South Africa's strike movement provokes political crisis
by Charlie Kimber
The strikes which have swept South Africa for two weeks are causing a deep political crisis – and there may be much more to come.
A strike by nearly one million South African public sector workers this week won a new offer.
Mediators suggested an increase in the offer from 6.5 percent to 7.25 percent, slightly above the present inflation rate. Ministers seemed ready to settle for that, but the Cosatu union federation was not.
"The 7.25 percent offer is not substantially different from the amount that the government has offered for weeks now," Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said on Monday. The union has reduced its demand from 12 percent to 10 percent, but says it cannot accept an offer that leaves workers unable to survive.
Hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses and other workers have defied extreme intimidation, sackings and police brutality to maintain their strike.
And thousands more in the public sector and parts of the private sector were due to join the action this week.
There are likely to be solidarity protests, and some strikes, in the mineworkers' union NUM, metalworkers' union Numsa, and municipal workers' union Samwu.
Huge demonstrations across the country were scheduled for this week.
NUM regional rep Sibusiso Bengu told Socialist Worker, "It may be illegal for us to join the strikers, but it will be much more serious for us if they lose. Strikers are calling to us for aid. We must answer that call."
Even the South African Security Forces Union (SASFU – a Cosatu affiliate) has called for solidarity.
JTN Hlatshwayo, SASFU deputy general secretary, said, "We declare to soldiers not to be used as replacement labour as this will cause a reactionary blow against the honest plight of the working class."
Up to now the main rebellion against the ANC government has been in the townships over services and by shack dwellers. Now that is merging with powerful workers' resistance.
The strike has already had a huge political impact. It has confirmed for many that the ANC heeds the rich rather than the masses who elected it.
Public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi said this week that nurses who failed to observe an ultimatum to return to work were "being sacked in the interests of the patients and the country".
She and two other cabinet ministers are members of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Yet SACP members are central to the strike at every level.
The SACP is due to stage its national Congress in mid July to elect the party's new leadership. It should be an interesting event.
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South Africa hit by strike as left challenges ANC leadership
Chris McGreal in Johannesburg
Wednesday June 13, 2007
South African trade unions have launched one of the biggest national strikes of the post-apartheid era in a move widely seen as spearheading the left's challenge to win control of the ruling African National Congress ahead of next year's presidential election.
The unions called out hundreds of thousands of members in support of public sector workers who have already been on strike for a fortnight, forcing schools to close and hospitals to treat only emergency cases. Municipal workers joined the strike today, shutting down rubbish collection, maintenance of power supplies and public transport.
The unions wanted a 12% wage increase but have lowered their demand to 10%. Mr Mbeki's government today increased its offer to 7.25%, well below inflation.
Striking workers joined protests in major cities including Johannesburg where some held up signs reading: "The ANC government is a replica of the then apartheid government."
Millions of children have been kept out of school just ahead of their exams. The government has fired hundreds of striking nurses and sent soldiers into some hospitals to work in the wards and protect staff who have not joined the protest.
Critics say the strike has already cost lives after paramedics attending to accident victims were turned away from some hospitals, and a baby died after nurses refused to allow its mother in to a hospital.
Underpinning the strike is the looming power struggle for control of the ANC at its national congress in December ahead of next year's general election. South Africa's trades union confederation, Cosatu, which has 1.8 million members, is part of the ruling alliance with the ANC and the Communist party. Its leadership has fallen out badly with Mr Mbeki over economic policy, accusing him of enriching a small black elite at the expense of the majority of poor.
Public sector workers are a prime example of qualified workers who survive on low pay. Nurses earn as little as £250 a month. Hospital cleaners are paid about £120 a month after many years service.
Jovial Rantao, political columnist for Johannesburg's Star newspaper, described the strike as a political strategy beyond pay issues.
"This is war, a show of force by the unions after 12 years of being bludgeoned into submission in the ruling alliance," he wrote. "In parliament, the unions have been frustrated by, among others, their failure to impose the people's budgeting process on the government. Their attempts to ram through a dole system, through which the poor would be given a monthly grant, was shot down in flames by President Thabo Mbeki."
The unions and Communist party want to put poverty at the top of the agenda at the ANC's congress and to ensure that the party's next leader, who is almost certain to be the country's next president, oversees a dramatic shift in economic priorities.
Mr Mbeki is constitutionally barred from running for president after already serving two terms but he has not ruled out trying to remain leader of the ANC, which would give him considerable influence over who becomes the party's candidate in the general election. His opponents in the ANC are already mobilising to block any attempt by Mr Mbeki to stay on as party leader.
Cosatu is backing Jacob Zuma, the populist and controversial former deputy president who could face corruption charges in the coming months.
Mr Mbeki has accused the unions of "selfish own interest". He defended his record in parliament earlier this week, telling MPs that the economy has "been growing for eight solid years, longer than ever before in the recorded economic history of our country".
But critics on the left say that the principal beneficiaries of the booming economy, as well as black economic empowerment programmes aimed at redressing the wrongs of apartheid, have been a narrow elite that has become extremely rich.