More than 1 million South African workers, from teachers to nurses to engineers, have gone on strike over the past four months. The massive demonstrations and boisterous picket lines hark back to the struggle against apartheid, but today, protesters are targeting the government of the African National Congress (ANC), the group most often credited with bringing apartheid down. Thirteen years after the fall of white rule, millions of black South African workers are challenging the ANC government’s rule. How, in a decade, could South Africa’s revolutionary victory have turned to class war?
“For most people, even government statistics show, life has gotten worse in socioeconomic respects,” said political economist Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society in Durban. “Unemployment, cost of basics, disconnection of municipal services, degeneration of the health and education sector, and inequality” have all increased, he said. Indeed, the demands of the nearly 1 million public-sector workers who struck in June and the more than 200,000 metalworkers and engineers who struck in July pointed toward the massive, widening gulf between South Africa’s rich and poor.
While the country’s economy has expanded rapidly since the ANC took power in 1994, unemployment has nearly doubled (from 16 to 29 percent, with total joblessness around 40 percent). President Thabo Mbeki and his supporters have trumpeted the emergence of a new black middle class, but nearly 50 percent of South Africans live below the poverty line, with 34 percent subsisting on less than $2 per day and half the country’s union members earning less than $380 per month. According to the Washington-based nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, “The economic and social inequality that was inherent in the apartheid regime has continued, and even increased, since majority rule was instituted in 1994.”
In this context, it’s not surprising that the strikers’ primary demands focused on wage increases well above the country’s 7 percent inflation rate. More surprising, perhaps, is the degree to which South Africa’s working class feels alienated from the ANC. “If they do not meet our demands,” said one striking nurse, “they are the enemy.” This alienation is apparently strong on both sides; the government took a surprisingly hard line with the strikers. Despite a constitutional provision guaranteeing workers the right to strike, hundreds of healthcare workers were fired for participating in the walkout. The government claimed that a legal provision bars workers who provide “essential services,” like nursing and policing, from striking. South African law does, however, allow essential workers to sign agreements with employers that allow them to strike as long as minimal levels of service are maintained. According to Fikile Majola, general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, the government dragged its feet on signing these minimum service agreements “because it [wanted] to undermine strike action.”
The chasm between South Africa’s workers and their government mirrors a growing divide between Mbeki’s administration and the leadership of COSATU, the country’s dominant labor federation. As a formal partner in the ANC government, COSATU has walked a tightrope over the past decade, criticizing Mbeki’s neoliberal economic policies without threatening to leave the governing alliance. The intensity of the current strike wave, however, and the rhetoric surrounding it, suggests that a split may be imminent.