Tensions rise among 3 members of S. Africa's governing alliance

Trade unions, seeking higher pay, clash with regime's capitalist goals

August 21, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The worst potential labor unrest since the end of apartheid in South Africa is raising tension among the three members of South Africa's governing alliance -- the ruling African National Congress and its partners-in-power, the trade unions and the Communist Party.

The 1.8 million-member Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) called on its members yesterday to support a strike Tuesday by 800,000 public-sector workers, including teachers, nurses, police officers and civil servants.

As the week of labor action drew to a close, 30,000 postal and telecommunication workers stayed away from work for the fifth day, and several mines were threatened with worker walkouts.

The protests are over what the workers view as inadequate annual pay increases. Politically, they pose a challenge to the government of President Thabo Mbeki, who replaced Nelson Mandela after June elections and finds himself in confrontation with many of his supporters.

At the core of the conflict is a clash between the basic socialist ideology of the tripartite political alliance, and the capitalist, free-market economic policy of the government led by the African National Congress (ANC).

While the left-wingers follow the traditional route of trying to exercise their worker-driven power by taking to the streets for higher wages, the government pursues its investor-friendly goals of restraining public spending, reducing the deficit, privatizing public sector enterprises and liberalizing the labor market.

The disagreement has thrown into question the future of the alliance -- born during the struggle against apartheid and institutionalized with the 1994 election of a black majority government.

"There are strains in the alliance. There are tensions in the alliance," said Eddie Webster, of the University of the Witwatersrand's Sociology of Work Unit. "It's more at arm's length than it was five years ago.

"But it's not going to go break up. It's a bit like a Catholic marriage -- there's no divorce."

The unions find themselves at odds with a government committed to the improvement of basic living and working conditions for the "previously disadvantaged," a term used to cover the social and economic victims of apartheid -- many of them union members.

At a trade union congress this week, ANC chairman Patrick Lekota likened the alliance to a doctor trying to heal a sick country.

If the doctor's prescription -- the government's economic policy -- needed to be changed, he said, "then let's go into surgery and find new prescriptions, not drive some of our comrades to mobilize as has been currently happening."

Public criticism of government policy by members of the alliance, he chided, smacks "of a lack of revolutionary discipline," "confuses the masses" and "places weapons in the hands of our opponents."

Differences, he suggested, should be settled in private.

The unionists quickly replied in kind, passing a resolution calling on the ANC to stop rebuking the labor federation in public. They also called for an immediate alliance summit and "an end to unilateral decision-making by components of the alliance." Yesterday they demanded a review of the government's macro-economic policy.

Blade Nzimande, secretary general of the South African Communist Party, pointed out that the current dispute raised important questions: "How [do] these unions support and strengthen our government without at the same time sacrificing the genuine and legitimate interests of their members? How do these unions advance their legitimate interests without undermining the democratic government?"

Arguing that the unions should neither act as opposition to the government nor become lapdogs of the ANC, he said the answer was to strengthen rather than split the alliance.

"Maximum unity is required," he told the delegates. "Whoever believes that any one component of the alliance can advance the national democratic revolution on its own can only play into the hands of reactionary forces who are waiting anxiously for a breakup of the alliance."

Meanwhile, the labor fight has managed to bring together whites and blacks in a single cause.

The University of Witwatersrand's Webster said the most interesting development was the unprecedented "nonracial solidarity" of black and white unionists in the dispute with the government.

"What the struggle is really about is what the direction of the ANC should be, not whether there should be an alliance," he said. "Cosatu would like it to adopt a more labor-friendly reconstruction and development program. They are trying to put pressure on the ANC to do that."

The core of the current dispute is the government's unilateral imposition, after negotiations with the unions deadlocked earlier this month, of a wage settlement on the public-sector workers.

The government decided on a 6.3 percent general wage increase, with 6.8 percent for teachers who are trying to cope with what Education Minister Kader Asmal has called a "crisis" in the classroom.

The unions' initial demand was for 10 percent, but they reduced this to an inflation-linked 7.3 percent, with an extra one percentage point for teachers.

The government has warned essential workers -- police officers and nurses -- that they will face disciplinary action if they strike Tuesday.

And in a deliberate effort to set a pay-raise precedent, the Cabinet asked parliament this week to approve a wage increase of just 4 percent for political officeholders.

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