In the run-up to the World Cup there was a constant rumble of threatened strike action by groups keen to take advantage of the unbeatable blackmail opportunities the staging of such an event presents. Now, however, we have seen wildcat strikes by the stadium security guards in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg – with a quite serious clash between police and strikers in Durban – and by bus drivers, so that fans at some Jo’burg games have found there was no way for them to get home. We are also threatened by a civil service strike, and electricity workers have rejected a 7 per cent pay offer (inflation is 5 per cent) and are demanding a fantastical 18 per cent by the end of the week or they will plunge the country into darkness. Other groups of workers are watching, poised to follow suit.
One reason this is happening is the factional conflict within the ruling alliance of the African National Congress and its Communist and trade union (Cosatu) allies. Zwelinzima Vavi, the Cosatu leader, has announced that he will step down and seek high office in the ANC and government in 2012, when the quinquennial ANC conference will be held. Anti-communist African nationalists are working to block him and are currently threatening to sue him for libel. So it’s not a bad time for the unions to remind everyone that they hold the whip hand. The far left in any case finds the spectacle of the World Cup disgusting, producing vast profits for the construction firms that built the stadiums and for Fifa, in a country awash in poverty.
Another reason is that the ANC elite is showing its usual contempt for social discipline. The finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, said at budget time that government departments would economise on such unnecessary expenditures as full-page adverts about the relevant minister’s wonderful work, expensive cars, luxury hotels and World Cup tickets, which he asked them to refrain from altogether. But all these things have continued unabated – including the large scale purchase of World Cup tickets by government departments. The (state) Industrial Development Corporation has bought 2734 tickets, the Department of Trade more than 3000 tickets, the Department of Communications 2786 tickets – and so on and so on. The trade unions are understandably livid. It has also emerged this week that though President Thabo Mbeki originally promised Fifa that South Africa could put on the Cup for three billion rand, the government has spent R33.1 billion on stadiums alone and that total costs are at least R40 billion. The left can see that the ruling elite has spared no expense in throwing this huge party for itself and that, at best, the Cup forms part of a bread-and-circuses strategy by the government. It’s hardly surprising that appeals to the unions to show a sense of social discipline fall on deaf ears.
It’s unclear at present whether the strike threats will be bought off and at what price. President Zuma is far too busy dealing with foreign dignitaries and the endless quarrels between his wives to play a decisive role, so probably the key decisions will be taken by invisible others.
Meanwhile, the football goes on, rather boringly for the most part. One of the chief delights of the South African TV coverage is Terry Paine, the former England player and 1966 World Cup winner who lives here and is a prominent commentator. Terry – often known as Sir Terry, because he has a CBE – speaks with the unaffected Cockney prejudices of the 1960s. He was clearly affronted by the sight of the Brazilians being frustrated by the scarlet-clad men of North Korea and so we got such gems as ‘and now Robinho’s sinuous swerve is blocked by yet another red robot’. No one has asked Sir Terry what he thinks about the threatened strikes but it might be very entertaining if someone only would.