The Wider Significance of South Africa's Public Sector Strike

By Leonard Gentle · 7 Sep 2010

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Picture: World Bank Photo Collection
Picture: World Bank Photo Collection

The public sector strike has been suspended. But whether the unions accept the state's latest offer or not, this strike may well be (and these things we are almost always fated to see only in retrospect) a watershed in South African politics. 

Firstly, amidst all the media opprobrium and invective against the strikers and the stories of intimidation, there is also a picture emerging of the appalling state of the public sector.

Whilst the very wealthy and even many middle class people simply avoid much of the public sector, sourcing health services from medical aids and private hospitals, sending their kids to private schools and living in gated communities cleaned by private companies, most other South Africans are dependent on public healthcare, public schooling and other public services. And not only have these been seriously neglected, the very people who must provide the services – teachers, nurses, state clerical workers - are underpaid and angry enough to hold out for a protracted strike in order to get some improvement.

For a number of years now we have been aware of the widespread protests in townships all over the country known as the service delivery revolts. The frequency and spread of these have impacted so much on public awareness that everyone readily fingered a cause and offered a solution. Parties like the Democratic Alliance blamed lack of education and corruption in local municipalities, whilst the African National Congress (ANC) government pointed to poor spending capacity at municipal level and instituted measures to force mayors and local councillors to deliver, even making them sign “performance contracts.” On both sides the problem was seen as technical rather than political, as the problem of local authorities and not national government's policy problem, especially, with regard to its attitude to public services.

But now we clearly see the problem of public services as a problem of the ANC government’s refusal to invest in public services, particularly, the human resources required to make public hospitals and schools function properly. 

And it is no good that some sections of the media now start to calculate salaries as a percentage of public sector spending, because service delivery is first and foremost about having the people to deliver the services. No one has yet found a way of improving teaching and nursing without having adequate teachers and nurses.                                 

Public sector expenditure, as a whole, actually declined after GEAR in 1996 and only reached pre-1996 levels again in 2006. There is currently a 40% vacancy rate in public hospitals. And, while total healthcare expenditure is of the order of 8% of GDP, the bulk of this is on private healthcare and public healthcare expenditure has hovered around 3% since 1994. Our infant mortality rate groups us with Cambodia, Cote d’Ivoire and Kazakhstan, as a group of only nine countries whose infant mortality rate is actually increasing.

Despite trumpeting the government’s commitment to education in the form of the education budget being the biggest percentage of the annual budget, classroom sizes have actually increased since the end of apartheid. Under apartheid, schoolbooks were free for black children, at least those who were able to attend school. Today, under neoliberalism parents have to buy these books and pay school fees as well.

The current anger of schoolteachers is patent in their response to the Department of Education’s inflated claims about their salaries in newspaper adverts. Equal Education’s campaign for school libraries has shown up so clearly the massive inequalities between the children of the wealthy and the children of the majority today.

Secondly, the strike did take on a wider political significance in that it revealed shifts within the social base of the ANC and its allies. 

Since 1994, the ANC has largely abandoned the working class and urban and rural poor -- relying on their liberation credits to sew up their vote whilst implementing neoliberal policies such as the privatisation and commercialisation of public services, the lifting of exchange controls and encouraging South Africa’s biggest corporations to go offshore and become world players.

Instead the ANC has built up an important base of support amongst the black middle classes - in the form of BEE wannabes and the beneficiaries of affirmative action and the “greying” of the public sector. This latter layer of teachers, nurses and municipal clerks in the social services and the like were, in a sense, beneficiaries of the new South Africa, taking over roles and functions from which their parents were excluded. 

In the main, this layer was pro-ANC and to the extent that they later felt the precariousness of their new-felt status, it could be blamed on Mbeki and his “class of ’96” project. So they found common cause alongside others in what was called the “alliance of the wounded” in the campaign to put Zuma in power.

But the global crisis has begun to bite, not for the super-rich in this country (a Deloitte survey in 2010 indicated that the rich in South Africa have been in the top five countries in the world least affected by the crisis), but for the 1.5 million workers who lost their jobs since 2008, and now the lower middle classes riddled with debt, high prices and greater intensity of work in poorly resourced public services. A key indicator is the extent of consumer debt – rising to nearly 80% of income by 2009 – and its impact on the living standards of the lower middle classes.

With South Africa having one of the highest real interest rates in the world (despite the recent drop of the repo rate to 6%), debt seriously engulfs teachers, nurses and other white-collar workers. The major source of this debt is not discretionary, wasteful credit card expenditure on luxuries, but the necessary expenditure on what can be regarded as essentials, particularly housing. It is significant that one of the key sticking points in the public sector strike was the housing subsidy.

The significance of the public sector strike is that it is these people – the rank and file of NEHAWU and SADTU and the PSL – who took everyone by surprise with their willingness to strike and the desperation with which they refused to back down. It is significant that some of the most recalcitrant strikers were teachers and nurses. It is also significant that the composition of the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) unions is also white collar. 

COSATU, in this regard, has also changed in composition from a largely blue-collar working class formation in the 1980s and 1990s to the largely public sector, white collar federation it is today. Although the National Union of Mineworkers is still the biggest single union, the bulk of membership is now drawn from NEHAWU, SADTU, CWU, SAMWU, POPCRU and so on. Nearly a third of COSATU’s members now have degrees. 

This changing composition of COSATU has seen the centre of gravity of mass struggles shift towards the township poor, who have been those waging service delivery struggles almost unabated for the last five years. These have been struggles largely waged by the unemployed, the never-employed youth and the “grannies.” 

We now know that the leaderships of the COSATU public sector unions were drawn into this strike reluctantly. They didn’t want the strike and did little preparation. The main reason for endorsing the idea of a strike was that the ILC had opted for it. Faced with the prospect of being outflanked and fearing the consequences of militant action conducted outside its ranks (this echoed what happened in the 2007 strikes when the doctors carried on striking despite the fact that their union had settled), COSATU unions had little choice but to come out. 

This lack of preparation explains much of the desperation with which the strike therefore had to be conducted. There were no ballots amongst members in advance and none of the rounds of local meetings at workplaces to canvass the feelings of members and prepare for sustained action. There was even less of what was always attempted in the past – meetings with communities to explain the aims of the strike and to gain their support. 

But what of the state? Why did they not prepare and why did they assume that the unions would simply back down? Unless one goes along with the ludicrous notion that their negotiators were incompetent, it is interesting to speculate on what their motives were for simply declaring that their initial offer was “final.”

On the one hand they were party to the feelings of the trade union leaders and knew of their reluctance to strike. Their negotiators clearly knew that the agreement reached after the last public sector strike in 2007 included a compromise to have the Occupation Specific Dispensation (OSD) and that there would be negotiations only in three years time (2010), which would be in the year of the World Cup. They therefore had three years of planning to avoid the showdown that transpired. All the parties were happy to allow the negotiations to amble along so that their climax would not to be reached during the World Cup. 

Why then did the state adopt such an intransigent stance?

One reason is that, economically, they simply didn’t have space to manoeuvre. The global economic crisis, the need to rein in expenditure after the World Cup, and so on, would have forced the state to dig in its heels. But why then were the transport and electricity workers able to win 8%? Surely having caved in to that sector, it was unrealistic to expect public sector workers not to regard this figure as the non-negotiable benchmark?

Another reason is that they suspected that the close political partnership between COSATU and the Zuma government (particularly with COSATU being one of the main forces driving Zuma into office) might ensure that the union leadership would give the state’s negotiators an easy ride. Given the initial unwillingness of COSATU unions to consider a strike, they may not have been wrong in this reasoning.  

A more likely reason is that the state deliberately sought confrontation. Knowing the political balance of forces within the ANC, knowing that Zwelinzima Vavi and COSATU have become defensive within the ANC after their Polokwane victory (including Vavi having to face possible disciplinary charges), they thought that COSATU would not go for a strike. And if their hand was forced through the initiative of the ILC then the strike would be an opportunity to break the unions quite decisively through a failed strike.

The bellicose language of the Minister of Police and Richard Baloyi (threatening strikers) as well as Zuma, whilst they and the state’s mouthpiece, the SABC, focused on demonising the striking workers in the court of public opinion (note the barrage of visuals of intimidation) seem to support this argument.

But no one took the mood of the strikers themselves seriously, or that of the plight of the lower middle classes in South Africa driven to despair by high interest rates, debt, high costs and inadequate pay. 

There may well be a political price to pay for the ANC, particularly those associated with the Zuma project, in the future. In the short term we may see a new “coalition of the wounded” emerge by the time of the ANC’s presidential elections in 2012. In the mid to longer term we may be seeing the ongoing drip-drip of disillusionment amongst key sectors of the ANC’s historical base, grow into a political break.     

And what of the media?

In all this there has also been an opportunity for the media to act out its claims to providing the public with information, without kowtowing to vested interests, particularly that of the state.    

In the main, however, the media’s coverage of the strike has been in the style of embedded journalism. Volunteers that have gone to state hospitals have been interviewed and given the chance to tell their stories, but not striking workers. The plight of learners missing exam preparations and people being denied emergency services has been highlighted. Economists have been citing figures indicating that service delivery may have to be traded off against salaries.

Whether radio, television or print. They all lined up to condemn the strikers and unleashed a tide of anti-striker sentiment amongst their listeners, viewers and readers. 

It is interesting that in the midst of a (legitimate) campaign by the media to defend freedom of expression - a campaign in which the media has set itself up as the champion of the free flow of information and the right of the public to know - these same rights were not extended to the striking teachers and nurses, where the media largely lined up alongside the state to demonise the strikers.          

In the 1980s, the mainstream media grappled with their reporting on “the riots” or the “unrest” as the SABC spoke of the anti-apartheid struggle then. So pioneer editors had to hire intrepid black journalists to go behind the burning barricades and hear the stories of activists burning tyres and to bear witness to police brutality.

Why has this not been the case now?

How can editors pay lip service to the constitution, including the right to strike, and yet almost universally condemn poor people -- poor middle class people in this case, who are exercising this right. 

Slowly, slowly a new movement begins to peep out from under the skirts of the Alliance. Up to now it’s been the very poor, the unemployed, the shack dwellers and backyard dwellers that have been carrying this load. Now the lower middle classes have begun to join in. It would be wishful thinking to suggest that there is already some kind of common cause between them and the teachers and nurses of the public sector -- there has been no evidence of solidarity action so far. But the nature of the public sector strike suggests that that day may not be far off.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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media terrorist
7 Sep

The Strike

Understaffed newsrooms, often relying on young and inexperienced reporters, have covered strike stories in their regions as best they can. It is a shame that none of the major newspaper groups or broadcast houses have a senior, experienced labour correspondent able to drive the coverage in a way that provides meaning to everyone involved: the state as employer, the middle classes, the workers and the unemployed. Leonard Gentle should know that there were also whiteys reporting from behind those burning barricades of the 80s...the battle for media freedom should not be held up as worthy or unworthy in view of the coverage of the strike. Journalists and editors need to confront their owners over the commodification of news and the attrition in their newsrooms and use the threats of the Info Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal as leverage to get more resources, staff and training. And all of us need to ask ourselves a simple question: on whose behalf do we wage our struggles, for the good of all - incluing the masses of unemployed in our country, who have no option but to depend on the state for delivery of health, education and other services, or to benefit our own narrow status quo?

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Alide Dasnois
7 Sep

Media Coverage of the Strike

Thank you for an important and thought-provoking article.
A comment on your remarks about the media. The press is coming in for plenty of criticism at the moment, much of it justified. But It is worth noting that newspapers have differed widely in their coverage and analysis of the strike. At the Cape Times, for instance, we have certainly not "condemned" the strikers, as our news coverage, our interviews with striking workers and with unionists, and our editorials of 27 August, 30 August and 1 September clearly show.
In the current debate, the category "mainstream media" may at times obscure more than it reveals.

Alide Dasnois
Editor, Cape Times

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Peter Dwyer
8 Sep

Of New Coalitions...

Been following the strike with keen interest....really like your article and yes new threads of tension are being laid bare....although am surprised you didn't see fit to mention, what I think, are new tensions between some in COSATU and the leadership of the SACP-tensions between Vavi and co and Blade and co seem very real and very new-what do you think?

Also, am puzzled as to why you say the bulk of the public sector workers are middle class - if you base it on income then that srikes me as a rather superfical mainstream (Weberian) sociological view?

For many years in the UK and the West it was 'common sense' to see all white collar and many public sector workers, i.e., nurses and teachers as middle class although not many would argue that now. Neo-liberal restructuring has revealed what some Marxists long argued was the proletarian relationship public sector workers have with their managers like all other workers and just becasue they don't create surplus value directly doesn't hide the fact they are workers just the same.

For at least 20 years or more (the neo-liberal period) we have seen teachers, nurses, civil servants, even academics (!) and other public sector workers on strike, on picket lines, joining unions etc. The idea that the working class equalled blue collar was, broadly, a combination of the dominance of middle class Weberian sociologists, and crude Marxist analsysis and an element of romantiicism by both sides! Practically, perhaps,such confusing formulations lay behind some on the SA left writing off COSATU and the working class and so putting all their eggs in the social movements basket?

Anyway, as I say really enjoyed the analysis and its the first that I have seen that begins to say that this strike may, indeed, represent another small turning point on the post-apartheid left.

[email protected]

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Rory Short
13 Sep

Public Service or Self-Service

In the years that have passed since 1994 it seems to me that the ANC has been steadily losing the plot as more and more people climbed on to its bandwagon in search of personal enrichment by hook or by crook. The collapse in public services is an injevitable consequence of this self-enrichment mindset because genuine public service is not somethging that the political elite is actually interested in offering.

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Don Sutherland
21 Sep

Leonard's Article on the Strike

Thank you for a very lucid account of the strike, it's origins and development and it's rationale from the perspective of the strikers. Watching from afar, it has taken some time to get such a strong account of the events. Obviously of huge significance for the ANC and the SACP. Also, could you tell us more about the Independent Labor Caucus?

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