A public sector strike that mobilised over a million workers over 20 days has been suspended, with unions winning gains but many workers thinking they could win more.
The strike is the biggest in the history of South Africa, which is the largest and most significant economy in the continent. Action began in August after workers rejected bosses’ pay offer of 7% and its offer to increase the housing allowance to 700 Rand per month.
The scope of the strike soon expanded to take in other issues, such as medical allowances.
Teachers’ leader Thobile Ntola said “This strike is not only about the increment of salaries. It’s not about housing. It’s about the delivery of public services, but this can only be done by focused, committed and passionate workers.”
The impact of the strike was enormous, with countless public sector workplaces forced to close as huge sections of the economy were brought to virtual standstills. When the strike began, it was indefinite and the levels of militancy were high. Nomusa Cembi, also a teacher militant, said “the current macroeconomic policy is responsible for low wages in the public services. The strike programme will include a total shut down of institutions.”
The strike even mobilised police and prison guards, state employees not known for their class consciousness or readiness to involve themselves in working-class industrial action on a progressive basis. Other sections of the state machinery were used to undermine the strike — 2,800 military personnel being deployed as cover in hospital.
The strike began to draw in other workers from the private sector. In a statement announcing its support for the strike, the mine-workers’ union said “We are angry that whilst those who are privileged have children go to school overseas; our children have turned into street kids. The NUM fully supports the public sector strike and would next week Thursday ensure that every mining operation, every construction site and every energy worker joins the public sector strike in different forms.”
Despite claiming that there was no money available to increase the pay offer, it was increased during negotiations. The strike has rocked the traditionally close relationship between trade unions and the ANC and served as a reminder that the ANC is a neo-liberal, anti-worker administration of a capitalist state.