The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) will embark on a Section 77 ‘general’ strike on Wednesday 24 February, the day that the budget is tabled in parliament. Because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic the strike will overwhelmingly take the form of a ‘stay away’, with workers asked to remain at home. The Marxist Workers Party fully supports the strike.
This action is taking place against the background of an unprecedented combined onslaught against the working class by the capitalist ruling class in the workplace and by its executive committee, the ANC-government, in the public sector and on working class communities. Now, in a new departure, the capitalist state’s judicial-wing – the courts etc. – is increasingly stripping itself of the mask of ‘impartiality’ in the struggle between the classes.
In supporting the government’s decision to cancel the final-leg of the 2018 public-sector wage agreement, the Labour Appeal Court judges declared the agreement not only illegal but unconstitutional! The LAC judges’ arguments should serve as a warning to the working class. They argued that the cabinet had no right to mandate the Minister for Public Service and Administration to break the fiscal-ceiling Treasury had placed on the public sector wage bill in order to sign the 2018 collective agreement.
The MWP is clear about the ANC. It is a capitalist party representing the interests of the capitalist class as a whole – the still predominantly white economic dictatorship previously served by the apartheid regime and their post-apartheid black apprentices. For more than a quarter of a century the disaster of ‘democratic’ capitalism has drained away working class illusions in the ANC to the point where it now only enjoys the active electoral support of less than 28% of the eligible voting population. In 2019, for the first time since 1994, the combined support of all the parties in parliament fell below 50%.
The entire ruling political and economic elite never tire of reminding us of the “miracle” of Codesa and the “wonders” of the “best constitution in the world”. We are told that power was transferred from the white minority into the hands of the majority. We allegedly now have a government of the people, whose interests the new post-apartheid order must serve and answer to.
But the recent LAC judgement reveals the real meaning behind the oath of allegiance to the constitution taken by judges. They are not answerable to the people, but to a constitution whose central aim is the preservation of the capitalist class’s economic dictatorship behind the mask of parliamentary democracy. It is buttressed by clauses that place a barrier before the democratic claims of the people and compels the working class majority to subordinate their interests to those of the tiny capitalist minority who own the commanding heights of the economy – the banks, the mines, the big factories and commercial farms etc.
The judges would not normally ignore the barriers that ordinarily prevent the different wings of the state (the judiciary, legislature and the executive) from ‘interfering’ in each other’s jurisdictions – the supposedly sacrosanct doctrine of the separation of powers. They have done so now because capitalism is in the grip of the deepest crisis since the end of apartheid. The bill for this crisis must be presented to the working class. When its vital interests are at stake, the capitalist class does not hesitate to dispense with the “democratic” niceties with which it attempts to fool the working class in ordinary times.
The LAC, moreover, merely followed the precedent the Constitutional Court set in October 2020 when it ruled against metalworkers’ union Numsa, effectively giving the Aveng steel bosses a blank cheque to “restructure” the company – i.e. retrench workers – because of falling profits in the economic crisis. The SAA workers’ demand for back-pay, as well as those of the SABC workers for management to adhere to the provisions of the Labour Relations Act (LRA), have also been thrown out of court.
Similarly the South Gauteng High Court has just overturned the National Energy Regulator’s decision to deny Eskom the 15% tariff increase it wants to impose to make the utility attractive for private investors. Eskom is at the same time aggressively stepping-up electricity cut-offs, especially in working class townships, where R-billions are owed because starvation wages and mass unemployment make it impossible to pay Eskom’s bills.
The Ramaphosa presidency, let us not forget, came into office newly armed with amendments to the LRA aimed at crippling the right to strike through compulsory secret ballots, limitations on picketing to allow strike-breaking and granting the state the right to unilaterally declare strikes illegal under the pretext that they are ‘economically damaging’ – as every strike is intended to be!
Broadening Capitalist Offensive
The LAC judgment is a broadening of the ANC government’s war on the working class. For such an offensive the light artillery of previous assaults would not do. The heavy weaponry of the highest Labour Court in the land was necessary. Their fiscal strategy to keep the government debt below 100% of GDP is to be achieved by a wage freeze in the public-sector for the next three years, further savage cuts in social spending and to offer SOEs, starting with SAA and Eskom, for sale to the private sector for a song. The signs of some recovery in the global and SA economy are anaemic. There is no prospect for economic growth coming anywhere near the 5.4% per year for ten years successively – calculated by the Ramaphosa-chaired National Planning Commission in 2011 – merely to keep poverty at a standstill.
The crisis conditions that have brought the classes into collision with each other are here for the foreseeable future. There is nothing wrong with approaching the ConCourt over the public sector wage dispute as some trade unions are doing. But we must be under no illusions: this battle is going to be settled in the streets – not the courts. If collective bargaining agreements can be declared illegal and unconstitutional retroactively in the public sector, then the private sector bosses will be only too happy to follow the government’s example. Given the bleak economic prospects, why even bother with collective bargaining at all.
By their own claims, the ANC government is democratically elected; its cabinet is its mandated representative in public-sector collective bargaining. The LAC judges are not elected. They are selected from within the middle and upper classes and appointed to their positions. Claims about the “sovereignty of the people” are their arguments not ours. We should hold them to that. They should accordingly have no right to override the agreements arrived at between a government elected by more than ten million voters and unions representing millions of workers and their families.
In declaring a cabinet decision illegal and unconstitutional the judiciary has actively encouraged the unilateral tearing-up of collective agreements. The exercise of the rights the ANC government has given itself with the collusion of Cosatu – to declare strikes illegal and deregister unions – threatens the very existence of the entire post-apartheid labour relations dispensation – the right to form unions and to strike.
What is thus clearly at stake is not just jobs, wages and conditions, but the right to strike – a right that lies at the heart of post-apartheid democracy and without which apartheid would not have been defeated. More importantly, what the government, the bosses and the judiciary have done is to place the question of which class governs society firmly on the table.
This, the MWP believes, is the understanding that must inform the approach to the national action of 24 February. The working class movement thus has a duty to undertake an honest, even ruthless, self-examination of its forces: their ideological, political and organisational readiness. In undertaking this exercise we need to go back further than the current crisis, to the political and ideological conclusions that were drawn and moved our movement forward in the struggle against apartheid and an evaluation of the struggle of the organised working class movement over the entire period since the advent of democracy.
However, we are now less than a week from 24 February and are therefore obliged to start with how well prepared we are not just for the general strike itself but what will follow. We agree with Saftu general secretary comrade Vavi that irrespective of the undoubted weaknesses in the preparation, our responsibility now is to mobilise for the greatest possible success.
For Saftu to fulfil its potential, and step-up to play the role that the objective crisis of capitalism demands, it is necessary to face-up to the shortcomings evident in the build-up to the 24 February strike. It is not a question of drawing-up a catalogue of shortcomings and mistakes, but to analyse why. This is the only way to overcome them and allow Saftu to grow and provide leadership to the class.
Leadership Issues Unresolved
It took Saftu six months to move from the initial decision to embark on a Section 77 ‘general’ strike to the actual strike itself. Such a long delay could only be justified if the time was being used for a sustained and systematic campaign of mobilisation. But it was not. Therefore the result was to create uncertainty amongst Saftu affiliates, and those working class organisations that look to Saftu for leadership. It was not clear if the leadership was serious about action or whether it would even embark on the strike at all.
The decision to strike was taken at Saftu’s August NEC but no date was set. In September, 2 December was floated as a possible date. But this date was dropped without explanation. When Saftu correctly supported the Cosatu/Fedusa Section 77 ‘general’ strike on 7 October the platform was not used to build momentum for Saftu’s own action. How could it have been when no date was set? As we explained at the time this was an “opportunity missed”. The 24 February date was finally fixed only at Saftu’s 24-25 November NEC – but pushed the strike another three months away. It was only at a Special NEC on 12 February (less than two weeks before the strike date!) that any decisive confirmation was given that the strike would indeed go ahead and detailed plans began to be made.
One of the consequences of this protracted process was that the country moved from the relatively relaxed Level 1 lockdown which existed from September through December, to the current Level 3. This has now shaped – and limited – the character of the strike to a stay-away. It is true that the move between lockdown levels will continue to affect the trade union movement for some time to come. But it would have been preferable for Saftu’s first action under the pandemic to have faced as few complications as possible – hesitation and delay in the class struggle always comes at a price!
We believe that the unnecessarily long and winding road to 24 February is a reflection of the continuing crisis in the Saftu leadership, which we analysed in-depth last year in our Open Letter to Saftu Members. The SACP-2.0 grouping in the Numsa leadership continues to consciously obstruct the development of the federation. For example, they continue to block the building of a unifying, democratic and open socialist mass workers party, instead, they continue trying to undemocratically impose their own creation, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, on the rest of the federation. This grouping also undermined the democratic decision of the August NEC by refusing to participate in Saftu’s programme around the Cosatu/Fedua’s 7 October strike. Ultimately, this only helped expose the deep divisions that exist in Numsa because of this grouping’s conduct, with for example, Numsa’s Ekurhuleni region choosing to join Saftu on the streets.
It would be a fatal mistake to gloss over these very serious deficiencies. We must approach the task of evaluating the immediate past mistakes in order to prepare for the immediate and medium-term future with brutal honesty. Important as 24 February is, it is but one day – the first in a war between the classes that has, by the actions of the ruling class itself, been put onto a new level of class hostilities. If we fail to do so and self-correct, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes. In doing so however, we need to avoid the twin mistakes of exaggerating our current level of organisational, political and ideological readiness and underestimating the potential power of our class.
Facing up to the challenges facing the workers’ movement has not been helped by those on the left who continue to repeat a fantasy version of the current alignment of forces in the trade union movement, for example, by exaggerating what 7 October represented. Descriptions such as those by the Workers and Socialist Party, which has members in the Saftu leadership, that 7 October represented the “awakening [of] a giant” and was a “historic show of working class solidarity … as the labour movement awakes from immense paralysis” are contradicted by reality. If any of this were true, why are neither Amcu, Cosatu, Fedusa nor Nactu, supporting Saftu’s 24 February strike?
This unhelpful make-believe buries the issues that Saftu members need to grapple with in order to take the struggle forward on, and especially after, 24 February and thus disarms the working class. Workers will be inspired by being armed with a clear understanding of the issues facing the workers’ movement and a method, programme and strategy that allows these to be overcome. Fortunately, Comrade Vavi was more level-headed in Saftu’s Workers Conversations broadcast on 18 February, publicly admitting that on 7 October “there was confusion on the ground, there was divisions, even amongst the leaders at affiliate level, and some of our activists were absolutely uncomfortable to march alongside Cosatu given its history”. Refreshingly, this opens the door to a serious discussion.
On the other extreme, the ‘Covid-19 Working Class Campaign’ (CWCC) has called on Saftu to call-off the stay-away. In an exaggerated statement the CWCC warns of a “serious defeat of the working class” if the strike goes ahead with its current poor levels of preparation. This call reflects little more than the pessimism and ideological demoralisation of the petty bourgeois organisations that make up the majority of and dominate the CWCC leadership.
The question of forging unity across South Africa’s fragmented trade union landscape remains a burning issue. Unfortunately, the Saftu leadership continues to incorrectly approach this as an issue of bilateral engagements between leaderships. That is why Saftu has to appeal for working class unity in action over the heads of the leaderships. Appeals cannot be left to letters between head offices. It is necessary to make direct appeals that reach rank-and-file activists and shop stewards through workplace visits with pamphlets. The point about the united front tactic is to unite Saftu’s rank-and-file with that of e.g. Cosatu, and to win them over, not a leadership actively colluding with the ANC government and the capitalist class against whom the Cosatu rank-and-file is seething with anger.
Society is a powder-keg. But it is only the organised working class who can act as the lightening rod in the developing storm, conducting the seething anger and frustration that exists across society into disciplined organisation and effective action. The Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu leaderships have no interest in playing this role. Their recent record is to do everything possible to dissipate and squander the energy of the masses. Notwithstanding the weaknesses of the country’s youngest trade union federation, it remains the case that Saftu is best positioned to give leadership to the fightback that the entire working class, inside and outside the unions, is looking for.
Saftu’s acceleration in mobilising for 24 February, from first gear to fifth, completely skipping second, third, and fourth, has seriously impacted the possibility of a broader working class mobilisation. For example, the Saftu leadership only called a Zoom meeting of the Working Class Summit for 18 February – six days before the strike! In addition, this call was made with no reference to the WCS steering committee (in deep-freeze since March 2020 in any case) and completely ignored the disorganising effect that the Saftu leadership’s failure to re-convene the Summit after its inaugural July 2018 meeting has had. The turnout of 67 organisations (down from 147) was therefore not terrible in the circumstances! But it could have been far better if properly planned and not organised as an afterthought. The MWP is nonetheless encouraged by reports that the WCS Zoom meeting, belated as it was, reconfirmed the need for the reconvening of the Summit.
The broad-sweep of the offensive by the ruling class – in the workplace in the private and public sector as well as in the communities has reaffirmed the vital necessity of workers unity – the tying together of the struggle in the workplace and communities. The ruling class has made its main target of attack the powerful public sector unions. Our reply must therefore be: all forces to the point of attack!
It is through the public sector workers who, particularly through its most exploited sections like the EPWP workers, have the strongest links to working class communities. The greatest potential for translating the idea of working class unity into practical reality exists at this point of intersection between the public sector workers and communities because of the direct impact of the simultaneous assault on the working class both in the workplace and in communities.
More importantly, the magnificent steps taken by Saftu-affiliates Nupsaw and Demawusa to organise the unorganised, uniting EPWP, CHW and permanent workers in struggle, has attracted the interests of thousands of Nehawu members. It is a practical example of how Saftu can win over the rank-and-file of Cosatu and other federations and grow into the giant it has the potential to.
In our Open Letter last year, anticipating that Saftu would call a Section 77 ‘general’ strike, we said: “A one-day Section 77 strike by Saftu affiliates alone is not a general strike… At best, it would be a partial general strike. Its main role at this stage would be to raise the flag of mass working class struggle and prepare the way for its fuller development.”
Saftu’s first Section 77 action of the Covid-era is taking place later than we would like but that does not change the role it needs to play. The number of strikers responding to the call to stay-home, the number of workplaces forced to close or reduce services etc., will of course allow for an important ‘health check’ on Saftu’s forces. This assessment will have to be balanced against the inadequate mobilisation efforts and even the possible sabotage by some sections of the federation. In other words, unfortunately, there is little chance that Saftu’s full strength will be revealed next Wednesday. If this leads the ruling class to underestimate Saftu’s potential, as the CWCC worries, then that is their problem.
The true success of the strike will be determined by whether or not the Saftu leadership uses 24 February as a launch-pad for a programme of rolling action. This programme must be designed to strengthen the unity, organisation and confidence of the working class with each successive action.
The next steps, which should be announced within days of 24 February, should include a date for the reconvening of the Working Class Summit and the date for follow-up strike action, not later than the end of April, possibly between the 27 April and 1 May public holidays.
The intervening two months should be used for a thorough internal mobilisation campaign in Saftu of the kind that should have been organised ahead of 24 February. This could start by a forensic and honest examination of what was achieved on 24 February, e.g. which affiliates mobilised and which did not; which major Saftu-organised workplaces were shut-down and which were not etc. Based on such an assessment a campaign to ‘close the gaps’ should be organised, ensuring that the next strike represents a definite step-forward in its impact.
Serious discussions on programme must be held. Saftu statements have a common theme – lower interest rates, quantitative easing, greater stimulus packages etc. The comrades have been reduced to calling on the SA ruling class to mimic the actions of the ruling class in e.g. the United States. In Saftu’s Workers Conversations broadcast on 18 February for example, Comrade Vavi made favourable references to US President Biden’s attempt to pass a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, even implying that it was a ‘left’ policy (at least compared to Ramaphosa’s).The capitalist class has switched to such policies to save capitalism not to bury it! They fear the “pitchforks”– a revolt of the working class against the relentless attacks rained down upon it and the unprecedented levels of poverty and inequality.
Emerging from this confused analysis are the mish-mash of over 25 mobilising slogans for 24 February, released daily by Saftu on social media. We have previously criticised the Saftu leadership for its tendency to have either vague aims against ‘everything’ or overly-detailed multiple-page wish lists. Unfortunately, the mobilising slogans for 24 February manage to be both!
What is needed is a clear set of specific demands that brings to the forefront the class’s common interests. These could include: (1) moratorium on all job losses in both public and private sectors and jobs for all, (2) R12,500 per month minimum wage, (3) re-instate the public sector pay rise, (4) make the Social Relief of Distress social grant permanent and increase it to R3,500, and (5) permanent jobs for all workers on the ANC’s slave-labour programmes, e.g. EPWP, CHW etc., and (6) organised mass defiance of unjust labour laws and fight for the passing of a trade union freedom bill increasing the powers of trade unions.
In preparation for the next strike a campaign could also be organised to take the first systematic bite out of Cosatu’s public sector base. For example, in all eight metros as a minimum, teams of Saftu shop stewards and activists could be organised to hand-out pamphlets at all public sector and SOE workplaces. These pamphlets could appeal to workers to join Saftu’s next strike. This could get an excellent response against the background of the next round of public-sector pay negotiations and the lack of action by Cosatu and Fedusa on the cancelled final-leg of the 2018 pay deal. An invitation could be extended to form joint strike committees, open to workers of all trade union affiliations and none, to ensure the effective organisation of the strike. A similar campaign could be organised in major townships to mobilise working class communities, including CHW and EPWP workers, and the unemployed youth.
At the same time as the mobilisation for united working class action is prepared on the social and workplace issues, it is absolutely vital that Saftu’s current policy of “independent but not apolitical” be reviewed in favour of a conscious policy to extend the reclaiming of class independence, with which Saftu’s birth was stamped, onto the political plane by helping to play midwife to the birth of a socialist mass workers party. Both Saftu and the re-convened WCS must discuss how to implement the resolutions that both have taken in favour of the creation of such a party which must first and foremostly be a party of struggle.
It is vital that the counter-offensive of the working class forges unity both in the workplace and in communities. But unless this unity prepares the way for the working class to take charge of society in order to build socialism all gains will ultimately be lost. The rot coursing through the veins of the main political parliamentary parties, especially, but not exclusively, the ANC, is in fact a demand for the working class to sweep them aside and take over the rule of society. For that we need a mass workers party on a socialist programme.
 “Saftu to Join Cosatu’s Protest Against the Country’s Economic Policies”, SABC News (28 September 2020)