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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The RDP needs class struggle

In the past weeks there have been major strikes by nurses and municipal workers. It is no accident that these high-profile strikes have been occurring in the public sector. The public sector that we have inherited is in deep crisis, it is under-resourced, there are massive irrationalities in wage and salary scales, with a vast variety of different grades.

The SACP rejects the view that the nurses and municipal workers have been striking primarily because they have been "manipulated by third force elements". This allegation, which is sometimes heard from within our own alliance ranks, sounds suspiciously like the old apartheid regime's explanation for worker action - everything was explained by invoking "a handful of communist agitators".

This kind of approach is deeply insulting to nurses and municipal workers. In the case of municipal workers, they are a relatively well organised sector, and the major union, SAMWU, is within our own tripartite alliance. In the case of nurses, as the article by Gwede Mantashe in this issue notes, there are indeed serious organisational weaknesses. But it would he agrave error simply to invoke these weaknesses, without noting the appalling conditions, the had pay, and the sense of desperation that nurses feel.

Certainly, we must avoid a working class romanticism. Not all worker strikes or other actions are necessarily justified, or even progressive. There is, for instance, something of a tradition of white working class industrial action in our country, which has been based purely on defending racial privileges. There is nothing romantic about that. Even in the course of an entirely legitimate strike, some tactics (like the trashing of a city centre) are ill-advised - they simply allow anti-worker forces to draw attention away from the real issues.

Comradely alarm

But that said, we must be clear. The municipal worker and nurses' strikes brought real transformation energies out on to the streets. Although in the case of the nurses there were odd political aberrations (like an occasional poster calling on De Klerk to save them), these were anomalies. The great majority of municipal workers and nurses marched with ANC posters and portraits of President Mandela. These were not "subversive" strikes. The strikers were, in the words of Minister of Labour, comrade Tito Mboweni, "sounding a comradely alarm".

The GNU has committed itself to major transformation of the public sector, to real improvements in remuneration and conditions for nurses, and to decisive changes to the irrational grading systems that prevail in the public sector. It is essential that these objectives are pursued energetically.

But we need, also, to go much further. The comradely alarm that has been sounded needs to be looked at in a broader context. Our strategic opponents are, to some extent, succeeding with a strategy (now on a much broader canvas) that they tried back in the 1980s. At the height of the mass struggles of that period, the apartheid regime lost its grip over the townships, Throughout the country, urban and rural townships became liberated zones and elementary organs of popular power began to emerge. In the face of this challenge, the regime retreated out of the townships, but did its best to seal them off with states of emergency and general containment. The strategy was to prevent revolutionary energies spilling over into the main centres of economic, administrative and coercive power.

!laving sealed off the townships, the next step from the apartheid regime side was to inject into the townships third force elements, Askaris, hit squads, pseudo-PACstructures, anything to advance a "black on black" low intensity conflict. The objective was to turn our energies inwards into defence and crisis management.

Are we not in danger of being trapped in the same tactic? The ANC in government finds itself in charge of a large ghetto - the public sector. Like any ghetto, it is overpopulated, under-resourced and in disrepair. The ANC in government is being made to manage this public sector crisis, as if it were simply a crisis internal to the public sector. Our energies are turned inwards, while beyond the ghetto major centres of power and privilege escape unscathed and unblamed.

Power and privilege

Yet the crisis in the public health sector, for instance, is not unrelated to the powers and privileges in the private health sector. The private health sector is completely parasitic on the public sector - for the training of doctors and nurses for instance. Part of the costs in the public health sector are the result of the monopoly control exerted by private pharmaceutical companies. But it is a private sector that is standing aloof from the crisis, while nurses' frustrations are directed against the ANC Minister of Health.

Examples of the same thing can be multiplied. The greatest strike in our country at present is not the nurses' or the municipal workers' strikes, but the investment strike by the banks and building societies. In Botshabelo last year, the National Housing Accord won apparent support from the private sector investors and developers for an ambitious low cost housing programme, in which the government would raise large amounts of money to safeguard the private sector against the risk of losses.

Since then, the banks have simply reneged on their agreement. Fifteen months after last year's April election, only 9000 houses had been built. The private banks have argued that conflicting signals from the ANC about housing policy is the reason. While there have been some unacceptable confusions from our side, it is clear that this is merely an excuse from the private sector.

In noting this bankers' strike, which never appears on the TVnews or on the front page of news-papers, we are not whining about being let down. Certainly the SACP does not expect the private sector to willingly devote itself to the social needs of the majority. We are not whining, we are drawing the obvious conclusion: an ongoing class struggle is absolutely essential for the implementation of the RDP.

The challenges facing the ANC-led alliance, in and out of government, are not to suppress transformation energies amongst our people. Nor is the challenge simply to manage these energies with the limited resources of government bud-gets. We need to lead these energies, outwards, out of the confinement of the ghetto, into broader questions of overall transformation and redistribution.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.