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With claims that the South African Federation of Trade Unions is planning to embark on a two-day strike to intensify the struggle against the recent proposed amendments to Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the National Minimum Wage Bill, it is a good time to examine the social conditions and the factors on which a mass strike can be born in the new phase of the struggle. 

This comes after a one-day national strike on the 25 April 2018 that saw the participation of more than the expected 7,500 workers in the strike in Johannesburg alone. The success of the strike cannot be disputed. General Secretary of South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), Zwelinzima Vavi threatened a two-day general strike when he addressed the workers at the Department of Labour where the strike ended. He said, “If the government does not heed to the demands of the federation, SAFTU will go directly to a two-day strike”.

Looking at the history of strikes

The birth of the Labour Relations Act (LRA) in 1995 was marked by the last major collective social and political struggles undertaken by the organised working class since the end of the Durban strikes in 1973. The LRA rolled out the red carpet for neoliberalism in South Africa due to which we see mass current unemployment, an increasingly casualised workforce and new forms of precarious work.

The publication of the labour relation bill brought the city of Johannesburg to a standstill, about a quarter of a million workers marched against the labour bill. The shop-floor militants did not go down without a fight; they rejected various sections of the LRA and did show their dissatisfaction to the leading structures of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The passing of the LRA into law signified the defeat of labour by capital and the adoption of neoliberal policies by the militant COSATU, the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party.

The struggle against the LRA was undertaken by the most organised sections of the working class; the trade unions. At this point coming from a major industrial revolution, labour was mainly composed of fully employed workers; the neoliberal attacks on the working class for nearly 30 years has seen a shift away from full employment and fixed employment towards casualisation, informalisation and unemployment in the case of the world of work, and the abandonment by the state of the sphere of reproduction of the working class.

Post-apartheid struggles

The struggles in the post-apartheid setting have been heavily dominated by community protests. Land occupations for housing, service delivery protests, struggles against high electricity tariffs, high water tariffs, against privatisation of water, electricity, access to health services and education. These have been struggles largely waged by sections of the working class who are unemployed, never-employed, the youth and women carrying the burden of reproduction of the class. The difficult task that has not been done is to co-ordinate and focus all the struggles into one major struggle for the benefit of the whole working class.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has been the corner stone of the campaign against the new labour laws. NUMSA accounts for 300,000 of the total of 700,000 membership of SAFTU. It is followed by the Food and Allied Workers Union, which has about 85,000 members, and the other 20 affiliates are really small unions. The fact that the campaign is leaning on the biggest, most militant trade union comes with its benefits but is it enough to mobilise a mass strike?

According to the Department of Labour, more than 70 percent of the country’s workforce is not unionised, and the number of people opting out of union membership has increased by two percent since last year. Less and less workers are part of organised labour; the shrinking mass of organised labour has pulled down its powers.

The burden of survival within the working class has been shifted largely to a minority of permanent, organised workers. This has brought major deterioration to the living conditions of the class. For the last 20 years, community-based social movements have been at the forefront of working class struggles, while the trade unions have largely stuck to the LRA regulated wage struggles and generally insured labour peace.

NUMSA’s proposed “United Front”, a movement of socialism, instigated by a national strike wave and an unprecedented farmworkers’ strike has not had a single instance of joint struggle, either with the working class communities active for 20 years, or with the iconic platinum mineworkers’ strike of 2014.

The last major industrial action post-apartheid led by trade unions was in June 2007 and saw about 700,000 public sector workers organised in a coalition of 17 unions take part. The strike lasted for four weeks and caused widespread disruption to schools, hospitals and public transport.  After originally demanding a 12 percent wage increase, the leaders of COSATU on 28 June 2007 caved in to the government’s “final” offer of 7.5 percent.

The current public-sector wage negotiations have reached a dead-lock. The minister for Public Service and Administration Ayanda Dlodlo gave the final offer of 7.1 percent increase while the unions were bargaining for 12 percent. The smaller unions; Public Servants Association, National Union of Public Servants and Allied Workers, Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa, National Teachers Union and National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa have come out all guns blazing to publicly reject the offer from the government, but have made it clear that they heavily depend on the bigger unions to not sign the offer. The National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, the biggest union in the sector is expected to join the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union that has already signed the deal.

The role of unions in the campaign

The main trade union federations, COSATU, the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) and National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) who negotiated the amendments, at the National Economic Development and Labour Council have made it clear that they are not going to mobilise their members to join the struggle against the new amendments. The biggest federation, COSATU, representing about 1.2 million workers, in its statement responding to the SAFTU strike stated that it supports the new amendments and that the national minimum wage bill will improve the lives of over 1.6 million workers who are currently earning less than the proposed R20 (about US $ 1.6) an hour. “This is an embarrassing strike action. It is a strike without clear demands,” said NACTU General Secretary Narius Moloto.  NACTU represents about 400,000 workers and FEDUSA General Secretary Dennis George called the strike “a total waste of time”. FEDUSA represents more than 500,000 workers.

It has become clear that the struggle against the recent amendments will not be led absolutely by the trade unions. The campaign to organise a mass strike will depend heavily on the reserve battalions of the working class as a whole, the labour brokered workers, the unemployed, the never-employed and the community activists mobilising this section of the working class.

The campaign has seen relatively small worker forums that organise the most vulnerable section of the working class, taking up the struggle against the amendments. Labour-brokered workers and casualised workers have played a significant role since the start of the campaign. Simunye Workers Forum, and #OutsourcingMustFall have been visible in the campaign. This section of the working class is the most vulnerable and it will be at the receiving end if these amendments are put out as law.

Progressive non-governmental organisations have also played a role in organising the campaign – Causal Workers Advice Office hosted the first meetings to formalise the campaign supported by other progressive non-governmental organisations such as Khanya College, Right2Khow and many others. 

The plan of undertaking a mass strike as a serious political class action with organised workers only is absolutely hopeless at this point. Rosa Luxemburg, in her pamphlet The Mass Strike says, “If the mass strike is to be successful it must become a real people’s movement, the widest sections of the working class must be drawn into the fight.”

The ANC has relied on the might of the working class to keep its parliamentary majority. If the ANC were to enter the electoral battle with their few hundred thousand organised members alone, they would condemn themselves to futility.

The assumption that the entire working class of South Africa, down to the last man and the last woman, must be part of organised labour before it “is strong enough” to risk a mass action is baseless. This theory is utopian, for the simple reason that it suffers from an internal contradiction, going in a vicious circle. Before the workers can engage in any direct class struggle they must all be organised. The circumstances, the conditions, of neoliberalism in South Africa and of the bourgeois state, make it impossible for the greatest, the most important, the lowest and the most oppressed by capital, and by the state to be organised at all.

If SAFTU is going to fulfil the mass strike, as a form of working class action to stop the new labour bills, it must move away from the cold agitation of press conferences, flyers and blitzing the city. The call to class action, to defeat capital does not come from special invitation but being central to the struggle of the working class as a whole. Strikes have become a very important tool for the South African working class. It is a testimony to the sound revolutionary instinct and to the quick intelligence of the mass of the working class that, in spite of the obstinate resistance of their trade union leaders, they are applying themselves to this new problem with such passion.


* Zama Mthunzi is an activist currently based at Khanya College, a social justice and movement building institution based in Johannesburg, South Africa.