convene a summit for fear of an implosion as a result of fundamental differences on the question of where power lies.”
He added that, for the first time, Cosatu would be selective about the candidates it would campaign for in next year's local elections.
“We will refuse to campaign or support candidates known to be thieves or lazy just because they succeed in manipulating the ANC internal processes,” he said.
The trade union movement backed Jacob Zuma for president to oust Thabo Mbeki in 2008 as disillusionment with Mbeki’s neoliberal agenda deepened.
Thobile Ntola, president of the education union Sadtu, took it a step further, evoking what has become known as the “Polokwane revolution”, when Mbeki lost support to stand for re-election.
She said in her speech to strikers: “When we changed the leadership in Polokwane, we expected it to change policy. If they are not going to change policy, they must also be changed.”
The government has until Monday to come up with a revised offer. If they don’t the mass strike will escalate into a general strike which will shut down South Africa.
The mass strikes in South Africa are an inspiration to workers across the world who face cuts and austerity measures that are ruining their lives.
But they can be more than that.
South African workers can use the momentum of the strike to come together and form new ways of organising to smash the parasitical capitalist system that, despite the fall of apartheid, continues to feed off their labour.
They have the capacity to finish the revolution they spearheaded decades ago.
While the public sector strike gains support and momentum, there has also been an explosion of strike action by workers in the private sector.
A strike by over 600 workers at Exarro Sands, a mineral mine in Kwazulu Natal, has entered its fourth day.
The National Union of Mineworkers, which represents the striking workers, is threatening to spread the action to other Exarro sites if their 14 percent pay increase demand is not met.
And the 1,700 NUM members at Richards Bay Minerals started an all out strike today over pay.
Workers assembled outside the plant this morning and marched on the company office to hand over a memorandum of demands.
The NUM regional coordinator, Bhekani Ngcobo, said in a statement that “by the time the strike comes to an end…there will be no Richards Bay Minerals. It will be history.”
It isn’t surprising that workers are angry. The company is owned jointly by BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. BHP is the biggest mining company in the world. It posted an increase in pre-tax profits of 47 percent this month.
The NUM says it is considering spreading the strike to other BHP operations.
Car workers in the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) struck for ten days this month across all South African car plants over pay, winning a 10 percent wage increase and improvements to terms and conditions.
This has spurred workers in the car components industry on to intensify their demands, including a 20 percent pay increase and improved terms and conditions.
Despite a police ban, workers will be marching through Sandton—the richest suburb of Johannesburg—on Saturday. Numsa describes the action as taking the battle to the backyard of the rich.
The union says the ban is “a clear indication that the state is abusing and bullying security organs to muzzle and erode our hard won rights. This shall be defeated in the same manner we defeated the apartheid police state.”
In a press release, Numsa put forward the case for workers’ action stating, “Our demands are modest…they are mainly aimed at recovering losses suffered as a result of the crises.”
Numsa is spearheading the call for the equal distribution of wealth in South Africa, from the “point of production”. They say, “Our struggle was never about enriching a selected few, but for the overwhelming majority.”
“Thousands of workers took part in demonstrations across the country today. In Gauteng we marched from 8am to 4.30pm. It is the biggest march we have seen in Johannesburg for many, many years.
The mood of workers is one of anger and determination to continue with our action until the government puts a revised offer on the table.
Workers are not intimidated by the actions of the police and army. But we say to the government: stop negotiating in the media and come back to the bargaining chamber. Sending in the police, harrassing and intimidating our members is no solution.
The unleashing of state machinery on workers has shocked people, but it has made them more angry as well.
So we are sending a message to the government: stop being intransigent.
Teachers in South Africa are low paid—it isn’t comparable with teachers in the UK.
With a three year qualification and 10 years experience you can still be left earning R9,000 a month before tax (£791).
And the problem we face is there are two economies in South Africa.
The first economy drives the prices of housing and goods and makes it impossible for workers to survive on such low wages. Teachers cannot get mortgages or afford a decent home.
Wages are set by the second economy. So on the one hand the SA economy fights to keep up with international standards, but our wages remain poverty wages—so workers cannot live up to that standard.
Other countries with our GDP have not suffered the impact of apartheid—we are trying to catch up from the deprivation people suffered. After 16 years we have still not caught up.
So we cannot blame the workers for the situation. We are saying, 'don't forget us'.
And there is no sensitivity from government ministers who drive around in cars costing more than R1 million. That is a slap in the face to the workers who put them there.”
Send messages of support via Fikile Majola, general secretary of Nehawu, one of the biggest public sector unions, at firstname.lastname@example.org