Volume 6, No. 11, 20 June 2007
Class and ideological struggles in the state and the economy: Some lessons from the public service strike and beyond
Blade Nzimande, General Secretary
We are still in the midst of what is clearly the biggest and longest public sector strike ever in the history of our country. Perhaps it is too early to undertake a comprehensive analysis and understand the full meaning of this dispute and strike.
Whilst this can be regarded as a normal dispute between ‘employers and employees’, it would be mistaken not to tease out some of the key underlying issues in the dispute. The strike is both a ‘normal’ employer-employee dispute, but simultaneously about deeper class and ideological struggles in the state and the economy in contemporary South African society. It is therefore important to tease out some of these for the sake of understanding the deeper challenges facing the national democratic revolution in the current period.
Some in the media and other commentators have been trying hard to locate the strike in what they have referred to as the ‘ANC succession battle’. This habit of wanting to explain all that is happening especially in government and within the Tripartite Alliance through the prism of the so-called ‘succession-battle’, is not only an expression of increasing intellectual laziness and sensationalism engulfing our media in general but has the danger of blurring very critical policy and political issues and contemporary struggles shaping our democracy.
Some journalists and analysts even went to the extent of explaining the intensity of last Wednesday’s day of intensified action by strikers in KwaZulu-Natal, as a reflection of the fact that the ANC Deputy President has the ‘largest backing in this province’. In the process of doing this, a number of critical issues are lost through this ‘succession paradigm’. For instance, some of the most significant features of this strike is that we have seen almost unprecedent worker unity across the ideological, racial and professional divides. In addition this is the biggest, most militant and the longest public service strike ever in the history of our country. The ‘succession paradigm’ completely fails to comprehend these dynamics and developments.
The biggest casualty of these sensationalist analyses is obscuring the nature and character of class and ideological struggles during the second decade of our freedom. Perhaps this is not an accident, as the very debates around the ‘succession battle’ have themselves become a platform for intense (class and gender) ideological struggles and agendas.
Some of our international allies have asked us as to how come a government led by an allied formation faces such a massive public service strike led by an allied trade union federation. This of course could mean a number of things. Firstly it could mean that control of government does not mean control of the state and its orientation. Or that the imperatives of governance for a national liberation movement tend to put a strain on alliances forged during the era of the national liberation struggles. To pose these questions by no means imply that in post-colonial situations there are no legitimate differences between ‘employers and employees’. Nor does it mean that governments of former national liberation movement should always accept all or any of worker demands. It is however always important to interrogate these matters on an ongoing basis, as some of them have in many other situations cumulatively led to serious ruptures between national liberation movements and their erstwhile allies. It is therefore important to always interrogate some of the underlying factors in such situations, especially given the scale of the current strike.
The SACP has correctly come out in support of this strike. This does not mean that the SACP supports any or every strike by virtue of being a workers’ strike. We have however firmly supported this strike because we believe that a lot has to be done to improve the wages and conditions of service of public sector workers in this country thirteen years into our democracy. Foremost among these reasons is that the working conditions of many of the public service workers still remain appalling (eg. teachers without classrooms, without the most basic of facilities; hospitals without basic services and support staff, failure to close the apartheid wage gap, etc).
Whilst many of these conditions were inherited from apartheid, we believe that there have been unsatisfactory responses to these mainly because of the contractionary and contradictory economic policies followed by government since 1996. Whilst we have been told that the earlier GEAR-inspired government savings are now bearing fruit since we have more money to spend, the effect of those earlier savings completely undermined government capacity to now spend. Building a ‘lean and mean’, ‘downsized and rightsized’ state severely compromised the capacity of the public sector to drive a developmental agenda. It is indeed extremely problematic that a country with such massive developmental challenges boasts a budget surplus, whilst simultaneously giving billions of Rands to big business in terms of tax cuts. There is even no debate within our broader movement on how this surplus is to be used to address our developmental challenges.
The roots of this strike therefore, especially its scale, are to be found in what we have articulated all along. While it is easy to claim victories of earlier Gear savings and reduction of budget deficit, the social deficit that those ‘victories’ have produced will create an even deeper crisis. At the heart of the strike is that public sector workers wages and conditions of service have worsened over the years because of earlier beliefs and policies that it is possible and necessary to have a ‘lean and mean state’ and ‘a downsized public service’ and at the same time hope to deliver on the kinds of demands for service delivery which was eroded by decades of apartheid.
Perhaps the fundamental debate that this strike surfaces is on what kind of developmental state we have built thus far, what kind of developmental state do we need, and therefore what should be the shape and size of, and working conditions in, our public service. This we believe should be at the heart of the debates at next week’s ANC Policy Conference. But it is a discussion and debate that should be taken beyond the Policy Conference into alliance discussions and ultimately set the framework for proper engagement between government and public sector trade unions.
The SACP has welcomed some of the most important shifts in aspects of government economic policies since about 2002/3, especially the commitment to continued state ownership of key parastatals and increased investment into infrastructure. However, as we have consistently pointed out, this shift is more informed by a strategy to ‘lower the cost of doing business’, instead of lowering the cost of living, within an overall orientation of restoration of capitalist profitability as the answer to our developmental challenges. This is what the SACP’s response to the ANC policy document calls, ‘seeing double’; seeing both the need to move away from some of the GEAR assumptions, whilst unable to go beyond those!
In addition the imperatives of building a developmental state are subjected to this paradigm of ‘lowering the cost of doing business’, ‘restoration of capitalist profitability’, and inflation targeting. Instead the fundamental question is what kind of developmental state do we need in order to overcome the legacy of colonialism of a special type, and therefore what kind of macro-economic instruments do we need to achieve this. But we seem to have an inverted strategy, whose outcome is that the kind of ‘developmental state’ emerging is more determined by the capitalist market and macro-economic indicators, thus severely compromising the developmental objectives we have set for ourselves.
Whilst acknowledging that government cannot always be able to afford any trade union wage demand, there are other constraints that government has placed on itself thus unable to creatively respond to the working conditions in the public service. It is our considered opinion that giving substantial increases and improvements in the conditions of service of public servants would undermine the logic and strategy of ‘lowering the cost of doing business’ would send a wrong signals to the broader capitalist labour market, thus putting pressure on capitalist employers to give higher wage increases, thus increasing the cost of doing business.
If anything, the public sector strike has exposed the limitations of economic policies premised on inflation targeting, lowering the cost of doing business and restoration of capitalist profitability. In other words it is a further expression of the crisis faced by the 1996 Class Project!
For the SACP this strike and its underlying features underline the fundamental importance of our Medium Term Vision (MTV), that of building working class hegemony in all key sites of power, especially in the state. Indeed our own 12th Congress next month will have to further reflect on the meaning and implication of this strike, within the context of further elaborating on the MTV.
In particular the very welcome broad worker unity amongst public sector trade unions is a critical platform not only for building broader trade union unity, but as a platform for building working class power both in the state and in the workplace.