Cosatu calls for two-day stay away

after hundreds of thousands take mass action in SA's biggest public sector strike in history

The morning edition of the Johannesburg daily The Star (16th September 2004) reported, "South Africa's biggest strike kicked of with an extraordinary sight this morning - middle aged white teachers toyi-toying outside one of Johannesburg's top schools…57 of 58 teachers at Parktown Girls High Schools, led by principal Anthea Cereseto, waved placards, donned t-shirts and toyi-toyied before heading for Pretoria to join the march."

The front page headline of This Day read "Total Shutdown" as, contrary to the assurances of Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, schools throughout the country were deserted with all teacher unions joining the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), the 1.8m strong Congress of South African Trade Union's biggest public sector affiliate, to take mass action in their second "chalks down" in as many weeks.

Marches were organised in over 20 towns and cities throughout the country as the majority of the 800 000 unionised government employees struck in a show of unprecedented non-racial workers unity in SA's biggest strike in a single sector in history. Cape Town, (50 000), Durban (45 000) and Pretoria (90 000) all more than doubled the number from the 2nd September teachers" strike two weeks ago.

Reports from all the marches reported a burning anger directed particularly towards the Minister, whose SeSotho surname, Moleketi, has been punned into the Afrikaans "moeilikheid" (trouble) - an expression of the universal bitter animosity felt by workers particularly because of her arrogant negotiating style and derisory 6% wage offer. She has become the target of struggle songs previously directed against the apartheid regime. At the Union Buildings rally in Pretoria workers who had been toyi-toying all the way along Vermeulen Street, where marchers had stopped to hand over a memorandum to the Minister of Finance at the Treasury headquarters, chanting "Voetsek Moeilikheid - (voetsek is a word used to chase away a dog). At the rally she was howled down and workers booed as she shouted the traditional struggle slogan "amandla!"(power) and left in tears after plastic missiles and other objects were hurled at the podium.

Sadtu's 100 000-strong September 2nd national strike provided the spark that lit the veld-fire of government employees' anger raging across the country. Like a hurricane, whose course, size and impact is never precisely predictable even when expected, the ingredients for the strike had been prepared on the one hand by the acrimonious climate in the 6 months of failed negotiations, and on the other by sharpening class antagonisms within society. The negotiations had been taking place in a cauldron of discontent simmering since the government's unilateral implementation of its wage offer in 1999 after Fraser-Moleketi had walked out of the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council.

Despite the explosion of anger at the special Cosatu congress coinciding with Fraser-Moleketi's 1999 walk-out, the Cosatu leadership held back from the 48-hour general strike delegates demanded, leaving the public sector workers to fight alone in a failed attempt to reverse the government's attack despite what was then the biggest public sector strike. That capitulation weakened the unions in subsequent salary negotiations as bitter divisions between Sadtu and the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) leadership with accusations and counter-accusations as the Nehawu leaders particularly were determined to win the beauty contest as the government's favourite sweethearts. The government was subsequently able to win a multi-term 3-year agreement entailing just above inflation increases but cuts in housing allowance, medical aid, sick leave and the imposition of a new pay progression system with the full agreement of the leadership.

The deterioration of conditions of service over the past 5 years, as well as the decline in infrastructure and the quality of service delivery in health and education have resulted in an exodus of teachers and health workers leaving the service to go overseas. In addition, the accelerating class polarisation, particularly within the black population with newly-enriched black millionaires who flaunt their wealth ostentatiously and now make up a significant component of millionaires who now number over 700 compared to 100 in 1994, inflamed the sense of alienation and exploitation felt by the masses.

Electricity and water cuts, evictions for non-payment for rent and rates, containment of wage increases and retrenchments have continued to provoke the masses. In the period since the ANC's election landslide there has been pubic outrage over corruption and an attempted cover-up in the "Travelgate" scandal. A parliamentary official attempted to gag the Mail & Guardian from releasing the names and now the ANC is reported to be threatening to sue This Day in connection with the publication of the names of the 30 parliamentarians, under investigation by the Scorpions (SA's FBI) for making deals with travel agents worth hundreds of thousands of Rands to use travel vouchers to take their families and partners on luxury cruises and overseas holidays.

As the ANC celebrated 10 years of democracy and its 70% landslide, there was an outbreak of student protests against cuts in financial aid across the country starting at the prestigious University of the Witwatersrand. The DSM-linked Socialist Student Movement called mass meetings at Wits and on 9th September, organised a 500-strong day of action for free education in Durban. A week before, police opened fire with bird-shot on high school students protesting against poor services in the Free State, killing a 17-year-old. There have been outbreaks of protests on housing in Protea Glen in Soweto and Diepsloot just outside Johannesburg. A youth protecting his mother from being manhandled by police there to protect officials coming to cut their electricity was shot dead by police.

In the mid-year season of wage negotiations thousands of workers in the private sector have been on strike or merely threatened strike action to secure wage increases higher than that offered to public sector workers.

This strike exhibited two important features of the change in consciousness in the working class, in the relationship between the rank-and-file and the leadership on the one hand and on the political plane on the other. The new Nehawu leadership, elected as the negotiations became bogged down at its June congress, came to power to replace a leadership that had been seen as corrupt and had turned the union, in the words of Cosatu general secretary in his speech to congress, as the lapdogs of the ANC government. But this new leadership, forced into the ring like a reluctant fighter, took cover at the first whiff of grape shot. As the negotiations deadlocked and Sadtu declared for a strike, they sent out a circular to the provincial structures calling for mandate to settle as, given that only two provinces had a mandate for strike action "there was no prospect of strike now or in the immediate future". They had looked into the water, saw the calm of the past five years on the surface, mistook the image of their own cowardice for that of the membership and issued a weather forecast that made no provision for a hurricane.

An infuriated rank-and-file in a number of provinces participated in the 2nd September Sadtu marches with no guidance or support from head office. A DSM comrade on the Pretoria region executive sent a letter to head office denouncing the circular as a betrayal and a sell-out. He accused the leadership of turning the membership into a strike-breakers and an agent of the ANC government. So shaken was the leadership that the public spokesperson actually wrote back. While defending the national office bearers' right to express their view, he actually said he disagreed with their position and believed the union should strike. Within 5 days of the first circular, the NOBs sent out a second circular claiming that their position had been misinterpreted as being against a strike. Astonishingly the circular repeated the same position while acknowledging that if the membership wished to strike then that would be the position of the union. At the special national executive committee called on the eve of the strike, the NOBs miserable protestations were swept aside by the overwhelming vote for strike action in every single one of the nine provinces.

Even the Sadtu leadership whose actions appeared on the surface to reflect a greater combativity, seemed to have approached the strike like the Grand old Duke of York, marching the soldiers halfway up the hill and down again. At the special bargaining council meeting called on the 3rd September, they were prepared to settle along with their Nehawu counterparts and the rest of the 8 public sector unions for the very 6% they had called the workers out against.

Scenting blood, the Minister attempted to avenge the government's embarrassment at the overwhelming sympathy for a very successful teachers' strike, by forcing a leadership already on their knees onto their bellies. She stuck to her 6% but insisted on a 3-year agreement with years 2 and 3 increases limited to inflation. She lit a blue flame with the outrageous proposal that should inflation fall below this year's level next year, salaries would have to be adjusted downwards! The workers were being offered a loan!

Even for this spineless leadership this was too much. They might have been able to sell, with however much difficulty, a 6% deal on the basis that the government had at least increased its offer from its opening offer of 4.5% and the commitment to extend medical aid and housing benefits to the majority. But if they had gone back to the membership with a 3-year deal with what amounted to a cut in real terms for the next two years, they would have been lynched. As Sadtu general secretary, Thulas Nxesi pointed out "we have a membership to take account of". A leadership till then huddling together in a corner united in surrender, had no alternative but to come out fighting.

The leadership was caught between the hard place of government intransigence, and the volcanic rock of rank-and-file anger. The success of this strike was due entirely to the determination and class solidarity of the membership. Had the Nehawu membership not defied their leadership during Sadtu's strike it could potentially have damaged public sector unity within the Cosatu affiliates long lasting damage which would have percolated throughout Cosatu. The membership has in fact saved Cosatu itself from a process of an agonising disintegration.

The second, equally if not more important feature of this strike are the political conclusions workers are drawing. This strike took place as president Mbeki was basking in the glory of hosting the first session of the Pan African Parliament. The question, raised by Mbeki indignantly and insultingly during the municipal workers strike a few years ago, of "embarrassing SA in front of international visitors" as he complained during the municipal workers strike which coincided with the World Summit on Sustainable Development, was not even raised.

In fact Mbeki had denounced the strike, but in a way that will make the ridiculous political position of the Cosatu leadership, that this was not a strike against the ANC, but against the government as employer, impossible to sustain. He pointed out that the very same Cosatu leaders who had campaigned for an ANC vote were now leading strikes against it. It will no longer be possible for the leadership to pretend that the ANC suffers from dual personality disorder -- that the ANC as a political party and the ANC as government are two different political persona. Both in Pretoria and Cape Town the slogan "viva ANC" was conspicuous by its absence. ANC flags were nowhere in sight. Even the SACP had a very low profile and has repeated the mealy-mouthed appeals of 1999 to both sides to sit down and resolve their differences.

Having drawn back the two biggest unions, Nehawu and Sadtu from the brink of a near-total breakdown of class solidarity, rank-and-file workers are beginning to witness with their own eyes what the DSM has been warning about for some time - that whilst the Tripartite Alliance (between the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP) was being promoted and maintained in the name of unity, it has become a source of disunity. The outline of the consciousness necessary for the re-assertion of the class independence of the working class through the break-up of the Tripartite Alliance is beginning to take shape. The situation is pregnant with the possibility of a mass workers party, albeit in the first month.

The survey carried out by Cosatu's research arm, into whether workers would support a the establishment of a mass workers party to stand in the elections, found 33% in favour in September 2003 - just over 6 months before the last general election. No doubt, today, hardly 6 months after, with the lessons of the public sector battle burned into workers' consciousness, that would figure would be significantly higher.

The Cosatu leadership, in the face of the government digging in its heels, has called a 2-day public sector stay away for Monday and Tuesday next week. Called in haste during the rally itself, it might not be well-supported as the government is rigorously implementing the no-work no-pay policy. The leadership is creating, consciously or unconsciously, the conditions for accepting the settlement on the basis that, despite their anger, workers could not sustain the action. Much better would have been a rolling campaign of mass action based on one day a week involving workers reporting for duty until 10'o clock, leaving for a rally and returning at lunch. This would simultaneously have made the administration of the no-work no-pay policy an administrative nightmare, maintained the momentum of September 16th, and served as a basis for a general strike of the private, public and parastatal sectors.

The workers may not win this dispute, although there is no reason for them not too, provided the leadership was prepared to fight. But the leadership is itself fearful of the political implications of escalating the action. It would tear away at the credibility of the Tripartite Alliance with whose maintenance many of their careers in the corporate world and senior government posts are tied up. However, even if the workers are defeated, they shall have lost after a fight. They shall have learned profoundly important lessons from this strike. The class polarisation and the political differentiation that is following will continue. A concession is not ruled out however, as sections of the ANC leadership may regard the collapse of the Tripartite Alliance may be regarded as undesirable and premature despite the ANC's 70% majority in the last elections.

The DSM contingent in Pretoria sold 80 copies of the latest edition of Izwi La Basebenzi, hot off the press. With pictures of "Moelikheid" the new Transnet boss Maria Ramos announcing plans for 4 000 retrenchments, and Telkom CEO who took home a bonus of R11 million while announcing plans for 5 000 retrenchments, over the caption "A Peoples' contract to cut jobs and create poverty" (a play on the ANC's election slogan "a peoples contract to create jobs and fight poverty"), sales have already gone past the 150 mark nationally within the first three days.

More articles from the CWI are available here.