Is South Africa heading to a mass strike?


With claims that the South African Federation of Trade Unions(SAFTU) is planning to embark on a 3 day strike to intensify the struggle against the recent proposed amendments to Labour Relations Act (LRA), the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) and the National Minimum Wage Bill (NMW), it is a good time to examine the social conditions and the factors on which a mass strike can be born in the new phase of struggle.

This comes after a one day national strike on the 25th April 2018, that saw more than the expected 7,500 workers participating in the strike in Johannesburg alone. The success of the strike cannot be disputed. General Secretary of SAFTU, Zwelinzima Vavi threatened a two day general strike when he addressed the workers at the Department of Labour where the strike ended. He said “if the government does not heed to the demands of the federation, SAFTU will go directly to a two day strike”.

Looking at history of strikes

The birth of the LRA in 1995 was marked by the last major collective social and political struggles undertaken by the organised working class since the end of the Durban strikes in 1973. The LRA rolled out the red carpet for neoliberalism in South Africa. We can see the results in mass current unemployment, an increasingly casualised workforce and new forms of precarious work.

The publication of the Labour Relation Bill in 1995 brought the City of Johannesburg to a standstill as about a quarter of a million workers marched against the labour bill. The shop-floor militants did not go down without a fight – they rejected various sections of the LRA and did show their dissatisfaction to the leading structures of COSATU. The passing of the LRA into law signified the defeat of labour by capital and the adoption of neoliberal policies by the erstwhile militant COSATU, ANC and SACP.

The struggle against the LRA was undertaken by the most organised sections of the working class; the trade unions. At this point the working class was mainly composed of fully employed workers. Thirty years of neoliberal attacks on the working class has seen a shift away from full employment and fixed employment towards casualisation, informalisation and unemployment and the abandonment by the state of the sphere of reproduction of the working class. This shift in the role of the state can be seen in the massive service delivery protests.

Post-Apartheid struggles

The struggles in the post-Apartheid setting have been heavily dominated by community protests. Land occupations for housing, service delivery protests, struggles against high electricity tariffs, high water tariffs, against privatization of water, electricity, access to health services and education. These have been struggles largely waged by sections of the working class who are unemployed, never-employed, the youth and women carrying the burden of reproduction of the working class. The difficult task that has not been done is to co-ordinate and focus all the struggles into one major struggle for the benefit of the whole working class.

National Union of Mental Workers of South Africa(NUMSA) has been the corner stone of the campaign against the new labour laws. NUMSA accounts for 300 000 of the total of 700 000 membership of SAFTU. It is followed by FAWU which has about 125 000 members and the other 20 affiliates are really small unions. The fact that the campaign is leaning on the biggest, most militant trade union comes with its benefits but is it enough in this current juncture to mobilise for a mass strike?

According to the Department of Labour, more than 70% of the country’s workforce is not unionised, and the number of people opting out of union membership has increased by 2% since last year. Less and less workers are part of organised labour, the shrinking mass of organised labour has pulled down its powers.

The burden of survival of the working class has been shifted largely to a minority of permanent, organised workers. This has brought major deterioration of the living conditions of the class.

For the last 20 years, community-based social movements have been at the forefront of working class struggles while the trade unions have largely stuck to Labour Relations Act-regulated wage struggles and generally insured labour peace.

NUMSA’s proposed United Front, A movement of Socialism and exploring a workers’ party spoken of since late 2013, a year signaled by a national strike wave and an unprecedented farmworkers’ strike has not had a single instance of joint struggle, either with the working class communities active for 20 years, or with the iconic platinum mineworkers’ strike of 2014.

The last major industrial action post-Apartheid led by trade unions was in June 2007 which saw about 700,000 public sector workers organized in a coalition of 17 unions take part. The strike took four weeks and caused widespread disruption to schools, hospitals and public transport. After originally demanding a 12 percent wage increase, the leaders of COSATU on June 28 2007 caved in to the government’s “final” offer of 7.5 percent.

The current public-sector wage negotiations have reached a dead-lock. The Minister for Public Service and Administration Ayanda Dlodlo gave the final offer of 7,1% increase while the unions were bargaining for 12%. The smaller unions, the Public Servants Association (PSA), the National Union of Public Servants and Allied Workers (NUPSAW), the Hospital Personnel Association of South Africa (HOSPERSA), the National Teachers Union (NATU) and National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa (NAPTOSA) have come out guns blazing to publicly reject the offer from government but have made it clear that they heavily depend on the bigger unions to not sign the offer. National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), the biggest union in the sector is expected to join its co-affliliate Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) that has already signed the deal.

The role of unions in the campaign

The main trade union federations; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) and National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) who negotiated the amendments at National Economic Development and Labour (NEDLAC) have made it clear that they are not going to mobilise their members to join the struggle against the new amendments. The biggest federation, COSATU, representing about 1,2 million workers, in its statement responding to the SAFTU strike stated that it supports the new amendments and that the national minimum wage bill will improve the lives of over 1,6 million workers who are currently earning less than the proposed R20 an hour. “This is an embarrassing strike action. It’s a strike without clear demands,” said NACTU General Secretary; Narius Moloto, NACTU represents about 400 000 workers, even worse FEDUSA General Secretary; Dennis George called the strike “a total waste of time”. FEDUSA represents more than 500 000 workers.

It has become more clearer that the struggle against the recent amendments will not be led absolutely by the trade unions. For the campaign to organise a mass strike it will depend heavily on the reserve battalions of the working class as a whole; the labour brokered workers, the unemployed, the never-employed and the community activists mobilising this section of the working class.

The campaign has seen relatively smaller worker forums that organise the most vulnerable section of the working class, taking up the struggle against the amendments. Labour brokered workers and casualised workers have played a significant role since the start of the campaign. Simunye Workers Forum, #OutsourcingMustFall and Gauteng Community Health Care Forum have been visible in the campaign. This section of the working class is the most vulnerable and it will be at the receiving end if these amendments are put out as law.

Progressive NGOs have also played a role in organising the campaign – Causal Workers Advice Office (CWAO) hosted the first meetings to formalise the campaign supported by other progressive NGOs; such as Khanya College , Right2Khow and many others.

The plan of undertaking mass strike as a serious political class action with organised workers only is absolutely hopeless at this point. Rosa Luxemburg, in her pamphlet the Mass strike says “If the mass strike, is to be successful it must become a real people’s movement, the widest sections of the working class must be drawn into the fight.”

The assumption that the entire working class of South Africa, down to the last man and the last woman, must be part of organised labour before it “is strong enough” to risk a mass action is baseless. This theory is utopian, for the simple reason that it suffers from an internal contradiction, that it goes in a vicious circle. Before the workers can engage in any direct class struggle they must all be organised. The circumstances, the conditions, of neoliberalism in South Africa and of the bourgeois state make it impossible that, in the normal course of things, without stormy class struggles, certain sections and these the greatest, the most important, the lowest and the most oppressed by capital, and by the state can be organised at all.

If SAFTU is going to fulfil the mass strike, as a form of working class action to stop the new labour bills it must move away from the cold agitation of press conferences, flyers and blitzing the city. The call to class action, to defeat capital does not come from special invitation but being part and central to the struggle of the working class as a whole. Strikes have become a very important tool for the South African working class . It is a testimony to the sound revolutionary instinct and to the quick intelligence of the mass of the working class that, in spite of the obstinate resistance of their trade-union leaders, they are applying themselves to this new problem with such keen interest.

Zama Mthunzi

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