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Socialist Review, June 1994

Terry Bell

South Africa: the struggle goes on


From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Apartheid is dead. But what lies in store after South Africa’s historic elections? Terry Bell reports on the mood for change sweeping the country and the latest outbreak of strikes

The euphoria after South Africa’s watershed elections, evidenced by a multitude of spontaneous street parties, came and went. But as the tide of ecstasy retreated, it left behind a definite change of mood.

There is a new, quiet confidence which extends from the bleak barrack rooms of the mine hostels to the ingenious cardboard and plastic constructions in the informal settlements. This new mood abounds nowhere more so than in the slow but steady march of the homeless to stake their claim in the new South Africa.

Bottled up in makeshift shelters in the backyards of squalid black ghetto townships, workers and their families have shrugged off years of residential passivity. They have taken their sticks of furniture and the sheets of corrugated iron and plywood which provided their backyard shelters and trekked to open land beyond the fenced in confines of the townships.

The moves are often – and understandably so in a country steeped in religion – referred to as going to ‘Canaan’, the biblical ‘land of milk and honey’. This reference says much of the expectations, hopes and confidence of the thousands who have moved. They see it as symbolic of their escape from the bondage of apartheid.

‘We now have space to breathe,’ says William Manete, a member of the People’s Independent Committee which has established its Canaan settlement on a large tract of land outside the township of Sebokeng, east of Johannesburg. Bordered by two motorways and a stream, the settlement is a living monument to the organisational ability, cooperation and ingenuity of working people. Neatly pegged out in squares with roadways in between, the settlement has three communally owned water pumps. ‘We are here to stay, not to be removed,’ says William Manete. ‘Now it is for the government to give us proper water and sewerage and other services. Then they can build proper houses.’

This attitude of quiet confidence is already causing considerable concern as new ministers settle into their portfolios. Minister of housing is South African Communist Party (SACP) chairman Joe Slovo. As Sebokeng’s ‘Canaanites’ were putting the finishing touches to their new settlement, he was announcing on television that he was negotiating with ‘the people who have the means and resources’ to get a major house building programme under way.

According to Slovo, the task of government is to ‘create market conditions which will ensure that the private sector’ will play its role. Mortgage indemnity schemes are now being discussed. The plan allows for the building of 1 million houses in the next five years – if the private sector puts up its money.

But even without arguing about whether or not bankers and building societies will lend to the unemployed and to those workers earning below the poverty line, the simple fact is that South Africa needs 200,000 new houses a year – or 1 million in five years – to cope with new demand. That would leave the estimated 3 million to 5 million shack dwelling and homeless families in the same position they are in today.

A general awareness of what exists and what may be possible permeates the entire working class. And there is a determined edge to that awareness, strengthened by news of the murder, mayhem and secret deals in which the former government was involved.

Much as Nelson Mandela is admired – and he is still very much the symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle – his supporters display a considerable independence. Mandela’s calls for ‘nation building’ and reconciliation, embracing even right wing segregationist leader General Constand Viljoen, have been broadly accepted but not unconditionally.

‘We are no more prepared to put up with this shit,’ noted a miner at the Buffelsfontein mine west of Johannesburg, referring to racist remarks by white supervisors. He was commenting on the walkout by some 6,000 Buffelsfontein miners, who came out on strike to protest at racism and the sacking of militants, and to demand the removal of a new mine manager.

They followed 11,000 miners who struck work at the Gold Fields of South Africa (GFSA) Kloof mine, complaining that management had acted ‘arrogantly’ over demands for an end to racism, victimisation and unfair dismissals. Officials of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) have been kept busy defusing a series of such strikes. ‘The workers are just telling the bosses the old ways are now finished,’ notes NUM official Jerry Majatladi.

The change began gradually in the weeks and months leading up to the election. It was sufficiently pronounced for one of the country’s leading mining houses, Anglo American, to claim that a 4 percent fall in its profit for the first quarter of this year could be blamed on labour unrest resulting from a ‘pre-election mood’ among miners. There was an average 7 percent fall in gold production on two of the company’s largest mines, Freegold and Vaal Reefs.

In the former ‘homelands’ of Bophuthatswana, Qwa Qwa and Venda, there have been mass strikes in support of pay parity with civil servants in South Africa. However, most civil servants have been prepared to give the new government the benefit of any doubts – for the time being. Former Bophuthatswana civil servants, who were to the forefront in toppling homelands dictator Lucas Mangope, called off strike action in May on the promise of regional premier Popo Molefe that he would personally look into their grievances.

But pay parity in this one region alone would cost R297 million. It would also be, say government advisers, inflationary, as would be any agreement to the demands of workers in the manufacturing sector for equal wages. In 1986 black workers earned less than a third of the wages paid to white workers. Today their position has only marginally improved – they still earn less than a third of white wages.

It is against this background that the government is pledged to carry out its reconstruction and development programme (RDP) which promises not only the massive house building scheme, but also ten years of free, compulsory, quality schooling for every child, basic health care for all and a range of social improvements – all to be paid for by means of the already overstretched existing budget, greater productivity and economic growth.

Various ministers have already warned that ‘discipline’ will be required from workers in order not to jeopardise the RDP. Some have been more forthright and admitted that discipline in this context means wage restraint. Mandela has already promised the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that his government would keep a tight rein on wages. This, it appears, was a precondition for the IMF granting South Africa an $850 million loan last year to help the country out of a balance of payments problem.

That problem may be even worse in coming months. In order to balance the books before handing over to the new government, finance minister Derek Keys and de Klerk borrowed R60 billion. This has pushed up the annual interest payments owed by the South African government by 15 percent.

Economic growth, the new government has decreed, can only come through attracting investment and through the creation of the ‘right’ market conditions. This, above all else, does not mean militant trade union demands and labour unrest. Yet the objective conditions seem to promise just this – and sooner rather than later.

It is against this background that the SACP and the now SACP led trade union federation, Cosatu, have announced a major ‘socialist conference’ to be held in July. The prime object, according to SACP documents and public statements, is to win ‘the left’ – and especially militant trade unionists – to support the RDP, essentially on the grounds that, although it is in no way a socialist programme, it contains ‘progressive elements’.

Last month leading SACP member Jeremy Cronin brought this message to the University of the Western Cape (UWC). He could have expected a vocally supportive audience. He did not get it. His audience – predominantly ANC and SACP supporters and members – may have had plentiful illusions when they voted for the ANC/SACP alliance. But many of those illusions had obviously evaporated in the confidence engendered by the result. The prospects for the growth of an alternative have never seemed better.

Striking gold

Two days before the election miners at the Gold Fields of South Africa (GFSA)-owned Northam platinum mine near Rustenburg in the northern Transvaal handed in a memorandum to management. It demanded immediate union recognition, the appointment of health and safety stewards, freedom of speech and the implementation of the NUM provident fund. It also demanded an end to racism and to the ethnic allocation of accommodation. When the mine management gave what workers considered to be an ‘insufficient’ response, 10,000 miners downed tools.

‘In 1984, we got agreements that the companies would start dismantling the old system,’ says NUM information chief Jerry Majadadi. ‘But, ten years later, some of these companies have still done nothing. Now the workers are saying it has to be changed right now.’ But the NUM leadership has shown little interest in tapping into this confidence as it negotiates the latest pay round.

In addition, the NUM is calling for a 25 percent minimum pay rise and for a range of improvements on grading structures, health and safety provisions and training. The chamber is understood to have offered some 6 percent as a general wage rise.

With the government already pledged to encourage productivity, economic growth and wage restraint, the mining companies are confidently predicting a single figure wage rise. Already, according to the latest available statistics, wage settlement levels for the first quarter of 1994 have fallen by 1 percent compared with the same period last year.

The 9.5 percent average wage rise recorded in the first three months of this year was pulled up by the 13.1 percent increase won by Amalgamated Beverage industry workers after a bitter 14 month long strike. The message that strikes do win has also travelled across all sectors in the economy. Figures published in mid-April show that a third of workers accompanied their wage demands with industrial action.

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