Sep 27, 2010
The World Cup marked a short truce in the wave of strikes that have been occurring in South Africa since the beginning of the year. In the first half of the year, workers had struck in electricity, construction and at Transnet, the national transport company, paralyzing the railroads and ports for three weeks.
This strike wave resumed at the beginning of August, with 30,000 workers going on strike in several auto factories. Production was paralyzed for 12 days, forcing the companies to give an additional 10% in wages, and the hiring of workers in temporary jobs under contractors, giving them the health and pension benefits of permanent workers.
The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) again went on the offensive at the end of August, with a strike at the tire factories, stopping all production. At the same time, the National Union of Miners (NUM) called out many miners on strike over wages.
An August 18th strike among government workers brought out 1.3 million workers of the central and provincial governments. The largest number worked in health and education.
Health care workers walked pickets in front of hospitals, facing attacks first by police and then by soldiers accompanied by tanks.
Union leaders wanted to keep the strikes within “acceptable” limits, to advance their interests among leading layers of the regime. To that end, they put pressure on South African President Jacob Zuma to support their strikes. They openly pointed out that Zuma’s political success was due to union support.
But strikers’ anger was directed not only at the worsening of their living conditions. They were also outraged by ANC politicians, whose only purpose seemed to be getting rich as fast as their positions in power would allow, while the vast majority of the poor population is squeezed into tiny hovels, sometimes worse than what they had under apartheid. For the majority, there is no government aid, there are no social protections.
In some demonstrations, strikers held up posters condemning the millionaire politicians and denouncing the waste of billions of dollars to build World Cup stadiums.
On September 7th, after three weeks on strike, the union leaders called for a return to work on the basis of an agreement which will give the strikers a 7.5% increase in pay and a $106 per month housing premium. Not all strikers agreed with these increases, as seen at the mass meetings of militant teachers in the Johannesburg province, where the union leaders were booed and had to flee.
Provincial authorities tried to end the strikes by offering to pay for part of the time workers were on strike.
Union leaders, despite all the angry workers, proposed to “suspend” the strike movement for three weeks in order to start new negotiations.
Workers gave their answer – 70,000 auto parts workers joined the tire workers on strike. Several thousand gas station workers went on strike as well. New strikes broke out in the mines, increasing the number of paralyzed mines to a dozen.
Will union leaders be able to contain or maneuver around the strikers? Will the ANC politicians find a way to defuse workers’ anger?
What we can say is that rising poverty for the majority, contrasting to the greed of the black bourgeoisie in its guise as the ANC in power, will furnish all the ingredients of a social powder keg awaiting explosion.