The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.59/No.24           June 19, 1995 
South Africa Abolishes Capital Punishment- Workers Launch Mass Action For New Labor Act (  

The death penalty, a weapon of terror used against thousands of working people in South Africa, has been abolished. In a unanimous decision June 6, South Africa's Constitutional Court voted to ban the use of capital punishment. A prison official at Pretoria Central penitentiary reported that the news was greeted with "shouting and clapping and general jubilation on death row."

That same day, 150,000 workers marched in four cities - Johannesburg, Durban, East London, and Pietermaritzburg - to assert their demands on the labor relations bill currently under negotiation. The demonstrations initiated a two-week campaign of mass action launched by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to break an employer-inspired deadlock over the bill, which will abolish apartheid-era labor laws still on the books. Some 70,000 workers marched in Johannesburg alone, bringing downtown areas of South Africa's largest city to a standstill. Marchers rallied outside the stock exchange and the Chamber of Mines.

The crowd roared when South African president Nelson Mandela made a surprise visit to express his support for the march.

"I felt it important to pledge my solidarity with you," said Mandela, who is also president of the African National Congress. He emphasized that workers have the right to strike and demonstrate to win their demands. "You are entitled to use those rights, and the ANC fully supports you. We have the right to sit down and negotiate with employers. I am here to wish you luck," the ANC president said.

`A major victory' vs. death penalty
"We have been discussing the death penalty as individuals," said Godfrey Manamela, an organizer for the National Union of Mineworkers, in a telephone interview from Carletonville. "We are delighted with the decision. We have been calling for this to be scrapped."

Manamela pointed out many miners had been placed on death row under apartheid. Advances by the ANC-led democratic revolution, however, compelled the white regime to place a moratorium on the death penalty in 1990. The National Party government lifted the ban in 1993, but there have been no hangings since.

The Draft Bill of Rights presented by the African National Congress for debate on South Africa's new constitution asserted that "Capital punishment is abolished and no further executions shall take place." Death penalty abolition has long been a central demand of the democratic movement in South Africa. It was used as the ultimate weapon of terror to break the democratic revolution and inspire fear in millions of workers and peasants - especially Blacks.

The ANC hailed the ruling. The court's decision "represents a major victory for the democratic forces of our country who for years campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty.- Never, Never, and Never again must citizens of our country be subjected to the barbaric practice of capital punishment."

All 11 judges on the court, established since the April 1994 nonracial elections, issued a statement in support of the ruling. "Everyone, including the most abominable of human beings, has a right to life, and capital punishment is therefore unconstitutional," declared court president Arthur Chaskalson, who is white. "Retribution cannot be accorded the same weight under our Constitution as the right to life and dignity," he said.

From the establishment of the Union of South Africa through the codification and entrenchment of apartheid rule, the white regime had the distinction of being one of the bloodiest, with one of the highest execution rates in the world. Between 1910 and 1989, more than 4,200 people were hanged. About half of those were put to death between 1978 and 1988, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Polarized reaction to ruling
The ruling drew a polarized reaction. It won praise from Amnesty International, which called it, " a huge step forward of worldwide significance."

Mandela's office issued a statement noting the decision as compatible with the bill of rights in the interim constitution, and said it "reflects a sober and humane consideration of the issue, and it is in line with contemporary civilized norms." The statement added the decision would have "no bearing on the commitment of the government to tackle the problem of crime."

Conservative and rightist organizations condemned the court's decision. They focused their fire on the high crime rates in South Africa - a result of the social disintegration that marked the final years of apartheid rule.

South African deputy president F.W. deKlerk said the National Party would campaign to have capital punishment reinstated. The Freedom Front, which agitates for an Afrikaner homeland within South African borders, called for a referendum on the death penalty. "The public demands that the death penalty should be reinstated and only once respect for the law is maintained-can penal reform be revisited," declared Freedom Front senator Rossier de Ville. The liberal capitalist Democratic Party complained that the state had not made provision for "proper punishment" in lieu of hanging.

The 453 people currently on death row are to have their sentences changed to life imprisonment.

The South African Agricultural Union, an organization of white capitalist farmers, said, "It is ironic that while several American states and England are considering the reintroduction of the death sentence, South Africa with its high murder statistics is moving in the opposite direction."

The Inkatha Freedom Party said it used to oppose the death penalty, but was now internally divided on the issue.

South Africa's interim constitution, under which the ruling was made, is due to be replaced with a permanent document. The Constitutional Assembly is currently preparing the first draft for parliamentary debate. Assembly chairman Cyril Ramaphosa of the ANC reported June 2 that more than 1.7 million submissions have been made by people from throughout South Africa on the constitution.

Mass action opens on labor bill
"Yesterday's massive demonstration of workers sent out a clear signal to the nation that the working people of this country are determined to ensure that a new worker-friendly LRA [Labor Relations Act] is passed in the 1995 parliamentary session," said a June 7 COSATU statement. "The rolling mass action will continue with factory demonstrations, marches, shop stewards meetings, and other actions, culminating the National Day of Action on June 19," when the union federation has called for a half-day countrywide strike.

COSATU is demanding that the employers, with whom they are negotiating in the National Economic Development and Labor Council (NEDLAC), agree to incorporate a number of workers' demands into the labor bill before it goes to parliament. These include the right to strike, provisions against the right to lock out, the banning of scab labor, centralized bargaining, and other issues.

"Full rights for majority unions," "No to scab labour, no to bosses delaying tactics," read some of the flags, banners, and placards in the June 6 actions.

An ANC statement said the organization was "concerned that negotiations at NEDLAC should not be abused to roll back legitimate gains made by workers even during the dark days of apartheid.-In this context the ANC appeals to all interested parties to play a meaningful role in their negotiations with labour to ensure the new labour relations bill is tabled during this session of parliament."

"We are not going to allow the bosses of this country to trample on workers' rights," said ANC deputy secretary general Cheryl Carolus, who joined the Johannesburg march.

The Johannesburg daily Business Day lamented the COSATU campaign, which it said, "will hardly advance the cause of creating the investor-friendly environment which government says it favours." The National Party appealed to Mandela to get workers off the streets and back into the negotiating structures, saying his comments at the rally showed the government's inability to act impartially.

The trade unions and business are to meet again June 12- 13.
A June 2 statement from the American Chamber of Commerce said it supported the Labor Relations Bill in general, but could not "see its way clear to giving any form of support" to certain parts of the draft law. A spokesperson said the Chamber had the right to voice its concerns since U.S. firms paid taxes and generated wealth.

Listed objections included, "certain definitions regarding discrimination and dismissal on the grounds of age; provisions that organizational rights can unduly disrupt the operational activities of an employer," and "the absence in the Bill of any reference to a ballot as a pre-strike procedure."

"The mass action is rolling," said Godfrey Manamela of the Mineworkers. "Businessmen are dragging their feet. But these marches were just the beginning of our campaign."

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