South Africa: rebirth of a mass movement

Issue: 116

Claire Ceruti

On the fifth day of the strike by fuel supply workers a comrade and I drove around Johannesburg from one filling station to another, searching for petrol. At the fourth dry one I started fantasising about being unable to get to work on Monday. By the fifth, which sadly turned out to have petrol, I had daydreamed an alternate reality where everyone had to stay at home when the taxis stopped, so they organised a general strike. It is not likely that the current strike movement will go this way—the unions want to force higher settlements in pay negotiations, not paralyse South African capitalism. But the potential power of this form of struggle has been emphasised by its dramatic return, after lying dormant for some years, to a highly polarised and politically volatile scene.

Strike days reached a low of 500,000 in 2003 and inched up from there to 2.9 million last year. The latest strike report from Andrew Levy Consultants claims 11 million strike days for the first half of this year alone.1 The figure will grow when the strikes in the petrol, tyre and pharmaceutical industries are included. Most of the 11 million days are accounted for by the recent public sector strike, which lasted for the whole of June.

Pay is the central demand, but this issue cannot be separated from the political upheavals of the past three years and the “service delivery” riots, which have exploded again. The country’s president, Thabo Mbeki, is facing his most serious challenge to his political life.

The challenge to Mbeki begins

Thabo Mbeki gained his local reputation as a sophisticated statesman who steered South Africa down the path of neoliberalism. That path took the African National Congress (ANC) far from its promises during the country’s first democratic elections. Mbeki’s arrogance within the ANC and willingness to alienate trade union leaders in defence of that path have become legendary.

In 2006 South African economists announced an economic turnaround: productivity was steady, business confidence was up and several companies announced large profits. But the cost to the ANC’s own constituency was enormous. At least a quarter of people of working age were unemployed by the government’s own conservative figures;2 the rate of government spending was so modest that it stood no hope of clearing the backlog of housing and services; and a survey by Naledi, the research arm of the Cosatu union federation, “found that between 1998 and 2002 workers’ share of national income dropped from 50 percent to less than 45 percent. By contrast, company profits rose from just less than 27 percent to 32 percent”.3

Mbeki was able to get away with this because people agreed that the huge problems left behind by apartheid would take time to solve, and because of the political strategy of the unions, which believed they would be able to persuade the president to change direction through meetings of the tripartite alliance.4 Strikes and protests were limited to one-day shows of strength. A number of small community organisations, such as those affiliated to the Anti-Privatisation Forum, coalesced outside the tripartite alliance to tackle water supply disconnections, unemployment and service delivery issues. These struggles illustrated exactly what was wrong with the government’s policies, but the union leaders, while also criticising these policies, tended to join in the government’s vilification of these organisations.

Things came to a head on three fronts in 2005. As the government began planning for the 2006 local government elections, people were reminded of the sweet smelling promises of decent housing and sanitation during the previous two elections. But in small townships across South Africa people were still using stinking bucket toilets. Protests first exploded in a township in the Cape. Residents took to the streets, burning tyres and facing down rubber bullets. Protests spread rapidly. In 2005 there were 881 delivery protests, with an average of one or two a day in some areas of South Africa.5 Many of those involved were ANC supporters, members and sometimes local branch activists, distanced from the steering room of Mbeki’s tight ship. Their demands were couched in terms of broken promises, accountability and democracy.

The delivery protests precipitated a crisis in the ANC. The 2005 ANC congress revolted against Mbeki. Party members could see that the organisation was being cautioned that its blank cheque was reaching expiry. First, the congress threw out an Mbeki-backed proposal to reduce workplace rights for young employees. Second, it demanded a rethink of internal procedures: for instance, making the president more accountable to the organisation.

Mbeki’s policies were also challenged by the unions and within workplaces. A public spat broke out between Mbeki and the general secretary of the Cosatu union federation, Zwelinzima Vavi. Vavi believed the government should change course, favouring more interventionist policies to increase emplyoment; Mbeki insisted on a steady course and reminded Vavi, none too sweetly, that Cosatu was not the government. Unions, from the bottom to the top, could feel the impact of the jobs crisis and wage restraint. Many had lost thousands of members to unemployment and casualisation. Government grants are all tied to disability or childcare, so job losses massively increased the burden on the employed. A worker might have felt privileged compared to her unemployed neighbour, but few workers felt like the labour aristocracy that some left wing commentators presented them as.

Vavi and Mbeki had traded insults before, but this time the anger did not subside. On 27 June 2005 the turnout for one of several scheduled one_day strikes surprised everyone. About two million people supported the strike against job losses and about 30,000 crammed into the centre of Johannesburg. There the assembled marchers heard Vavi lambast Mbeki. A few days earlier Mbeki had suspended the deputy president, Jacob Zuma, from the cabinet because he was facing charges of corruption connected to an arms deal. Zuma had never shown any particular enthusiasm for workers’ struggle, but he was from the old school of the ANC, which listened to the unions before ignoring their suggestions, and came from a rural area rather than a posh university like Mbeki. Now the battle between Zuma and Mbeki was presented as one between labour and capital. Vavi sent a signal that it was acceptable to directly confront Mbeki, his policies and the capitalists who benefited from them. As a result union members began to feel the unions were ready to back a fight. That same week, at a strike rally of municipal workers, Vavi said, “Workers have little reason to celebrate the gains of democracy as the rich have become richer and the poor poorer,” and warned that the strike was the first of many.6 The anger was compounded when several company executives decided to celebrate the “feelgood factor” with enormous pay increases—for themselves. They rejected workers’ demands for a 9 percent pay rise, while, as the Naledi survey says:

Studies have shown that, between 2005 and 2006 alone, executive pay rose by as much as 34 percent. Research conducted by independent analysts, the Labour Research Service, and trade union Solidarity demonstrates that executives in South Africa enjoy the bulk of company wealth, while the gap between remuneration of CEOs and that of workers runs by a factor of over 50 to one. In other words, remuneration for the average CEO is more than 50 times that of the average worker in the country.7

This came as a declaration that Mbeki’s economic turnaround was not for everyone. It unleashed a wave of strikes, including a bitter three_month action by security workers, and a two-month action by cleaners and shop workers. None of these strikes won all-out victories but, although isolated, neither did they lose.

What now?

Unions are now demanding double-digit pay increases, well above inflation, and employers’ starting offers are higher, suggesting they fear the new militancy and hope for quick settlements. Workers in several sectors, including gold mining, are still deliberating whether to strike. The workplace struggles hint at an enormous power, though it is one which has yet to fully emerge. None of the strikes have actually paralysed anything yet, except perhaps schooling, and the new workplace movement is still learning the crucial importance of building solidarity. However, the public sector strike in June this year has left a permanent mark on the political landscape. For at least some strikers it cemented the disillusion with the government.

A telling incident occurred in a Nehawu union strike meeting. When a speaker on the platform shouted, “Viva ANC!” I listened as usual for the loudness of the reply to judge the popularity of the ANC. I heard something I had never heard before—dead silence, followed by a sprinkling of insulting phrases. Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane commented, “You could hear the audience thinking in that silence, ‘Do we still support the ANC’?” Throughout the strike one striker after another repeated the refrain, “We put them where they are and look how they treat us.” The implication, still only half grasped, is that power lies below—a lesson that has been disguised by years of policy battles. Strike solidarity has also built new links between the social movements such as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and the Cosatu workers.

Mbeki has not rolled over, but the struggles over recent years have his government on the run. Delivery protests continued into 2007.8 Dissatisfaction with the government remains high even where there are no protests. A study by TNS Research Surveys this year claimed a third of black and coloured residents in Gauteng metro areas were dissatisfied with service delivery and 44 percent of blacks in Gauteng towns.9 The government’s initial strategy to deal with the protests was a public relations exercise: “Quick response and communication”, and a cautioning of councillors “not to make unrealistic promises”. Mbeki himself went on a gruelling tour of poor communities, where he passed the buck to local officials.10 That quickly gave way to a second reply from the government—rubber bullets and arrests—when delivery protests erupted again in September. The new protests, mainly over housing, hopped around Soweto, spreading to the townships of south and east Johannesburg, to Alexandra, to Cape Town and beyond. The protesters now number in the low thousands, rather than the hundreds. Police ran out of rubber bullets during a day of skirmishes with some 2,000 people from Kliptown. Some 50 people were arrested in Alexandra and Johannesburg. Even a picket by striking auto workers in Germiston, west of Johannesburg, was attacked by police.

It is hard to see how Mbeki’s government can really salve this dissatisfaction. Mbeki’s last industrial policy already falls “well short of the required rate to achieve the target for job creation”.11

These issues go right to the heart of the ANC itself. It faced a serious battle at its congress and a recent policy conference firmly recommended that no ANC president should ever again be able to act as unilaterally as Mbeki has. Much of this debate is cast in terms of capital versus labour. So, for example, ANC strategist Joel Nietshitenzhe defended a proposed economic policy document at the conference by saying that “our revolution is multi-class” and should not become a “hostage to narrow sectoral interests”. Vavi replied that “as the majority, the working class cannot be dismissed as pursuing narrow sectoral interests”. The ANC youth league also replied to the document, saying, “We have the problem of capital and labour being treated as equal partners of the developmental state… There is an absence of characterising monopoly capital as an enemy in the unfolding democratic revolution”.12

Vavi and the leaders of the Communist Party are relying heavily on the outcome of the battle within the ANC. At the twelfth congress of the South African Communist Party, Vavi argued, “The ANC remains an important progressive formation for the working class. The challenge is how we consolidate, retain and deepen its progressive posture and working class leadership under the current conditions of intense contestation. As ANC members we need to defend the progressive strand in ANC policy and its continued bias towards the working class.” It is hard to argue with his call to change the “current situation where the movement works…like a rubber stamp and the alliance a crisis management body”.13 But it is unfortunate that Vavi sees Zuma as the great hope for the workers’ corner. Zuma’s comment that the public sector strike was damaging the country’s image abroad placed him in the camp of those who want to balance between labour and capital. It is the fledgling mass movement of workers and township residents that could herald a working class movement truly independent of nationalism and capital’s demands.


1: “Cost of Strikes this Year: 11m Days is only the Start”, Business Report, 8 July 2007; “Lost: 11 million Days”, Mail & Guardian, 6 July 2007.

2: An expanded definition, including people who have given up looking for work, gives an unemployment rate of 40 percent.

3: Mail & Guardian, 6 July 2007.

4: Consisting of the ANC, the South African Communist Party and Cosatu.

5: Cited in Socialism from Below 53, February 2006.

6: “Municipal Strike is the First of Many, says Cosatu”, Mail &Guardian, 27 July 2005.

7: Mail & Guardian, 6 July 2007.

8: A search through one news website,, produced the following protests covering just over two months in 2007: 20 May, police fired rubber bullets at protesters in Mamelodi; 29 May, 1,000 people in the Free State burned tyres demanding electricity, five arrested; 26 June, 800 people gathered in Sebokeng to protest poor service delivery; 15 July, hostel residents blocked roads during a march for clean drinking water and better housing; 17 July, people from Langa in Cape Town marched to parliament to demand houses; also in July, people in Mamelodi and, separately, Maropeng forced their way into the municipal offices, and about 500 people from Philippi in the Cape burned tyres, stoned vehicles and marched to the council offices after their homes flooded. There were also protests demanding housing in Thembalihle and Kliptown in Soweto, and Posmasburg. Protests in Khutsong have dragged on since 2003. Khutsong was “relocated” from the richer province Gauteng into the much poorer north west despite residents’ express wishes to the contrary. Kliptown is another case. Last year people from Kliptown besieged their councillor after flooding, and in July this year they were on the streets again about housing, with 14 arrested. The symbolism of their dusty home cannot have escaped them: Kliptown is the site of Freedom Square, where the Freedom Charter was launched in 1955 with its demand for “houses, security and comfort for all”. Today it’s the site of a -bomb_proof Walter Sisulu Square, a monumental concrete plaza surrounded by shops and a handful of low cost flats. Not quite out of sight of this sprawls Kliptown, a grim shanty town where more than half of the inhabitants are unemployed.


10: Even then not everyone in government has grasped the public relations message, “We’re not going to allow anarchy to prevail,” said local government department spokesperson Themba Sepotokele. “We’re doing an analysis on who is behind these protests.” (“More Service Protests on the Cards”, The Star, 24 July 2007).

11: “Employment Growth ‘Well Short’ of Asgisa Target”, Sapa, 3 July 2007.

12: “ANC to the Left, to the Left”, Mail & Guardian, 22 June 2007.

13: “Take ANC back from technocrats”, Sapa, 27 June 2007.