COSATU strikes in South Africa
by Martin Legassick
On March 7th the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) called a successful general strike in South Africa in protest against the refusal of the African National Congress (ANC government) to ban labour brokers and against the attempts to introduce new toll roads in Gauteng.
Hundreds of thousands in total (even many school students) marched in 32 towns and cities around the country: 150,000 in Johannesburg and some 20,000 in Cape Town, where I joined the march. In Joburg the march extended for six city blocks; in Cape Town for two. The march in Johannesburg was reportedly the largest since the 1980s. Once again it was inspiring to march with so many other ordinary people, singing, dancing, toyi-toying. The workers united will never be defeated, I thought. This army, fully mobilized nation-wide, would make the bosses system look like a house on chicken legs.
Labour brokers are pernicious middle-men peddling near-slave labour. In conditions of up to 40% unemployment in the country they contract “casual” workers to big companies at low wages and with no benefits -- and steal 25% of their wages. The revulsion against them, and against tolling, is because the ANC government has succumbed to big business and its aims of casualization of labour and privatization. Although the ANC’s conference of 2007 passed a resolution against labour-brokers and the matter is currently being considered by a national tri-partite negotiating forum (Nedlac), there is growing mistrust among workers about promises made by the ANC leadership.
In words at least, COSATU stands for the nationalization of monopolies and the banks, though it has not emphasized the need for workers’ control and management of nationalized concerns. At the Joburg march COSATU general secretary Vavi spoke of “racial apartheid” being replaced by “economic apartheid”.
The huge support for the strike (it was supported, for example by other trade unions and trade union federations in the country) and the big turnout on the marches, however, indicated more than a desire to end labour-broking and toll roads. It was a sign of the anger of the working class at the continued neo-liberalism of the former liberation movement the ANC in government, which has brought increasing inequality in the country, in the midst of massive unemployment and deep poverty of the mass of the people. Many children in South Africa go to bed hungry. The ANC is riddled with corruption and cronyism, with “tenderpreneurs” enriching themselves through contracts with the government. It is riddled with factions, vying for position before the ANC’s conference in December which will decide whether Zuma continues as president.
The recent expulsion of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema from the ANC for bringing the organization into disrepute was one more blow in the ANC’s factional war. Malema claims to be a friend of the poor but is in no way left-wing: he is himself enmeshed in tenderpreneurialism and is under investigation by the state for it. However his populist rhetoric has also acted as a lightning rod for some of the grievances of large sections of young blacks, who are mostly unemployed and poorly educated, and have been marginalized and excluded from the mainstream of the new South Africa. Now Malema’s expulsion makes him a symbol of opposition to the dominant ANC elite. While in general workers have been indifferent to him, he raised huge cheers of “Ju Ju” when he appeared on the platform at the Gauteng COSATU march. At the same time workers in his home province Limpopo refused a platform to a “friend of Malema”.
But neither Malema’s rhetoric nor a one-day strike will be sufficient to end the labour-broking system. COSATU has hinted at a second one-day strike if government does not respond adequately within seven days. But within days the government has declared it will not be swayed by the protest. COSATU needs to organize a concerted ongoing campaign which it is hampered from doing because, despite its differences with the ANC, it is enmeshed in the Tripartite Alliance with the (increasingly moribund and pro-government) SA Communist Party leadership and the ANC. To become effective, COSATU needs to break with this Alliance and mobilise a mass workers’ party.
This is what the Democratic Left Front (to which I belong), a united front of trade unions, issue- and community-based organisations and political tendencies, including former SACP members, is calling for. In the present struggle, though it is still a very small force, it argued that it was not enough to call for the banning of labour brokers as if that would reverse the capitalist exploitation of workers in the workplace. Workers and communities must turn the tables and sustain the offensive launched by the successful strike. It called on workers employed by labour brokers and affected working class communities to occupy, take over, run and produce their firms, and called on COSATU to support this. These firms should be run as worker-owned and worker-controlled cooperative enterprises that create jobs, pay a living wage and provide decent working conditions. This, the DLF maintained, was not a pipe-dream as the former workers of the Mineline factory (to the west of Johannesburg) had attempted such a takeover from August last year with DLF support.
South Africa is characterized by the highest level of political protest in the world – some 16 demonstrations a day in townships around the country. Now the organized workers have shown their power in a hugely successful general strike. But all this has not coalesced into a movement like the Arab spring – partly because of the democratic features of the constitution. What is needed is for COSATU to mobilise the organized workers to stand at the head of a huge movement of the poor and oppressed, young and old, women and men, in town and countryside, to replace the present system with a system of workers’ democracy with a plan of production that can satisfy the needs of all working people.