South Africa - SAMWU stares down ANC council bosses

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FRFI 168 August / September 2002

The strike of municipal workers led by the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) ended with no outright victor. The strike lasted 17 days, the longest national strike in South Africa since the formal demise of apartheid in 1994.

The council bosses conceded wage increases slightly below inflation and imposed a three-year wage agreement on the union. The workers demanded 10% and were given 9% for lowest paid workers and 8% for others; inflation is 9.8%. The strike pitted workers against their employer, the African National Congress (ANC) government, exposing cracks in the political alliance between the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the leading 1.8 million-strong trade union federation to which SAMWU is affiliated. Many workers saw the strike as a struggle against the ANC government’s capitalist policies.

The municipal workers fought against the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), the council bosses’ body set up by the ANC. SALGA tried to impose an 8% wage increase and a three-year wage agreement on SAMWU by settling separately with SAMWU’s sister union the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (IMATU). As a result many IMATU workers reported for duty during the strike. IMATU is a traditionally white collar union whose weak politics were radicalised when it struck with SAMWU during the two-day provincial municipal strike in 2000 against the privatisation of Johannesburg municipal services, the Igoli 2002 plan. The workers lost this battle although they slowed the pace of privatisation of council services.

The failure of SAMWU to build a stronger challenge to Igoli 2002 and the failure of COSATU to support SAMWU with action rather than words made the municipal bosses confident to attack workers through privatisation, commercialisation, out-sourcing, ring-fencing, casualisation etc. Many workers found themselves ‘transferred’ into private companies or agencies with reduced job security, wages and benefits. A few months ago SAMWU won a court case stopping SALGA from unilaterally restructuring the municipal pension fund, threatening great financial loss to thousands of workers. Perhaps the strike was the workers’ way of drawing a line and saying ‘Enough is enough’ to neo-liberal attacks despite the trade union leadership’s politically motivated act of confining demands to wages. Many workers criticised SAMWU for failing to build a stronger fight against Igoli 2002. Some workers even used this as an excuse to become ‘amagundane’ (scabs, the word is Zulu for ‘rats’). The union also failed to include the demands of casual workers, thus sowing doubt among these workers.

SALGA’s ANC mayors and councillors delayed negotiations, hoping to break the strike using scabs and non-striking IMATU members. Some amagundane had to work under police and army guard. Many council bosses won court injunctions against workers in ‘essential services’, attempting to stop them striking. These are workers in water, electricity, health care, traffic, etc. According to the definition of essential services three out of five municipal workers cannot strike. Many workers defied the courts by striking anyway. Another feature of the strike was the ‘trashing’ of the towns and cities. Workers threw garbage into the streets as a form of direct action. President Thabo Mbeki issued an angry statement against the strikers for dirtying the streets of Durban where the African Union was inaugurated; reminding us that the Africa he wants to build is not for workers.

The public was sympathetic to the strikers. Many newspapers reported the wage gap between ordinary workers and the council bosses. In South Africa mayors and council chief executives earn on average R45,000 a month but had the audacity to refuse workers the R2,200 minimum wage they were demanding (US$1=R10). The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer in South Africa as the capitalists take over state goods and services, lining their pockets and creating a compliant pampered black upper middle class at the expense of the working class.

The police viciously attacked, arrested and harassed strikers, including shooting them. More than 400 workers were arrested throughout the country for ‘public violence’ and ‘malicious damage to property’. Three workers died, one of them a striker shot by a council official. The writer of this article spent a weekend in prison with seven striking workers for spraying pro-strike and anti-ANC graffiti in the centre of Johannesburg. This was part of the support action organized by the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), a campaign consisting mainly of community-based organisations fighting service cut-offs for non-payment, forced removals, etc. The APF activists saw that the strike was against the same ANC local government that cuts off their water and electricity and evicts them from their houses.

The SAMWU strikers must be applauded for their courage and determination in resisting privatisation. They stared down the ANC council bosses despite the right-wing union leadership allied to the class enemy. If workers learn more from their experience of struggle than from what they are told by their leaders, then this strike will teach millions of workers in South Africa hard political lessons about the ANC government and the bosses that it serves. Then it might not be long before we see the development of a revolutionary situation in this strategically vital African country.

Trevor Ngwane

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