Unity of the working class is very important during this critical period
The current ongoing economic crisis is not just about Covid-19 but reflects an inability of bourgeois class forces to find a resolution to the systemic and deep existential crisis of the capitalist system. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened an already bad situation. This crisis is primarily borne out of contradictions of capitalism, in which production is social and the fruits of labour are appropriated privately by a handful of people.
We are witnessing not just the concentration of capital and wealth in the hands of a few; but the financialisaton of the economy due to the systemic and chronic stagnation of the productive sectors of the economy; and the systematic attack on the social functions of the State that has been achieved through struggle of the workers and peoples.
In South Africa, the capitalist crisis has driven down standards of living and the livelihoods of millions of people. Unemployment has risen, wages remain depressed, and our economy has been experiencing a long downward drag.
The working class has been confronted by challenges of access to quality public health, education, transport, etc. Despite remaining the majority of the population, it has been reduced into a status of passive recipients of ever shrinking state grants and other services such as free housing precisely because of its hopeless and miserable socio-economic conditions that do not allow it to afford the basic necessities of life. As poverty increases, so is the overall growth of class and social inequality.
The government’s approach to economic transformation is focused on the integration of few black elites into the economic structures of ownership while leaving these structures unchanged. This integrationist strategy that does not tamper with the capitalist logic of accumulation means that workers cannot look at the current government to defend and liberate the working class from this economic quagmire.
In fact, the government’s response to this unprecedented crisis has been to impose extreme sacrifices upon the workers. Structural adjustments are being imposed under the guise of managing our national debt and a Neo-liberal re-engineering is put in place and intensified to achieve bigger aims than to simply deal with the national debt and Covid-19 crisis.
Workers are being retrenched at an alarming rate, collective bargaining is under attack and the government austerity cuts have resulted in the defunding of critical social services and strategic labour market institutions.
Experience in other countries has taught us that the elite has often succeeded in their offensive against the workers where unions are weak and fractured, mostly over narrow sectarian differences.
Currently, there are 205 trade unions and 24 trade unions federations registered with the Department of Labour and they are organising only about 26% of the workforce.
Cosatu’s membership stands at around 1, 8 million, and about 2, 4 million other organised workers belong to non-Cosatu affiliated unions. Overall, about 73% of all workers in South Africa are disorganised.
This is gravely worrying and should make all unions and federations pause and reflect because it means that almost 10 million workers are disorganised in South Africa. This speaks to the fragmentation and sectarianism of the trade union movement.
The current economic developments should send a very clear message to the working class that sectarianism and fragmentation are not options or solutions any longer. The unity of the working class, starting with the organised component of the working class the trade union movement is very important during this critical period. Trade unions should abandon their narrow sectarian differences and start to cooperate and work together.
At this critical juncture, the strategic task of the working class and its leading detachment in the trade union movement is to effectively mobilise around a more radical programme to overcome systematic features of growing unemployment, obscene inequality, and mass poverty in a context of the current economic crisis.
This includes working together to develop an elaborate strategy aimed at building working class power inside and outside the workplace.
There is a need for trade unions to unite with a range of mass formations organising students, women, religious groups, and youth to among other things build and strengthen working class power in society. Permanent mobilisation of the working class and the poor, through variety of their organisations is necessary to build capacity and momentum against this working class onslaught.
The present crisis of capitalism and the crisis of hegemony Neo-liberalism provide a conducive climate for the mass organizations to engage in wider debates on the question of an alternative economic model to stand up to and replace Neo-liberalism and the “ free market”.
Starting with the current deadlock in the public service wage negotiations, unions and social organisations should respond with militancy and programmes of the mass-line. This will mean embarking on sustained acts of civil disobedience. This also includes mass picketing; sympathy strikes and solidarity rallies embracing the widest sections of workers both in the public and the private sector.
Workers need to work together to send a message to the existing power structure that they are fed up and they have had enough. The solution is to unite and work together to dismantle the current system of power through mobilisation because sitting down and allowing narrow differences to continue to cause divisions amongst unions is traitorous and suicidal. It is tantamount to accepting the death sentence that is handed to workers by the political and business power structure.
* Bheki Ntshalintshali is the General Secretary of Cosatu.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.