South Africa: Clover strike is a fight against the capitalist system

Statement by the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP- our sister organisation in South Africa)

As WASP we are re-affirming our solidarity with the 5,000 Clover workers on strike since 22 November last year. We fully support the workers’ demands and are calling for the escalation of demonstrations to kick off this year of struggle, both by the workers as well as those forces who stand in solidarity with them — here in South Africa and internationally.

A mass meeting has been called for 8 January at Cathedral Hall, Johannesburg, and Community House, Cape Town. All trade unions, community and youth organisations, and other progressive formations must make attendance a priority. In the context of this ongoing pandemic, the acceleration of the economic crisis and a jobs bloodbath, we must start this new year with a united, working class struggle against the neoliberal, austerity driven system championed by the ANC government and the bosses.

Milco SA invests to boost profits, not jobs

The vast majority of Clover workers earn below a living wage despite the soaring profits Clover has boasted of over the years. Milco SA, a consortium led by Israel’s Central Bottling Company, purchased a majority stake in highly profitable Clover in 2019. Despite the workers’ objection to this, based on solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle against Israeli imperialism, the South African state authorities approved the merger on the basis of “creating jobs” as part of the so called Masakhane project. Not only have Clover dismantled the project through retrenchments of workers and managers that are part of it — meaning all 500 new jobs promised are gone — but by bringing Project Sencillo (restructurings) forward, over 2 000 jobs have been lost. Clover wants to retrench 300 workers, additionally four branches are proposed to be shut down, adding another 350 jobs lost, not including workers who took the Voluntary Severance Packages (which amount to forced retrenchments). GIWUSA reported that the company wants to relocate the City Deep Branch to Boksburg, risking another 812 job losses.

Media propaganda says Clover is unable to continue its operations due to the “ongoing pandemic” and lack of service delivery in various locations. However, Clover made a sterling $673 million (R10.8 Billion) of revenue by the end of 2020 compared to the $462.3 million (R7.4 Billion) end of 2019. Yet with this job bloodbath, the South African government, who narrowly won the last elections on a mandate of creating jobs, is refusing to hold Clover accountable.

This merger was never in the interests of investing in the growth of Clover and job security of workers, but rather an imperialist strategy to access South African Markets with goods that are produced by an Israeli owned company in occupied Palestine.

The anti-worker, extremely exploitative nature of Milco is emphasised in its complicity with land grabs in occupied Palestine where it operates factories. But also in the fact that every year since the merger, Clover workers have been forced to take strike action for the most basic and reasonable demands for living wages, saving jobs, an end to labour brokering, and transport and housing allowances.

Build on previous struggles to escalate the strike

In October 2020 Clover workers embarked on a strike that ended on 9 December. Crucial concessions like a 6,5% increase and insourcing of almost 400 workers were won on the basis of relentless daily pickets at Clover depots, flying pickets and mass demonstrations at the head office. Solidarity actions included a national boycott of Clover products, with a strong social media campaign that showed supporters posting “Boycott Clover” stickers on Clover products at strategic grocery stores across the country, as well as demonstrations at the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria and a picket outside the Coca Cola Factory in Bnei Brak, Tel Aviv, organised by members of Socialist Struggle (ISA in Israel & Palestine, a Sister party of WASP). But as we predicted then, Milco SA will be relentless in their attempts to roll back these victories and reclaim their losses. We have to use the lessons of previous struggles like this to inform how we can escalate the current strike action in the most effective way.

So far, Clover has committed to reinstating the almost 800 workers they illegally retrenched in the course of this strike action. However, they are refusing to concede any ground on the other reasonable demands from workers, which include:

  • All Austerity measures to be withdrawn
  • A wage increase of 10%
  • The disinvestment of MILCO/CBC
  • Nationalisation of Clover on the basis of a democratic workers control and management as an alternative to a hostile and imperialist MILCO take over and dismembering of Clover, factory closures and job losses.

As Marxists we know that in order for companies to remain competitive in a capitalist system they must always increase their profits to expand their market share. For the working class, who suffer from both the wage/job cuts and increased prices of consumer goods, this means a race to the bottom and worsening inequality. This is why the demand to nationalize Clover becomes an important stepping stone to workers’ control over the entire economy; to abolish this sick capitalist system that puts profit over people and replace it with a socialist economy based on need.

The situation at Clover is critical and requires that all working class formations put serious pressure on the ANC government to intervene. GIWUSA and FAWU met with the minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel, and Competition Commission in the past week and the response was that there is nothing they can do except to investigate non-compliance with vague conditions for the merger by Competition Commission. It is no surprise that the neoliberal, business-friendly ANC will stand by and watch the biggest cheese factory in Africa shut down. In the context of escalating unemployment — now nearing half the population — this, however, goes against the ANC government’s promise to retain as many jobs as possible.

Food and job security

We have to be clear that if these dairy factories close down and restructure in this brutal manner, the effects will also be felt harshly by local dairy farms and the agricultural sector as a whole. It will mark the beginning of the end of the South African dairy industry that has since 1996 suffered under the pressures of deregulation of the agricultural sector in favour of international free market anarchy. This has brought devastating consequences for small farmers, their workers and communities.

We have seen the effects of chicken “dumping” in South Africa — the practice of selling oversupply of chicken in countries like the USA in SA for below-market prices in order to maintain higher prices in those countries. At this point thousands of jobs have been lost in poultry and grain farming (which supplies poultry farms with feed), and R6.1 Billion leaves the country every year due to poultry imports according to the South African Poultry Association. Local production of poultry and grains is being shut down as they cannot compete with the international imports undercutting the price of poultry. And so workers wages are cut, jobs are lost permanently, and manufacturing further dismantled. Once all local production is lost, the prices will increase significantly as there is no competition left.

Under capitalism, competition leads to monopoly. This and hostile takeovers like Milco, which accelerate concentration of capital in the period of economic crises, are built into capitalism. The same future awaits many industries across the economy as is evident in SA Breweries and others where thousands of workers are also facing job losses as a result of similar takeovers. Ultimately it is the working class and the poor who pay for this, not the capitalist owners; in Clover this is clearly illustrated by the fact that the CEO was ‘loaned’ R107 million to buy shares in Milco, whilst workers are being brutalised to ‘recover’ R300 million in labour costs.

As we have stated before, this is also an issue of food security in South Africa. The Covid pandemic has exposed serious weak points in a market based economy and how global supply chains that are not democratically planned can fall into chaos rapidly. Relying increasingly on imports to supply the country with the nutrition needed to live and be productive is a serious risk to take.

The workers’ demand for nationalisation correctly includes all of Clover and its distribution lines under democratic workers control. This would prove a critical first step in nationalisation of the entire dairy industry to secure the future of the workers and communities dependent on it. It is vital that all workers involved in the dairy industry stand in solidarity with Clover workers. Unions who organise in this industry, such as NUMSA at NAMPAK, must push for escalating solidarity actions like lunch time pickets, secondary strikes and occupations.

Working class unity essential

The unity between GIWUSA and FAWU workers at Clover shows a qualitative difference in the ongoing struggle at Clover that should be commended. Where previously these divisions undermined the power of collective struggle, this class-based unity increases the potential for victory significantly. The FAWU-GIWUSA joint shopsteward committee is a crucial structure that can ensure that all bargaining and negotiating is done collectively, and not through separate meetings with separate unions.This is the working class unity that WASP has fought for without compromise. It is also important to use this unity to fight for GIWUSA to be re-affiliated with SAFTU, through which the potential for militant working class struggle can be expanded. An injection of rank-and-file militancy as demonstrated by Clover workers can prove an essential antidote to the bureaucratic paralysis plaguing SAFTU and bring it back on course to being a campaigning federation.

SAFTU must also take up active leadership in this Clover strike and campaign to expand the fight to SA Breweries. WASP calls on comrades in FAWU to declare a strike now to maximise the potential for victory with co-ordinated strikes and a united front of workers facing job losses.

Ultimately, this is not only a matter for Clover workers, or even the broader labour movement, but an issue that affects all youth and working class communities. We must all make a stand against this ongoing onslaught from Milco SA and fight to expropriate Clover to wrest control over the dairy industry from the hands of the international capitalist class and put it under democratic worker control.

As WASP member and GIWUSA president, Mametlwe Sebei, stated: “There is no other alternative to job losses and massive factory closures in this country.” The government and competition commission will serve the bosses, as they have done up until now with Clover, until enough pressure is exerted on them to force concessions. It is only the working class that holds the power to do this, and we must wield that power in a democratically organised and strategic manner to defend the gains of past struggles, but also to win more victories in the class struggle.

The impotence of government exposes the bankruptcy of the ANC in the face of the worst crisis in decades. SAFTU must urgently take concrete steps towards a creation of a mass workers party on a socialist programme, which for WASP means an immediate launch of a campaign to set up pre-party structures to mobilise communities for vital strikes like Clover. More than ever, we must use these struggles to build a fighting working class movement against the capitalist system as a whole, and build a socialist world based on an economy planned according to need.

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