Since the beginning of September 2012, post-Apartheid South Africa has experienced a strike wave of unprecedented intensity and violence. This militancy began in the mining sector but has spread as workers across the board flex their collective strength – particularly in the private sector but also now in the area of local government.
A key element of this upsurge, particularly on the mines, has been that it is largely ‘illegal’ – outside of established bargaining procedures; in fact, it has flaunted worker power in the face of agreements signed between companies and trade unions. So, despite workers having the tools for organised advancement of their interests, why have tens of thousands defied their own organisations and the negotiation mechanism built up over decades and, against all odds, held firm and risked their livelihoods?
The first thing to appreciate is that strikes are not only about material needs. They are also responses to feelings of powerlessness in the face of exploitation, corruption, humiliation and national/ethnic concerns. This was certainly true of the Apartheid era when economic exploitation together with national oppression fueled militancy and the workplace was highly politicised.
A regime change and years later, not much has really changed. The ANC/ SACP have implemented essentially worker-unfriendly policies without COSATU forcefully expressing its opposition by mobilising mass action. This has also extended to the general failure of government to deliver on basic needs for the working class: adequate housing; education; and health services. And this failure has affected the entire working class – not just the employed who are just managing to survive, but the millions living in squalid conditions on the periphery of cites and towns and near large workplaces like mines.
The reality is that under the ANC, SACP and COSATU, the inequality in distribution of wealth has deepened. While mining executives and the BEE bourgeois were signing uncontested, fat cheques for themselves, the likes of NUM were meekly signing retrenchment packages for thousands of workers. This is the reason why Julius Malema and the ANCYL draw a keen audience when hinting at a second Mugabe-style economic revolution.
Another important factor has been that, prior to the strike wave, various companies themselves undermined the collective bargaining framework and NUM failed to decisively intervene. Select categories of workers were given increases despite there being no provision for such increases during the currency of wage agreements. This simultaneously showed that increases were viable and that shouting loud enough bears fruit. The mere indication of the latter inspired workers across the board, not just in the mining industry, to take similar stands.
If the DSM can consolidate its position, form new trade unions and community organisations that are truly democratic and genuinely advance worker interests, it may have important long term spin offs as the emergence of such a working class formation will, for the first time since 1994, give workers a real alternative to the ANC/SACP/COSATU alliance in terms of electoral politics.
In conclusion, the current strike wave, born of massive grassroots frustration and anger at falling living standards, widening wealth gaps, lack of basic social services, growing corruption and ineffectiveness in the state machinery and arrogant, short-term profit-obsessed corporates who play fast and loose with labour rights, has truly shaken up an untenable and unjust status quo. Whilst deeply regretting the loss of life occasioned by the strikes, South Africa should celebrate that direct action by the oppressed has again given a deeply fractured society the opportunity to set a new course.
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