Magazine article New Internationalist

The New Apartheid: South Africa's Trade Unions Loudly Oppose the Government's Sell-Off of Basic Services. but the ANC Isn't Listening, Warns Patrick Bond

Magazine article New Internationalist

The New Apartheid: South Africa's Trade Unions Loudly Oppose the Government's Sell-Off of Basic Services. but the ANC Isn't Listening, Warns Patrick Bond

Article excerpt

South Africa's trade unions loudly oppose the Government's sell-off of basic services. But the ANC isn't listening, warns Patrick Bond.

THERE has always been a rift between the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) on privatization. But it deepened substantially in January when the Government decided to sell the state telephone company, Telkom, under the rubric of `black economic empowerment'.

A great deal is at stake here because the probably inevitable departure of Cosatu and the SA Communist Party from the ANC-led alliance will occur over ideological differences - such as whether basic services should be operated on a for-profit basis. Cosatu won a minor victory early in the new year when some railroad privatizations were halted by Transport Minister Dullah Omar. But President Thabo Mbeki has cemented his agenda for `restructuring state enterprises'. He labels his trade-union and community opponents `ultra-Leftists' and has so far combined intimidation with divide-and-rule tactics to maintain the pretence of unity.

It has not been an easy job. The union placards say: `We did not fight for liberation only to sell it to the highest bidder!' In October last year a partially successful, two-day strike of a quarter of the national workforce highlighted how far matters had deteriorated. A previous two-day strike had, for Mbeki, badly marred the August 2001 World Conference Against Racism. Then, a year later, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) featured a march of 20,000 activists who attacked the `privatization of the WSSD' - including the crucial water and energy sectors.

Access to water and electricity has become a key struggle in South Africa's townships. One study conducted through the Government's Human Sciences Research Council found that an estimated 10 million people have suffered water cutoffs and electricity disconnections under privatization, mostly because they couldn't afford new, higher rates.

As a result the country's cholera epidemic continues, with more than 140,000 cases since August 2000. Millions of people - especially children - get diarrhoea each year because of unaffordable purified water and atrocious sanitation. Tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases are also rampant since without electricity women are forced to cook and heat with coal or wood.

As the Government prepares to sell off 30 per cent of the national electricity company, Eskom, next year, it too has clamped down on customers in arrears. …

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