Taking sides in South Africa

THIS YEAR’S NUM conference agreed a resolution from the Scottish area applauding the new government and congratulating “the people of South Africa” for the peaceful creation of democracy.

The resolution had been amended by the Yorkshire area but due to a series of accidents we were unable to attend the conference, so the resolution went through unamended. This is what I would have said.

Winnie Mandela told a mass rally of impoverished shack dwellers:

“Some of you may well ask, why should we continue supporting you when so little has changed? When the inequalities remain, when there is no reduction in the shack-land population, when the unemployment has barely abated, when those without houses remain without houses, when those who had no electricity or water yesterday continue to have no water or electricity today.”

We could add to Winnie’s list when the hundreds upon hundreds of miners killed under apartheid continue to be killed today, when the tens of thousands suffering serious injury and disease in the profit soaked gold and coal mines continue to suffer serious injury and disease.

There is no political liberty when there is no social justice and our union has to recognise that if congratulations have to go anywhere it is to the long down-trodden South African working class. A class which is still in the thick of conflict with its true enemy, South African capitalism and the South African ruling class.

It is true that that class is more likely to become multiracial, but it remains the enemy class of South African workers.

Last month more than a hundred thousand trade unionists demonstrated in Johannesburg. They were protesting against the new government’s Labour Relations Bill.

They were demanding an end to management’s right to lock out workers, which the new government is prepared to support. They were demanding the right to strike and central bargaining, neither of which the new government is prepared to support.

Comrade Mandela addressed the crowd saying that although Cosatu had always employed strikes for political ends before, they should not do so now. There is a side to take here, there is solidarity to be shown. That is with the poor and exploited, not with the rich and exploiting.

The class antagonisms existing in South Africa will not be fudged out of existence and the working people know only too well the harsh realities of life. The resolution talks of almost impossible tasks. Are we to tell those people that basic conditions such as clean water, power, sanitation and a house are almost impossible to achieve?

The new government sets itself a target which does not even keep up with the population increase, and the ANC reconstruction and development programme states:

“Most of the expenditure is not in fact new... Existing funds must be reallocated and rationalisation be effective in many areas ... New and improved tax systems collect more tax without having to raise tax levels”

If you are not prepared to take the wealth and power from the rich and landowners, then of course it will be almost impossible to do even the most basic things to improve life. That is why the democratic revolution, important though it was, heroic though it was, is not enough. The needs of the working people of South Africa can only be met by a socialist transformation of society. Taking back the means of creating and distributing the wealth - or is that a goal we keep for ourselves in the West?

If that is so, how dare we? How dare we suggest that the very things we take for granted for ourselves and our children are not to be on the immediate agenda right now for the poor and oppressed of South Africa? If they are not going to be given, then they have every right simply to take them and we should be supporting them when they do so.

For this reason we support the idea of twinning between British and South African trade unionists to make links, particularly between rank and file activists. We should do so in the recognition that the politics of national reconstruction and reconciliation supported by the government will be forced to give way to open class struggle. When that happens we should not be praying for some classless harmony, but standing in solidarity with the struggle for working class victory in a socialist South Africa.

Dave Douglass