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May Day: A Time to Strike Back

A Fighting Strategy For Workers Under Pandemic

Statement by WASP

In 1894, socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote an article on the origins of May Day . It stated: “The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands.”

The working class in South Africa will once again be joining workers the world over in commemorating May Day, an international workers day, as they have done every year on the 1st of May, for over a century. This year, May Day will be commemorated in the midst of great difficulties and under restrictions not seen since the collapse of apartheid in 1994. The curfews and prohibitions of public gatherings mean that we are likely to have a May Day without the mass demonstrations and rallies that have become part of the proud tradition of the working class and the trade union movement the world over. 

May Day during the COVID-19 pandemic

The challenges facing the workers movement this May Day, however, are fundamentally different to those imposed by previous regimes. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented both the capitalist system and the working class with grave challenges. Under capitalism, the pandemic has aggravated the economic recession due to  lockdown restrictions, which have shut down the commanding heights of the economy and virtually halted international trade – a driving force of both the world and the South African economies. Ramaphosa’s plan has laid bare the class programme of the ANC government in this crisis. The state is bailing out the bosses with the plundering of the public treasury, and offering only pitiful relief for the working class impoverished by brutal austerity of the whole neoliberal period. It is clear that the state is  offloading the burden of the pandemic and economic crises onto  the working class. 

The cruel intentions of the ruling class are exemplified in its stubborn refusal to redirect the productive capacity of society for production of essentials in the fight to combat the spread of the pandemic ando combat hunger. Internationally, the bosses and their running dogs in government refuse to protect workers from infections and the economic devastation of brutal lockdown conditions.  We face major escalation in lay-offs, worsening of working conditions, widespread non-payment of workers, and imposition of compulsory leave days to make up for the shutdowns of industries.  The opportunistic use of the pandemic to carry out evictions of entrenched land occupations of the landless urban poor, mass retrenchments of EPWP, SAA and many workers, as well as the wrecking of the collective bargaining agreement in the public sector, is a crime against the working class. Even more cruel is the treatment of the heroic healthcare workers who remain on the frontline in spite of this cowardly backstabbing and lack of protective equipment. On publication of this article, 328 healthcare workers have already been infected.

This criminal maneuvering of the ruling class exposes the call for a ‘patriotic national front’ as the calculated deception it is. It also crystallizes the political calculations behind a capitalist strategy for a militarized lockdown. The working class and labour movement need their own strategy. We must respond to the massive lay-offs, business closures, chronic shortage of PPE and the inadequate preventative measures put in place by the capitalist state. 

Jobs bloodbath

International Workers’ Day has its origins in the struggle for an 8-hour work day. Today we are faced with a deep crisis in the economy. The Treasury estimates a 6,4% contraction in the economy and job losses ranging from 3 to 7 million on top of an existing catastrophic level of 10,3 million unemployed. In these circumstances, May Day acquires ever greater relevance and renewed meaning. The possibilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution bringing more automation of jobs in a context of growing poverty and inequality, imbue the demand for ‘shared work for all’ with greater urgency. This lockdown has vindicated our analysis that individuals do not need to work 45+ hour days for society to run. The trade union movement must put on the agenda a demand for a reduced working week without loss of income so that jobs can be guaranteed for all. A system where technological innovation spells misery for the majority due to impending job losses is a sick system and should be done away with. WASP has always campaigned for a 30-hour work week. We think this May Day the trade union movement should launch this call. A reduced work week also allows the working class much needed leisure time – to spend on further education, skills development, personal growth, family and social needs.

Furthermore, the transition to Post-COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns present the opportunity for a Green New Deal along a socialist programme. This will combat Climate Change and can retrain millions of workers whose industries will not survive this combined pandemic and economic crisis. Capitalism is incapable of making this transition on its own, perhaps more in this country than anywhere else. The crushing political domination of South African capitalism by vested interests in the ‘mineral-energy complex’ means that nothing less than a revolutionary mass movement of the working class and youth, armed with a programme to liquidate capitalism and transform the economy on a socialist basis, can carry out such a green revolution.   

The trade union movement, COSATU, SAFTU, FEDUSA and NACTU should use this May Day to boldly put forward this revolutionary agenda and orient the whole working class for the class war that will prove essential to advancing it. 

A Fighting Strategy

In the light of urgent challenges facing the workers in healthcare and across the economy, WASP believes that the trade union movement should also use this May Day to develop campaigns for:

  • The provision of PPE including repurposing of factories for production of protective gear, masks and sanitizers; provision of safe transport as well as hazard allowance for essential workers. .
  • The enforcement of the Public Sector Collective Bargaining Council Agreement.  All trade union federations to join the COSATU dispute in the bargaining council and build a United Public Service Workers Front to organize a Public Sector Strike if resolution is not reached. 
  • The end to outsourcing and a fight for permanent employment of all precarious workers of decent wages especially community healthcare, agriculture, food industry and retail and other frontline industries.
  • Rolling mass action and organized occupations to fight job losses in SAA, EDCON, EPWP, in mining and across the economy,
  • An end to militarized operations and anti-democratic authoritarian measures violating the rights to organize and protest. Solidarity action, food distribution and essential services as well as enforcement of social distancing in working class communities must be done through independent working class organization.
  • A general strike to unite the whole working class in the struggle for these demands as well as to ensure access to food, water and quality public healthcare for all. 
  • The nationalization of the private health industry.  We must organise and struggle for all  businesses under threat of liquidation to be nationalized under democratic workers’ control.

WASP will be joining virtual rallies being organized by SAFTU and COSATU. We will be using the platforms provided to campaign for these demands and a revolutionary strategy in the fight against COVID-19 and the economic storm that is rapidly forming before our eyes. We stand in solidarity with the workers and communities across the world, such as distribution and retail workers in the USA and Ireland, rent strikers internationally, healthcare workers in South Africa and Zimbabwe, who are planning and taking bold steps in strike and other protest actions to demand safe working conditions and a better world for all. 

WASP fights for these demands, as part of a transitional programme towards a socialist society. We believe this is the only way to reach a world free from exploitation, where May Day will become a celebration of heroic workers. As Rosa Luxemburg concluded optimistically in her article, “when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.” We hope you take the step to get organised and join WASP or one of our international sister organisations of the International Socialist Alternative this May Day.

Climate Change: here and now for the working class

System Change not Climate Change!

by Rob Krause

Featured in our uManyano lwaBasebenzi publication

Climate change is rapidly approaching tipping points beyond which irreversible damage will be done to ecosystems and humans could join the list of endangered species. Climate change continues to be discussed as a technical scientific issue and as a threat of the near future, rather than a crisis produced by capitalism which impacts us today.

Like all crises of capitalism, the effects are unevenly felt based on class, oppression (race, gender) and geography – most harshly experienced in the neo-colonial world. For the workers, rural populations, the unemployed and poor communities of Southern Africa – and women in particular – the impacts of climate change are suffered every day in the life and death struggles against water shortages, crop failures and hunger.

Water and food are the most basic necessities for survival. Late 2019 saw Southern Africa’s worst drought in decades; possibly even a century. The impact is especially severe in a region heavily dependent on agriculture. An estimated minimum of 11 million people in the region are facing food shortages, as Grain production has dropped by an average of 30% – and 53% in Zimbabwe.

South Africa has been far from immune from the impacts. The Eastern Cape had the driest and hottest spring season in recorded history – with a provincial average of 30% of the usual rainfall and only 12% in Graaff-Reinet.

Water shortages are increasingly becoming part of the daily experience of working class communities in South Africa. In areas such as Sekhukhune a combination of low rainfall and wasteful water usage by mining, agribusiness and the state has resulted in an ongoing water crisis for residents. The impacts fall on women especially, who perform the bulk of unpaid domestic labour such as elderly/sick care, cleaning, cooking etc.

We already witness resistance against the capitalist policies that drive climate change by sections of the working class. In Soweto, workers are resisting water and electricity tariff increases, demanding renewable energy production. Communities in areas such as Xolobeni are resisting the imposition of mining.

The task of Marxists is to intervene in these day to day struggles, draw links between the conditions people are experiencing, the impacts of climate change and its root cause – the capitalist system which maximises profits at the expense of the needs of humanity and our planet. We must link up with the global climate strikes – upcoming on 24 April! We need united actions of all sections of the rural and urban working class – workers, youth, women, communities, the unemployed – around demands such as:

  • Shift to 100% renewable and sustainable energy sources, zero emissions by 2045 without job losses – retrain all workers who need it
  • No privatisation of SOEs; democratic worker control to stop carbon emissions and replace with renewable capacity at ESKOM, Sasol, SAA
  • No to water and electricity tariff increases and cut-offs: the burdens of climate change and corruption must not be placed on the working class and poor
  • Nationalise factories, mines, big businesses and large-scale agriculture and place under democratic worker control
  • No imposition of mining on communities!

Make sure to also check out our MARXISM AND THE CHANGING CLIMATE article.
For international perspective, take a look at SOCIALISTS PROPOSE REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE TO WIN CLIMATE STRIKES from our world organisation, International Socialist Alternative !

The Root of the Crisis in State Owned Enterprises

by Newton Masuku & Tinovimbanashe Gwenyaya

Featured in our latest uManyano lwaBasebenzi publication #2

The economy continues to plunge deeper into crisis as it enters yet another recession. For the second time since Ramaphosa’s ascendancy, the economy contracted for two consecutive quarters in the last half of 2019. Major companies like Glencore, Samancor and Telkom have announced that thousands of workers will be retrenched this year while state owned enterprises (SOEs) are reeling from relentless looting and plundering. SAA, Denel, Eskom, Prasa, Transnet and many others are all in a critical state. 

Heavily indebted, plagued by maladministration and outright corruption, South Africa’s SOEs are unable to provide even their most basic services effectively. The national power utility, Eskom, is drowning in debt to the tune of R454 billion, while Denel, the state’s armament manufacturer, is owing R2.7 billion. Similarly, the national carrier, SAA, entered into business rescue late last year following a long battle with R12.7 billion owed, despite numerous bailouts by the state. In each of these SOEs, the ordinary workers, who had absolutely nothing to do with their crises, are set to shoulder its burden – job losses are looming! SAA is scheduled to retrench 4600 workers. Eskom is wielding an axe, set to chop and render redundant many workers. The top management at the power utility are trying all sorts of maneuvers to circumvent union resistance. To rid the power utility of “excess workforce”, the top management at Eskom are proposing “voluntary retrenchment packages to non-core employees”. As if that was not enough, Denel, according to its management, is closing its Aeronautics division in an attempt  to return the arms manufacturer to profitability – leaving thousands of workers out to dry. 

The spokespersons of the bosses in the mainstream media place the blame for the dire state of SOEs squarely on the shoulders of the Zuma administration – the so-called nine wasted years. Some go so far as to argue that the crisis ravaging SOEs provides ample evidence that only the private sector can efficiently run these entities, and so call for their privatization. 

While it is true that rampant corruption and unrepentant looting contributed immensely to the near collapse of these entities, this is not the whole story. What is often not talked about in these celebratory claims of the efficiency of the private sector, is that these SOEs are, in the main, brought to their knees by the selfsame private sector! 

Through the inflation of prices of the commodities sold to SOEs; incentive schemes offered by the state in an attempt to woo investment; and exorbitant consultant fees, the parastatals have been left reeling and bleeding cash. In 2013, for instance, Fin24 revealed that Eskom lost R10.7 billion supplying Hillside, the biggest of BHP Billiton’s aluminium  smelters. Through a deal concluded in 1992, BHP Billiton pays only a fraction of what an ordinary consumer pays for electricity. In 2018 major consultancy firms like Mckinsey, Bain & Company and KPMG had to pay back R1 billion to the state following the controversies around the services they provided to the SOEs. Between 2017 and 2018, Transnet, Denel, the SABC, SAA, and Eskom spent a combined R3 billion for consulting and outsourcing of services. Even the former Treasury Chief Director for Governance, Compliance and Monitoring, Solly Tshitangano, admitted that there exists a great deal of “unnecessary outsourcing in SOEs, and a lot of it at inflated prices”. 

This all means that the public is in fact subsidizing private corporations. SOEs, in their current configuration, are piggy banks for profiteering by these privately owned industries, corporations and consultancy firms. The working class should not bear the brunt of the failure of SOEs under capitalist rule. We must fight back to stop the era of loadshedding, failing public transport services, and now mass retrenchments and the Corona Crisis. In a united campaign of  workers, communities and the youth, we must embark on a programme of rolling mass action to fight for genuine nationalisation of SOEs under the democratic control of the working class and in the interest of all of society.

WASP calls for: 

  •  the SOEs to immediately be placed under the direct democratic control and management of Recovery and Reconstruction Councils made up of their workers as well as communities that are impacted by their activities. These councils would bring in accountable expertise as needed and, removing the profit motive, would develop a turnaround strategy to reorientate the SOEs to serve the interests of our communities and not ANC fat cats and multinational consulting firms. 
  • An  end to outsourced sub-contracts and backroom  BEE deals – they are not in the interest of the black majority but benefit a few politically connected tender-preneurs and lead to the worst exploitation of workers in precarious employment 
  • An end to state-subsidised electricity to energy-intensive users. Trade unions and other working class organisations must struggle for the nationalisation of the banks, mines, manufacturing industries and mega farms under democratic control of the working class. In this way, we can plan our economy for the social good, including the production and distribution of our energy resources, in the most sustainable and equitable way, including urgent measures to address the climate crisis.