|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
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)