National Sections of the L5I:

South Africa: forward to an indefinite general strike!

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Today, South Africa will be rocked by a one day general strike called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). Dave Stockton argues that it shows the explosive class contradictions in the African National Congress (ANC) and that South African workers need their own party, not the popular front.

In South Africa today the 700,000 or so public sector workers who have been on strike since June 1 will be joined by upwards of one million private sector workers, following the call of a one day general strike by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This figure would be higher if the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) with a membership of 280,000 joined the general strike. But because employers legally need a ten day strike notice the union is not calling out its members, except delegations to support picket lines and demonstrations. .It is to be hoped that rank and file miners will give their “leadership” a lead on this question and stay away in substantial numbers.

A one day general strike by two million of South Africa’s twelve and a half million workers will be a big step forward indeed, the largest strike since 1994, but unless it produces a climbdown by the ANC government, it will need to be repeated and turned into an all out general strike. If this happens then it must necessarily take up the demands of private sector workers also suffering from the effects of inflation on their wages. The Metal and Engineering industry is already expecting major shut downs as the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) with more than 216,000 members and five other metal unions, including Solidarity, prepare for strike action over wages. They have also rejected a wage offer of different grades between 6, 8% to 7.3%. – around the inflation rate.

Another massive base of working class and popular support are the various campaigns in the townships for water and electricity, against privatization of these vital utilities. They and their mass forces should join the mass strike movement and win the unions to take up their demands. A general strike could become a mass strike of the 75 per cent of workers who are not in trade unions. It could mobilize the unemployed to demand work for all as well.
But for the last two weeks, it is the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s one million public sector workers who have held centre stage with their indefinite strike in support of a 12% wage increase. Their campaign began with a huge 300,000 strong national demonstration. In Johannesburg striking workers marched to the city centre, chanting anti-government slogans and carrying placards saying, ”Politicians thrive on fifty percent and servants live on six.” The first figure refers to pay rises planned for government ministers, while six per cent is the meagre increase public sector workers have been offered.
The salary of President Thabo Mbeki is also supposed to rise by 57%. As one of the demonstrators said “this is an insult to the poor.” The government and the judiciary have pitched in to attack the strike. For example, the Labour Court has ruled that Health workers “cannot go on strike.” As a consequence more than 600 striking health workers have been sent letters of dismissal, according to one of the most unpopular members of the government, public services minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, this is because “our recognition of the right to strike... does not cover essential service workers.” Incidentally, Moleketi is a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP)!

Nevertheless in most hospitals 80 per cent of nurses, porters, cleaners etc have defied Moleketi and the Court and gone on strike and maintained very militants mass pickets.

The Cosatu trade union federation, like the SACP, is a partner in government with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) - the very government which is attacking its workers. But for the last few years Cosatu has had a series of increasingly bitter rows with President Thabo Mbeki and the dominant right wing of the ANC. Cosatu president Willie Madisha has been highly critical of the government’s whole economic direction. Its cynically misnamed Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy, has seen successive cuts in government spending and budgetary squeezes on social spending.

Cosatu members had expected the ANC in power to protect if not extend state ownership of key sectors of the economy, to exercise pressure for black workers against the international and South-African based corporations who had super-exploited black workers under Apartheid. They had expected radical land reforms and major action for the unemployed and the still dreadful housing and public health conditions of most townships. On all these issues they have been hugely disappointed.

But in fact Thabo Mbeki’s fiscal conservatism - essentially modeled on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s “Third Way” - and his main focus on the creation of a black capitalist class, has proved what revolutionary communists said in the 1980s and early 1990s, that this was precisely the aim of the ANC leaders. The black working class whose heroic mass actions had weakened and forced the capitulation of Apartheid would be swindled out of the fruits of their struggle by a black middle class aiming to become billionaires. And that is exactly what has come about. The institutions of global neoliberalism now have a tight grip on South Africa , through their servant Mbeki. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund dominate his International Investment Council.

These policies have given birth to a small band of black multi-millionaires and fostered corruption within the ANC. The Cosatu leadership however is nearly as much to blame because it remains tied to the ANC, hoping that Jacob Zuma, the candidate of the left in the upcoming elections within the multi-class alliance, will beat Mebki’s chosen successor - providing Zuma can also beat off the corruption charges that hang over him. If Cosatu members go along with this, they are succumbing to a fatal illusion - that the ANC can be won to workers’ policy. This is a fatal illusion and Cosatu members must not go along with it. It is high time the working class to asserted its political independence form the South African bourgeoisie. Cosatu and its constituent unions should break with the ANC and conduct g huge series of conferences and mass rallies to found a workers party, pledged to fight for workers interests and those of the rural and urban poor- i.e. the majority of South Africa’s people.

Within such a movement revolutionaries should argue for a revolutionary, anti-capitalist, socialist programme. The revolution by stages of the South African Communist Party has been realised by Mbeki in the only way it can be – first build capitalist power and a black billionnaire class and then later, much later (maybe) we will come to socialism. In fact this is an excuse, not only for no socialism but also for cheating the masses out of most of the fruits of the downfall of Apartheid and even major social reforms. The only alternative is the strategy of permanent revolution, taking up all immediate demands (such a inflation-busting wage deals, work for the unemployed, publicly owned utilities for the townships ,etc), tying them to the fight for nationalization under workers control of the big industries, farms and banks and creating the basis for an economy planned to get rid of inequality and exploitation - not increase it as Mbeki has done.

But the task of the day is undoubtedly to work to turn the all out strike of the public sector into an all out strike of the whole working class and the poor and oppressed generally. To organise and spread such a mass strike wave, councils of action should be formed of delegates from public and private sector workers, the township campaigns and districts and the organisations of youth, women and the unemployed. Such a movement should be spread to the countryside and take up the demands of the landless and small farmers, targeting the property of rich - still largely white - farmers for take over. A general strike by stopping everything, suspending the effective power of the government raises the question of who can and should govern on behalf of the millions rather than the millionaires. The answer must be clear – a workers and poor farmers government is essential, one that does not fear or hesitate to open up the road to socialist construction and to revolution across the African continent. Revolutionaries need to organize now, in the heart of the present movement, to fight for this perspective.