COVID-19 #1: The Class Struggle Continues

Reject Class Collaboration – Build Working Class Solidarity

Marxist Workers Party statement

Since the end of January South Africans have watched the corona virus spread around the world with growing concern. High levels of HIV, TB and diabetes, not to mention poverty and malnutrition, puts millions of South Africans in the “at risk” category. Together with the state of the public health system, which has all but collapsed in some provinces, many people are extremely worried.

On 5 March, SA’s first case was confirmed. On 11 March the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a global pandemic. Last night, 15 March, Ramaphosa declared a State of Disaster in a televised address. He reported that the number of cases had risen to 61 and for the first time cases of local transmission had been detected. In response, a raft of measures aimed at limiting the spread of the virus were announced.

The preparation of isolation and quarantine sites, improvement in surveillance and testing systems and increased hospital capacity were promised. Other measures include foreign travel bans, cancellation of visas, the closure of 35 land border-crossings, two sea-ports, and cancellation of non-essential overseas government travel. Within the country, gatherings of more than 100 will be “prohibited”, schools closed until after Easter, and prison visits suspended. An appeal has been made to the entire population to practice “social distancing” and to businesses, including malls, to intensify “hygiene control”. A new National Command Council, chaired by Ramaphosa, will meet three times per week. More measures are likely in the future.

State of Disaster

Such a development is unprecedented in the post-1994 democratic-era. The closest comparison is  the States of Emergency in the 1980s. In almost every other country the only comparison is war-time. Such a situation can be disorienting for the working class as the ‘normal’ rhythm of the class struggle is disrupted. Different moods can affect the class. The fear and uncertainty of the new situation can cause some workers to step-back from the struggle. They may even look for protection from the same bosses and politicians that yesterday they were fighting.

This can in turn present difficulties for class conscious and organised workers, especially activists and shop stewards. But such moods can pass quickly. The class struggle will rise to the surface again. In both Hong Kong and Italy, strikes have taken place as workers become frustrated with the response of their governments.

But in the meantime the capitalist class will consciously exploit the natural tendency towards human solidarity. Ramaphosa wasted no time on this score. He ended his address with the following siren-call: “We are responding as a united nation to a common threat. This national emergency demands cooperation, collaboration and common action. More than that, it requires solidarity, understanding and compassion. Those who have resources, those who are healthy, need to assist those who are in need and who are vulnerable.” In support of Ramaphosa the middle class in the media is also banging the drum of national unity.

A United Nation?

But the idea of a “united nation” is a complete fiction. In their budget in February the ANC-government declared war against the working class. They announced their intention to tear-up the collective agreement with trade unions in the public sector and cut wages by R161 billion. They announced cuts of another R100 billion to the departments providing the social services that will come under severe strain as the virus spreads. Where was Ramaphosa’s “solidarity, understanding and compassion” then?

Let us take a very concrete example. Over recent months the MWP has been at the forefront of the struggle of Gauteng’s EPWP workers. These workers are struggling for permanent jobs and a R12,500 per month minimum wage. Throughout the campaign regular mass meetings have easily attracted 100+ workers. Protests have attracted between 500 and 2,000. In the latest phase of the struggle the ANC-run Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development (DID) announced the contracts of all 5,000 workers will end on 31 March. A new round of mass action is needed.

Therefore the new “prohibition” on gatherings of more than 100 people poses a serious tactical issue. Workers cannot accept the loss of their jobs; nor will they want to be responsible for the spread of the virus. However, if the EPWP workers were to agree to suspend mass meetings and protests in the spirit of “a united nation”, will the DID management, in the same spirit, place a moratorium on the cancellation of contracts? Anyone involved in the campaign would laugh at this idea! It is obvious that the DID management will try and use the coronavirus crisis as a cover to suppress workers protest and carry out the job cuts.

In his address, Ramaphosa warned that the virus “…will have a potentially severe impact on production, the viability of businesses, job retention and job creation.” This is a thinly veiled threat. In other words, during the coronavirus crisis the working class will continue to be at the mercy of the unplanned capitalist profit-system. There will be no interference in the ‘normal’ functioning of capitalism; no interference in the economic dictatorship of the bosses.

It is not ruled-out that the government will be forced to make encroachments into the sacred domain of the market and private property if the coronavirus crisis escalates. But this will be temporary and a last resort. Before they reluctantly take such measures much damage will already have been inflicted.

Workers’ Independence

In truth, the capitalists are incapable as a class of behaving towards the working class with “solidarity, understanding or compassion”. The coronavirus will be used by the bosses to excuse a thousand sins against workers in the coming weeks and months. This is the real class content of “a united nation”. It is an appeal to unite behind the capitalist class and accept their leadership in the crisis. It is an appeal for class collaboration to defend and preserve capitalism as long as the crisis continues.

Class conscious workers and working class activists must reject this trap. The class struggle has not been suspended. It continues. The coronavirus crisis has simply changed the landscape upon which the class struggle unfolds. Yes, it poses serious tactical issues for the workers movement. But none that cannot be overcome. Worker-activists must help the mass of the working class to channel the instinct for human solidarity in a crisis away from the rocks of class collaboration and into support for an independent working class programme of action.

This does not mean ignoring reasonable measures to protect public health. Rather, it is a demand that the working class takes control of them. The bosses’ private property must not limit the working class from doing what must be done in order to defend public health. The crisis must be used to ruthlessly expose the failures of the capitalist system and show that the system, itself has created the conditions for a crisis of this nature. Neo-liberalism has degraded public healthcare systems, created poverty and mass unemployment, increasing the vulnerability of the vast majority of working people worldwide.   


The Saftu leadership’s statement in response to Ramaphosa’s address is deeply disappointing. More than any other crisis in the post-World War Two period globally, and in post-apartheid South Africa, the Corona virus crisis exposes the irreconcilable contradictions between private profit and social need. This demands an approach to combating the pandemic that places the working class at the head of society and points to the necessity for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

Unfortunately the Saftu statement points in the opposite direction. The statement is infused with the spirit of a ‘loyal-opposition’ to the neo-liberal Ramaphosa administration and proposes measures that ultimately are aimed at saving capitalism from itself.

This includes the headline, “Protect Us, and We Will Protect Each Other – SAFTU call on Ramaphosa Government: The War against COVID-19 must be Fully Engaged with Working-Class Support”. This clearly indicates that in the view of the Saftu leadership the working class must be won to support the ANC government for the duration of this crisis. The statement closes with an appeal to Ramaphosa: “Don’t waste this crisis President! Change direction! Act to protect your people!” The statement talks about “our state” and “our economy” and even “our elites” and “our stock market”!

We agree this crisis must not be wasted… but for the opposite reasons: to demonstrate the urgent necessity for the abolition of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

We agree of course with Saftu’s demands in relation to service delivery, public works for new health facilities etc. But the statement completely mis-educates, and accordingly disarms, the working class for the intensified class battles that will follow in the wake of the coronavirus. The virus is not the cause of the crisis of capitalism. It is an effect of it. It is serving as the catalyst for a deepening of the pre-existing global crisis, which is poised to surpass the 2008 financial crisis. The bill for this crisis will be presented, as the February budget showed, to the working class for payment.   

The Saftu statement fails to warn that any of the measures the government may take, including as is happening in Spain, where the government has taken control of private healthcare, however welcome, will only be temporary and will be returned to private hands as soon as the virus is under control. That is unless the working class is prepared in advance to resist this.


In previous material we have pointed out the weakness in the programme put forward by Saftu as a response to the economic crisis and threat of a Moody’s downgrade. We have characterised their position as Keynesian. Amazingly, Saftu’s new statement explicitly confirms this, saying, “…we must follow the advice of the British economist John Maynard Keynes”.

Keynes was a pro-capitalist economist. His theories and policies were designed to defend capitalism, not challenge it. His policies were supported by capitalist governments, not opposed by them. In the post-World War Two period capitalist governments needed to find ways to stabilise wrecked economies, whilst making concessions to the pressure of a militant working class. They needed to divert the masses from embracing revolutionary socialism and sweeping capitalism away. Their solution was Keynesianism – it served a counter-revolutionary agenda for the capitalist class.

We wonder how a self-proclaimed socialist-oriented Marxist-Leninist trade union federation could issue a statement like this. Keynes’s ideas stand in direct opposition to the ideas of Marx and Lenin. But it is no accident that this embrace of Keynes has become explicit under the shock of the coronavirus crisis. The leadership feels the enormous pressure from the capitalist and middle classes for “a united nation”. The ideas of Keynes remain a useful bridge to this, whilst allowing the Saftu leadership to criticise the ‘excesses’ of capitalism.

It is embarrassing to have the Saftu leadership, in effect, making a call to mimic Trump’s actions in the United States: quantitative easing and lowering interest rates. This will fail, just as it has done this past two weeks in the US, and has globally for the past ten years.    

Most importantly Saftu’s statement fails to condemn any plans for the declaration for a PW Botha-style state of emergency. The speculation in the capitalist press that this is being contemplated may be just that. But why has Ramaphosa beefed-up the security cluster in government and resuscitated the State Security Council which effectively took over the running of the country under PW Botha’s State of Emergency in 1985? Is it because the government is conscious that its credibility is so low, and the conditions its neo-liberal capitalist policies have plunged the working class so unbearable, that there may be mass defiance of the State of Disaster measures, particularly the plans to cut public sector workers’ wages and retrench over 5,000 EPWP workers? In either case it reflects the search by at least a section of the capitalist class for greater powers to wield against the working class.

Nothing could be more disastrous than Vavi’s proposal on television that the rolling campaign of mass action adopted by the Working Class Steering Committee will have to be reconsidered in light of the State of Disaster. It is the height of naïvety to think that the bosses and its government will not use the cover of the virus to step up attacks on the working class. Saftu was established to reclaim the organised working class’s political AND class independence, not to become the “lieutenants of capital in the labour movement”, to quote Trotsky.

Not for one minute must the working class disarm.  Our strength lies in our power to bring government and the economy to a complete standstill. We will engage in mass action in a responsible manner. But we cannot announce a ceasefire in the class struggle. The capitalist system, especially in times of crisis does not permit that. The bosses will be clapping their hands at Saftu’s appeal for class peace and step-up the offensive.

Resist comrades!

Do not soften the class lines!

Sharpen them!

  • Make ALL health resources available to fight the coronavirus crisis. Nationalise the private hospitals and clinics, private laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, including big retailers such as Clicks and Dis-Chem, and the health insurance companies, under democratic control of health workers, patients and communities.
  • No job losses, pay cuts, or any other loss of income using coronavirus as an excuse!A moratorium on any and all job losses. Extend paid sick leave to all workers. Nationalise non-complying big business. Subsidies and tax relief for small and family businesses where ‘unaffordability’ can be proved.
  • Nothing for workers, without workers! Democratic workers-control over workplace organisation to prioritise public health over profit, allowing measures for the de-densification of workplaceswhere more than 100 workers work in close proximity, e.g. mining; the demand for emergency safety equipment including gloves, masks and hand sanitiser; the re-design of shift patterns by workers’ representatives to allow more vulnerable workers to self-quarantine at home without loss of pay; and, ultimately the power to decide when the time has come to close the workplace.
  • No profiteering from the crisis! Nationalise the big food manufacturers and retailers. For price controls and limits on bulk purchases under the democratic controlof workers and communities. In co-operation with health workers, observing social distancing and other public health measures, institute a public-food programme. Well-fed communities are healthier communities. Free data for workers and studentsto access institutions of education and health for online-learning and information
  • No trust in the capitalist politicians! We could not trust them before the crisis and we cannot trust them now.For an independent working class programme. Implement the Saftu and Working Class Summit resolutions on the workers party. Build a unifying, democratic and open socialist mass workers party on a federal basis, allowing unions, community structures, youth campaigns and the existing working class political groups and parties to affiliate.

Continue to COVID-19 #2 article