The Covid Crisis & the Way Forward for the Workers Movement

Convene a Saftu Congress and a second Working Class Summit before the end of May to re-arm the working class with a clear socialist programme for the new period of global pandemic and capitalist crisis

  • Convene a Saftu Congress and a second Working Class Summit before the end of May to re-arm the working class with a clear socialist programme for the new period of global pandemic and capitalist crisis

by Shaun Arendse

In our 16 March statement the MWP warned that Ramaphosa’s appeal for South Africa to face the corona crisis as a “united nation” would prove to be completely hollow. We pointed out that the class struggle would continue. This is precisely what has developed under the lockdown. Instead of Ramaphosa’s “solidarity, understanding and compassion” the bosses have scrambled to pass as much of the burden of the crisis as possible onto the backs of the working class. Workers have been forced to use their annual leave, had pay withheld and been retrenched. Communities are starving. Many workers in essential services have been forced to work without adequate personal protective clothing (PPE). Trade unions report floods of calls from workers.

The ANC-led Gauteng government has used the corona crisis as a cover to cancel the contracts of the 5,000 EPWP workers who were waging a struggle for permanent jobs before the crisis hit. These workers’ stipends of R2,200 a month have now been terminated leaving them facing both the pandemic and starvation – denied food parcels by corrupt government officials.

Ramaphosa’s hypocrisy has been exposed by the ANC government’s follow-through on the threat to rip-up the public-sector wage agreement and withhold agreed pay rises. This is despite the fact that the agreement covers the health workers risking their lives to manage the spread of Covid. In the forefront of the intervention in communities are the Community Health Workers on a salary of just R3,500 per month. Ramaphosa’s monthly salary is R250,000. These workers are on this meagre salary only after a struggle to be recognised as employees, something the government had refused to do so that they could continue exploiting them as cheap labour under the EPWP. The Saftu-affiliated Nupsaw union has had to take-up the demand of thousands of Community Health Workers for adequate PPE. Even the ANC-loyalists in the leadership of the Nehawu union felt under sufficient pressure from its members in the health sector to open a court case against the government for breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act (later withdrawn).

Demands around PPE and testing will feature prominently in workers’ struggles and the workers’ movement in the months and years ahead. Saftu reports that members of its Giwusa affiliate at food manufacturer Clover went on strike over the company’s failure to provide protective clothing. Further spontaneous unprotected strikes are likely. Mines could become a flashpoint as they begin to re-open given the confined working conditions and militant traditions of the mineworkers. Already, the chances being taken by the mine bosses have been too brazen even for the ANC government. The CEO of Impala Platinum in Rustenburg appeared in court for prematurely re-calling 6,000 workers in violation of the Disaster Management Act.

Lack of Leadership

Workers’ frustration, anger, and even fear, is exerting pressure on trade union leaders to react. But only up to a point. So far there is very little in the way of genuine leadership from the tops of the workers organisations. Trade union leaders are carefully avoiding the suggestion that strike action can be a response from workers concerned about adequate PPE and health and safety. Some leaders may be concerned that trade unions could also find themselves in court for violating the Disaster Management Act.

But it would be a serious mistake for the trade union movement to voluntarily place itself in the straightjacket of bourgeois law. The MWP has argued that the anti-strike provisions of the amended LRA must be defied where necessary with a combination of mass action rendering them unenforceable and creative legal manoeuvres. The same approach must be taken toward anti-worker provisions in the Disaster Management Act and the restrictions on democratic rights under the lockdown. In ‘normal’ times strikes, pickets and marches are self-policed by workers’ marshals. Under the conditions of the covid crisis their responsibilities can be extended to ensure that social-distancing measures and other health and safety precautions are complied with. Workers in essential services can determine and organise appropriate levels of emergency cover themselves when strike action is necessary. Health workers in KZN refused to expose themselves to coronavirus without adequate PPE and training.

The bosses are showing that they have no hesitations in abusing the State of Disaster regulations. At Cape Town’s Pic N Pay distribution centre seventy workers were dismissed for going on strike (though the workers deny this). Workers were given notices telling them that they were now classified as ‘essential workers’ and that it was “unlawful” to “engage in any form of strike action”. This shows how many bosses will chose to interpret labour relations under the State of Disaster – that basic workers’ rights are suspended giving them free-reign to do as they please. The KZN health workers just mentioned were charged by the employer for “failing to take a lawful instruction”.

Trade union leaders are rightly denouncing job losses. But SA was experiencing a jobs bloodbath before Covid hit. Ritual denunciations by trade union leaders did not arm workers for a fight to save jobs then. Nor will they under the far more challenging conditions of the Covid crisis. Public sector trade unions have responded to the government’s scrapping of the public sector pay rise by opening court cases. None have raised the need for a public sector general strike. Even if it is only possible to organise such a strike after the lockdown has ended, it should be raised now to prepare workers. The strike must bring together all public sector workers, including workers at SAA who are facing mass retrenchment as the airline is pushed towards likely liquidation.


There is a danger of an unofficial truce between the classes emerging. However, as developments during the lockdown have shown, the class struggle has no ‘off switch’.  Workers will have no choice but to fight for safe working conditions and in defence of pay and jobs. We have no doubt that across the length and breadth of the country groups of workers are taking heroic stands in defence of their lives and their interests. In reality, any truce can only operate at the level of the working class’s leadership. It does not have to be explicitly stated – inaction is sufficient for it to exist in practice. The result is that the trade union leaders render a great service to the capitalist ANC government and the bosses, helping to ensure that outbreaks of struggle remain isolated and contained.

The existence of a stronger and more united trade union movement would have found the working class better prepared to meet the challenges of the covid crisis. The immediate task would have been for the working class to take control of emergency health measures and organise them in such a way as to defend their interests. Strong and democratic shop stewards committees, at workplace, regional and provincial level, resting on well organised workforces, could have set the terms for the continuation of work in essential services, and the terms upon which non-essential workplaces would be closed.

Laid-off trade union members could have organised in ‘Covid brigades’ linking-up with community activists, making the deployment of the police and army in the townships and informal settlements unnecessary. These brigades could have ensured security, the provision of food and the well-being of elderly and vulnerable residents. An authoritative trade union federation, linking-up the entire working class, would demand from the government the resources to make these brigades effective. It would also prepare a post-lockdown campaign to ensure that every single lost job and cent of income is regained. If there was a socialist mass workers party in existence, the crisis would be used to fully expose the capitalist system and the parties that defend it and prepare the working class for a struggle to win political power.

However, unfortunately, this was not the condition in which the Covid crisis found the working class movement. If things are left to the ANC government and the capitalists the working class faces an unprecedented catastrophe. The crisis must be used to strengthen working class organisation and raise socialist consciousness, preparing workers for the sharp struggles that lie ahead.

The working class needs its own post-Covid ‘recovery plan’.


The Cosatu leadership has a conscious policy of class collaboration through its alliance with the ANC. Workers cannot expect any leadership from them, notwithstanding occasional knee-jerk reactions in response to the pressure of their members. At this stage Saftu is best positioned to provide leadership and act as a pole of attraction for the working class revolt that can develop. Is it up to the challenge? At this stage, we must warn that Saftu faces the danger of sleep-walking into the role of a ‘loyal opposition’ to capitalism.

The pandemic is exposing the rotten state of world capitalism. But it is not itself the cause of that rottenness. It is playing the role of a catalyst – accelerating processes and sharpening contradictions that already existed. In South Africa the pandemic is multiplying the pre-existing crises of hunger, poverty, inequality and unemployment. The ANC government’s militarisation of the lockdown and their slavish support for the interests of big business in managing the crisis continues and deepens the course they were already on.

Unfortunately, the Covid crisis also seems to have accelerated the Saftu leadership’s journey down the road of ideological retreat that it had already been travelling. As we noted in our 16 March statement Saftu’s immediate response to the crisis was to come out explicitly in support of the ideas of capitalist economist John Maynard Keynes – ideas that were consciously calculated to cut across working class movements developing in the direction of a revolutionary revolt against the capitalist system, especially in Europe after World War Two.

We have warned previously that Saftu’s Keynesian programme amounts to an effort to save capitalism from itself. Proving our point capitalist governments around the world have implemented Keynesian-style stimulus measures in response to the economic catastrophe of the Covid crisis. These neo-liberal capitalist governments are resorting to measures they have previously denounced as “socialist ”, in Trump’s words, “not to undermine the free market system, but to save it.”

Even the ANC government may be forced to implement stimulus measures that go well beyond anything Saftu has yet proposed. Over the past year, one of Saftu’s key demands has been an interest rate cut to 3%. The Reserve Bank has cut rates from 6.5% in January to 4.25% today, their lowest level ever. The BNP Paribas bank is predicting they will soon be cut to 3%. Saftu is going to get the rate it wants. Saftu’s other major demand has been for a R500 billion stimulus package. According to the latest media reports the ANC government is considering a stimulus package that will be double this amount – R1 trillion.

The Covid crisis has proved that Saftu’s programme was always fully compatible with capitalism. The neo-Keynesianism of the twenty-first century leaves ownership and control of the economy fully in the hands of the capitalist class. Its policies are based on inducing them to invest, accepting that they will only do so it they can make a sufficient profit. Workers’ leaders that accept this logic end-up restraining workers’ struggle to ensure an ‘investment friendly environment’. From here it is a short step to ‘social partnership’ (open class collaboration) i.e. ‘a loyal-opposition’.

The statement on the Covid crisis issued by the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party in the name of Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim also falls far short of a genuine socialist programme. They also demand a stimulus package but want interest rates to go all the way down to 0% for the duration of the pandemic. The capitalist governments of Europe and the US have all implemented near-0% interest rates or lower. The SRWP makes the welcome call for the nationalisation of the private health sector, but only the private health sector. Again, the capitalist government of Spain was willing to do this as a response to the covid outbreak. The SRWP’s broader denunciations of what Covid reveals about capitalism are left hanging in the air, vague and divorced from any practical action, now or in the future.

We believe this approach continues to flow from the influence of the counter-revolutionary idea of revolution by ‘stages’ learned in the SA Communist Party. The danger is that within Saftu the Numsa leadership can reinforce the broader ideological retreat and even become a cover for it by dressing-up Saftu’s reformist programme as a ‘revolutionary’ minimum programme. The consequence is the same however: to position Saftu as a loyal opposition to capitalism.


The tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic can be turned into an enormous opportunity for the workers’ movement. It has stripped capitalism naked before the working class. Generation-old lies about the superiority of the market – already threadbare after the 2008-09 economic crisis – have been exposed in dramatic fashion. In the United States and Europe there have been unprecedented state interventions in the capitalist economy (see Coronavirus Plunges Capitalism into Global Turmoil). There will be an intensified search by workers and young people for a political alternative.

So far the scale of the ANC government’s economic stimulus measures do not even register in comparison. But food banks have been set-up to distribute food parcels. The homeless are being housed in sports centres, community halls and closed schools. It seems likely that social grants will be ‘topped-up’ by R500 per month. There are plans to ‘de-densify’ some informal settlements. Water tanks have been promised to thousands more. South Africa’s top billionaires have been able to cough-up a few R-billion extra for a solidarity fund without breaking a sweat. Administered by the ANC government these measures are slow to arrive, completely inadequate, marred by corruption and even state brutality. But they do give a glimpse of how the resources of society could be mobilised to tackle at least extreme poverty.

Poor communities will not easily accept the ending of even these meagre measures when the pandemic has passed. The working class will want to know why the ‘emergency’ measures suitable for the war against Covid cannot be made permanent to guarantee living standards and tackle the crises of unemployment, low-pay, poverty, hunger and homelessness, inadequate healthcare, education, housing and services.

The capitalist class is well aware of the problem they may create for themselves. The Sunday Times quotes Sipho Pityana, head of lobby group Business Unity SA, as saying, “When we adopt policies, even as interim arrangements, we must also worry about their sustainability. If they are short-term we must worry about what happens when we no longer continue with them. Are you sowing the seeds of discontent?” This is also reported to be Tito Mboweni’s preoccupation. A period of sharp class conflict is posed as the capitalist class gropes its way to finding the new line between concession and repression.

One thing that the working class can be certain of however, is that every ‘exit strategy’ and every recovery plan overseen by the ANC government and its partners in business will have as its goal the defence of the capitalist profit system. Whilst they may be forced into more far-reaching ‘emergency’ measures the ANC remains firmly wedded to its long-term austerity plans, ensuring key elements are implemented even whilst the country is in the midst of the crisis.

By the time that the lockdown ends SAA may no longer exist, its state funding cut-off. The threat to rip-up the public-sector wage agreement and withhold agreed pay rises has been carried-through. At the same time as millions have lost jobs and income during the lockdown, Absa, Standard Bank, Nedbank and Old Mutual paid-out a combined R20.9 billion in dividends (profits) to its shareholders. This dwarfs the R2.5 billion in donations to the so-called Solidarity Fund.

Way Forward

In the coming months (and even years) we are likely to face intermittent lockdowns, some ‘hard’ like this one, others ‘soft’. There may be localised, city-wide or province-wide lockdowns. Different sectors of the economy may be switched-on and then switched-off again. Daily life will be in a permanent state of disruption. The precariousness that millions of workers and poor people face will increase, engulfing millions more. The task of the leaders of the workers’ movement is to place the working class on a war footing to face this future and seize the initiative against the class enemy.

This must be based on a clear socialist programme. A commitment to nationalisation under democratic working class control and management must be at its heart. In the new conditions of global pandemic and deepened capitalist crisis the workers movement needs to be guided by the following principles:

Capitalism has failed. Struggle for democratic working class control over the management of the pandemic. Ensure safe working conditions.

Restore every job. Repay every cent of lost wages. Re-instate the public sector pay rise.

Extend and deepen all emergency poverty alleviation measures under the democratic control of communities.

Oppose recovery plans that aim to save capitalism. Fight for socialist measures. Nationalise the banks and financial sector; private health care, laboratories and pharmaceutical companies; food processing and the big supermarket chains.

Implement the Saftu and Working Class Summit resolutions on the workers party. Launch in time to contest the 2021 local elections on a socialist platform of “never again!” will capitalism leave us vulnerable to pandemics and starvation.

The working class needs preparation and organisation to flesh-out and fight for such a programme. The first step should be to convene a Saftu Congress immediately followed by a second Working Class Summit (WCS). All Saftu Congress delegates would be expected to attend the WCS ahead of which a campaign must be organised to ensure attendance from rank-and-file delegates of Cosatu, Nactu, Fedusa and Amcu. These meetings must re-arm the movement with a programme of action for the new period in the class struggle that is upon us. They must take place as soon as possible, even by the end of May. The working class is quite capable of ensuring that these meetings, as well as transport to and from them, are organised safely, observing necessary social-distancing measures.

Struggle does not need to wait for this phase of lockdown to be ended. A guerrilla war should be started now. The government has vastly expanded the UIF call centre to handle the flood of claims. The trade union movement should do the same. Through a widely publicised helpline complaints from workers against every abuse by their bosses should be carefully recorded. Action should then be taken through phone calls, letters and the opening of CCMA and Labour Court cases, even criminal cases if necessary. Guidance can be given to workers on how to take industrial action. This could be the foundation for a mass recruitment campaign even under the lockdown, helping to broaden participation in a second Working Class Summit.