(First published in Sinhala and dated 20 June 2007)
South Africa has been rocked by one of the biggest post-apartheid general strikes.
More than 500 000 thousand public sector workers were called out on June 04 by the country’s largest trade union centre, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which is also a partner in the present African National Congress (ANC) dominated government.
Health, education and municipal workers have not reported to work, causing major disruption, including closure of schools, hospitals, public transport, interruption of power supply, non-collection of rubbish and the like. Tens of thousands have demonstrated on the streets of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town.
The government has reacted aggressively by sacking more than 600 health service workers and deploying the armed forces in hospitals and outside schools.
The strike was triggered by the government’s refusal to negotiate with unions for a fair wage increase: COSATU demanded 12 percent later lowered to 9 percent, while the government has improved its initial offer of 6 percent to 7.5 percent, which unions point out is well below the cost of inflation.
However there are deeper and bitter underlying causes that pushed the 1.8 million strong COSATU and its affiliates to publicly demonstrate against the ANC government it brought to power.
There is widespread anger that post-apartheid South Africa has not addressed the socio-economic inequalities of the majority black population.
As COSATU general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, noted: “for too many of our people, apartheid remains in the form of mass unemployment and poverty plus poor services from the government”.
The South African economy has only created 500 000 jobs each year for the past three years despite its growth rate and inward investment when 40 percent of the labour force is unemployed.
The socialist rhetoric of the ANC has now been replaced by the language of business as it focuses on building a back capitalist class largely composed of its own leaders.
Increasingly, COSATU and the Communist Party (SACP) have complained of exclusion by the ANC from macro-economic policy and there has been public discussion in their ranks of remaining partners in the triple alliance that formally governs South Africa.
This strike is also an attempt by some within COSATU and the SACP who remain committed to the alliance to pressure the ANC to focus on poverty instead of its ‘black empowerment’ strategy that favours the elite, and to build support for a left challenge to the ANC leadership when its current leader and South African president, Thabo Mbeki, steps down next year.
Such a strategy is of limited value when the ANC is a firm supporter of neo-liberalism and taking the same path of accommodation to capitalism and imperialism as post-colonial regimes historically.
It is only through independent organisation in a workers party that the popular majority will find a political vehicle for the ‘New South Africa’ whose birth is long-delayed.