The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 80 (Fall 2007).

South African Public Worker Strike:
Militancy Thwarted by Reformism

Through most of June, South Africa was rocked by the largest strike since the end of apartheid – a bitter strike by 700,000 public sector workers organized in a coalition of 17 unions. Most hospitals and schools were closed. Vicious physical attacks on strikers by the police and threats by the government had little effect on the workers’ unity and fighting spirit.

What did drain the workers’ fighting spirit was the treacherous role of the trade union bureaucracy, which worked to prevent the strike from spreading to the private sector and ultimately agreed to a miserable settlement. After originally demanding a 12 percent wage increase, the reformist leaders of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) on June 28 caved in to the government’s “final” offer of 7.5 percent, which is only about 1 percent more than the current rate of inflation.

Two key factors underlay the bitterness and intensity of this strike. First, the extreme contrasts in wealth and living conditions in South Africa established under the racist apartheid system have essentially deepened. A relatively tiny percentage of blacks have been able to become capitalists or join the privileged middle classes. But the vast majority remain mired in worsening poverty and are enraged at the many broken promises by the African National Congress (ANC) and its government.

Second, the mass working-class organizations built up through the struggle against apartheid remain, along with a high level of political consciousness among the workers and poor. In this context, the public sector strike showed the potential for a return to the road of mass struggle which had forced the end of apartheid in 1994 but was stopped short of overthrowing capitalist rule.

Miserable Conditions for the Masses

By the late 1980s, the apartheid system of white supremacist rule – under which the population was strictly segregated and Blacks denied the right to vote – had become a liability for the South African ruling class and imperialism internationally. Mass struggles by the workers and poor, who increasingly embraced socialist ideas, threatened to overthrow not just apartheid but capitalist rule altogether. The ruling class’s solution was to negotiate an end to apartheid and participate in a transition to democratic rule. The deal was that the ANC leadership would come to power and use its authority – with the help of its allies in the Stalinist South African Communist Party (SACP) and the union bureaucracy – to demobilize the mass movement and guarantee the capitalists’ economic interests.

To sell this deal to the masses, this “Congress Alliance” (ANC/COSATU/SACP) promised to radically improve the conditions of the masses: hundreds of thousands of homes would be built, running water, sewage systems and electricity would be brought to millions, education and health care would be expanded and jobs created. Little of this has been done.

Instead the ANC government has successfully carried out a version of neo-liberalism, earning the praise of the International Monetary Fund for its austerity and pro-investor policies. Since the regime placed the highest priority on repaying apartheid-era debts to international banks, one promised social program after another was cut. In the name of creating investor-friendly economic conditions, wages were suppressed, falling well behind inflation. Most notoriously, the government has allowed the HIV-AIDS epidemic to spiral out of control and become the worst such crisis in the world.

The record of the ANC over ten years in power confirms the warnings that revolutionaries made from the start: capitalism could not satisfy the masses’ needs. So the pro-capitalist leaders of the anti-apartheid movement had to turn into loyal servants of the system. Only socialist revolution, in which the working class seizes power and re-directs the economy from producing for profit toward producing for human needs, could begin to solve the crisis. (See our pamphlet, South Africa and Proletarian Revolution.)

During the public sector strike, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, the minister for Public Service and Administration, said “We cannot have a situation where the [state’s] wage bill is 20 percent of gross domestic product.” Indeed, the capitalist economy cannot provide for the basic needs of the workers, despite all the promises made by the ANC.

Revolutionaries count on the development of working-class struggles, through which the masses can learn these lessons. The key to success would be the building of a vanguard revolutionary party of the most class-conscious workers to fight to break the working class from the grip of the ANC and SACP/COSATU bureaucrats and lead their class in an independent struggle for its interests.

However, the success of the Congress Alliance in restraining working-class struggle for years led to widespread demoralization and political confusion among would-be revolutionaries in South Africa. The absence of a revolutionary party during the public sector strike was sorely felt.

Need for Revolutionary Leadership

The strike seems to have taken the government by surprise. It had managed to stick public sector unions with below-inflation wage raises in each previous round of bargaining without facing a strike. But this time around, seeing a booming economy and official recommendations to raise the salary of the President and his cabinet by 57 percent, the workers were too angry to be held back by their union leaders. From the beginning of the strike it was clear that workers’ militancy was white hot. Hospitals and schools were immediately shut down, and militant picket lines were established at many locations.

But the government knew that with anger at its betrayed promises widespread, a winning strike could have sparked a wave of struggles across the country. So it immediately adopted a hard line. It launched a torrent of anti-strike propaganda through the media and acquired an interdict from the courts banning strikes in “essential services.” When many of the affected workers stayed out nonetheless, it announced their firing, sent police to attack their picket lines and soldiers to scab and maintain services. The union leadership responded with calls for restraint on the part of workers, drew up a proposed deal for minimum staff levels to keep essential public services running and reduced their wage raise demand from 12 to 10 percent, thus signaling their willingness to capitulate.

To advance the strike it was necessary to spread the struggle without concern for legality by calling a general strike. Indeed, calls for solidarity strikes were rising among other sectors of workers, particularly the powerful miners’ and metalworkers’ unions. But the dominant leadership of the trade unions belongs to the Communist Party, and it was desperate to avoid an all-out confrontation with the government. The SACP is, after all, in alliance with the ruling ANC and has no alternative to its pro-capitalist policies. So the union bureaucracy resorted to a series of tricks to deceive workers. First, a day of solidarity marches in every city was organized for July 13. Powerfully attended, these huge demonstrations were strong showings of working-class support for the strike. But they were used by the bureaucracy to avoid calls for a general strike. Then the mineworkers’ union announced that it would be joining the strike, only to have its leaders quickly turn around and say that they had not applied to the courts in time and therefore could not strike legally!

Thus the public sector workers were strangled by the union bureaucracy, cut off from active support by the rest of the unions and left to slowly see their fighting spirit drained. On June 27, the union leaders announced an end to the strike. The deal to raise wages by 7.5 percent, while slightly above the rate of inflation, did not even match the wages the workers had lost while on strike, let alone make up for years of real wage cuts. While workers who were fired for striking in violation of the essential services interdiction were reinstated, they were placed on final warnings. Overall, no one was left in any doubt that the government had won the battle.

Crisis of Leadership

The strike showed the acute crisis of leadership faced by the South African working class. The Communist Party controls the unions and thus dominates the working class. It has evolved from a hard Stalinist party under apartheid to a more Social Democratic perspective – while maintaining the Stalinist tradition’s vicious anti-democratic and at times violent means of repressing militancy. Its political perspective goes no further than encouraging the working class to support the ANC and striving to push it to the left.

The SACP-COSATU leaders increasingly fear that working-class anger at the ANC government is growing to a point where they can no longer control the masses. They are thus pleading not only for more concessions to the working class, but also for a change in the government.

The law currently states that no president of the country may serve more than two terms in office, and current president Thabo Mbeki is set to complete his second term in 2009. Mbeki is anxious to anoint a similarly conservative leader as his successor, but the SACP-COSATU leadership is backing the populist Jacob Zuma. Zuma was deputy president until Mbeki used corruption charges (later dismissed) to force him from office. Zuma soon after faced rape charges which were also dismissed.

Zuma is clearly no left-wing alternative to Mbeki. As deputy president he shared responsibility for years of pro-capitalist policies. While he attracts popular support through radical populist rhetoric, in response to the public sector strike he was anxious to reassure capitalist circles that he could be relied on to be a force for stability. He said, “I don’t think it’s doing any good for the country. I think that both parties should have found a solution before the strike.”

The South African masses can ill afford years more of the ANC government’s pro-capitalist policies, no matter which figurehead is implementing them. Worsening conditions of poverty and exploitation will inevitably trigger more mass struggles. The key to their success will be the building of a vanguard revolutionary party committed to leading those struggles toward the working class’s seizure of power.

A socialist revolution in South Africa would have a powerful effect well beyond the country’s borders. It would not only signal an immediate way forward in struggle against the horrendous conditions of imperialist exploitation throughout the continent. The South African masses’ heroic struggle against apartheid won it respect around the world. Its overthrow of those who betrayed that struggle would send a message to the workers of the world to throw off the dead weight of their own betraying leaders and take power in their hands, too.