Two congresses and a rigged victory
Peter Manson examines the bureaucratic manoeuvring of the SACP
Last week South Africa saw two ‘special national congresses’ each run along the same cynical lines.
The first was that of the South African Communist Party in Soweto, where oppositionists appear to have been in a very small minority. I say ‘appear’ because the media were excluded and there has been very little published of the discussions over July 7-11.
The second, that of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) - held in Midrand from July 13-14 - had a rather different atmosphere. The SACP-dominated leadership of Cosatu had been ordered by the high court to convene an SNC after it had simply ignored its own constitution, whereby a special congress must be called if a third of affiliates want one. But in this case the affiliated unions who signed the demand for an SNC were oppositionists, and by the time the leadership complied with the court ruling it had already rigged the vote by forcing through the expulsion of the country’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, thus ensuring that its loyalists would win every vote.
So the SNC - from which the press and observers were also excluded in some sessions - was constantly interrupted by the songs, boos and cheers of rival delegates. Oppositionists had attempted to force onto the agenda the expulsion of Numsa and the dismissal of former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. But instead on the first day there was a nine-hour wrangle over credentials - oppositionists objected to the participation of the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa (Limusa), which is a tiny union set up by the loyalists to replace the 365,000-strong Numsa. They also objected to the presence of Zingiswa Losi, Cosatu’s second deputy president, because she had originally been nominated for the post by her union, Numsa, but switched sides in the current ongoing dispute.
Incredibly this wrangling over credentials lasted over nine hours and it was 9pm when delegates finally voted not to discuss the cases of Numsa and Vavi. In all, 1,752 were for the leadership line, while only 253 were against - a further 226 delegates abstained in protest over the whole charade. A pretty conclusive decision then, which makes you wonder why the loyalists did not attempt to put the whole thing to a vote much earlier. The answer was that they were more than happy to waste time arguing over credentials, rather than try to justify the expulsion of Numsa.
There had previously been some uncertainty over the outcome because the loyalist-dominated National Union of Mineworkers had just elected an oppositionist general secretary, David Sipunzi, who described the goings-on in the hall as “chaos” and spoke disparagingly to journalists about the blinkered views of the Cosatu majority. But Sipunzi is very much in a minority on the NUM leadership and I assume that he was overruled by the miners’ delegation.
There were also obvious divisions in other loyalist-controlled unions, with some members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) staging a protest outside the venue, claiming they had been improperly barred by their union from taking their place as congress delegates.
So why was Numsa expelled? For the ‘crime’ of voting unanimously in December 2013 to end its support for the ruling African National Congress and stop paying its levy to the SACP. Since Numsa has been supported with varying degrees of consistency by nine other unions, this set the alarm bells ringing for the SACP, for whom the alliance with the ANC in support of the “national democratic revolution” (NDR) cannot be called into question.
Eventually, in November 2014, Cosatu’s central executive committee voted to expel Numsa from the federation - it had already dismissed Vavi from his post in April of that year for his increasingly strident criticisms of the ANC’s anti-working class policies.
According to Mphumzi Maqungo, Numsa’s national treasurer, the metalworkers were “summarily expelled” on “trumped-up charges”, in what amounted to a “political purge”. Comrade Maqungo, writing in the online Daily Maverick, states that in reality Numsa has remained a supporter of both the NDR and the ANC’s social democratic Freedom Charter, while, on the other hand, “it is the current Cosatu leaders who have deviated from these policies”. Official Cosatu policy, he states, is for the formation of a movement “to assert the leadership of the working class in the ... NDR”. But “the Freedom Charter, which is the minimum platform and programme of the alliance, has been completely abandoned in favour of rightwing and neoliberal policies”.1
Once again, this demonstrates the political weakness of the Cosatu oppositionists. While the leaders of Numsa and a number of other unions have at long last seen through the SACP’s claim that the current ANC-led trajectory is the “shortest route to socialism” in South Africa, they believe that all would be well if only the ANC had stuck to the Freedom Charter.
But comrade Maqungo does make a good job of exposing the loyalists’ main excuse for expelling the metalworkers: Numsa had to go because it was riding roughshod over the rights of other unions by ignoring Cosatu’s “founding principle” of ‘One industry, one union’. He writes:
All Cosatu affiliates find themselves unavoidably recruiting members across each other’s sectors. Numsa’s sin was simply to have been open to the possibility of a genuine dialogue within Cosatu over the matter of organising along value chains and ensuring that every worker enjoys the right to representation and protection by a union.
That is correct - although I cannot say I agree with him when he goes on to say: “the bosses (whether private or state) have changed how they organise the workplace so much that the ‘One industry, one union’ principle is simply not possible for most workplaces and trade unions”.
The problem is not the way the workplace is now organised so much as the lack of any guidelines on what actually constitutes a particular industry. Should drivers employed by the health service be organised by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) or by Satawu, the transport union? The reality is that less than 30% of employed workers are organised in any union. But, of course, the loyalists are not really interested in such a debate - the ‘poaching’ allegation directed against Numsa was the main excuse for their “political purge”.
Needless to say, when the two-day SNC proper actually got going a day late, both Numsa and Vavi were mercilessly attacked from the platform. Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini lambasted them for attempting to raise money from the “imperialists” with the intention of “destroying Cosatu” - Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim has been visiting the United States and Belgium, where he has tried to win support, including financial backing, for the United Front and Movement for Socialism that the union has sponsored.
Wearing T-shirts sporting the slogan, ‘Building unity and cohesion to advance the national democratic revolution’, loyalist delegates saw to it that the leadership line was overwhelmingly carried: Numsa and Vavi will be able to appeal against their expulsion at the regular triennial congress to be held in November, but for now the task is to just accept the status quo. That is the best way to build “unity and cohesion” obviously.
The SACP’s own SNC, which ended two days before the start of Cosatu’s, was a rather less fraught affair by all accounts.
It is unclear to me what the purpose of this particular special national congress - as compared to a regular congress - was. Both the post-congress statement and the speech of general secretary Blade Nzimande seemed pretty routine. Nzimande announced yet another large increase in membership - up by 70,000, compared to two years ago, to 230,000. While this is certainly exaggerated - only a very small proportion of ‘members’ actually pay dues or attend SACP events - there is no doubt that the SACP claim to be South Africa’s second largest party is true.
There had been some talk beforehand about a section of the membership calling for the party to contest elections independent of the ANC, but this was clearly a reaction to the undemocratic shenanigans of corrupt ANC bureaucrats in a couple of provinces, where the two alliance partners have been at daggers drawn, rather than any left-led rebellion, as in Cosatu. The SNC resolved that “the SACP’s stance towards electoral politics will be evaluated in an ongoing manner” within “the wider context of the need to unite and reconfigure the alliance”.2
In Nzimande’s two-hour speech - reproduced in full on the SACP website3 - he declared that the country was now in the “second, radical, phase of the NDR”, which “must assume a much stronger anti-imperialist and anti-monopoly-capital character”. There must be “a struggle for the increasing decommodification of all basic social needs”, because “Only a struggle to build capacity for, momentum towards and, increasingly, elements of socialism will take us forward.”
Well, that would be a contrast to what we have seen in the first two decades following apartheid, which, despite “our democratic government’s major redistributive measures”, have seen wholesale “neoliberal restructuring”. I wonder how that happened, with all those SACP government ministers keeping an eye on things?
As you might expect, Nzimande laid into the Cosatu oppositionists, who represent a “regressive and workerist tendency”. He dishonestly implied that Irvin Jim et al identify “any and all of government as inherently the enemy of the working class”. Mind you, one particular criticism was not inaccurate:
The leadership clique in Numsa … criticises the present democratic state as the “executive committee” of the bourgeoisie, and yet it constantly runs to the least transformed part of the state - the courts - in order to address what are, essentially, internal union organisational matters.
Nzimande finally got round to discussing the 2012 Marikana massacre, when 34 striking miners were shot dead by police and scores more were seriously injured. He thought this was a case of “poor tactical and strategic management of the situation by the police” and so welcomed the recommendation, three years after the event, that it should be established whether “any of the [police] shooters exceeded the bounds of self-defence and whether criminal proceedings should be introduced”.
A disgraceful conclusion that whitewashes the government and excludes it from any responsibility for the state slaughter. But what can you expect from a party which, despite its continuing left rhetoric, is a key participant in the running of South African capitalism? And some of those ‘communist’ leaders having been doing rather nicely, thank you. Media reports noted an array of Range Rovers, Mercedes Benzes and BMWs incongruously parked outside the congress venue.
2. Post-congress statement, July 13: www.sacp.org.za/main.php?ID=4816#sthash.nFk93Lu0.dpuf.