WORKERS DAY 2021 | Seize the Opportunities to Build Working Class Unity

Cosatu poster from 1989 before its 'capture' by the ANC and SACP.
  • For a rolling programme of public sector general strike action uniting national, provincial and municipal government workers and SOE workers.
  • Build strike planning committees bringing together the rank-and-file of all public sector workers regardless of union affiliation.
  • Build for the Working Class Summit on 12-13 June.
  • Set the launch date for a mass workers party.

Workers Day 2021 marks the 35th anniversary of Cosatu’s 1986 stayaway. At least 1.5 million workers took part in that general strike of thirty-five years ago. They were supported by learners, students, the unemployed, informal traders, community activists and even small township businesses. More than 100,000 workers took part in rallies across the country despite police and vigilante intimidation and violence. It was the first nationwide stayaway since the early 1960s and took place only five months after Cosatu was founded.

Topping the list of workers’ demands was the recognition of 1 May as a public holiday. In 1961 the apartheid regime, then at the height of its confidence, had made it illegal for major employers to grant May Day as a paid holiday. It was viewed as a subversive rallying-point for “communists” and Marxists. But in the face of the working class’s tremendous show of power on 1 May 1986 many bosses conceded to the demand anyway. After Cosatu rejected a series of embarrassing partial concessions, in late 1989 the apartheid regime, now in its death throes, formally recognised what the working class had already established in fact – 1 May would henceforth be the Workers Day public holiday.

1984-86 saw workers, youth and communities coming together in greater unity. In an attempt to face this movement down, the regime declared a partial State of Emergency in July 1985. This merely deepened the working class’s determination. In December 1985 the giant Cosatu was born – the most powerful trade union movement in SA history. In a symbol of the changed relationship of forces, Cosatu was launched in Natal (now KZN), the province where the 1973 workers strikes had ended the period of retreat ushered in by the 1961 State of Emergency. Whereas the repression of 1961 had halted the mass movement, that of 1985 acted as the whip of counter-revolution pushing the movement forward under the leadership of the working class.

Cosatu’s founding president, the NUM’s Elijah Barayi defiantly ordered the apartheid regime to abolish the pass laws within six months or there would be mass burning of the hated ‘dom’ pass. Within less than two months of the stayaway, the regime reacted with the carrot and the stick. The carrying of the pass laws was lifted followed by the abolition of the entire system of ‘influx control’ – thirty years after the famous 1956  womens’ march demanding the abolition of the pass laws and today celebrated as Womens Day.

At the same time, the regime declared a national State of Emergency. The army occupied the townships disorganising and scattering the community and youth organisations that had been to the fore in the uprisings of 1984-85. But workers could not be so easily dispersed. They were organised on shop and factory floors, in the mines, in the transportation of people and goods, keeping society’s vital economic life-blood pumping. Cosatu’s workplace roots enabled it to provide leadership and become the decisive point of reference for working class communities and the youth in the second half of the 1980s. The role of the working class as the decisive social force in the struggle to end apartheid was firmly established. Coinciding with the rise of this new power, by 1990 the apartheid regime, under the twin pressures of big business and imperialism, fearing the threat to capitalism posed by a resurgent working class movement, was publicly looking to negotiate an end to white-minority rule.


Of course the Cosatu of 1986 is long dead. It was locked-up in the prison of the Tripartite Alliance and its militant tradition of struggle and socialist perspective systematically broken by its SA Communist Party prison guards. What remains of the rump-Cosatu is a pale shadow of its former self. Its leaders are conscious class traitors and apologists for the attacks being rained down on the working class by the ANC government.

But the working class remains the decisive force in the struggle to transform society. Only its power can end the poverty and exploitation of capitalism and replace it with a democratic socialist society. It is the task of the current generation of socialists, trade unionists and worker activists to re-build the working class unity that was once achieved around Cosatu’s banner.

Workers Day 2021 takes place in a world transformed. Three million lie dead as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches into its second year. In South Africa, as in most countries across the neo-colonial world, vaccine roll-outs have barely begun. Not only illness and death stalks the working class, but growing hunger, homelessness, poverty and unemployment. The health crisis continues to deepen all the underlying contradictions of capitalism. Political, economic, social and geo-political crises have all been accelerated. In almost every country the ruling capitalist class stumbles from one disaster to the next.

The working class will look in growing numbers for a way out of the dead-end of capitalism as the 2020s unfold. With the correct perspectives, programme, strategy and tactics this raw material can be harnessed in a powerful new mass movement. That is the task before us. The foundations that can be laid in the remainder of 2021 can help prepare the way.


The Saftu trade union federation has a key role to play in building working class unity and establishing a clear political alternative through its support for the creation of a workers party. In 1986 the landscape of working class organisation was no less fragmented than today. There were several federations, independent trade unions, the racist white unions etc. But all of these were either forced to follow Cosatu’s lead or condemned themselves to irrelevancy.

Only Cosatu was able to establish itself as the decisive reference point for the working class and capture the mass mood of the time. Central to the recognition of Cosatu as the focal point of resistance was the conscious understanding amongst its activists of the inseparable connection between the workplace struggle and the political struggle.

Saftu’s breakaway from Cosatu and the Tripartite Alliance was a revival of this understanding which had been consciously buried in the Tripartite Alliance. In the Alliance the interests of the working class are subordinated to those of the black elite by suppressing the independent political organisation of workers in favour of the “leading role” of the “multi-class” ANC. In other words the Tripartite Alliance was a class collaborationist trap.

Saftu needs to arm the working class with more powerful workplace organisations at the same time as it must arm the working class politically by spearheading the formation of a workers party. We believe this is possible on the basis of a correct approach. But this still needs to be fought for within the federation.

The accelerated pace of events in the coming years will cut both ways. The working class will more rapidly be able to test-out different programmes and organisations. Their judgement will be based on a simple criterion: can these ideas and this organisation take forward the struggle to improve our lives. This was what the Cosatu of the late 1980s was able to offer by uniting the struggle against racist oppression with the struggle against capitalist exploitation. Those organisations that fail this test will have no automatic right to a leading role. This must act as a warning to Saftu members. The looming public sector showdown will be a vital, potentially decisive, test that will redefine the relationship of class forces of the 2020s.

Tension at Fever Pitch

Wage negotiations between the ANC government and trade unions representing national and provincial public sector workers have deadlocked. The ANC is determined to stick to its three year wage freeze which will take R303 billion out of the pockets of public sector workers. Already R37 billion has been stolen by cancelling the final-leg of the 2018 pay agreement. The Constitutional Court will hear the trade unions’ appeal against the legality of this only on 24 August. Having already declared the 2018 public sector wage agreement both illegal and unconstitutional, the judicial-wing of the capitalist class sees no urgency in workers demand to protect themselves from growing hardship and poverty.   

As we have detailed elsewhere, the Cosatu leaders in particular have done everything to limit and delay action (see here and here). But their members’ anger keeps breaking through regardless. Trying to distract from their failure to call action against the cancelled pay increase, trade union leaders encouraged the idea that public sector workers could recoup it in the new round of wage negotiations. This has merely emboldened the state and deepened workers anger against the government, and, increasingly, their own leaders.

In March Limpopo health workers prepared for strike action. The immediate issue was roster changes. But no one can doubt that fuelling workers’ anger was the entire background of the pay issue. Indeed, the roster changes were designed to cut the over-time used by workers to bolster their inadequate pay packets. Attacking this was the final straw. The strike was only averted by the Limpopo ANC-government backing down. The episode served to confirm that the public sector is a powder keg. The tighter the leaders try and hold down the lid, the bigger the explosion they are preparing.

Now with the deadlocking of wage-negotiations the Cosatu leaderships is running out of road. Accordingly, they have again upped their rhetoric. Nehawu issued a statement saying that in their view “…a war between government and public servant is unavoidable…” and that the “…solution moving forward is to mobilise all our members for a full blown strike which will render the government ungovernable and unfortunately pause all service delivery in the public service.”

Cynically, some commentators have dismissed this as a meaningless ritual. “We’ve heard this all before”, they state, confident that this noise will dampen and things will return to the ‘normal’ capitulation of the leadership. Of course we have heard talk like this before over the past 18 months and before. However, events can develop a certain logic of their own. History may be repeating itself, but under qualitatively different conditions: the worst fall in GDP in a century with no immediate prospects of a resumption of economic growth, and a government and ruling class determined to break the power of the public sector unions to break any resistance to the measures needed to force the working class to pay for the crisis of their system.

The Cosatu leadership is forced to look over its shoulder at Fedusa-affiliated competitor the Public Services Association (PSA). Although the PSA up to now has colluded with Cosatu to dissipate workers’ anger they too are clearly under renewed pressure. They have called on their 235,000 members “to prepare for industrial action to secure a decent salary increase”. The PSA’s spokesperson told The Citizen newspaper that the first week of June was a possibility for strike action. But what can be guaranteed is that if the Cosatu and PSA leaderships cannot avoid strike action they will do everything possible to ensure that it is limited and will seize the first opportunity to call it off.

But the consequences are likely to be different this time. The actions of the leadership are not the final determinant of how events will unfold. The NUM leadership’s betrayal of the mineworkers uprising in 2012 led to a mass exodus from what was then Cosatu’s most powerful affiliate. Already Nehawu is facing a trickle of defections. Fearing that the trickle could become a flood, as workers look for a union prepared to fight, the Nehawu leadership has been obliged to try and dampen their members’ anger by threatening to withhold support from the ANC in the coming local government elections.

For the ruling economic and political elite – the entire capitalist class both black and white and its political representative, the ANC government – this is the showdown for which they have been agitating for over a decade with attacks on public sector workers reaching new levels of vitriolic stridency.

A strike may therefore be unavoidable. For the trade union leadership it will be necessitated by their attempt to save themselves from the wrath of their members. For the workers it will be to defend themselves from the attacks of the government and its capitalist backers; different motives but opposite objectives.

For Saftu this is an opportunity to provide the leadership the working class yearns for and from which workers that have remained in other federations, especially Cosatu, have been waiting expectantly. Separating the Cosatu and Saftu leaderships is the attitude towards the political question: the role of the ANC government. The former’s role is to defend and save the capitalist ANC government. The latter’s is to provide a political solution outside of and against the ANC government. Saftu can satisfy the aspirations of the working class only by determined action that commences with strike action on the wage question but must be completed on the political front.

Saftu’s Role

There can be no room for any feeling within the Saftu leadership that this is not their fight, or that there is little that Saftu can really do to influence its course. Little has been said to indicate a concrete way forward on the issue. This may be informed by the virtual absence of Saftu from the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC). This is the forum within which the negotiations are taking place and through which the legal processes toward a strike will pass. Nupsaw, Saftu’s largest public sector affiliate, has been bureaucratically and undemocratically excluded from the PSCBC and is fighting for re-admittance. But this should in no way limit a bold intervention from Saftu, Nupsaw and all other affiliates.

The starting point must be a clear understanding that a defeat for the public sector workers will be a defeat for the entire class. The stakes are high. Cutting public sector spending is central to the ruling class’s entire strategy to stabilise tottering South African capitalism. That is why, as we have analysed elsewhere (see here), the Labour Appeal Court (LAC) was used to rule that the 2018 pay deal was not only illegal but unconstitutional. If a public sector strike is defeated, or worse, if the attack on public sector pay is carried through without a fightback, the ruling class will be emboldened. Further cuts to public sector spending will be pushed through and the private sector bosses will deepen their onslaught on jobs and pay.

The starting point is for Saftu to put forward a clear programme. This should lead with the clear call for a two-day public sector general strike followed by a programme of rolling action, e.g. one- or two-day strikes every week, or one week every month, until the government retreats. Depending on the progress of this action a date for a one-day general strike could be set, likewise leading into a rolling programme of action. If this is legally impossible for Saftu due to its exclusion from the PSCBC then make it a demand upon the Cosatu and PSA leaderships. But propose a date regardless. This can be used to rally public sector workers. This should not be limited to workers employed by national and provincial government but extended to local government workers and workers in the state-owned enterprises too.

Pay negotiations in local government are also underway and heading for deadlock. The emboldening effect of the LAC judgement has been confirmed in the stand of the South African Local Government Association. Salga is threatening municipalities that any salary increases beyond “available resources” will amount to financial misconduct!

On 28 April South African Airways announced that a retrenchment process for 1,200 workers has been started at subsidiary SAA Technical. An announcement is expected from the government announcing a “strategic equity partner” for what remains of SAA itself as it exits business rescue, i.e. partial-privatisation. More than 600 workers have already been retrenched at SABC. Transnet has announced that within three years rail freight will be opened-up to private competition, i.e. privatised. At Eskom 4,000 jobs are to go, preparations for its “unbundling” continue along with the privatisation of power generation via the Trojan horse of ‘independent’ green energy. Denel is wobbling on the edge of business rescue with the payment of workers’ salaries uncertain from month to month. PetroSA plans 500 job cuts and a Prasa subsidiary311 whilst the parent parastatal all but collapses. All of these workers are ultimately government employees and must be brought into the struggle.

Saftu affiliate Numsa organises workers in SAA, SAAT, Eskom, Denel and PetroSA and probably other SOEs. Alongside Nupsaw, and Saftu’s municipal unions like Demawusa, the federation has a solid bridgehead to intervene. Saftu shop stewards, activists and members should pioneer the creation of strike planning committees in as many areas as possible that bring together the rank-and-file of all public sector workers in national, provincial and local government and the SOEs, regardless of union affiliation. A national call for this should be made by the Saftu leadership. But it cannot be left at this, it will have to be campaigned for at local level. On the ground the overwhelming mood will be for the maximum unity in struggle – Saftu must position itself as the tribune of this mood.

WCS & Workers Party

The revival of the Working Class Summit by Saftu, currently scheduled to reconvene on 12-13 June, could not come at a better time. On the agenda will be the next steps needed to create a workers party. The Marxist Workers Party is calling on the Summit to agree a launch date for the new party. We have proposed 1 May 2022, one year from now. We have proposed that this time be used to organise a thorough campaign in support of the launching of the new party.

This would involve a systematic process of engagement with working class formations not yet part of the process. We have also proposed that several campaigns be launched to help prepare the new party’s constituency and sink roots in the class. This can be done by leading campaigns out of which the structures and working class leadership of the party will be constructed. For example, campaigns demanding (1) a R12,500 p/m minimum wage, (2) permanent jobs for EPWP workers, (3) a massive house building programme, (4) jobs for all, and (5) for free education and healthcare.

Of course no date is set in stone. Readiness to proceed on 1 May 2022 would have to be assessed nearer the time. But we believe it is absolutely essential to set a date as a rallying point for all working class forces currently in struggle and to assist Saftu and the WCS to intervene in the unfolding public sector wage dispute.

The political contradictions involved in the public sector pay dispute are obvious to public sector workers, a majority of whom are in Cosatu-affiliated unions. The ANC government is the employer that not only cancelled one pay increase but is refusing any more for a further three years. However, Cosatu props-up the ANC government through its membership of the Tripartite Alliance which is led by the ANC. Not only is this Alliance delivering nothing concrete in terms of pay, but it is already being used by the Cosatu leadership as a strike-breaking weapon.

At the start of April Cosatu’s Special CEC announced that the federation will support the ANC in local government elections in October. Cosatu’s CEC merely noted as a “complication” the “real possibility that workers in the public service and the public sector, in general, will be on strike fighting the wage freeze and retrenchments during elections.” In other words, no matter what attacks the ANC government rains down on public sector workers, the Cosatu leadership will continue demanding its members’ unconditional support for it – voting fodder! Cosatu’s CEC statement was made in the middle of the PSCBC negotiations. This was conscious sabotage. It is more important for the Cosatu leadership to defend the Alliance and their future ‘career progression’ to MPs and ministers than defend their members’ interests.

Saftu and the WCS must exploit this contradiction to the full. The need for a new workers party must be loudly proclaimed. Cosatu must be called on to leave the Tripartite Alliance and invited to attend the Summit and take-part in discussions about a new workers party. The public sector pay dispute should be added to the agenda. The Cosatu leadership will almost certainly refuse to attend. But let them refuse in front of their members and in defence of the employer attacking them. A campaign to reach-out, especially to Cosatu shop stewards and members in the public sector, to attend the Summit could then be organised with a clear message: “despite your leaders, the invitation remains.”

Combining the call for a public sector strike, linked to the pioneering of public sector strike committees and the skilful use of the Working Class Summit can position Saftu as the rallying point for working class unity and allow it to become the masses’ reference point for taking struggle forward. This will bring Saftu’s ‘1986 moment’ clearly within sight and prepare the way for working class militancy, organisation and unity to ascend new heights paving the way for the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a democratic socialist society.