On Wednesday, 24 February, 21 unions of the South African Federation of Trade Unions went on a general strike against deep and sustained cuts in the living standards of workers, and to fight for a radical change in the country’s economic policies. Frustration runs high amongst the working class over mass retrenchments, wage freezes and brutal austerity measures in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
The bosses in both the private and state-owned industries have resorted to mass retrenchments, many of which were planned months before COVID-19 and now they are taking advantage of the pandemic to drive the knife home. At the same time, workers are fighting for a living wage, while the government is brutally attacking the working class by introducing cuts and raising taxes on the poor.
During the pandemic, around 2.2 million jobs were lost and the total number of people categorised as "economically inactive" passed 5 million. Because of outsourcing and zero-hours contracts, existing jobs are becoming increasingly precarious.
Successful mobilisation during a pandemic
The unions asked most workers to stay home rather than gather in big demonstrations. In areas where demonstrations were held, they took the form of motorcades and pickets at selected locations. Demonstrations took place in the big metropolitan areas of Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay, Pietermaritzburg, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Mangaung, Bisho and Mafikeng.
The day was largely without incident, except in Cape Town, where Tito Mboweni, the finance minister gave his budget speech. The police did not allow any demonstrations here, using the COVID-19 regulations as an excuse. They took over the eastern flank of the huge Grand Parade square in the centre of the city, blocked the road the demonstrators intended to take to parliament and attacked the organisers with flashbang grenades and tear gas. They also arrested the provincial secretary of SAFTU, Andre Adams; and the chairperson of DEMAWUSA, Nadine Simons. This was a deliberate and blatant attack on the democratic right to strike, protest and demonstrate, and should not be tolerated by the unions.
In Gauteng province, workers of the steel manufacturing giant ArcelorMittal held a march to the company offices in Vanderbijlpark to protest against poor health and safety conditions, which led to the deaths of three workers recently after an explosion at the plant led to the collapse of a building. Here, they were addressed by Andrew Chirwa, the president of the metal workers’ union, NUMSA.
In Johannesburg, demonstrators travelled in a motorcade from the NUMSA office in Marshalltown to Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital to picket and support healthcare workers who are fighting for better protective equipment. Workers also picketed outside the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) against recent budget cuts. They say the budget cuts affect the turnaround time of cases at the CCMA.
Motebang Oupa Ralake, NUMSA regional secretary and the Gauteng convenor of SAFTU said that workers were being dismissed every day and are being referred to the CCMA. But cases take longer than six months to be resolved compared to its previous 30-day waiting period, she said.
In Kwazulu-Natal workers assembled at Curries Fountain Sports Development Centre and travelled via motorcade to demonstrate outside Pietermaritzburg legislature.
In the Eastern Cape workers in Port Elizabeth gathered in New Brighton for a motorcade to the City Hall, where they handed over a memorandum of demands to the mayor. In Port Elizabeth, now called Gqeberha, hundreds of SAFTU members chanted “Voetsek Tito Mboweni, Voetsek Cyril Ramaphosa, Voetsek ANC, and Voetsek government” in front of the City Hall.
SAFTU’s Lebogang Bongani Phanyeko said that the government plans not to increase salaries over the next four years and thereby would undermine the bargaining council and launch an all-out assault on the workers. He said they also demanded free water and education, no eviction of farm workers or anyone else, and for the government to give everyone the COVID-19 vaccine.
“As workers struggle against these attacks, their chief defensive weapon, the trade unions, are under attack from THE bosses, using laws passed recently by the ANC government, which make it almost impossible for workers to exercise their constitutional right to strike and picket.” The SAFTU’s statement also demanded a repeal of the amendments to the labour law, which allows for strike balloting and picketing rules.
Among the immediate demands are a moratorium on all job losses, a Basic Income Grant of 1,500 rands and a living minimum wage of at least 12,500 rands. They also called for a 50 percent wealth tax.
Furthermore, they called for a ‘Green New Deal’ in which the renewable energy sector "should be put under the ownership, control and management of the working class and communities, while preserving and creating jobs.”
There were also other demands such as community healthcare and public housing, a ban on evictions from farms, rented houses or shacks constructed on occupied land etc.
We support all the struggles waged by SAFTU and endorse their demands. As SAFTU said in a statement ahead of the strike that the problem lies in the capitalist system itself:
“Capitalism fails the working class and the poor, not by default, but by design. It flourishes when there is a reserve army of unemployed labour, when there is discord and disunity among the working class and the poor, and the state takes the capital’s side to increase exploitation and undermine civil liberties.”
Flowing from this, SAFTU has raised the demand that all strategic monopoly industries, banks and mining houses be nationalised to be placed under the control and management of democratic workers and communities, and that all economic life based on a democratically planned economy be reorganized.
This is the correct conclusion. But the question needs to be asked, how is this to be achieved? The demands raised by SAFTU are very radical and they are indeed needed in order to solve the myriad of problems the working class faces such as housing, unemployment, healthcare, education, etc. But the only way these demands can be achieved is by a root-and-branch overturn of the current system.
The question now is, what next? It is true that a one-day general strike can give a serious warning to the ruling class. It also gives the workers a sense of their collective power. But a one-day strike will not stop the attacks. Indeed, there has now been a series of one-day general strikes in April 2018, October 2019 and again on Wednesday. Over this period, the situation has only worsened. In fact, a series of one-day general strikes, which do not raise the momentum and take the struggle to a higher level, can tire out the workers and lead to despondency and demoralisation. It is therefore important to conduct a strong campaign, which will build on the momentum created. It is necessary to prepare to escalate the strike action. This could include calling a 48-hour general strike, followed by a 72-hour general strike while preparing for an open-ended general strike if the demands are not met. This should be openly and democratically discussed in every factory, mine and in all working-class neighbourhoods across the country.
But not even this will be enough. At the root lies the need for a political vehicle the workers can use to overturn the capitalist system. Ultimately this shows that the working class needs a party of its own which is prepared to fight for socialism.