Steel Strike and Riots in Neoliberal South Africa!

By Marty Goodman

This article was written on October 17, before the recent strike settlement.

     An October 5 strike of 155,000 steelworkers by the rebel National United Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and working-class riots in July have shaken South African capitalism.

     Zwelinzima Vavi, the popular General Secretary of the nation’s second largest union federation, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) – which includes NUMSA – has called for a general strike in support of steelworkers.

     NUMSA, which has 330,000 members, broke from the ruling capitalist African National Congress (ANC) in 2013 and is striking in the metals and engineering sectors for a wage increase of 8% across the board in the first year, followed by a 2% increase plus cost-of-living increases in the second year. NUMSA accepted no raises in 2020 because of COVID’s impact, which claimed more than 88,000 lives in South Africa and was accompanied by a GDP drop of more than 7% in 2020. During wage talks, an organization of some 1,000 employers, called SEIFSA, offered a 4.4% increase for the current year, 0.5% plus in the second year. The inflation rate in South Africa is about 5%.

     The strike has already impacted South Africa’s auto production, an important sector in the country’s floundering economy.

     On Oct. 8, one striker was killed when a car – deliberately, reports say – ran over a picketer in Wadeville, southeast of Johannesburg. Others have been shot at with rubber bullets while picketing Diesel Electric. One worker was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet at point blank range, said the union. Dozens more were injured by rubber bullets from cops and private security – a bigger industry in South Africa than its army and police combined!

     The union response, which should have been massive, including the ANC’s COSATU union federation, the country’s largest, was seemingly minimal.

     Striker Solomon Lindiwe told the UK’s Socialist Worker, “We are very determined. Our pay is not enough. I have been working for a company for 12 years in a skilled trade and I get only 8,500 Rand (about $578) a month. “Many in my family have no job so I have to help them too. “It has been hard during coronavirus but now we want to be paid our share. We must have rallies and make sure that nobody goes to work. It must be a strong strike, not days off.”

     In Johannesburg, thousands of strikers marched to the bosses’ offices. The union issued a statement condemning the company’s aim “to bring back apartheid wages where super-exploitation of black and African labor becomes the order of the day.” NUMSA General Secretary, Irvin Jim, told the crowd, “We are not backing down, this is an indefinite strike until all demands are met!”

     The condition of the working class in South Africa is a horror, often referred to as “economic apartheid.” Unemployment is nearing 43%, with 63% unemployment among young people (15-24 years old) and poverty standing at around 49%. In 1995, a year after the fall of apartheid, the unemployment rate was 16.9%. Contributing to unemployment was an investment strike by capitalists for the last two decades. Capitalists exploit worker desperation, lowering wages.

     Inequality has increased since 1994 under ANC rule, says the World Bank. According to the World Bank (2018) the bottom 60% of the country’s population control only 7% of resources, while the top 10% own 71% of all wealth! Its capitalist class is considered by the corporate consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers to be the world’s most corrupt.

About 81% of the country’s 60 million people are Black, 8% are White and the balance are mixed race or of Asian descent. A 2017 state-commissioned audit showed a third of rural land was owned by individuals, with 72% of that in White hands, while companies and trusts held 43%. The ANC government had set a target of redistributing 24.5 million hectares to those who had been disadvantaged by the racially discriminatory system by 2014, but it has only acquired 8.9 million hectares so far. Between 2011 and 2012, the mean monthly income for white people was about $1,675, only $469 for Blacks and $635 for “coloureds,” i.e., people of South Asian origin. Oxfam reported that in 2020 qualified black women earned 24% less than white women doing similar work.


     The post-apartheid economy is driven by the austerity-crazed policies of the U.S.-dominated World Bank, the racist financiers of pre-1994 apartheid. Anti-apartheid ANC icon President Nelson Mandela cut an $800 million largely secret World Bank loan deal during the onset of post-apartheid South Africa.                   

     Once in power, the ANC implemented anti-worker, neo-liberal austerity programs. Back in 1992,  Joe Slovo, a leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP), offered the key compromise of a “sunset clause,” to be included into the new South African constitution, which dropped all references to nationalizations. In 1996, when launching the ANC’s neoliberal “GEAR” program, the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki, an AIDS denialist who became Mandela’s hand-picked successor, said, “Just call me a Thatcherite.” (See Socialist Action, “South Africa: The ANC Monopoly is Over,” August 2019).


     Those counter-revolutionary policies were part and parcel of the Stalinist SACP’s program, whose political leadership still guides the ANC, followed the lead of the post-Lenin USSR Premier, Joseph Stalin. Stalin’s privileged bureaucracy brutally murdered the old revolutionary leadership, including Leon Trotsky. Like Stalinized parties around the world, SACP politics lurched right, re-casting Third-World revolutions into two stages: first a capitalist stage and, secondly, at some indeterminate time – hopefully never for bureaucrats – the fight for socialism. The perspective was crafted into South Africa’s “Freedom Charter,” to the delight of capitalists.

     South Africa’s current billionaire President, Cyril Ramaphosa, once a union militant but now called “the butcher of Marikana” for his role as a platinum mine boss who urged cops to go after strikers. With Ramaphosa’s encouragement, ANC cops gunned down unarmed strikers on August 16, 2012, murdering 34 and wounding many others (See the powerful award-winning film, “Miners Shot Down,” Rehad Desai, 2014).


     On July 7, former President and ANC leader Jacob Zuma was jailed on contempt of court for failing to cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry’s investigation into Zuma’s massive theft of government resources. His arrest sparked extensive looting in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal and also in Gauteng.

     In response to the violence and as part of an ongoing internal ANC war between the Zuma and Ramaphosa factions, 25,000 troops were sent to bolster local police, the largest dispatch of soldiers since the 1994 fall of apartheid. Thus far, over 300 civilians have been killed, some in stampedes for essentials. Estimates of monetary damages to malls, banks, food stores and some 50,000 retail shops is about $3.4 billion. An estimated 100,000 jobs have been lost.

     Twelve alleged pro-Zuma riot plotters were arrested.

     In July, Blacks who entered or merely approached the town of Phoenix, an Indian majority town founded by Mahatma Gandhi in northern Durban, were brutally attacked, reminiscent of racist violence under apartheid. Outrageously, 36 Blacks died there at the hands of racist goons. The Democratic Alliance, a conservative party that runs second to the ANC in elections, called the vigilantes “heroes.” The ANC denounced the Democratic Alliance and the killers as “racists.” Dozens were arrested – but justice demands their swift prosecution!

     The Zuma wing has tacked to the left politically in its challenge to Ramaphosa. Zuma, a politician of working-class background and little education, has attacked Ramaphosa for the appalling inequality (described above) and for abandoning Mandela’s overall reformist, but not revolutionary, political vision. The Zuma forces have rallied around the ex-president’s populist rhetoric in his Radical Economic Transformation instead of attacking Ramaphosa as a neo-liberal capitalist. Much of Zuma’s support comes from his home base in the Zulu dominated regions, home of the infamous Inkatha Freedom Party that collaborated with apartheid. Some in Inkatha made a tentative peace with the ANC, but remain Inkatha in spirit.

     Today, Ramaphosa retains his stigma as the “Butcher of Marikana” who suspended a modest COVID relief stipend in March – but restored it after protests – and an ostentatious billionaire. 

     Ramaphosa has painted the July riots as a conspiracy organized by Zuma forces, but the main cause of the mass looting and loss of life is the ghastly poverty in South Africa, based on racist injustice and capitalism. Both ANC factions are corrupt and pro-capitalist as left critics like Patrick Bond and others insist. Neither faction warrants the support of the working class!

     In 2013, NUMSA created the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party after its split from the ANC, but it did poorly in elections. Will it or another party one day become the working-class alternative to the capitalist ANC? Stay tuned.

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