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Perspectives to build a militant trade union movement in the context of Covid-19 and economic turmoil
Statement by WASP National Committee
The Treasury forecasts that job losses this year will range from 3 to 7 million. Even the highly optimistic three-million-scenario sketches the outlines of the economic storm and extreme shocks awaiting the working class. The most probable scenario is for much higher losses in jobs and catastrophic levels of poverty and hunger, based on realistic projections of GDP contraction and considering reactions of supply and demand impacts on the real economy, shocks in treasury, in financial and world markets.
According to the SA Reserve Bank, the 1,5% GDP contraction following the 2008 Great Recession led to 900 000 formal sector job losses. It becomes patently clear that the projected contraction ranging from 4% to 15% of GDP spells a jobs bloodbath of unimaginable proportions and horrific living conditions for the masses.
Working class people are already bearing the political brunt of the lockdown as the ruling class is opportunistically pounding them with an avalanche of attacks, even as they hypocritically preach class ceasefire and patriotism. Punitive anti-working class terms of the curfews on the hungry and starving poor, widespread abuses and human rights violations by the military and the police, as well job and income losses for millions of workers in precarious employment and the informal economy for whom government offers no relief, compel the working class to fight back.
In addition to the 10,3 million people who were unemployed and without income before the pandemic escalated the economic crisis, there are 3 million workers in the informal sector. Representing 20% of total employment in the country, many informal workers are currently wholly or partly unable to ply their trades, losing their source of income. These include over 1,1 million street traders, over 200 000 mechanics, construction workers and electricians under strict curfew, and 26 500 tavern and shebeen operations (who up to 1 June were prohibited from operating in terms of lockdown restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages).
Current relief measures like the Temporary Employees/Employers Relief Scheme (TERS) and Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) for farmers are not only inadequate to provide relief to targeted recipients, but geared strictly to workers in formal sectors. This excludes millions of the poorest and most marginalized sections of the working class, who are also being excluded from the social grants for the unemployed on bogus grounds.
In spite of great difficulties, many of these communities are already trying to organize around solidarity and fighting for support from government with tenacity. These communities deserve support from the broader movement and organized working class in particular.
Workers in the labour broking companies, outsourced services and other precarious forms of employment in formal sectors are formally entitled to benefits and protections offered by relief programmes. The reality, however, is that many are excluded as they are not registered with the Department of Labour. These workers are employed under the worst conditions of ruthless precarity and slave wages by an extremely parasitic section of the capitalist class. Their entire social existence depends on the plundering of the state and human trafficking that the ANC characterizes as the ‘patriotic black bourgeoisie’. Not only can we trust that these leeches will leave their workers out to dry, but we can expect them to steal funds meant for UIF relief funds of unpaid workers, as many workers have reported.
However, we can also expect that rising anger at the hunger and theft will propel these workers into struggles in the private sectors in a way we have seen in the public sector during the #OutsourcingMustFall movement. If the trade union movement seizes the opportunity to step up campaigns to target these workers and rapidly finds creative ways to organize under conditions of lockdown, they could organize these workers in their thousands. This will strengthen unity and the fighting capacity of organized labour, currently severely weakened by the poor levels of organization of these layers.
In the formal sectors of the economy, workers are also being hammered and forced to resist. The capitalist system is driven by extracting as much wealth on the backs of workers as it can. This cruel logic of capitalism is exposed in the callous maneuvering of employers seeking exemptions to operate as “essential services”. The bosses have openly blackmailed the government to “reopen” the economy. It unmasks the repulsive patriotic pretensions of the past months and betrays their heartless attitude to keep the wheels of industry turning to churn out profits without regard for the health and lives of workers, their families and communities. Emboldened by the lackluster response and capitulation of the trade unions, big corporations are now lobbying government to completely reopen every section of big business. At the same time, the working class is kept under militarized lockdowns to crush occasional food riots and protests, and repress the impending political revolt.
Many companies where bosses are unable to manoeuver around lockdown regulations, management has forced workers to take unpaid leave or use normal leave days to compensate the employees. The lockdown timeframes were clearly based initially on the number of annual leave days, never on science and epidemiological predictions for the viral pandemic. It is clear again that the ruling class intends to force workers to pay for the current public health crisis. This is exposed by the widespread measures of forcing workers to take loans against their future earnings and pensions, now that they have exhausted the 21 annual leave days.
Greedy capitalists take advantage of the exemptions granted to businesses to force workers into working in unsafe conditions. In essential and frontline sectors, many are being compelled to work without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), lack of proper sanitation and without possibility of safe physical distancing.
In the health sector, the situation is dire and healthcare workers have experienced growing rates of infection. At Netcare’s St Augustine hospital, 47 staff members testified to the catastrophic human cost and treasonous implications of the government pandering to big business and the private health industry. The infections are a damning indictment on the refusal by the government to act decisively in protecting healthcare workers. The state has also failed to mobilize South Africa’s vast resources and industrial capacity against the pandemic.
Nationalization of private healthcare, pharmaceutical, chemical and textile industries could stop these blatantly reckless pursuits of profiteering of private companies like NETCARE. It could ensure proper safety for infected workers and patients in private hospitals and clinics, where bosses are cutting corners in safety measures to save costs. The government could also repurpose chemical and textile factories for mass production of sanitizers, masks, gloves and other protective clothing that is essential in these times. The ANC government is not taking these measures because they refuse to upset capitalist interests in these industries.
Failing to act decisively to mobilise the resources in the grips of big corporations, the ANC government has instead opted for military and authoritarian measures. That the lockdown even became necessary in the first place is the direct result of the neoliberal austerity programmes. A system of governance that has left many living in the horrendous squalor of overcrowded townships, informal settlements and shacks, countless homeless on the streets, and a crippled public healthcare. Overloaded taxis, busses and trains as the main method of transport for the majority, in addition to too few hospital beds and ventilators and staff to treat those suffering acute respiratory complications, has become a deadly formula in this pandemic.
The deployment of 24 389-strong security forces, including the military and police, had nothing to do with conducting education, testing and caring for those infected by the virus. It was for a ruthless imposition of strict curfews in conditions where many cannot afford them. These curfews and regulations are violently enforced on masses of people whose communities have been subject to extreme conditions of neglect that the ANC has either created or perpetuated in the past 25 years. Many are extremely vulnerable to starvation and hunger, lack physical and mental health support, suffer from various addictions, and many other social ills.
In a country with 7,6 million HIV positive cases (2018 data), higher TB infection rates than most of the world, and other comorbidities, these conditions are like fuel for Covid-19 to sweep the entire country with a trail of devastation and death. The workers’ movement must be clear that the criminal responsibility for these terrifying prospects and conditions, as well as the gross human right violations and economic repercussions of the lockdown to avert them, lies squarely with the ANC. The working class must refuse to conceal this and should not shoulder any part of the responsibility. Preparations for emergencies are not done during emergencies themselves, but in advance. Through decisions to cut spending on public health, housing and other services over decades, the ANC left South Africa disarmed and defenseless against Covid-19 and future inevitable pandemics.
Sweeping arrests, shootings, beatings, use of teargas, water bombs, and humiliating people by forcing them to swim in the mud, crawl and frog jump on the streets have been widely reported in the mainstream and social media. These are but some of the brutalities which in a short time have revealed the violent nature of the securitized response by the state through its police and military forces. In the first seven days of the security deployment 2000 people were jailed, four people fatally wounded and many more injured. In spite of widespread publications of blatant excessive use of force, brutality and violence, along with false reassurances by Ramaphosa, only a few cases are currently investigated by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.
The real approach of the state is revealed by the heads of security forces, the ministers and heads of police and the army. Besides the usual ‘shoot to kill’ policy of police minister Bheki Cele, the head of military, Solly Shokwe made it clear to his troops that: “there are those who speak of human rights, All of us must enjoy our human rights. But human life is more important than individual human rights. You are out there to protect human lives and those who threaten human lives must be dealt with”.
Working class organising for solidarity and struggle
The occupations and abuses by the police and military are not just the foolishness of the forces, and their irresponsible “skop en donner” style military training, as the bourgeois media and apologists like to argue. They also represent cynical attempts of the ANC government to intimidate the working class into submission and fear. They further serve as a rehearsal for open class warfare, in anticipation of the struggle and resistance to the draconian lockdown, and impending brutal austerity against the working class.
Many working class activists have already demonstrated the possibility of independent organizing, mass education on the need for self-isolation and social distancing, co-operation in testings, and other measures to contain the pandemic without the use of military force. These, along with popular education in personal hygiene, and provision of sanitizers, food and other supplies, have been proving far more effective in enforcing public health measures, discipline and restricting movement. These have only been on a modest scale, but so successful that the military itself is forced to imitate them in their widely publicized postures to pacify middle class public opinion and working class anger and resistance.
Neighborhood and solidarity committees are springing up everywhere in spontaneous acts of the working class solidarity and opposition to the violence of the state security forces. This represents a modest but important outline for the independent working class and left alternative to the repressive state apparatus, punitive lockdowns and quarantines. WASP advocated and actively supported these from the onset.
Through our cadres actively participating in the emerging Covid-19 Coalitions and in trade unions, WASP is relentlessly campaigning for trade union solidarity and development of community organizing into a politically conscious and co-ordinated national network of street and regional committees. Instead of the charity, voluntarism and substitutionalism of the NGOs and petit-bourgeois left, we campaign for developing the current Covid-19 Coalitions to focus strategically on organizing genuine solidarity. This can be done through building and co-ordinating grassroots and working class community organization.
Not only is this vital as part of broader movement building, but it is essential for developing a political programme of immediate demands and action to fight for relief from the state. The demand and action for relief has to include state provision of food, water, decent housing for the homeless, mass testing and quality public healthcare for all, as well as guarantee of wages for workers under curfews, adequate basic income and social grants.
This must be linked to organizing in on-going community struggles around service delivery and job creation. We must put pressure on organized labour, not only by lobbying trade union leaders, but most importantly, by supporting workers on the frontlines of the class struggle. These workers should be organized to build a rank and file opposition to the bureaucratization and capitulation to the patriotic propaganda by the trade union left in SAFTU. In the trade union right wing, found mainly in COSATU and FEDUSA, workers must resist the class collaboration that feeds the anti-democratic authoritarianism, austerity, and reckless pursuits of profits at the expense of the public and workers’ health.
WASP and its predecessor, the Democratic Socialist Movement, have demonstrated how this is possible through the role it played in building Amaberete against labour-broking in the post-office, the National Strike Committee during the 2012 Mineworkers strikes, and #OutSourcingMustFall in the immediate aftermath of the #FeesMustFall in Universities. All these are instructive examples of successful mass rank and file movements that circumvent the sabotage and bureaucratic opposition of official trade unions against workers struggles. Our interventions in these struggles, in GIWUSA and in the Metal and Electrical Workers Union of SA (NACTU Affiliate) before them, have shown how these rank and file movements can also lay an important foundation for the revitalization and rebuilding of the trade union movement, based on workers militancy and a fighting strategy.
A raging class war
Far from being blackmailed, intimidated and cowed into submission like the trade union leadership, workers have been resisting against the brutal determination of the bosses. The capitalist class is pushing to sacrifice public and workers’ health for profiteering and unscrupulous attempts to exploit the pandemic to carry-out restructurings, pay cuts, worsening conditions, and other cruel class aims. Radical rhetoric, posturing and grandstanding of NEHAWU, DENOSA and PSA leadership is a distorted expression of the boiling discontent of the rank and file members in the essential services.
Healthcare workers are angry at the orders to continue work and treatment of Covid-19 patients without adequate protection. In addition the government has stabbed them in the back with budget cuts on public services over decades, including breaking of the three-year collective agreement. Above all, healthcare and public service workers are furious at the capitulation of NEHAWU to the pressure from the ANC to call-off strike action, combined with the failure of all public service unions to lift a finger in protest against the unilateral withdrawal from the 2020/1 wage increases in the collective agreement.
International opposition from below
Public service and healthcare workers in this country are not alone in their anger. Internationally, workers in many industries have shown the determination to fight back. Consciousness has evidently grown to the extent that the public can admit that these essential workers have been some of the most undervalued workers in society. However, this has not yet developed into mass support for workers taking direct action for better working conditions. Due to the extreme propaganda pushed by the ruling class – that “we are all in the same boat” and must set class divisions aside to fight the pandemic – workers have had to act without public support, and even in defiance of trade union leadership who are under tremendous pressure to close ranks with the bourgeois governments and the bosses.
In Wuhan, China where the Covid-19 first broke out, working class people protested against opportunistic price increases and profiteering out of the crisis. Many more across China opposed the covering up, detention of whistleblowers, and disastrous initial response of the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship to the Covid-19 outbreak.
In Italy workers took to the streets and trade unions called a general strike, which was only called off after workers won crucial concessions from the state to shut most of the industries to contain the spread.
Across the globe strikes have broken over lack of protective equipment, for support of people in lockdown, wages for workers under lockdown and other measures such as those in Brazil, Australia,Ireland and other countries. Workers are also fighting back against lay-offs and job losses. These industrial actions in the USA have been followed by mass uprisings in major cities under the #BlackLivesMatter banner in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Our international comrades in Socialist Alternative are at the forefront of linking the organised labour movement to the current protests, successfully pushing union rank and file to take a stand.
Class struggle sharpened by pandemic conditions
Armed with class perspectives and understanding that the pandemic does not suspend class struggle but accentuates it, WASP members have taken their place amongst the vanguard of the workers resisting against bosses in pharmaceutical, retail and healthcare sectors. These workers saw through the hypocrisy of the bourgeois propaganda from the onset, and are fighting in the raging class war in many essential workplaces.
Since the State of National Disaster was declared, WASP comrades supported, through work in GIWUSA, strikes in Adcock Ingram, L’Oreal and Clover, amongst others. Some of these strikes were victorious and forced management to concede to workers’ demands.
Through our student wing, Socialist Youth Movement, WASP also supported a strike by University of Johannesburg students doing practicals in various hospitals and clinics without protective gear. The University management released the students until adequate protection can be offered. These workers were not alone to organize and resist marching orders in the healthcare sector. WASP is supporting them in their process to organize into NUPSAW, a public service affiliate of SAFTU.
Doctors, nurses and support staff in Welkom, Port Elizabeth, Durban hospitals and many other places went on strike over provision of transport and lack of surgical masks, gloves and sanitizers. Nurses at Bongani Regional hospital in Welkom took strike action over provision of transport. They were confronted with rubber bullets and stun grenades from police, injuring several nurses. In Port Elizabeth, support staff at Livingstone hospital struck over lack of PPE, whilst in Dora Ngiza hospital they were joined by doctors and nurses. In Durban and other KZN hospitals, including St Augustine, workers protested lack of adequate protection. In Cape Town, Tygerberg Hospital staff have been protesting the lack of PPE as well.
Emergency workers across the country also joined in strikes and a go-slow. In Greys hospital, Pietermaritzburg, ambulance drivers refused to attend Covid-19 patients without adequate protection. Emergency workers in Ekurhuleni have engaged in a go-slow, refusing assignments without protection and working equipment.
The strikes are not limited to traditional workplaces. There were strikes by taxi drivers in Port Elizabeth and coordinated hunger strikes by inmates across the country’s prisons. Both cases forced concessions from the government. These included amendments of restrictions for passenger loads demanded by taxi drivers, improved protective measures and reduction of overcrowding through granting early parole for thousands of inmates jailed for non-violent crimes.
Unless the government continues to make concessions, localized workplace actions can rapidly develop into a generalized strike movement. Threats and intimidations have not silenced workers who are fighting for their lives. Municipal unions, SAMWU, DEMAWUSA, and others, called on workers in emergency services to stay away unless provided with protective gear. HOSPERSA and PSA advised its members in hospitals and clinics to report at work but ‘down tools’ if no equipment, including PPE including surgical masks, gloves and overalls, and sanitizers, are adequately provided.
NUPSAW is currently threatening to take strike action to protest the lack of PPE for prosecutors who continue to attend urgent applications in courts.
Months of lockdown conditions have made the importance of workers in food production, retail, healthcare and pharmaceutical, transport and other frontline industries clearer than ever before. These are the workers leading the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and keeping society running.
The bourgeois governments’ desperate attempts to contain the pandemic have served to vindicate the fundamental contributions of Karl Marx on a historic scale. According to Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx was the first to discover and elaborate that society at its core is an organization of the production of the means of subsistence – food, clothing, shelter, etc. Further, he discovered that under capitalism this productive activity is organized not only to produce use-values (goods and services), but primarily, a surplus value (source of profits). The latter is done by exploitation of the workers, who are made to work for more than they get paid, thereby creating growing wealth. The capitalists expropriate this wealth through institutionalized violence – the legal framework of wage slavery and the repressive apparatuses of the state (the police, military, courts) are created to uphold it.
As the bourgeois class try to force as many workers to continue production, whilst sheltering themselves as far as possible, they’re inadvertently compelled to acknowledge the significance of these workers. Most of these workers are ordinarily undervalued, with many precariously employed and underpaid for the essential work they do. The desperate actions of the capitalists therefore unintentionally reveal the importance of these workers, as the real producers of goods and services sustaining society. The cruel logic of their current position and actions also demonstrate that the billionaires, highly paid corporate directors, parliamentarians, and other sections of the ruling elite who are currently hiding in self-preservation, are in fact useless to society.
The awakening consciousness of the workers’ and public opinion – although with varying views and understanding – to the importance of their jobs and role in society has given workers enormous confidence and some public support, demonstrated in the unprecedented level of public recognition and appreciation. Many of these workers have started to demand permanent contracts and payment proportionate to the significance of their work and risks involved. In Transpharm and other workplaces, workers have already won hazard pay and demands are becoming bolder every day.
In both large companies like Clover and Adcock Ingram and smaller ones, worker action has generally been spontaneous, informal and generally isolated to one shift and/or workplace. This is definitely bound to change. Unsurprisingly, the abruptness of the outbreak combined with the rapid spread of Covid-19 had a stunning effect over the majority of the working class – including its vanguard. Workers were understandably caught off guard: terrorized by the unknown perils of the virus, and disoriented by bourgeois propaganda and measures. However, the strikes and stay-aways taking place now are sowing the seeds of the class war, which can only grow in intensity and scope as the crisis deepens. Here and abroad, worsening working conditions in the wake of the economic fallout from the quarantines and disruption of industrial activity will serve as fuel to the growing resistance.
Potential for elements of revolution and counter-revolution
However, the poor organisation, political fragmentation, and general lowered consciousness of the working class as a consequence of the desperation of enduring horrendous living conditions can manifest in divisive ways. It is almost certain that the increase in unemployment and deepening inequality, will lead to xenophobia and anti-migrant mob violence and looting, if the workers movement does not respond promptly and adequately. This is already fueled by the xenophobic attitudes reflected in the ANC government’s pandering to South African owned business and calous neglect of desperate refugees and undocumented workers in the informal sector in need of aid.
The historic processes being sketched out here will in no way be a straight forward, linear progression and steady in tempo. It is going to be a complicated conjuncture, combining advances in revolutionary tendencies with partial retreats, and setbacks. The social collapse may even fuel counter-revolutionary elements. All these contradictory and complementary features will develop in rapid successions, characterized by extremely sharp twists and turns in the political situation, for which the working class must be prepared.
Although the shape, form and location cannot be foretold, we can boldly predict that the fundamental process is that of the growing anti-capitalist, working class movement leading to mass upheavals – the scale and scope of which we have not seen in recent times. The rhythm of class struggle will be decisive in how fast mass political consciousness develops, and this will certainly push the trade union movement to the left. But the trade union leadership, and SAFTU in particular, can also play a crucial role in accelerating the development of political consciousness, and consequently the path class struggle takes.
In the 2008/9 Great Recession, the mass organisations of the working class were formally led by the political leadership committed to putting down the revolt, as was evident in its collaboration in the bloody massacre of the mineworkers’ years in Marikana. The situation is completely different today. The COSATU bureaucracy, and through it the SACP leadership, is too weak to play the role it did in the past. The erosion of its political credibility and authority after years of betrayals, its shameful treachery in Marikana, the purging of its left wing and massive splits have wounded it beyond repair in its current political form.
The crucial role of SAFTU
SAFTU has the potential to be a politically left point of reference for workers looking for a fighting alternative, despite its leadership’s failure to give guidance so far. A well-planned propaganda and agitational strategy and active campaigning to support workers’ struggles for PPE, transport and hazard pay, as well as intervening in working class community organizing to enhance and politicize solidarity initiatives, can position SAFTU as the political leadership of the impending mass uprisings. In spite of restrictions on movement, and necessary social distancing, there are opportunities for organizing. Creative ways of protesting including online meetings, and strikes, stay-aways. With precautionary measures, mass demonstrations in streets where it is absolutely vital is also possible.
The working class has a long way to go in rebuilding its mass organizations in communities, but service delivery protests and on-going organizing for solidarity in response to Covid-19 pandemic has prepared the ground. They provide foundations for the rapid development of a national civic movement that can unite communities and link with organized labour and youth radicalized by #FeesMustFall, actions against climate change, and feminist movements across schools and campuses. SAFTU can greatly assist this process through a General Strike action and reviving the Working Class Summit to build for one.
A clear fighting plan to build for a General Strike
SAFTU should organize a General Strike to unify working class resistance in workplaces and communities against lack of PPEs, job losses, non-payment of wages, and for provision of water, food, and adequate social grants, etc. to communities. However, a call for a general strike lacking the analysis of the state of the workers’ movement, and strategies for organizing and building for it during lockdown and social isolation, is not helpful.
Currently trade unions are paralysed by the curfews, lack of skills to organize online and, most importantly, lack of class-independent and fighting perspectives for the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to rebuild carefully – but urgently – as the situation demands. A programme of rolling mass actions based on different themes and political demands, organized on provincial and sector basis, combining online protests, lunchtime demonstrations and pickets in workplaces across the country, can serve to raise the sights of the workers and provide the basis for renewed trade union organizing across the country.
Protests should target South African Airways, hospitals, and mining corporations such as Marula in Sekhukhune on issues of retrenchments, PPEs, and for recklessly spreading Covid-19 in poor working class communities. These are only a few examples.
These actions will be important in mobilizing towards national days of action, testing the mood and readiness for an all-out general strike in weeks or months to come. The rage of caregivers, teachers and communities over the decision to reopen schools provides an excellent opportunity for SAFTU to launch a campaign for the first national day of action including caregiver and teachers’ pickets outside schools, online solidarity strikes, learner stay-aways and class boycotts.
For a revolutionary strategy
To unite the working class however is primarily the question of an analysis and perspective corresponding and correctly estimating the objective historical process, and forging a political programme that responds to it. Unfortunately the trade union leadership, including SAFTU, is left wanting on this important matter. A legacy of Stalinism, which still lurks at the union bureaucracy, means in spite of the organizational rupture with SACP, SAFTU is facing the twin problem of right-wing opportunism and ultra-left-wing sectarianism. These tendencies contradict but also complement each in reality.
A faction in NUMSA and SAFTU are masquerading as revolutionary purity, where ultra-left sectarianism is manifesting itself in a refusal to engage and support working class struggles that do not fit neatly into their narrow “workerism”. In essence these (in)actions with regards to movements against corruption, climate change, gender based violence, and others only serve to weaken and isolate the workers’ movement. It is also used to justify opportunistic bureaucratic maneuverings, lobbying of varying gangs of the ANC and traitorous class collaboration.
The majority of SAFTU leadership have uncritically accepted the social reformist ideas inspired mainly by left academics in universities and NGOs. These ideas are equally incapable of consistently putting forward independent fighting class alternatives and a political strategy to build the labour movement and unite the working class into a mighty revolutionary force.
It is clear from statements released by SAFTU leadership that they believe there is no breaking with capitalism as a system, but effectively want to reform it from neoliberalism towards a welfare state. Beside the current material conditions lacking any grounds for sustained reforms, this reformism forgets its own history. The social reforms of the past were a byproduct of revolutionary mass movements and were wrested from the ruling class through bitter class struggles – not by means of civil and polite petitions to ministers.
To rebuild and unite the working class, we need a revolutionary transitional programme, based on immediate demands that can raise the masses to struggle. It requires a clear revolutionary strategy to transform society towards a socialist alternative to do away with the current crises of capitalism and imperialism. To see through this programme and win a socialist society requires that the working class build a mass political party to oppose the ruling class. It must unite within its ranks the best layers of organized labour, emerging civic movements fighting for service delivery and organizing solidarity for those under lockdown, climate change and women’s movements, youth, and communities battling unemployment.
Organise left opposition to the trade union bureaucracy
The current paralysis in the trade union movement clearly shows that this is not the task that can be left to the trade union bureaucracy. The revolutionary left must actively orientate and organize the militant layers of the trade union rank and file and organizers into an opposition organized around a fighting programme with socialist policies. It must fight for workers’ control and democracy to ensure the rank and file of the trade union movement is able to hold its leadership accountable to the advancement of the fighting strategy, union policies, and ultimately to defeat collaborationist tendencies.
Workers and Socialist Party is building its trade union fractions across the trade union movement and will be using these to actively assist in this task of organizing and uniting socialists and the Left in the trade unions.
For further perspectives on COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis in South Africa, check out NOW IS THE TIME FOR REVOLUTION, NOT REFORMISM
Teachers, support workers, and communities should decide how and when schools open
Statement by WASP
In response to the ministerial announcement by Angie Motshekga that schools will reopen from 1 June, a majority of existing teacher unions SADTU, NAPTOSA, PEU, NATU, and SAOU, have released a joint statement instructing their members to not enter schools that are unsafe. According to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), all school staff are expected to report to duty on 25 May.
Capitalism at the root of crisis in education
South Africa’s education system is in crisis at all levels – from early childhood development to higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how our public sector institutions have been gutted through under investment, privatisation, and neglect. However, the root of this crisis is the capitalist system. The ANC’s wholehearted embrace of capitalism and the adoption of a neoliberal agenda in all spheres, including education, has eroded any hope that they will provide quality education for the vast majority.
We have a two-tier public school system, made up of fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools. In addition to this there are “independent” (private) schools, some of which also receive state funding. The state funding for schools is based on a quintile system that has been proven through multiple years of research to be completely inadequate in assessing the needs of schools. It has served to further entrench poverty in schools that serve poor and working class communities, and protect the wealth of schools in the top tier.
In 21.4% of public schools, there are more than 36 learners to an educator according to the 2019 EMIS School Realities report. Overcrowding of classrooms has severe impacts on both teachers, who cannot give individual attention to learners and struggle with classroom management and workloads, as well as the learners, who can fall through the cracks as learning difficulties, mental and physical health issues go unnoticed. Currently more than half of learners starting in Gr R do not make it to Gr 12.
Ultimately this same government has shown its complete disregard for the lives of the people it supposedly serves: it took the drowning of a learner in a pit latrine, and another learner killed by the collapsing walls of one, for the government to commit to eradicating the remaining 3800+ pit latrines still in our schools. Enacting austerity budgets over decades has resulted in schools that have no running water, a lack of heating and electricity, insufficient classrooms, crumbling infrastructure, burgeoning unemployment amongst qualified teachers, and lack of resources for teaching and learning generally.
Not safe for staff and learners
In these existing conditions, combined with increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the push to reopen schools is all the more reckless. It exposes just how divorced the decision-makers in the DBE and the Provincial Departments of Education (PDEs) are from the reality schools face daily. Teachers, support workers, parents, guardians and learners however know better, and they are rightfully frightened at the prospect of reopening schools.
Without an immediate increase in budget and staffing, the empty reassurance that class sizes will be smaller in the DBE’s approach to reopen schools has no real meaning to workers in education, who are acutely aware of the shortcomings in our schools. However, an even bigger question is where will the PPE and sanitary measures come from, when our very hospitals are struggling to secure the same?
Schools as a capitalist tool
Those supporting and even pushing for the reopening of schools reveal clearly that schools under a capitalist system are not primarily for learning to take place. Many say schools must reopen because parents must go to work, children rely on schools for feeding schemes, and that the budget cannot afford a suspended academic year. Schools, just like workplaces, are arenas of class struggle – they are a valuable tool for the capitalist class. In this respect they primarily provide childcare services so that bosses can demand longer hours from the workers they exploit for profits. Additionally, schools provide the skills for an efficient and educated workforce, where the vast majority is trained to serve the ever-increasing wealth of the rich, instead of nurturing individual talents and skills.
For the working class, schools provide essential social interaction between peers and teachers to equip them with an understanding of the world and natural environment, and vital skills to meet human needs on a sustainable basis. Contrary to the class prejudices against teachers and learners in poor schools spewed by Helen Zille and her racist crowd, education is vital to the working class. Our predecessors fought and won it as a right through brutal class struggle on the foundations of ending child labour. The academic freedom for critical thinking and inquiry about capitalism, how to organise against it, and other progressive elements of the education system exist because of concessions made by the bosses and the ruling class. In South Africa these were wrestled as part of the struggle against bantu education and the apartheid regime.
To ensure that schools become primarily centres for teaching and learning, instead of shouldering the social burdens created by the capitalist system, we have to make bold demands that take us forward and address the root causes of poverty and inequality. Although fears about lack of feeding schemes for some of the most vulnerable in our society are understandable, this pandemic has shown us that we must demand and struggle for a humane post-COVID-19 world. We cannot settle for “working with what we have”.
Build for a National Stay Away
WASP supports the call for a stay away by the teachers’ unions. We call on all unions and union federations to support and adopt this important call. WASP will also be campaigning for communities and parents/guardians to keep learners away from schools. Where possible we will organise pickets outside schools and utilize other creative methods to protest this decision and show solidarity. We are calling on SAFTU and the Working Class Summit to make a call and organise for a National Stay Away on the 1st of June 2020. There is a groundswell of support for this action amongst workers and communities. If successful, this can serve as a basis for a General Strike to unite the struggle against reopening of schools with struggles in other industries for PPEs, against job losses and in communities battling COVID-19.
Months of patient engagement and advice from unions, education and health experts, parents, guardians and learners, has not convinced this government to address the current crisis scientifically. Instead, it is determined to risk the lives of school-based workers, learners, and their communities – effectively the whole of South Africa.
The DBE and the PDEs have forced workers in the education sector to take direct action in the form of a stay away. This action must be supported by the communities that they serve. Such working class solidarity and united action has the potential to not only halt the reopening of schools in order to save lives, but change our dysfunctional education system completely.
Struggle for a better education system
We can win real gains by demanding the following as well:
- The immediate construction of new schools and classrooms to accommodate class sizes not exceeding 20 learners to pandemic-proof schools, as well as updating and installing quality sanitation at all schools. Mass investment in a true public works programme with workers employed on full public sector salaries and benefits. No tenderpreneurs!
- Mass employment of currently unemployed qualified teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes.
- Utilize the time schools are closed to further train and develop all education staff, and overhaul the inflexible curriculum. Unemployed teachers and trained graduates must be employed on full public sector salaries and benefits to immediately work on translation and development of teaching and learning materials that facilitate home language instruction at all levels of basic education.
- Employment of sufficient support staff: cleaners, maintenance workers, lab assistants, tech assistants, admin etc. on a permanent basis with full salaries and benefits.
- Permanent provision of dedicated school transport that can accommodate social distancing and be sanitized regularly.
- Employment of at least one nurse, one social worker and one counsellor for every school, depending on the size of the school. Physical and psychological wellbeing are essential for learning and teaching to take place.
- Full time, insourced security stationed at schools at all times to prevent the immense vandalisation taking place.
- Free workplace or community-based childcare for all who are working.
- No person should go hungry when schools are closed – sufficient food and basic necessities to be distributed to all communities and households in need immediately and after the pandemic.
- Nationalise all private schools, abolish the fee and no-fee system in public schools. All school funding to be centralized and distributed according to need. All school facilities (fields, sports halls, auditoriums, etc) to be shared between all schools as needed. This system must be overseen by a committee democratically elected from school workers, parents and guardians, and student representatives. Full-time administrators must be paid the average salary of a skilled worker, and must be open to recall at any time.
In order to win these demands and more, we must fight for the nationalisation of the mines, large-scale agriculture, banks, pharmaceutical companies, and other big businesses. These must be put under democratic control and management by workers and communities. When production is planned according to the needs of the many, not the profits of the few elites, we can ensure schools and the communities they serve have all the resources they need. Bold demands such as these lay a foundation for building a more equal and quality education system in South Africa. They also address broader socio-economic issues, such as unemployment and precarious employment, and can serve as a transitional bridge towards a socialist society free from exploitation.
International and working class solidarity
In the past three years we have witnessed workers in education rise up against austerity measures across the world. The crisis of capitalism in our schools is the same all over the world: overworked teachers, under resourced and overcrowded schools. #RedForEd in Arizona, USA started with a 75 000 strong teacher strike, which prompted and inspired more industrial action across the US.
Across the world last year, there have been similar nation-wide teachers’ strikes, in places like New Zealand and Zimbabwe. In the UK, schools are set to reopen on June 1st as well, with unions calling on education workers not to report to duty. We fully support our comrades across the world resisting the push from capitalist governments who shamelessly throw the working class under the bus. We further call for cross-border solidarity between all workers resisting the bosses’ greed during this pandemic. The working class, and our struggle for socialism, is international.
It should be up to workers at schools, both teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as the parents and guardians of learners to decide whether the schools in South Africa can safely be reopened. All schools must have an SRC elected by learners, which must also have input in all aspects of reopening of schools. Workers in all industries have to be the decision-makers on the so-called “reopening” of the economy. We cannot put that decision into the hands of a government that is heavily influenced by the interests of big business and their profits, instead of the lives and wellbeing of the majority.
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.
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.
written by Mametlwe Sebei
The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a global public health crisis without precedence in living memory. The worldwide personal suffering and misery is incalculable: tragic loss of life, untold emotional torment and pain of survivors, terror and fear of starvation, enormous losses of income for many struggling for survival under lockdowns and curfews. The social and economic consequences of this pandemic are however only in their infant stages. Only after the lockdown, in the months and years to come, will the full scale of both economic and societal devastation become clear. This, in part, depends on the measures undertaken by the state.
On Tuesday 21 April Cyril Ramaphosa addressed people in South Africa regarding updated measures in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. In a country where austerity measures and “tightening the belt” has become everyday vocabulary, people viewed the seemingly sudden surfacing of hundreds of billions of rands in shock and awe. Where has this money been before the crisis, when the working class and poor have been crying out for relief to the “usual” crises of health, service delivery, housing, overcrowding, education and unemployment? Organised labour and progressives must take caution in praising the government for the newly announced relief measures, because, as they say, the devil is in the details. And there are many details left out in Ramaphosa’s latest presidential address.
The open letter from 76 economists
A group of “Left Economists”, in an open letter addressed to the president, estimated that South Africa can face up to 7% contraction in the GDP due to the corona crisis, which will leave many millions unemployed and hungry. Responding to the immense distress faced by many working class and poor during the ongoing lockdown and the impending economic slump, the ANC government has announced an economic and social relief package. Most of the measures echo the views penned in the open letter to the president, putting forward a range of Keynesian measures to pull the economy from the abyss.
As some of the authors of this letter are linked with the trade union movement, either directly or through “think tanks” that support trade union policy units, their ideas find resonance in the workers’ movement. We see this in media statements issued by both COSATU and SAFTU, and the recently established COVID-19 People’s Coalition (endorsed by trade unionists, working class community organisations, and NGOs). We, therefore, are compelled to respond.
WASP supports many of the proposals affirming demands of the workers’ movement and activists organizing in communities, and we believe they are worth fighting for as part of a fighting programme of emergency relief for workers and communities. It is however the underlying ideas of Keynesian economics – which boil down to measures taken to save capitalism – that pose an extreme danger and must be exposed and purged if we are to forge a revolutionary alternative to the ever increasing crises inherent in the decaying capitalist system.
Appeal to ‘reason’ and benevolence of the state
Capitalism divides society into two main classes, the capitalist (owners of capital, i.e. factories, banks, businesses) and the working class (who need to sell their labour power to survive). The tiny minority capitalist class gets its wealth from the labour power of the working class, in a constant and bitter struggle. They are supported and protected in this by state power, which works to maintain this massive robbery and thereby acts ultimately in the political service and class interests of the capitalists.
By failing to grasp, or at least openly approach government from this perspective, the authors of the letter commit a grave crime of ideological obscurantism and foster dangerous illusions in the possibilities of change, without the need to struggle. The most generous interpretation of the approach of the letter is that it petitions the government as an independent state organization capable of intervening in the struggle for the distribution of wealth, fairly in the interests of the working class – it must only be convinced through clear articulation of what is just. To be sure, Marxists and the workers’ movement do petition state power, but ought to always do so by means of demands that point to the fact that the state is an organised enemy class, which can only be won over to pro-working class reforms by means of organized power of the working class and struggle, not by humility and false flattery.
The brutal class character of the current state is obscured by the ruling class, as is its vicious anti-working class austerity against public healthcare and other essential services, which laid the foundations for the current disastrous public health crisis.
The manner in which the state is ‘dealing’ with the crisis can sow confusion and illusions in the working class about the cruel class aims of its measures, including the brutal lockdown – in which millions are starving without relief, water services and any possibility of social distancing in the overcrowded and unbearable squalor of working class and poor households. As we have said before, the shutdown of the economy and social distancing are absolutely vital and we have been involved in independent campaigns for the enforcement of the social distancing in working class communities, but we absolutely oppose restrictions of democratic and worker rights, police brutally and military intervention – which is being positioned against working class struggles now and in future.
The workers movement must therefore emphatically oppose this approach, as it blurs and obscures the class enemy and its main instrument of political power, the ANC government.
Marxist approach to state relief
Once the state is stripped of its constitutional disguise as an ‘independent’ organization expressing the ‘common’ interests of all and the ‘collective’ power of society, it is rightfully unmasked for the bloody anti-working class organization that it is. We must treat it with the class suspicion it deserves. The bourgeois ANC government does not intervene in the economy to the benefit of everyone.
From the standpoint of the working class, and by implication anyone speaking on behalf of it, every proposal for the relief and ultimate resolution of the crisis, is an arena for class struggle. The main aim is to redistribute the ‘profits’ expropriated by the capitalist class, which are essentially the unpaid wages of those who do the actual work of producing the goods and services in the economy – the workers. To put it differently, the demand for relief is a struggle for a social wage and not a beggary for charity from the benevolent state.
We should therefore always be clear when we make demands or proposals. Who will they benefit and how? Most importantly, who will pay for these measures and how should they be made to pay for it?
Who benefits from relief measures?
To contain the social and economic collapse, the authors of the letter proposed wide-ranging interventions for immediate relief and to sustain private industry. The most fundamental of these proposed measures, beside food parcels and other relief measures, are wage subsidies, tax relief, loan guarantees and quantitative easing (introducing new money into money supply) measures to stimulate spending and in this way bolster the economy.
In his 21 Apriladdress, Cyril Ramaphosa has certainly obliged them. As part of his Covid-19 economic and social relief package, he pledged ‘R500 billion bailouts’ based on measures along the lines proposed in the open letter. These include R41,6 billion in wage subsidies, R100 billion in cash payments to companies to save jobs, and R70 billion in tax relief, as well as a further established R200 billion loan guarantee facility and R80 billion in massive repo rate cuts (the interest rate at which the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) loans money to the commercial banks).
Although these measures are as comprehensive as could be expected of the state in the current capitalist framework within which they operate, the package is woefully inadequate and in no way represents any break with the neoliberal austerity programme. Not only does it fall short of the R1 trillion package COSATU proposed at NEDLAC, the package is also not really R500 billion worth of ‘stimulus’. Most of the funds are existing funds such as R40 billion from UIF, R130 billion from reprioritising an existing R1,95 trillion budget and 40% of it, R200 billion, is loan guarantees, not actual loans and/or investments. Apart from these, there are unprecedented quantitative easing measures initiated by SARB which, besides 200 basis points cuts in the repo rate to a record low of 4,25%, has unlocked R540 billion by lowering liquidity requirements for the banking industry.
WASP opposes these proposals. As the government bailout blatantly shows, these measures are not only meant for rescuing capitalism in general as was the stated aim of Keynes (after whom Keynesian economics are named), but invariably means using public funds to bail out private business. State power will be wielded to plunder the working class while bolstering big corporate profits.
Even where they appear to be bailing out workers – such as guaranteeing workers’ wages – we still oppose these measures on the basis of private ownership. As with the government measures, the authors effectively propose redirecting public money away from the essential services for the poor in order to pay wages owed by big corporations. These corporations then go on to make profits off the labour of these workers.
The working class is in effect made to pay twice: firstly, by attacks on their working conditions as many of them would not get reduced wages, and secondly, through the increasing cuts to services. To be sure, WASP is fighting for workers to be paid fully during the lockdown whether they are working or not, but we demand that the cash reserves of big corporations and dividends paid to their shareholders be used to pay workers. At most, state support should be limited to small businesses on the basis of a proven need, opening of books, and overseen by workers.
A quick glance at the package makes it clear that whilst the lion’s share of the R500 billion goes to big business, only a pittance is available to the working class and the poor. Less than R100 billion will be spent on fighting COVID-19, expanding municipal services like water, transport, etc. and emergency relief for the poor and small businesses. The same government, which has preached that small businesses and entrepreneurship are solutions to the unemployment and poverty crisis in the country, is providing only an additional R2 billion to the R100 million they spend thus far on ‘SMMEs, spaza shops and informal economy’ compared to hundreds of billions for big business.
Who pays for these measures?
Where these ‘relief’ funds come from is also telling. R130 billion will be from “reprioritizing” of the current budget – which is a nice way to describe savage cuts to spending on housing, education, and other public services essential to the working class. The remainder is to come from government managed funds like the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), Public Investment Corporation (PIC), and be raised from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and BRICS bank amongst others.
While opposing loans from the IMF, World Bank and other international financial institutions, some of the authors have in a separate letter to the Minister of Finance proposed raising funds from the PIC.
WASP argues that, without calling for nationalization of the businesses threatening job losses, this proposal, like the current government package, means risking pension funds of public servants and workers’ savings for unemployment insurance on the speculative activities on which most of these corporations will be using these funds. Most importantly, WASP opposes raiding and plundering workers funds to perpetuate private ownership of the economy and the profiteering of big corporations based on the wage slavery of the working class.
Although the authors oppose the IMF and World Bank loans, it is only on the basis that these are foreign loans that would take the money out of the economy and compromise the country’s “sovereignty”. WASP also opposes IMF and World Bank loans, but we argue that loans from local private banks are no different.
The entire banking industry operates on the basis of the same principle, no matter its national status. Foreign ownership of the debt is not the main problem. Foreign debt has been in decline recently, in addition to record outflows of R57,5 billion in sales of foreign-held bonds in 2018 in anticipation of downgrading of South African public debt to junk status. With an estimated further bond sales of R96 billion upon the downgrade, according to the market strategists Credit Agricole, foreign debt has been plunging below 40% of the country’s bonds. This has changed nothing in so far as the public debt is concerned, which has continued to skyrocket.
Instead of borrowing money, WASP argues that the government should renounce all debt except for the portion that the state owes to the savings and investments of workers and small businesses. A 99% special tax for the super wealthy will still allow Nicky Oppenheimer, and Anton Rupert, to each retain the R1 billion they offered in charity, in exchange for the remaining R99 billion of their R100 billion estates, which, along with others, can be used to compensate workers funds invested in public debt.
Quantitative Easing only aggravates the problem
Quantitative easing is also not a viable solution to the economic downturn, especially due to the crises of oversupply and overcapacity across the economy. This merely underlines the undeniable contradictions of capitalism, including its inescapable tendency for overaccumulation of capital – as inevitable under capitalism, as death is to life. Liquidity is not a factor in the current crisis. If anything, there is too much of it as a result of similar measures in the 2008/9 Great Recession. It will serve to create enormous public and private debt, in addition to the widespread and excessive speculation.
Following the 2008-9 crash, ecentral banks and treasuries the world over injected large sums of cash into the financial markets, and rolled out bailout packages like the current ones. For a whole period, quantitative easing saved big business, drove stock markets to record highs, and through hugely increased debts, the economic meltdown was pushed further down the road. But the hopes that QE will trickle into the real economy and save jobs and industries are delusional. , Because the markets were bloated then, as they are today, there was no outlet for profitable investment. This is the reason South African capitalists are hoarding R1,4 trillion cash in an investment strike and capital formation (investment in new factories, machines and equipment) stagnated. Lack of outlets for profitable investments is also the reason corporations like Pamodzi Gold used R300 million received from the IDC (State-owned bank) bailouts in 2009 to pay its shareholders and directors, before liquidating the company, leaving workers to vultures like Aurora to strip the mines of the remaining assets.
A familiar story
The working class has been down this road before. We know that it led to even bigger crises than the ones the capitalist class tried to avert.
Measures being undertaken by the government and cheered by the economists are like a medication that cures the illness by killing the patient. The Reserve Bank buying treasury bonds can, at best, be a short term measure that will resolve nothing. QE effectively means printing more money and there is no such thing as free money. That it could “work” in the US – for the profiteers and speculators, not the workers – had to do with the exceptional standing of the US dollar as international reserve currency, which means all countries holding dollar reserves subsidise US imperialism. Its value is therefore not entirely linked with the performance of the US economy. Also, the “success” of these measures are entirely relative and can only last in the short term, as cost of living skyrockets, while wages stagnate.
Printing money to hand cash to speculators can further displace the equilibrium in the financial markets and cause serious inflation. WASP does not oppose inflation like rightwing market fundamentalists. We oppose these measures because they will erode the value of workers’ wages and savings, in order to print cash for banks, speculators and other rich parasites.
Working class alternatives
As an alternative, we are fighting for the nationalization of the finance industry including commercial banks and massive private funds in the economy in order to expropriate the R1,4 trillion cash hoarded in banks by big corporations, to instead be used for a massive public works programme. It can be utilized to build decent houses, schools and classrooms to enable social distancing, clinics and hospitals, etc.
Most importantly, worker-controlled public ownership of the finance industry would allow mobilization of the vast savings and surplus capital into productive investment in agriculture and industrialization. This would enable production of adequate food, and manufacturing capacity to produce sufficient PPEs, medical equipment and public transport to combat COVID-19 and equip us against future pandemics.
Workers, as the only class with organized power at the point of production, must fight to achieve this. The working class must take over businesses threatening closure and job losses to force nationalization from below – through factory, mine and land occupations. Working in support of the education and organization of workers’ and community struggles is the pressing task of the hour for anyone yearning to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and fundamentally change society.
It should be without question that the state invests in public spending, those who argue that grants are merely creating a “dependency syndrome” are effectively saying people should be left to suffer, even when they had no hand in creating the crisis. However, we have no illusion that bailouts are sustainable. Capitalism, with profit making as its driving force, likes to play a “cross that bridge when I come to it” game, and when the crisis is over, it’s business as usual – exploitation and looting continues.
The above measures, in addition to nationalization of the other sectors of the economy under the democratic control and management of the working class would form a basis for a democratically planned economy and socialism, for which the working class must organize, unite and struggle. Workers control will make sure the economy is planned and a response to crises such as pandemics and climate change take place early and swiftly. Most importantly, responses would value the lives of everyone, and not be informed by profit motives, as we see in the reopening of economies worldwide – including Ramaphosa’s latest (23 April) announcement that South Africa will gradually reopen business, made on the same day as our highest cases of infections and deaths to date were announced.
Originally published 18. March 2020
Issue #2 of uManyano lwaBasebenzi is going to print as South Africa and the world is further engulfed in crises sparked by the Coronavirus pandemic every day. It is clear we are at the beginning of a monumental historical turning point.
Stock exchanges have woken up to reality. The Dow Jones in the US fell by 12,9% on March 16 – worse than the 1929 crash that set off the Great Depression. In Italy, markets lost 70% of their value in mere days. China recorded a 13% drop in industrial output in Jan-Feb and is set for -9% GDP “growth” in the first quarter of 2020 (its first economic contraction since 1976!). The world economy, volatile even before the pandemic, is entering recession – the question is how deep will it fall and for how long.
Globally, governments are responding with fiscal stimuli, new “quantitative easing” and slashing interest rates to boost businesses – raining money on banks rather than hospitals.
As lockdowns set in, many states try to cushion the effects on workers and small businesses, as with the suggested UIF boost in SA. It’s too early to assess the effects, but a shift towards state intervention is clear. Spain’s nationalisation of private health care will likely not be the last of these measures of self-preservation.
The ruling class suddenly claims that “we are all in the same boat” – and fear that it will be turned around by the great unwashed who provide the rowing power. They are throwing in all their tools, conjurations and cash to steady the capitalist boat, and will let millions of lives be lost in the process.
Governments and big businesses will apply shock doctrine methods to try to effect sweeping changes to get by now and to salvage a post-Corona-capitalism.
Amid the shock and fear, extraordinary powers are granted to the repressive cores of states, and restrictions on democratic rights, like the rights to assemble and to strike are introduced.
Jobs are slashed: up to 40% of China’s 300 million migrant workers have lost their incomes, 18% of US workers have lost their jobs or had hours cut. Preliminary forecasts show South Africa’s GDP could shrink by up to 7%.
For the working class in South Africa, the pandemic is a blow upon blows. It hits on top of climate change-fuelled drought and an economy already in recession. It will hammer a state set to impose unprecedented budget cuts on public services already woefully underfunded.
Ramaphosa claims that at this “greatest Thuma Mina-moment”, “we” must show “solidarity […] and compassion”. Beyond the recommended precautions everyone should take – which the working class and poor are largely unable to – what he really means is that the exploited and oppressed should bow down and be “sent” to save the profit system that knows no compassion for us; close ranks with the very people responsible for this mess, who allowed the virus to spread and rendered health care systems incapable of managing it.
Both the government and SAFTU leaders say “we” are at war against the virus. At the onset of actual wars, class lines are blurred. As wars play out however, they can expose the real challenges facing the working class, and trigger revolutionary upheaval. We must prepare for similar perspectives.
The case for public and democratically planned services and systems in health care, education, water, public transport, food distribution; for directing society’s resources to what is actually important – the case for a socialist South Africa and world – is stronger than ever.
WASP is determined to resolutely make this case and to find ways to strengthen the organisation of the working classes worldwide. Our solidarity is with the health care workers, co-workers, and neighbours; with those trapped in wars and refugee camps, with the worldwide mass uprising of 2019 put on hold (for now).
Contrary to what the SAFTU leadership apparently believes, there exists no “COVID-proof” capitalism, even if it did, it is not the worker leaders’ task to fall in line as advisors to capital on illusory “Keynesian” escape routes.
There will be a before and after Corona. As socialists, we must do all we can to ensure that the “after” is renewed, revolutionary mobilisations to replace this sick system with a society organised to care for the needs of people, not profits. That struggle starts now.
Yours in solidarity,
The uManyano Editorial Team
Stay-tuned for up-to-date analysis as the COVID19 crisis unfolds.
WASP EC Statement
At the time of writing, the recorded spread of the Coronavirus spans 157 countries, with 62 known cases in South Africa, figures sure to be outdated by the time this is read. Within its few months of existence, this virus has begun to lay bare every fundamental failure of capitalism.
The spread of the novel Coronavirus (or SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes (COVID-19) has rapidly become a pandemic – a globally spread epidemic. There are still uncertainties about how best to contain and control the spread of corona.
What is clear is that the virus spreads rapidly and that it can and will kill. With mortality estimates for now ranging between 0,7-3,4%, and estimations that 30-70% of populations will be infected, inadequate health care systems risk being overwhelmed, as evident from China to Italy.
Capitalism, its blind chase for profits and its neoliberal austerity are behind the failure to contain and respond to the Coronavirus.
For weeks, Chinese authorities suppressed and covered up, allowing the virus a head start in the interest of “stability” and profits-as-usual for big business. Its global spread has exposed the deadly impact of decades of austerity, deregulation and privatisation of health care in combination with precarious livelihoods.
South Africa is set to be extraordinarily hard-hit. With over 20% of the population aged 15-49 HIV-positive, one of the world’s highest TB infection rates, and widespread malnutrition, it’s fair to assume that the portion of those infected who will need critical care will be higher than in many other countries – which our class-divided, two-tier, understaffed health care system is not fit for.
Both rural and urban areas provide disastrously conducive conditions for the spread of the virus. On top of the unaddressed Apartheid legacy of “bantustan” devastation and massive inequality, ANC’s rule has meant decades of underfunding and mismanagement of water supply, infrastructure, housing, health care, and education. Climate change and the predatory mining industry mean destruction of water resources and rural livelihoods.
The results include mass unemployment, with desperate precarious workers who face the “choice” of going to work sick or going hungry. Overcrowded buses, trains and taxis stand for over 70% of transport. Millions live in packed townships and shacks.
In schools, standard class size is 40 learners, with the poorest schools which also routinely lack water and sanitation often exceeding this. The broken education system makes a mockery of the idea of effective online learning for the vast majority.
Likewise, the basic hygiene recommended to protect from infection is a cruel joke to many. In rural areas, 74% get water from wells and pumps – many of which run dry amid the worst drought in a thousand years. In urban areas, many depend on taps shared by whole communities. Water cut offs hit millions of those lucky enough to have piped water at home.
Workers must take action now to slow the spread and ramp up the capacity of health care.
Capitalists and their governments will put profit before people, just as they are doing with the climate crisis. WASP calls on trade unions, students, communities and other movements of the working classes to organise for the following:
- Allow all who can to work from home, special leave without loss pay for others, except workers essential for provision of health services, food and other necessities.
- Safe working conditions for all: protective gear, anti-transmission training, regular testing, breaks for recovery, full pay and compensation, safe transport and accommodation.
- No restriction of democratic rights like right to strike and organise.
- Shut down schools, universities, colleges and pre-schools immediately to limit the spread; provide special childcare for essential services workers.
- Roll out free testing at temporary stations in all communities; quality medical services and medication for all.
- Free soap, water and sanitisers in every public space, workplace and poor community.
- Stop and reverse all water and electricity cut offs, supply water to all households.
- No profiteering off the pandemic – nationalise all private health institutions, medical aids, labs and pharmaceutical corporations under democratic workers control; to produce test kits, medicine and protective gear according to need.
- Price caps for all necessities – no opportunistic price gouging!
- Avail hotels, guest houses, empty apartments etc to quarantine those in need.
- Basic income grant and supply of free basic food and utilities for precarious workers and others forced to stay home and in need.
- Stop all retrenchments, nationalise any company that defies ban; halt the government’s austerity plan – all hands on deck to to fight the crisis.
- Mass employment and training of health assistants and community healthcare workers to contain the spread and ensure treatment and services at point of need.
- Suspend payments of rent, rates, water and electricity tariffs; emergency loans to small businesses in need.
- A complete end to evictions.
- Set up import-substituting industries to ensure continuous supply of all essential needs for which the country currently depends on imports.
- Permanent, secure and decent-paying jobs and training for all workers including in community health care, home-based care, food production, distribution and retail.
- Build a single, public, national health care service for all.
- Massive public works programme to overcome backlogs in housing, schooling infrastructure, hospitals and clinics, piped water supply, for safe public transport.
- Reorganise the economy on the basis of public ownership of all key resources (eg banks, mines, big businesses) for a democratic plan to put need for health, education, housing, work, water, sustainable food and energy production first.
We risk catastrophic consequences and must organise a general stay-away of workers, communities and young people if the government doesn’t take these and many other measures to mobilise society to combat the pandemic and save lives.