Strikes rock South Africa
There is something truly inspiring about seeing thousands of mostly black South Africans blockading roads and hurling rocks at police in Soweto, Johannesburg, again, writes Ben Hillier in Socialist Alternative.
In the same district that saw the historic June 1976 uprising, which was the beginning of the end for apartheid, dissent and rebellion is once again the order of the day. Across South Africa, an estimated 1.3 million state workers have taken the step of launching an open-ended strike. And while a generation ago it was school students leading the charge, the third week of August saw schoolteachers take up their mantle as they joined with nurses and other hospital workers to demand the basic right to be able to afford housing. The strikers are demanding pay rises and improved housing allowances.
South Africa has been severely hit by two economic crises lately – first by the global financial crisis and then by the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Around $5 billion from the public purse was spent on the World Cup, leaving significant holes in a budget that had already been hammered by the GFC.
Despite their radical history, the ruling ANC (African National Congress, the most prominent anti-apartheid party) government are loyal servants of capitalism – and as any loyal servant of the ruling elite can tell you, the only solution to a budget crisis is to make the working class pay.
During the World Cup, stadium builders worked 70-95 hour weeks for around $160. And now that the party is over, the hangover begins. Government employees who are sick of being forced to live in shacks are being denied wage rises that might let them rent or own houses, in the name of “fiscal responsibility”. Meanwhile ANC President Jacob Zuma earns a cool $330,000 a year, and many government ministers and senior bureaucrats received free VIP tickets to the World Cup.
As is the case for workers in any country facing economic crisis, the public sector workers had two choices. They could sit back, tolerate their lot and help South Africa’s millionaires and billionaires try to restore profitability at their expense – or they could organise to fight for their rights. They chose to resist.
August 18 saw an inspiring start to the strikes. Despite being considered “essential services” and thus being unable to strike legally, nurses and cleaners have largely paralysed hospitals by striking. Battles with police ensued after workers blockaded roads and attempted to storm the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Soweto to try to drive out strikebreakers. Unlike 1976, the bullets used to disperse the protest were made of rubber, but the pictures of police firing at a protest in Soweto must conjure up horrific images in the minds of many older South Africans. In addition to violent repression, the government is trying to break the strikes by using nurses from the army as scab labour.
It’s important to support nurses and other hospital staff taking radical strike action. Striking and shutting down hospitals is a much more confrontational and militant action than shutting down a factory or department store, and it’s an action that will undoubtedly cause some working-class people to suffer. The ruling class knows this, and will always use it to attack strikes in so-called “essential services”.
Why does the South African government suddenly care about the hospital patients that they have for so long neglected? The answer is simple – they don’t. When the government elected to spend billions on the World Cup instead of health, they demonstrated their utter contempt for the health of workers and the poor. Any talk of concern for the well-being of patients now is nothing but cynical point-scoring, and an attempt to have ordinary people scapegoat trade unions for the real harm done by a system that puts profitability ahead of health, and prefers a balanced budget to a healthy population.
What would improve the lives of working-class South Africans – even those in the private sector which isn’t out on strike – would be for the strikes to win.
Workers are completely right to try to make South Africa as ungovernable as possible in their fight for better pay, which is really a fight about which class will pay for the country’s economic woes. Forcing the ANC to back down on the issue of public sector pay opens up the possibility of putting the brakes on austerity plans before they hit home, and can be an inspiration to people all around the world who are fighting the same battles in places very far from Soweto.
There may be a general strike of all workers – public and private sector – on Thursday to support the striking workers. I will update details in the near future.