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The Public Sector Strikes in South Africa

Franco Barchiesi is a lecturer at the Department of Sociology and a researcher at the Sociology of Work Unit, University of the Witwatersrand, johannesburg, South Africa.

The strikes that have recently brought more than one million teachers and public employees into the streets in South Africa—culminating in a one-day strike on August 25, in which six hundred thousand public workers downed tools nationwide—have been brewing for the past few months.

The restructuring of the public sector has been at the center of a heated debate inside the ruling Alliance led by the African National Congress, in coalition with the 1.8 million-strong union federation (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party. Two issues in particular have polarized opinion on the future of public employees: the reduction in personnel employed in social services and state-owned enterprises, and the constraints imposed by the government on wage increases for public servants.

The conflict over wages brought about the latest standoff between the government and twelve public sector unions from a broad ideological spectrum, including powerful COSATU affiliates such as the state employees organization (NEHAWU), and the teachers’ union (SADTU). The strikes were sparked by the government’s firm resolve to implement unilaterally its final offer of a 6.3 percent wage increase (7 percent for teachers), following the collapse of negotiations with the unions, which demanded an above-inflation increase of 7.3 percent (slightly more for teachers).

In a defiant and confident mood—and directing his challenge particularly at Public Service Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi—COSATU’s newly elected General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, said that workers were “prepared for months and months” of confrontation, which COSATU president Willie Madisha called “too ghastly to contemplate.” But since then, the unions have suspended decision on further strike action, while the government has offered to resume negotiations after the strikes, without any signal of a fundamental change in its bargaining strategy.

As this article goes to press, there is a deadlock on the wages issue, and meetings between COSATU and the government have been adjourned indefinitely. It is not at all clear that the confrontation will continue or resume—this time. But the issues that brought so many workers out into the streets are still there, and they point to deeper fissures in South African society that may yet transform the political landscape.

Issues and Contexts

The socioeconomic issues that led to the strike, in a context of escalating industrial conflict in both the public and the private sectors, are much deeper and more complex than small percentage differences over wage increases. The “budget constraints” behind the government’s negotiating stance are part of the ANC’s macroeconomic program—the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution strategy (GEAR)—which calls for tight limitations on budget deficits, increasing privatization, and public spending cuts for the sake of “fiscal discipline.” The market-driven approach to growth enforced by the government has already led to the widespread privatization of public utilities. This has been followed by the announcement of massive retrenchments (the biggest being the twenty-seven thousand workers to be laid off by the transport corporation, Transnet), which have sparked industrial conflict in the last few weeks, such as the dispute in the telephone utility, Telkom.

Unions have accused the government of unilateral implementation of privatization policies. This violates a National Framework Agreement signed in 1996, requiring compulsory negotiations with workers’ organizations in such cases. At the same time, workers’ insecurity is being aggravated by the government’s repeated statements about the need to reduce drastically the size of an allegedly “bloated” public sector. Fraser-Moleketi recently announced the government’s intention to retrench at least fifty thousand public servants by the end of the year. This move is facilitated by the expiry of the “sunset clauses” which, as part of the transitional democratic dispensation, had prevented retrenchments in state structures inherited from the old apartheid government. Finally, the government’s wage offer in the public sector dispute was derived from a Medium Term Expenditure Framework adopted at the beginning of the year, following GEAR’s recommendations and without consultation with the unions.

But the reduction of the public sector isn’t just a simple matter of numbers. It has far-reaching implications in a country that remains one of the most unequal in the world, with an enormous backlog in the delivery of social services and infrastructures, and where government is substantially reducing its commitments, in favor of a private sector whose intervention has so far not substantially reduced existing levels of poverty and social exclusion.

Nor is the government justified in presenting public sector workers as a relatively “privileged” layer of society, expected to make increasing sacrifices in order to help poor, unemployed, and marginalized people. The current dispute is highlighting the dramatic impoverishment of the formally employed working class in South Africa and the decline of waged workers’ living standards. As employed workers must support increasing numbers of unemployed family members, the situation is likely to get worse.

While the government claims that basic pay increases have been responsible for a significant rise in government spending, the public employees’ union (NEHAWU) blames increases in pay and benefits for management. In the South African government itself, for instance, a Minister’s remuneration is now fifteen times higher than that of an average public servant, while the proposed increase is twenty times higher.

For COSATU, the current strike is not just about the figures of a wage increase. It involves issues of principle having to do with the wage gaps that are legacies of apartheid, and the struggle for a “living wage” for workers—a wage that could meet the rising costs of basic necessities and services in a society that is becoming more and more commodified.

Rising costs are caused, above all, by the privatization of services, in particular water and electricity, implemented mostly at the municipal level. In urban areas, water and electricity bills alone can average five to six hundredrand a month, while the average monthly wage of a public servant is three thousand rand and that of an office assistant fifteen hundred rand. Moreover, residents in many townships are facing thousands of rand of arrears in fees and rents, as the new government is demanding payment, often coercively, for debts inherited from the era of anti-apartheid boycotts.

The public sector strikes represent a decisive trial of strength for the government as it introduces increasing wage and employment flexibility in accordance with its neoliberal policies. While labor market flexibility is a major component in GEAR’s recommendations, success for the government in its conflict with public workers could send an important signal to the private sector, which has long been advocating wage flexibility and a reduction in workers’ rights and protections as a means to attract foreign and domestic investment.

The government of President Thabo Mbeki, who has abstained from intervening in the public sector dispute, has called on the unions to restrain their claims and their militancy. The ANC’s chairman, “Terror” Lekota, accused the unions of “lack of revolutionary discipline” at the recent Congress of COSATU. The unions are now demanding a fundamental reassessment of policymaking mechanisms inside the Alliance, arguing for formal structures in which all three partners would have an equal say in the decision of fundamental policy orientations. But that proposal has been met with hostility inside the ANC.

Up to now, workers have been remarkably patient with the government and willing to accept that major social changes can’t happen overnight. But the strikes have taken place in the context of persistent, and in some ways even increasing, deprivation and marginalization in South African society. The ruling party has looked for purely market-driven solutions to South Africa’s deep social problems, the legacies of apartheid. But the effect of the growing commodification of life has been to create new layers of poverty among formally employed workers, many of whom are now hardly better off than the masses of unemployed or workers in the informal sector.

At the same time, the costs of services are rising, and there is a lack of social security systems that provide more than elementary and short-term safety nets. The government was elected the first time on a platform that promised great improvements in the supply of basic necessities such as housing and health care, but that promise has been subordinated to the philosophy of privatization. The state confines its role to guaranteeing a recovery of costs to private providers. In the case of poor urban and rural communities, this often leads to declining levels of service.

Massive retrenchments in public services, manufacturing, and mining companies, restructuring, downsizing, outsourcing, and subcontracting are rapidly transforming employment into casual, contract, and short-term work. Even if workers get larger cash payments, they are substantially deprived of medical and pension benefits. The result is the increasing commodification of life.

The ANC has looked to the market for answers to the legacy of social exclusion in the new democratic South Africa. Its conception of social inclusion, or social citizenship, depends on competitiveness and private self-promotion in the market. In other words, the objective is to let the capitalist market have its way but to balance the “demographic composition of capital.” A crucial factor here is the government’s emphasis on the transformation of the business landscape by means of affirmative action measures and policies of employment equity. These strategies have allowed historically “white” corporations, many of which were deeply involved in the apartheid regime, to gain government recognition and a new legitimacy, often invaluable in their economic and financial expansion on a continental scale.

The government’s efforts to change the racial balance of capital has certainly encouraged the rise of a new bourgeoisie, but its strategies have promoted a pattern of economic development that is unlikely to help the majority. The financial sector is the only one that is really expanding in the South African economy. According to a recent report by the Standard Bank Economic Division, this sector now absorbs 20 percent of GDP, projected to 30 percent by 2010. Such phenomenal growth, largely the result of capital flight and listing on overseas stock exchanges, starkly contrasts with the current stagnation of manufacturing, agriculture, and mining.

While the new bourgeoisie has profited, this pattern of development is in direct opposition to inward-looking strategies of productive expansion and employment creation that might benefit the working class. The new bourgeoisie is supposed to have an ideological effect on the rest of the population by providing examples of “economic empowerment” for the poor. But only a tiny minority of the marginalized population is likely to benefit in any significant way from these new patterns of “democratized” capitalism.

The new South African regime was expected to transform the country’s long history of social exclusion, but it is now facing a double contradiction in its strategies to achieve inclusion. First, its stated aims of “employment creation” are being translated into practice in an increasingly deregulated environment. Even if the number of employed workers was increasing, many of them would be downgraded to socioeconomic levels of absolute poverty. Second, the government’s view of social citizenship as a matter of individual success in the market, with access to basic services completely commodified, is likely to deepen social inequalities both in absolute and relative terms. Having replaced the apartheid politics of race, the economic forces of the market and of class are creating their own pattern of social exclusion and division.

The strikes by public sector workers have highlighted, once again, the need for alternative approaches to social citizenship in a democratic society, in opposition to the hyper-commodified, market-based strategies of the neoliberal developmental model. In the absence of alternatives, it is possible that, in a showdown between the government and COSATU, the workers’ militancy may be directed at the ruling party itself. Until now, the ANC has been exempted from the unions’ criticism, and the working class vote was decisive in giving the party its landslide 67 percent majority in this year’s elections. But if the current confrontation deepens, it could have significant consequences for the future balance of power inside the Alliance and profound effects on the whole landscape of South African politics.

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