ANC hold on unions weakens
The metalworkers are seeking to emulate the success of the platinum strikers, writes Peter Manson
A week after the victory of 70,000 members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) in the platinum belt, who had been on strike for five months, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the country’s largest trade union, has called out its 210,000 members in the metal and engineering industries, and looks likely to win a substantial pay rise.
The bitter Amcu strike, in which numerous strikers were assaulted by police and several workers who crossed picket lines were killed, resulted in an approximate 20% increase on average. Amcu had demanded a minimum monthly salary of R12,500 (£683), representing no less than a 150% increase for the lowest paid, but there is no doubt that most workers feel their mammoth struggle, which began on January 23, has been worthwhile, even though some will still be taking home wages that fall well below that target at the end of the three-year deal. All workers paid below R12,500 will receive a R1,000 (£55) per month rise backdated to July 2013, plus another R1,000-a-month increase in each of the next two years. Various allowances will also rise in the same proportion.
The three mining houses - Lonmin, Amplats and Implats - had at first believed they could hold out, since they had stockpiled huge supplies of platinum, but eventually they had to concede defeat, once those stockpiles became dangerously depleted. South Africa holds 80% of the world’s known platinum reserves and accounts for 40% of global output, so it eventually became clear that the companies would have to give ground in order to restart production. Hence Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa was right when he said, “Only a fool can ask us what happened to our R12,500 demand.” Even though the strikers lost five months’ pay, the backdated rise in the form of a lump sum (not covering the period of the strike, of course) and subsequent much higher salary will provide some speedy relief.
To its shame, the National Union of Mineworkers refused to call out its platinum members and as a result several NUM scabs paid with their lives. The NUM was until very recently the largest union, but its subservience to the ruling African National Congress and to the ANC’s agent in the workers’ movement, known as the South African Communist Party, in the end resulted in the Amcu breakaway.
However, while leaders like Mathunjwa are prepared to make a stand against the effects of the ANC’s neoliberalism, they are hardly principled socialists. In fact the dubious nature of Amcu’s leadership caused the affiliate of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International, the Democratic Socialist Movement, to rethink its foolish call for workers to give up on bodies like the NUM and form new unions outside the SACP-dominated Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). Now the DSM concedes that it may, after all, be necessary to fight within Cosatu unions.
But the leaders of the ANC-SACP-Cosatu triple alliance have been rocked by the latest success of a non-Cosatu union and have desperately been trying to rally workers to the NUM. The July 3 meeting of the NUM central committee was attended by ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte and Blade Nzimande, SACP general secretary. For her part, Duarte accused Amcu of being part of a bloc whose aim was to “destabilise” South Africa. She lumped it together with Julius Malema’s populist Economic Freedom Fighters when she said: “The formation of the EFF and Amcu show similar characteristics.” As a result, “The platinum belt has become counterrevolutionary.”
In ANC/SACP-speak, “counter-revolutionary” means opposing the trajectory of the ruling party. She elaborated: “When you take workers out of their workplace for five months, you deplete the health reserves, you ensure that by the time they go to work they are too weak and too ill to go underground, and they might be dismissed … What is it that you are fomenting, it is an anti-ANC perspective.”
As for Nzimande, he did not go so far as to dub Amcu - and by association the victorious platinum workers - “counterrevolutionary”. He told the NUM CC: “Several tendencies have been engaged in attacking our historical links, including the alliance between our national liberation and progressive trade union movements. Opportunistically, these tendencies have been seeking to use workers’ demands in the Rustenburg platinum belt and turn both these and that area as their base for a country-wide agenda. Some of the individuals involved have always been hostile to our movement; however, others were previously in our ranks.”
But he did not stop to ask why animosity to the ANC has been able to gain ground amongst platinum workers - or indeed amongst the workers’ movement as a whole. For him the ANC is at the head of a “national democratic revolution” (NDR), which the SACP claims is “the most direct route to socialism” in South Africa. The fact that this NDR has for the last couple of decades manifested itself in privatisations, wholesale attacks on workers and the consolidation of South African capitalism is of no concern, it seems.
His comments reflect the fact that it is not only chancers like the Amcu leadership who have been able to make inroads into SACP hegemony within the workers’ movement. Because of the splintering of the NUM, the largest union is now the 340,000-strong Numsa, which has led an anti-ANC rebellion within Cosatu that is very much to the left of Amcu.
Indeed, nine of the 19 Cosatu affiliates have demanded a special congress of the confederation - a demand unconstitutionally rejected by president Sdumo Dlamini. Such a congress would discuss Cosatu’s continued adherence to the triple alliance and reverse disciplinary moves against its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, who was suspended in October last year. Ostensibly this was because of an affair with an office worker he had recruited, but in reality it was because he was regarded as a thorn in the side of the tripartite alliance for his criticisms of the ANC. However, Vavi’s suspension was challenged legally by Numsa and on April 4 it was overturned by the high court in Johannesburg.
But, with Cosatu facing a further legal challenge over Dlamini’s refusal to call a special congress, and with the ANC trying to hold on to its share of the vote in the May 22 general election, enough was enough for the ruling party. Cosatu and its rival factions were becoming a liability, so the ANC intervened in the shape of its deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who persuaded the April 8 meeting of the federation’s leadership to call a “ceasefire”. Opposition unions would hold back on legal moves, and in return the Cosatu leadership majority would refrain from taking the threatened disciplinary reprisals against Numsa, while Ramaphosa tried to sort out the mess.
That did the trick over the election period, but Numsa in particular has now lost patience. It wants to force Cosatu to ditch the ANC and join forces with it in a Movement for Socialism, which Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim hopes will give birth to a new working class party in time to contest the 2019 elections. However, although Vavi is back in office, he is an unreliable ally - while he has strongly criticised the ANC’s trajectory and, like Jim and many others in the unions, is now an SACP oppositionist, he is not prepared to call openly for a break with the ANC.
For instance, at a rally in Johannesburg at the start of Numsa’s strike on July 1, he said: “A demand for a living wage is political, because it is politics that allowed such conditions 20 years into a democracy.” But, as usual, he kept quiet on what he thought Cosatu should do about it.
As for the strike itself, Numsa is demanding a 15% increase for its members in the metal and engineering industries. But Eskom - the electricity supplier which remains state-owned despite attempts by president Thabo Mbeki to force through privatisation in the 1990s - won a court interdict preventing power utility workers from taking part. Nevertheless, some Eskom workers defied the order and took to the streets - police fired rubber bullets at strikers demonstrating outside Eskom’s Medupi power station on July 3. At the time of writing, 26 Numsa members have been arrested across the country, accused of “acts of intimidation, public violence and malicious damage to property”, to quote the opposition Democratic Alliance.
But, unlike the platinum dispute, the Numsa action could well be over very quickly. There have been ongoing negotiations and several optimistic noises within the last couple of days. The union is consulting its structures to assess “the latest [employers’] offers” and “to obtain mandates with respect to what should constitute a resolution of the industry strike”.
True, the Numsa’s 15% pay claim is well above inflation, which in May was running at 6.6% (although for food and other basic necessities the figure is more like 10%), but South African profits are looking a bit shaky, with Moody’s, the credit agency, threatening to downgrade the country’s rating. And, despite the Cosatu infighting, the federation - as well as ANC-loyal unions like the NUM - has come out in support of the Numsa strike.
In these circumstances, a double-digit settlement might be considered a price worth paying to end the threat of another long-drawn-out action. Most recent wage deals have resulted in increases below 10% - which for poorly paid workers, many of whom take home as little as R3,000 (£164) a month, actually represents a pay cut, when you take into account the high proportion of their income they are forced to spend on high-inflation necessities. The idea would be to buy off Numsa quickly and then hope to see off less powerful unions.
To give you an idea of the kind of campaign Numsa has been running, it is worth referring to the union’s “memorandum to employer representatives in the metal and engineering industries”, aimed at stiffening the resolve of local officials. Capital, it says, “continues to make excessive profit”, yet “26 million South Africans live in abject poverty and it is widely accepted that South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world when it comes to income distribution”.
According to the memorandum, the “20 years of democracy” have been “disastrous to the working class of our country”, resulting in “higher rates of racialised poverty and unemployment”, an “inferior education system”, “collapsed public healthcare” and “dehumanising living conditions”.
The last 20 years have been “a bad story to tell for the majority of our people, and a good story to tell by white monopoly capital, which has benefited immensely since the dawn of democracy”. Then there is “the increasing arrogance of South African capitalism, especially mining and finance capital, most starkly illustrated through the 2012 massacre of mineworkers at Marikana”.
As for the change of course Numsa envisages, however, it is telling that the union bemoans the “government’s failure to implement policies which encourage industrialisation and a thriving manufacturing sector”. In other words, Numsa is for a leftwing version of Keynesianism, which it believes will result in a kind of socialism in one country. Numsa is open in its belief that the kind of ‘socialist’ party needed is one that implements in full the ANC’s Freedom Charter, including all the social democratic provisions abandoned soon after the first democratic election in 1994.
It is, of course, highly positive that a section of the SACP and the union movement has at last woken up to the realities of South African capitalism under the ANC. And it is hardly surprising that comrades like Irvin Jim, who have begun to rethink the old certainties, are still stuck with the template of ‘official communist’ reformism. But at least they are rethinking and its is up to genuine communists to attempt to win them to the principles of working class independence and proletarian internationalism.