By Steve Faulkner
Worker leaders in South Africa are awakening to a new reality, as they must be all over the world. The old certainties are no longer as firm as they once seemed. It’s noticeable that the phrase “When this is over” is not automatically followed by “and when we get back to normal” but is instead left hanging in the air. What exactly will the new “normal” look like?
Today’s reality is that millions of workers are unemployed. Millions more are facing unprecedented hardship, poverty and hunger. The messaging from governments is increasingly tentative. Advances that were applauded yesterday, are now confined to the dustbin of history today, and then resurrected tomorrow! And in the midst of all this uncertainty is the workers’ movement.
In South Africa, the workers’ movement has effectively been in a state of semi-paralysis. The impact of the lockdown, the absence of the usual forms of communication, the closure of union offices, the “house arrest” of union representatives and officials and the sheer scale of the challenges facing the working class and the poor have clearly overwhelmed large sections of the movement.
The one exception has been public sector workers, and not least because rank and file health workers on the front line have become increasingly aware of the hazards and risks they are being subjected to, and the communities they serve – and especially when attempts are made to pacify them with endless promises that do not materialize.
May Day May Day May Day!
On May Day this year, four unions supported by their federation, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), decided that they could not possibly allow International Workers’ Day to go by without workers’ demands ringing in the air.
At very short notice, they decided to hold a picket outside the continents biggest health facility, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. Famously named after the much-revered leader of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the armed wing of the African National Congress in exile), who became the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP). A trenchant critic of corruption, both political and monetary, he was assassinated at the dawn of South Africa’s transition to a democratic state on April 10, 1993.
The ANC government was praised for bringing in what appeared to be progressive labor laws in the ’90s which contrasted sharply with the draconian anti-union pro-privatization laws of other countries, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. However, over the last 20 years, the government has been scrambling to take back the powers it invested in workers ever since.
The latest attacks will be familiar to trade unionists elsewhere, and that has been an insistence on secret balloting of members, enforced by law before strike action can be considered ‘protected’. Protected means that the employer cannot penalize workers for observing the right to withdraw their labor. But here’s the real sting, if a ballot is not held, or if it fails on some minor technicality, the bosses can more or less do as they please, including sack those workers who take action, bring in scab labor, victimize leaders and work to undermine union organization.
What the current crisis has exposed, however, is that while basic labor legislation has increasingly been diluted by neoliberal inspired amendments, legislation covering health and safety has not in the same dubious manner.
This legal “loophole” was seized upon by health workers on May Day because the Occupational Health and Safety Act enshrines the right of workers to refuse to do work that could be harmful to themselves and the community. Being without appropriate and adequate face masks, gloves and apparel, and decontamination procedures, for example in ambulances, (and not to mention the availability of testing for front line responders) represented a risk too far for health workers.
This meant that health workers could put down their tools, stop working, and refuse to begin until the employer met their demands to guarantee their health and safety in the midst of the pandemic.
Because the health workers were not going on a formal strike, the restrictive elements of labor law, including balloting before action could be taken, simply did not apply. Workers were not walking off the job. They instead were assembling in a safe place – the picket line. All categories of health workers and ancillary staff were able to gather in front of the hospital, in a socially distanced picket line, and hold up placards and read out a comprehensive memorandum, giving the authorities five days to respond or face further industrial action.
Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow*
This small but popular action was significant on several levels.
First, it showed that despite the demobilizing impact of the lockdown, and repressive labor laws, it was still possible to take some forms of industrial action and assert workers’ rights, without fear of victimization and police intimidation. At one stage in the protest, the police attempted to arrest a nurses’ leader, and were literally called to order by the protesters, and rebuked for not wearing masks while making the arrest. The comrade in question was immediately released.
Secondly, it inspired workers in other provinces to do the same, and it showed that union action did not have to simply consist of “resolutionary politics” where paper resolutions, however important they might be, do not substitute for direct workers’ action.
Thirdly, it showed that workers from different parts of the sector could unite with community activists, and more significantly, with the militant sections of civil society, namely the Treatment Action Campaign (which itself was hugely successful as a largely working-class/poor civil society movement that managed to blow away the denialism of Thabo Mbeki and the charlatans who jumped on his denialist bandwagon). To its eternal credit, the TAC not only made it possible for antiretroviral medicines to be made available to millions of our people, but it has remained a potent force for change. Furthermore, the C19 Peoples Coalition was able to promote the action.
Fourthly, the action was self-evidently popular with the public and did not allow space for negative reporting or publicity to blunt its message or support. It was popular also because the workers said that they were not just taking action for themselves but also for the poor and working-class communities they served.
Fifthly, the action gave a boost to those thousands of workers, especially in community health clinics, who have been shockingly exploited by being placed on the front line of the virus, with miserable terms and conditions and in our poorest communities. These health workers have now found a responsive home in the trade union movement after having been isolated and marginalized for years.
Sixthly, those on the front line of the protest were mostly young black women who were eloquent, committed, social media savvy and as militant as hell, and showed the promise and organizing energy that young workers can bring into the labor movement if, crucially, given the opportunity.
Lastly, the protest on May Day stood in stark contrast to the rather stale and formalistic May Day celebrations that we have grown accustomed to. In those, the South African president puts on a worker’s t-shirt for the day and sits under the shade of a marquee amongst other invited dignitaries and veterans. He regales trade unionists gathered in half-full football stadiums of the benefits of class compromise and co-option. This protest was, in all respects, a breath of fresh air.
A Victory but Far from Over
The campaign for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is of course far from over. Last month, municipal union activists who are paramedics in the Emergency Services in a large metropolitan area adjoining Johannesburg, decried the fact that they were taking likely victims of the virus in their ambulances from some of our poorest townships and informal settlements to clinics for testing and treatment without even the most basic equipment. There was no means to assess temperature, blood pressure, Diabetes and other morbidities that make poor people especially vulnerable in our country.
If that were not bad enough, the paramedics were then instructed to carry on doing their work without any protection for themselves or their patients – and with no procedures for decontaminating the ambulances. When the workers raised the issue, they were told to carry on working, or go home and forget about being paid! As one activist said, “We are not driving ambulances but incubators for the virus.”
Rebuilding Trust Between Civil Society and the Workers’ Movement
Last month, a number of progressive comrades gathered to form a C19 Peoples Coalition. From just a few organizations, and with the support of SAFTU, the coalition now has 315 affiliations from all manner of organizations, and it is based on a progressive platform.
The new coalition has established 14 working groups on matters such as:
- Emergency food distribution to address mass hunger
- Defending workers’ rights
- Ensuring that issues of gender and patriarchy are tackled
- Producing alternative economic plans to austerity and IMF/World Bank inspired penury
- Monitoring police and army repression.
The coalition is not without its weaknesses, but it has shown already, a remarkable ability to focus and to define itself in relation to empowering working-class organizations and communities of the poor.
If anything, apart from a small number of more militant unions, the trade unions, in general, have been slow to get on board with the coalition. In the 1980s the most powerful internal movement was forged, entitled the United Democratic Front (UDF), which brought together trade unions, civic organizations and literally thousands of community-based activists to wage war against apartheid. Many argue that the UDF was an indispensable part of the liberation movement, which, while independent of the ANC, contained huge numbers of ANC supporters and many others.
Since then, both the militancy of the trade unions and community organizations have been diluted. And apart from the Treatment Action Campaign – and one or two other mass-based organizations, the space vacated by civil society appeared to have been increasingly taken over by “professional” nongovernmental organizations.
Over the last 10 years, a degree of skepticism has largely stifled collaborative action and undermined the possibilities of developing a common platform. The arrival of the new coalition, with its insistence on focusing and empowering the working class and poor, has opened a door for a major realignment. Trade unions would be unwise to let this golden opportunity slip through their fingers.
The Crossroads Are Looming
In South Africa today, we do not speculate about whether the virus will cut a swathe through our communities, and especially the poor who make up 80% of the population, but when. All the indications are that our unresolved past is coming to exact its revenge. The ANC government was challenged since 1994 to change the structural distortions derived from apartheid, and has failed. South Africa today holds the dubious honor of being the most unequal society on the planet. Levels of poverty and deprivation were shocking even before the onset of the COVID-19 virus, and are far worse now. Even the government admits that up to 15 million citizens are experiencing harsh poverty at this time and are going to bed hungry.
The government’s strategy has been a lockdown, even in areas where six to eight people share a room without water, electricity or the means to feed themselves. Emergency food parcels have been distributed to less than 10% of the population who are starving. To their eternal shame, ANC councilors have been caught stealing the parcels to give instead to ANC supporters.
The South African government itself, compared to many others, has committed only limited resources to fighting the virus and ameliorating its impact on the poor. They have relied instead on a Solidarity Fund which it has established and into which the nation’s numerous billionaires have been encouraged to donate, as a charitable gesture. Extra benefits have been made available to the poor, but not at levels that allow for more than a day to day of precarious survival. Many thousands of people will receive no help at all and are excluded because they are not South African Nationals, or whose employer has not paid into the Unemployment Insurance Fund.
The government is insisting on upholding its neoliberal recovery program, and many of the benefits that have been made have been done so on the basis of a later planned “reversibility.” In other words, they will be taken away from the poor later in the year. Presumably, this will be when South Africa capitalism is “back on its feet.”
Growing Activism and Momentum for Change
Despite this, protests are happening and gathering momentum in some of the poorest of the poor communities. For militant trade unionists and socialists, this presents an opening to challenge capital and argue for a more sustainable and equitable socialist South Africa.
There is no doubt that there are increasing numbers of activists on the ground in working-class and poor communities who are becoming emboldened and confident. Within the unions, there is a growing realization that the workers’ movement itself will be forever changed as a result of the virus. It represents a tipping point of a looming great depression, in which class antagonisms will not be lost in the confusion of a so-called national effort, but will assert themselves ever more starkly. We need more class action now, not less!
The challenge for the workers’ movement is to grasp the significance of the moment, to make common cause with all those fighting for an alternative South Africa based on equality, to put petty self-interest and bureaucratic niceties aside, and instead, to rebuild a vibrant, profoundly democratic response based on meeting people’s needs and not the profits of those who have chronically failed us.
As the Old Chairperson once said, “Every Obstacle is an Opportunity.” The point, however, is to grasp it, and make something new!
*The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations states that 'great oaks from little acorns grow' is a 14th-century proverb.
Stephen Faulkner is a lifelong trade unionist and socialist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. As a semi-retired activist, he is currently supporting DEMAWUSA, the SAFTU municipal workers affiliate.
Caption: Steve Faulkner at a meeting of national trade unionists