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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 3, No. 18, 15 September 2004

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Let us not lose sight of workers’ rights: SACP statement on the impending strike in the public service

By Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

On Thursday 16th September, we are likely to have the largest strike by public service workers since our democratic breakthrough in 1994. The SACP is not in the habit of involving itself directly in the details of any collective bargaining issue or dispute, especially when it relates to remuneration. We believe such details should be left to the parties in dispute, and we have confidence in our trade union movement to handle such matters.

In this case, we fully agree with the expressed sentiment of both parties that they would have liked to avoid this strike. We are still hopeful that, even at this late hour, the parties will find a solution and avert a crippling strike in the public service. We urge the parties to the dispute to continue seeking a solution to this impasse.

However, we do have a deeper concern around some of the debates and issues raised in the lead up to this strike. Whenever there is a dispute in the public service, there is a disturbing tendency to headline disruptions to services to learners, pensioners and other recipients, while the legitimate concerns of public service workers are entirely marginalised.

This is tantamount to political and moral blackmail of public service workers. It is an approach that pits the rights of workers against those of the rest of the population, as if public service workers and their families were not also citizens, learners and pensioners. This approach relegates to the bottom the rights of workers to advance their collective interests, including the fundamental right to strike. There is no such hierarchy of rights in our constitution.

The SACP agrees that the various constitutional rights need to be balanced to ensure that we are able to foster a people-centred and people-driven democracy, with sustainable growth and development. However, there is an incessant campaign of denigration of the public sector by the privileged, those who, precisely, do not depend on public schools for their childrens’ education, on public hospitals for their own health-care, or on the state for their pensions. The wealthy in our society want to roll-back, down-size and generally gut the public sector, while at the same time constantly berating it for “inefficient” services to the poor.

Over the last period, government has defended, with growing conviction, the public sector and the workers in it as a key strategic resource, absolutely essential for addressing our manifold challenges of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment. However, over the past decade this has not always been as strongly asserted as it is now. The present, threatened strike needs also to be understood against a background in which tens of thousands of public service workers have had to cope with the daily pressures of over-burdened and under-resourced public institutions on the one hand, while being told that they are “supernumeraries”, “lazy”, “irresponsible” and basically only fit for the scrap-heap. We are not saying that all public service workers are equally energetic or committed, but the constant denigration of the public sector and the workers in it needs to be understood for what it is – the class agenda of a tiny minority in our society.

We reject the attempt to project all worker struggles as inherently selfish, and the attempt to pit workers’ interests against the interests of the rest of the population. We shall defend workers’ rights in the same way as we defend the right of learners to learn. However, these are overwhelmingly the children of the very same workers. It is the wages of workers that ensure that hundreds of thousands of learners are fed, and the costs of education, including transport and expensive school uniforms are met. It is with workers’ wages that desperate needs of millions of unemployed and sickly are addressed as best as possible. In a country with such high levels of poverty and with 40 percent unemployment, typically the salary of a nurse, a teacher, or a municipal worker is not just an individual worker’s resource, but a social wage for an extended family network.

The SACP calls for a holistic approach in dealing with the current dispute. Much as the SACP would not like to see the disruption of public services, we fully support the right of workers to strike.

The SACP also notes the persisting structural problems in public service wage negotiations. These negotiations take place after the finalisation of the budget. This places both government and the unions in a perpetually difficult situation. With the budget passed by parliament, government has little space to manoeuvre, and the unions’ collective bargaining rights are severely curtailed. We are of the view that in addressing this year’s impasse, we need to quickly move to address this matter as well, perhaps by aligning the negotiations process more actively with government’s medium-term expenditure framework cycle.

The SACP remains hopeful that even at this late hour a solution will be found. However, the right of workers to strike must also be fully respected.

Hamba Kahle Mam’ Ray: A tribute to a communist giant  

As the country and our Party were mourning the passing away of that stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle, Rev Beyers Naude (Oom Bey), we lost another giant of our struggle Cde Ray Alexander. Coincidentally these are two white South Africans, a woman and a man, almost of the same age, both with a proud record of fighting against a system that favoured white South Africans. For the SACP these two stalwarts represent the huge contribution that has been made by some of our white compatriots in the liberation and reconstruction of our country. Their lives challenge us to think about who is a ‘white’ South African, what it means to be a white South African, in the past, present and future. It is a fundamental challenge to the notion of ‘white South African’ shaped by years of colonial and apartheid rule, and fostered today by those political parties playing on ‘white fears’.

In a separate piece in this edition, we pay a fuller tribute to Oom Bey. Here we pay tribute to Mam’Ray. Cde Ray Alexander is an embodiment of the best that South African communists have contributed over the last eight decades to the liberation and reconstruction of our country. From her teens through her entire adult life she dedicated herself to the cause of national liberation, workers’ rights, gender equality and socialism. Cde Ray, both as an activist and Marxist theoretician, straddles the three key components of our tripartite alliance – the non-racial, progressive labour movement, the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress. Her life and struggles are simultaneously a story of our Alliance.

Cde Ray is amongst the pioneers of the non-racial progressive trade union movement, today principally represented by COSATU. Her struggle was part of the struggle to reclaim the identity and rights of black workers as workers. She was part of building a non-racial trade union movement in the wake of the racial division of South Africa’s working class and the co-option of white workers by the white colonial and apartheid state. The Industrial Conciliation Act, 1924, only defined white workers as employees with full bargaining and voting rights. This piece of legislation denied black workers their rights to collective bargaining, whilst the white minority state denied them their rights as full citizens. That today COSATU is the largest trade union federation in the country is directly a result of the foundations built by the likes of Cde Ray. The best way to honour her is to strengthen the progressive trade union movement and redouble our efforts towards building one giant non-racial trade union federation in our country.

Most impressive about Cde Ray’s life was that, here was a fifteen year old, white immigrant girl, joiningthe Communist Party of South Africa 5 days after her arrival in the country, and diving into trade union work amongst African and Coloured workers in the Western Cape. She plunged into this work in the midst of a dominant colonial racist oligarchy in South Africa at the time.

Incidentally Cde Ray passes away just weeks before we launch our Red October campaign on land, agrarian transformation and the need to organise farmworkers. Among Cde Ray’s most important organizing achievements was her work in the food, canning, farming and fishing industries and the formation of the Food and Canning Workers Union. There can be no better tribute to her than to intensify this work. To this end the SACP dedicates our 2004 Red October Campaign to the memory, life and struggles of Cde Ray.

Cde Ray was not only a communist activist, trade union organiser and combatant of the liberation movement, she was one of our theoreticians. She was a Marxist-Leninist, through and through till her last days. She was a member of our party for more than 75 years. She was amongst the pioneers of what we today proudly refer to as ‘Our Marxism’ – the Marxism of the South African Communist Party. It is a Marxism that has evolved through concrete struggles to understand the relationship between the class and the national questions, and later the gender question in our revolution. Cde Ray and Jack Simons book, Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850-1950, published in 1965 was a major contribution to the evolution of our Marxism. It is this Marxism that made an enormous contribution towards the liberation of our country, and the building of a strong Alliance, headed by the ANC. Indeed Cde Ray has bequeathed our revolution with a rich and proud legacy. We can honour her theoretical contribution by ensuring that we continue to foster debate to further enrich our Marxism, in line with the challenges of the period.

Guided by ‘Our Marxism’, Cde Ray knew that communists should also be active in the ANC. Cde Ray made an enormous contribution in the ANC, particularly in the days of the underground. Yet, she went about doing this work in a very unassuming and quiet way. It was for this reason that the ANC this year decided to award her with Isithwalandwe, the highest award by the ANC, thus joining the likes of Nelson Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba and Joe Slovo.

One of the big challenges that the SACP faces is to recruit more women communists. We have made some significant strides in the current period, but they are far from adequate. Cde Ray must serve as an inspiration to working class women, as the struggle for socialism is simultaneously a struggle for the liberation of women. Our liberation will always remain incomplete for as long as women remain oppressed and imprisoned in unequal gender relations. There is no better tribute we can pay to Mam’Ray than the organisation and mobilisation of all the women of our country, with working class women at the head.

Perhaps there are two most important things we should learn from Mam’Ray as communists. Firstly, that being a communist means selfless sacrifice and not just the carrying and flashing of a red card. Secondly that being a communist is a lifelong commitment, not something to be chosen when it appears fashionable and dumped when it seems to be unfashionable. Her struggles as a communist straddle both the rise of the communist movement, and its decline with the collapse of the Soviet Union. During all her life and the trials and tribulations of the communist movement, she never wavered, she remained a communist till the end.

Hamba Kahle Mam’Ray, Hamba Kahle Qhawe lamaQhawe, Hamba Kahle Bomvu Elihle!


SACP honours Ray and Naude


In the same week that Comrade Ray Alexander passed away, South Africa will also be burying another stalwart in the fight against apartheid.

This last week has seen South Africans of all persuasions celebrating the life of Beyers Naude, a committed Christian, an uncompromising democrat and courageous Afrikaner whose was a life of dedication to peace, democracy, non-racialism and justice for all.

Naude represented a moral reference point for all those who opposed the moral and religious basis of the apartheid system. As an Afrikaner who opposed apartheid, like Bram Fischer, he was faced with isolation, exclusion and persecution from his own community and the apartheid establishment.

This required tremendous personal courage and conviction which exposed the fallacy of using religion for racial and other forms of oppression and exploitation. The SACP salutes this unique revolutionary

How will we honour him? Naude opted for the poor. The South Africa we must build today must opt for the workers and the poor in all aspects of social, economic and political life. This also requires the church in South Africa today to continue with its focus on the socio-economic conditions of the workers and the poor. As an Afrikaner, Naude's life is a challenge to all Afrikaners today to respond to the call to build a new non-racial and egalitarian South Africa.

There is no other destiny for Afrikaners other than a united South Africa that Naude fought for. For the Communist Party, this also requires the ongoing focus on building a non-racial South Africa, and the organisation and unity of the Afrikaner section of the working class with the rest of South Africa's workers in their struggle against retrenchments and shareholder fundamentalism.


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