Public Sector Strikes in South Africa: Any Subversive Elements?


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I am not sure why I have yet to post something on the strikes in South Africa, especially considering I was at both the big march in Pretoria on May 25th (where I was nearly trampled) and the smaller march in Johannesburg on June 1st. I think part of my hesitancy is influenced by my interest in not coming to hasty conclusions and punctuated by a desire to not just ‘report’ on the situation. Since I was trapped between ‘reporting’ and punitive conclusions, I stopped…but, now it is time to pick up on the issue and maybe pose a few questions. On Friday, June 1st South African public sector workers staged the largest strike since apartheid. That is right…the largest strike since apartheid. The strike was called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or Cosatu, an conglomeration of about 1.8 million workers, most employed by national, provincial or local governments. The group’s unions demanded a 12 percent salary increase and other benefits, but lowered their wage demand to a 10 percent increase after recent talks. During the talks, the government raised its initial offer of a 6 percent increase to 6.5 percent. This did not sit well with many strikers, and an indefinite strike in the public sector has been launched. We are now on day 18. According to Barbara Slaughter over at WSWS

Many strikers spoke bitterly about the contrast between their demand for a 12 percent increase and the 57 percent that has been recommended for President Thabo Mbeki and his cabinet. One striker told Reuters, “They live in luxury, we still stay in poverty.”


Slaughter further writes that:

A report published by the South African Institute of Race Relations demonstrated that the living conditions for millions of South Africans have worsened since the ending of apartheid 13 years ago. Official unemployment currently stands at 26 percent, but the real figure is 41 percent—double what it was 10 years ago. Millions of workers earn less than US$150 a month, and 4 million people are living in conditions of extreme poverty, defined as less than US$1 a day.

You can say that again.

Why must people be at war just to feed their children?

Some of the Critiques:

1. The Politics of Solidarity; Lack of service delivery affects the poor not the Mbekis

2. Violence and Intimidation

3. The Strike isn’t about wages; The Strike is about a Power Struggle in the ANC

4. The Lack of Subversive Elements in the Strike

5. COSATU selling out?: Support for Zuma, The Abandonment the original demand for 12 percent without consultation for a 10 percent pay rise


1. The Politics of Solidarity; Lack of service delivery affects the poor not the Mbekis Public schools are closing and students are missing mid-year exams. Hospitals are understaffed and those with urgent medical needs are not being served efficiently. Are the strikes selfish? Are the strikes punishing the working-class who depend heavily on public services–the same working-class for whom strikers are assumed to be allied with? Do these strikes have the potential to divide South Africa’s working class? Some workers who are not participating in strike action also took part in lunchtime protests. Apparently, while the ‘strike so far has inconvenienced millions of South African adults and children girding for midyear exams but has done little lasting damage.’ However, cities like Durban were brought to a complete standstill. If you choose to keep working to ensure that your kids can eat, are you committing some form of class betrayal or simply trying to survive? For those who cannot strike, what other forms of resistance can they engage in? And does this resistance mean anything? What about the politics of solidarity? There are likely to be solidarity protests, and some strikes, in the mineworkers’ union NUM, metalworkers’ union Numsa, as well as the municipal workers’ union Samwu which amount to over 600,000 workers. The sympathy strike received massive support all over the country. Some workers who did not take strike action also took part in lunchtime protests.
Time for solidarity!?

Even the babies are involved. This 5 year old was with her mother at the big May 25th protest & march in Pretoria.
2. Violence and Intimidation Others are critical of the strikes because of the violence and the intimidation of non-striking workers. In the editorial ‘South Africa: Strikes Are All About Mbeki, Zuma And Control of the ANC,’ an editorial written by Cape Town’s Cape Argus, it is argued that:

The SA Democratic (there’s that word again) Teachers’ Union this week justified its invasions of non-striking schools with the explanation that “it is now a war situation” and “in a war there are no rules”. Not that the Geneva Convention’s rules would likely influence Sadtu’s disgracefully threatening behaviour towards non-striking teachers. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has unashamedly used the spectre of violence to engineer a government climbdown. “Workers will soon be angry, they will be frustrated, and they will see anybody going to work, irrespective of how genuine their reasons are, as basically betraying their cause. And very soon the strike will turn violent,” said Vavi. The police unions sketch similar scenarios of chaos and violence. Although as an essential service they are precluded from striking, union leaders have warned that their members are likely to defy the ban. As with Vavi, the underlying tenor is one of incitement, of tacitly condoning illegal acts before they happen, in the hope they will happen. These are not necessarily idle threats. Violence is not a new phenomenon in a country where poverty and frustration make an explosive combination. Last year 67 security guards were murdered because they dared to ignore the national strike called by the SA Union of Security Workers. Not one suspect has been arrested. read more

President Mbeki condemned the violence at the Budget Vote in Parliament Tuesday, saying:

All of us should ask ourselves, what kind of society we are building and what moral lessons we are imparting when insults, violence against fellow workers and damage to property become the stock-in-trade during protests of this kind. […] neither do workers themselves, in whose name these acts of thuggery are committed.

3. The Strike isn’t about wages; The Strike is about a Power Struggle in the ANC

Besides a critique of the violence associated with the strike, there has been an more serious accusations which is that ‘[t]his strike has not been about a fair wage, as Cosatu claims, nor about performance measures and containing inflation, as government claims. It is part of a battle for the soul of the ANC.’ Apparently, the strikes are not about fair wages or an emerging wave of working-class solidarity. Instead it is argued that the strikes orchestrated by union bureaucracy (not the workers themselves) is more about those who want Deputy President Jacob Zuma as the next president of the ANC over Mbeki or one of his ‘anointed.’ Even Mbeki had the nerve to condemn what he called the unions’ ‘message of selfish own interest.’ Having spoken to people at the marches and looking over friend’s video footage of the strikes, I am not so sure if I would hastily assume that the strikes are simply about a power struggle in the ANC. Which is not to say that a power struggle in the ANC does not influence the strike. However, such a conclusion undermines the reality that 7% inflation and stagnant wages are a real concern for South African workers (as well as the 40% of those unemployed) and deploying the former analysis that obscures such a reality is more than irresponsible–it is revisionist and myopic. Other than the former analysis being problematic for ignoring some serious economic realities, it also ignores another very important point:

[A]long with the South African Communist Party (SACP), [COSATU] is an integral partner in the ANC alliance. It is a supporter of the government and has never broken from it. Any differences between Mbeki and Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of COSATU, are of a tactical character—how best to defend the interests of big capital in the face of mass opposition. read more

4. The Lack of Subversive Elements in the Strike

And something I found on one of my many listservs…something I think needs to be taken seriously:

Myself, I am less concerned about any wackyness of the Cosatu demands as their lack of any subversive element. In other words, Cosatu appears to be so adjusted to capitalist reality (the capitalist presentation of reality) in South Africa, that it has even forgotten the demand for a Basic Income Grant – or whatever it has been called in SA. One could imagine a set of demands that had depth as well as breadth, going to the roots in two senses: one of addressing, appealing to and mobilising the working people (and those denied even the possibility of work), the other of undermining such capitalist normalities as wage labour – or what the early movement called wage-slavery.

5. COSATU selling out?: Support for Zuma, The Abandonment the original demand for 12 percent without consultation for a 10 percent pay rise

Along with the SACP, COSATU favours the candidacy of Jacob Zuma, the supposed “people’s president,” who is no left-winger. Zuma was Mbeki’s second in command until last year and has never opposed any of the government’s pro-market privatisation policies. In the course of the present strike, COSATU is attempting to demonstrate that it is the champion of the working class. But it is clear that it is not prepared to take on the government. On the eve of the mass action on June 13, COSATU abandoned the original demand for 12 percent without consultation and called for a 10 percent pay rise. The move was a gesture to the government that a sell-out was in the cards. read more.

Let’s just hope COSATU is not using workers as pawns in a larger power-play.

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Published on June 21, 2007 at 4:04 am. 8 Comments.
Filed under Africa,collective action,news/politics,poverty,radical politics.