The COSATU General Strike and the Treachery of the International Marketplace

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Posted by on September 07, 2001 at 15:23:08:

The COSATU General Strike and the Treachery of the International Marketplace

by Eric Mann

Durban Commentary #2
Thursday, August 30, 2001

South Africans have raised marching for freedom to an art form. Today 100 WCAR/NGO Forum delegates, myself included, responded to a call by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to join the Durban march against privatization of public services. Singing and dancing in a combination cultural, political, military event, we marched for four hours. Didn't know Zulu chants? No problem, they taught us. In the second day of a national political strike, the streets of Durban were filled with wave upon wave of union contingents?some 30,000 people.

This was not a trade union rally for a better contract; it was a nation-wide political strike of black working class and poor people for the future of their country. The call to strike? "We did not fight for liberation so that we could sell everything we won to the highest bidder!"

As the World Conference Against Racism NGO Forum prepares for the formal UN agenda, the United States continues its political interference, attempting to dominate the UN agenda even as it refuses to participate. (See my first dispatch On to Durban: Putting the Heat on the U.S. )

But for the moment, my attention is fixed on the struggle of the host country, South Africa, to actualize its revolution. This complex and open struggle over South Africa's post-apartheid future is shaping the debate over racism, the world conference, and the consciousness of the delegates.

I am in the process, which of course will be long, of trying to sort out the enormous revolutionary significance of the vibrant, passionate left debates occurring before my eyes. For now, I want to convey the intensity and content of debate that in just five days in the country has challenged my consciousness and hopefully yours as well.

The COSATU-led two-day general strike on the eve of the UN Conference Against Racism is the focus of struggle. As we got off the plane in Durban, the blaring headlines in the South African newspaper declared " 'COSATU leaders are liars'?Mbeki." In another headline COSATU charged, "distortions, half-truths, and character assassinations," in response to a statement released by government ministers accusing COSATU of trying to sabotage the world racism conference.

This is not a morality play, but a strategy play?with implications for the entire world. The immediate subject of the debate? The strike is demanding that "the government hold the sale of state assets while a new privatization policy is worked out." To this Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa who once was an important figure on the world left, responded "one of the lies they [COSATU] tell us is that our government has betrayed policies agreed upon by the broad democratic movement with regard to the issue of restructuring state assets, thus, they argue that because of this we have betrayed the objectives of a better life for all." Mbeki accused the COSATU leaders of using its members "as cannon fodder in an intensive effort aimed at defeating their own liberation movement."

In response, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM/a member of COSATU) General Secretary Gwede Mantashe said the strike would send a message to the governing African National Congress (ANC) that "a mandate to govern is not a blank cheque." Leading 300,000 mineworkers across the nation into the strike, he charged, "we are fast approaching a stage in our movement where there are those who want to centralize power in order to kill off organizational structures. It is to the advantage of those in power to have weak structures. They are very nervous. A clear picture is emerging of an ANC that was elected by the left working class and is governing for the right-wing middle class."

The current struggle is not over "privatization in general"; all the parties of the united front Alliance?ANC, COSATU, and the SACP (South African Communist Party)?have agreed to the privatization of resources to some extent. COSATU is arguing that the process has gone too far, that since the government replaced the Reconstruction and Development Programme with the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) Programme, private capital is still fleeing the country while basic services?food, water, energy, housing?are being denied. The poor cannot afford to make any payments and subsidy is urgently needed.

Mbeki's argument as best I can understand is that privatization is a tactic to attract and retain urgently needed domestic and foreign capital?either as an inducement or as a necessary concession. In that context, Mbeki's rhetorical jibe at COSATU as those who "claim easy victories over the colonial and apartheid legacy" essentially argues that the ANC is in governance now and those who think that it is so easy should try it. The basis for this argument is that there are white racists throughout the country including still-armed white paramilitary groups. Tribal warfare is on the rise throughout Africa; the ANC is compelled to find ways to placate some conservative forces among the ZULU people represented by the Inkatha Freedom Party and not alienate them further from the ANC government. Some in the ANC argue that capital is fleeing South Africa and the new government needs national and foreign investment: privatization opens up new avenues for capital investment, reduces state expenditures, and creates new opportunities for taxation. Without possible support from a no-longer existing Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China, they say that the main goal is to consolidate the anti-apartheid revolution, strengthen the power of the government, and create a viable economy.

In contrast, the COSATU leadership argues that while aware of these contradictions, far too many concessions are being made to international capital and to a burgeoning and, in their opinion, rapacious Black bourgeoisie. Some COSATU and SACP members argue that the state faces a challenge?if it does not seize or commandeer or purchase at fair prices the resources of whites, if it does not tax capital and risk capital flight, it may find itself with no capital and risk a lifetime of indebtedness to the World Bank. For now, COSATU is beginning as all social movements do with a demand that the government stop privatizing, and leaving the ball in the government's court as to how to deal with the consequences.

The growing political conflict between COSATU and the ANC government should not be interpreted as a split. At this point these are still tactical contradictions between strategic allies. The complex tripartite alliance between the ANC, COSATU and the SACP is defined as a "strategic partnership." To understand the complexity, it helps to know that these are not simply three separate coalition partners.

*All COSATU and SACP members are in the ANC, many of whom hold office including ministerial level positions in the national government.

*Many COSATU leaders and members are also members of the SACP.

*Several key ministers in the ANC government including some who have supported the GEAR program and the present focus on privatization are members of both SACP and COSATU. And some of them have taken a very hard line against the left, in "defense" of the government's policies.

While there are some who talk as if the ANC is a petit-bourgeois party, it is in fact a multi-class party whose membership is overwhelmingly black working class. Whether the Mbeki leadership serves the interest of the Black working class is another question.

At the same time, it is widely agreed that COSATU and the SACP are losing some credibility with the rank and file members and the overall working class as the growing poverty, homelessness, and deterioration of social services is reaching national crisis proportions. Something bold had to be done to impact government policy. In this context, the two-day general strike is a major show of force by the majority of the COSATU leadership to establish its own power, its own independence in the united front.

The widespread sense of betrayal by the government is reflected in observations by a hotel employee I interviewed who expressed his anger at the Truth and Reconciliation Process. "Many of us lost our fathers and mothers, lost our livelihood, and yet all the white people had to do was to say they were sorry and admit their guilt and they got to keep their jobs, their pensions, their everything and we still have nothing except an apology. We thought we would be compensated and instead now they are taking away our government services."

The clear positive is that everybody I have talked to says that this is genuine mass struggle from below. While the official COSATU line is "moratorium" until they "reclarify" what privatization means, the masses of marching workers seem to be saying, "Let us clarify it for you." "Hands off the parks, hands off the schools, hands off hospitals, telecommunications, energy, water. Basic needs cannot be privatized!"

Watching thousands of workers in the streets, I am moved by the motion of the masses and by the fact that socialism is a mass question. Almost every union had a slogan about socialism on their banners that spread across the street. "Fight for national liberation and socialism!" The line put out most clearly was, "we can't keep talking about socialism if we give away the building blocks of socialism; and the building blocks are all the basic services needed for survival of the working class controlled by the working class through the government." Whether or not they can hold on to these building blocks remains to be seen.

Contrary to Mbeki's fear that the general strike would embarrass the host nation, the openness of this struggle?before an international audience?brings credit to South Africa. It highlights the pressure imposed on national liberation movements, especially when they succeed, to submit to the treachery of the international marketplace. The South African revolution emancipated its people from colonial and white minority domination. Yet, the exploitation of nations that is the very foundation of imperialism sets the stage for South Africa's political struggle over the terms of its integration into the global economy. Those watching the UN World Conference Against Racism can find no better illustration of the presence of the United States in spite of its absence.

I will keep you posted.

?Eric Mann

Eric Mann has been an anti-racist, civil rights, environmental, and labor organizer for 35 years. He is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and spent ten years as a United Auto Workers assembly line worker. He is presently a member of the Planning Committee of the L.A. Bus Riders Union and the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Responses are welcome at

His dispatches from Durban, as well as other articles, can be found at

His Durban commentaries, as well as those of many others from Durban, can also be found at the Independent Media Center website,

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