30 August 2001

SOUTH AFRICA: General strike against privatisation

South African public sector unions claimed their strike gained momentum on the second day of a nationwide stoppage. But as the strike drew to a close, there was conflicting evidence about the size of the turnout.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which called the strike to protest what it says are unjustified and over-extensive government privatisation plans, said nearly two-thirds of the workforce stayed away on the first day of the strike. "The action is clearly a resounding success," it said in a statement claiming about 5.5 million of South Africa's 8.3 million-strong workforce heeded the call to take action. It says the numbers are even bigger on the second day.

But the government said the figure for both days was nearer 30%, although about 65% of schools were closed. "It is quite clear from the figures that the general strike has not enjoyed overwhelming support...The impact of the strike on economic activity has been minimal," said public services and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi. She had earlier been forced to flee a union rally in Pretoria under police protection.

The South African Chamber of Business agreed with the government's estimate, saying private companies had made contingency plans to deal with the strike. But it still criticised the strikers for risking damage to business confidence.

This strike is the latest in a wave of industrial action which has swept over South Africa in the past few weeks. But this time the demands are different. Whereas workers in the steel, car, mining and other industries have been using their collective muscle to persuade employers to boost the biannual pay settlement, this week's action has a political point to make.

Cosatu, together with seven other bodies, says the privatisation programme has been imposed by the government without proper debate, will make South Africa's huge unemployment problem even worse, and will hammer the poor with sharp price hikes for essential services. State assets up for sale over the next five to seven years include transport operator Transnet, defence logistics company Denel, electricity supplier Eskom and telecoms utility Telkom. Altogether the government hopes to raise $13bn, or 120bn rand, over the next five to seven years, Nazmeera Moola, an economist at Merrill Lynch told the BBC's World Business Report.

About 200,000 jobs have already been lost in public services, the unions say, and with unemployment already topping 30%, any more public sector job cuts could prove disastrous. The privatisation plans, which are meant to contribute 18bn rand to the budget this year - three times last year's target - is driving a wedge between unions and the governing African National Congress (ANC).

"Steps must be taken which, on the face of it, might seem wrong to the people but which are necessary...to engage with the immense forces of the global economy," said Alec Irwin, the trade and industry minister. "No government can afford to finance all the basic needs of the economy." The unions, the government says, have been involved in the discussions about privatisation from the first, and have had plenty of time to make their complaints known. But for their part, the unions retort that the ANC is domineering and out of touch with its grass roots.

Some South African observers are suggesting that the discontent has little to do with the privatisations themselves.

Instead, said a recent editorial in the Mail & Guardian newspaper, it is the inability of government and business on one side, and workers on the other, to find a common language in which to discuss the economy which is the main problem. The "dialogue of the deaf", it said, resulted from the mismatch between the "urgent, real" needs of workers, the unemployed and the landless, and "corruption and conspicuous self-enrichment by members of the ruling elite". In this context, the paper said, "Government appeals for prudence sound, to the poor and excluded, increasingly like a confidence trick." (BBC News)

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