Irving Jim and Zwelinzima Vavi: opposition

Opposition in limbo

The SACP grip over the workers’ movement remains strong, writes Peter Manson

What was a growing opposition to the South African Communist Party is now undoubtedly in some disarray.

Earlier this month both the SACP itself and the Congress of South African Trade Unions held a special national congress (SNC), where oppositionists were in a small minority - Cosatu loyalists had in effect rigged the federation’s congress by expelling the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). It had dared to break with the SACP-Cosatu-ANC triple alliance - and, as Numsa was by far the largest Cosatu affiliate, there was now no chance of the opposition winning the day. In both Cosatu and the SACP, a substantial section of the rank and file is looking for a change of course - a break from the ‘neoliberalism in the name of socialism’ that the African National Congress-led ‘national democratic revolution’ represents. But in both organisations loyalists did their utmost to ensure, by fair means and foul, that oppositionist voices would be marginalised at the two congresses.1

The two oppositionist figureheads are Irvin Jim, Numsa’s general secretary, and Zwelinzima Vavi, who had the same job in Cosatu until he was dismissed from his post earlier this year - basically because he had become too outspoken in his criticisms of the ANC’s anti-working class agenda. But both had seemed to bank everything on the courts calling a halt to the loyalists’ anti-democratic shenanigans - refusing for almost two years to call an SNC despite being constitutionally obliged to do so; suspending and then dismissing Vavi; expelling Numsa without allowing an appeal.

But it goes without saying that the bourgeois courts are not exactly reliable upholders of working class democracy and in the end the opposition in Cosatu was heavily defeated. So what will Vavi and Jim - both former SACP members - do now?

Well, it seems almost certain that they will give up all attempts at winning back Cosatu, despite the fact that nine of its 20 affiliates have to one degree or another expressed opposition to the leadership and sided with the minority on at least some occasions. And even in the loyalist-dominated unions there is a growing rebellion amongst the rank and file, with branches and even regions opposing the leadership line - and usually seeing such opposition repressed by bureaucratic means. But in order to break the grip of the SACP loyalists in a way that actually benefits the working class it is vital to have the correct politics. Workerism, nostalgia and vague populism will not help.

According to the online Daily Maverick, the establishment of a rival trade union centre looks more than likely: “The plan is to convene a workers’ summit within the next few months to decide, among other things, on whether to form a new federation. Vavi said he is consulting with unions from inside Cosatu and outside on this ‘broad’ workers’ summit.”2

Ironically this “workers’ summit” was conceived precisely as a means of building political opposition to the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance - I assume Vavi is talking about the national launch of the United Front, which was set up by Numsa and, in conjunction with a “Movement for Socialism” would aim to establish a new party to contest elections, starting with the 2016 local elections.

But things have not been going according to plan. A commentary in the Mail and Guardian states:

The United Front was to be launched nationally in December 2014, but that event was turned into a “preparatory assembly”, where delegates found little to agree on except that the ANC was to blame for almost all the woes of workers and the country as a whole. It was then scheduled to launch in April, but in that month Numsa - which came up with the concept and funded the initial push for its creation - announced it would, in fact, launch at the end of June. That launch was postponed because of what was described as a lack of money.3

Mazibuko Jara, national secretary of the United Front, responded on the UF website:

On funding, there is no expectation that Numsa will pay for the UF. The preparatory assembly proudly asserted that the front must not depend on Numsa and that it must finance itself. In the six short months of our existence, we have not had sufficient time to raise enough of the R3.5 million [£178,000] required for the founding conference or the additional millions needed for operations, programmes and campaigns.4

Even taking into account the fact that a South African rand is now worth just 5p, surely a political formation can be organised without “millions” in the bank? True, many delegations to a founding conference will have to be subsidised, but I would have thought even amongst the poverty-stricken South African working class some money could be raised locally for that purpose.

Comrade Jara does not deny that the UF launch has twice been postponed, but adds: “we will decide at the end of October when to hold the founding conference”.

UF and Wasp

One of the small groups that has been more than keen for the UF to get off the ground has been the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), set up by comrades from Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International. Wasp was originally established on the initiative of the Democratic Socialist Movement, the CWI affiliate in South Africa, in order to contest the 2014 general election. In true CWI style, the aim was to be a new ‘broad’ mass party, and the DSM comrades won several local committees of striking platinum workers to sponsor Wasp’s launch in 2012.

Wasp appealed to Numsa to throw its weight behind the new formation - in fact the union was virtually invited to come in and take it over. But to no avail. And unfortunately Wasp’s election result was stunningly dismal - it won a meagre 8,331 votes (0.05%) across the whole country. Under South Africa’s completely proportional electoral system, it needed to pick up one 400th (0.25%) of the total vote to see its top candidate elected, but, despite the mass publicity over the CWI’s role in the platinum miners’ strike (see below), it got nowhere near that figure.

So much for the new Wasp mass workers’ party - a change of plans was called for. Now the UF would have to take over that role and the CWI decided that the DSM and Wasp should “merge” - taking into account the newcomers who had come on board, at least that would mean a slightly larger CWI section. The final DSM posting - announcing that the two groups were to merge and that Wasp was to seek affiliation to the CWI - appeared on its website back in February,5 and now it appears that the DSM has shut up shop. (Strangely, however, the CWI’s own website does not direct inquiries to Wasp, but still shows contact details only for the DSM.6)

I mentioned the CWI’s role in the 2012 platinum strike - for such a small group it was remarkably able to coordinate some local strike committees - dominated by workers who had left the loyalist-dominated National Union of Mineworkers in disgust as a result of the NUM’s increasing collaboration with the mineowners. Because of this role in the strike the CWI was targeted by the ANC, in the shape of secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who just happens to be a member of the SACP central committee.

Mantashe claimed that in particular a senior DSM figure, Liv Shange, who is a Swedish national married to a South African, was an example of the “foreigners” who were allegedly “at the centre of the anarchy in the platinum belt”. There was a concerted attempt to deport the comrade, despite the fact that she had been living in the country since 2004 and had two children by her (now estranged) husband.

Taking advantage of the fact that comrade Shange’s spousal visa, giving her permanent residence in South Africa, had been stolen when she was mugged, the department of home affairs insisted it had “no record” of any such visa (even though she had provided a reference number). Fortunately, a successful campaign, both in South Africa and internationally (there was an official protest from Stockholm), forced the authorities to let comrade Shange and her children back into the country when they returned from a family visit to Sweden in 2013.

But earlier this week, on July 27, comrade Shange, now a member of the Wasp executive committee, was finally forced to leave South Africa following the expiry of her temporary visa. This time there was no protest campaign beforehand - the CWI says such a campaign will be launched “from outside the country”,7 but one cannot help suspecting that, following the break-up of her marriage, comrade Shange is more than content to settle with her children in Sweden, where she originally joined the CWI.

But none of that excuses the disgusting behaviour of the anti-working class ANC and its SACP apologists, not least the despicable Mantashe. Despite its reactionary role, the SACP continues to grow - at this month’s SNC it claimed a new high of 230,000 members, confirming its position as the country’s second largest party. While this figure is undoubtedly exaggerated - I am reliably informed that only around one in 10 ‘members’ pays any dues - that still amounts to an awful lot of support of one kind or another. Of course, this is connected to the party’s role in national and local government - the SACP is the most coherent force within the ANC and its reward has been senior positions in the South African cabinet and in local authorities.

While this position of influence accounts for a large part of the membership growth, it is also the case that many new recruits, particularly among the youth, have been attracted by the party’s continued revolutionary - indeed Marxist - rhetoric.


1. See ‘Two congresses and a rigged victory’ Weekly Worker July 16 2015.

2. www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2015-07-17-zwelinzima-vavi-man-on-the-march/#.VbfRnPlViko.

3. http://mg.co.za/article/2015-07-16-an-indefinite-pause-on-a-workers-revolution.

4. https://unitedfrontsa.wordpress.com/2015/07/25/uf-alive-well-and-united.

5. www.socialistsouthafrica.co.za.

6. www.socialistworld.net/view/33.

7. http://workerssocialistparty.co.za/liv-shange-a-farewell-tribute.