A promising start
Peter Manson welcomes the formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party in South Africa
More than a thousand comrades attended the three-day launch congress of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party last week. The SRWP has announced that it will contest the May 8 general election and its leader, Irvin Jim, has stated that the aim will be to do better than the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters, which in 2014 was the third largest party with 25 seats (6.35%).
The driving force behind the SRWP is the country’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), with its 340,000 members. Back in 2013 Numsa announced that it had broken with the ruling African National Congress and its alliance partner, the South African Communist Party, in protest at the blatantly neoliberal policies of the ANC government. Up until then Numsa had been a prominent force within the SACP-led Congress of South African Trade Unions, but, as a result of its schism with the ANC, it was expelled from Cosatu soon afterwards and felt obliged to set up a rival confederation, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu).
However, while Saftu has been up and running for some time, the new party - which the Numsa leadership claimed would soon be launched six years ago (there was even talk of it contesting in 2014!) - has finally seen the light of day exactly one month before the 2019 general election. Although its launch has received reasonable publicity in the South African media, it is very unlikely that it will be able to build up a huge amount of steam by May 8. It should, however, see several candidates elected, as the voting system is completely proportional, with no minimum threshold: just 0.25% of the total vote is enough to win any party standing one of the 400 seats in parliament.
It is true that there were strong disagreements between the two main personalities involved in the breakaway - Irvin Jim himself and Zwelinzima Vavi, who was dismissed as Cosatu general secretary in 2015. Vavi was then appointed to the same post in Saftu, but the new confederation announced in November 2018 it would not be backing the SRWP after all: Saftu had decided to “resist being stampeded into becoming a labour desk for, or forming an alliance with, any political party”. It seems that Vavi had wanted a rather ‘broader’ formation than Jim had in mind.
While that, of course, dealt a bitter blow to Jim’s plans, it does not explain why things have been so slow-moving. For example, there is still no SRWP website and its Facebook page is not exactly regularly updated.1 Nevertheless, it is certainly positive that a workers’ party that calls itself socialist and revolutionary will stand in opposition to the ANC next month.
For a while it had seemed that the SACP, despite itself driving the expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu for rejecting the ANC, would commit the same ‘crime’ itself by contesting the 2019 elections in its own name. After its July 2017 congress it announced that “the SACP will certainly contest elections” - although “the exact modality in which we do so needs to be determined by way of a concrete analysis of the concrete reality and through the process of active engagement with worker and progressive formations”.2
Later that year the SACP did indeed contest a municipal by-election, but soon afterwards all mention of going it alone was quietly dropped. This was, of course, not unconnected to the departure of Jacob Zuma and his replacement as president by Cyril Ramaphosa. The party was so opposed to Zuma and his blatant corruption that it had been prepared, as a last resort, to ditch the ANC and look for a replacement “popular front” to further advance the “national democratic revolution” - which it laughably contends has been making substantial progress under the ANC and is “the most direct route to socialism in South Africa”.
But, thanks to Ramaphosa, it seems that the SACP is now fully back on board - despite the fact that the current president was directly implicated in the Marikana massacre of August 2012. As a senior board member of Lonmin, the company employing the 34 striking miners who were shot dead by police, Ramaphosa had, on the very eve of the slaughter, urged the police to take “concomitant action” against them.
But Marikana was the last straw for many in the workers’ movement, who up till then had been prepared to go along with the SACP’s nonsense about the “national democratic revolution”. It was Marikana that sparked the rebellion within Cosatu, led by Numsa, whose leadership had once been SACP loyalists - it seems that the overwhelming majority of those attending the SRWP founding congress were in fact Numsa members.
Clearly demonstrating that the likes of Irvin Jim have not forgotten the language they learnt as SACP members, the SRWP issued a statement on April 8, two days after its congress ended:
The SRWP is a Marxist-Leninist party fighting for the establishment of a classless society. Our primary objective is to organise and unite the working class by raising the levels of consciousness, around the class divisions in society. We are in a struggle to overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a democratic socialist state.3
At the congress Numsa president Andrew Chirwa stated: “This is not a party for reform. This is a party for communists. We are serious about the revolution. We are a party for socialism and nothing else.” Later SRWP spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola commented: “We are the only ones fighting for the total destruction of capitalism.” It is hardly accidental that the SRWP seems to have adopted the slogan, ‘Equality, work and land’ - rather reminiscent of the Bolsheviks’ ‘Peace, land and bread’.
While the party’s election manifesto is expected very soon, Jim - who was elected national chair and effective leader - has already stated that it will include the aim of “eradicating poverty and unemployment within five years”. Among the policy motions agreed was the establishment of a single education system and the elimination of private schools.
As for elections, Jim says: “As communists we have an old view that elections are not necessarily a solution. However, they are a tactic that can be explored to test if we have the support of the working class.” This was echoed by Shaheen Khan, a member of the SRWP national working committee:
Rather than pursuing votes, Khan says, the SRWP is “focused on using every opportunity to raise the consciousness of the working class on the nature of the capitalist system and our need to organise independently outside of parliament and against it”. The party’s aim is “merely to secure a presence in parliament, from which we can raise the working class voice and expose the capitalist nature of parliament itself”.4
Positive and correct decisions were taken on the question of party organisation. For example, Khan pledged that SRWP candidates elected on May 8 would be subject to “instant recall” by the party. They would be paid the wage of an “average skilled worker”, with the rest of their official salary redirected to the party, in order to “advance working class struggle”. Furthermore, it was decided that members of the national leadership would not stand for parliament.
It was agreed that - unlike the SACP, which accepts as a member anyone who fills in an application form - the SRWP would enforce strict criteria. There will be a “60-day induction programme” and members will be expected to “undergo rigorous political training” and sign a code of conduct. Membership will be open from the age of 14 and there will be “socialist programmes” of education during school holidays.
A word of warning, however. Despite the revolutionary rhetoric and the adoption of many radical and progressive positions, the basic politics of the SRWP’s overwhelming majority is derived from what they learned from the SACP. Socialism is considered mainly as an objective for South Africa alone rather than a global process, and the SRWP’s ‘internationalism’ will probably be based on solidarity with the likes of Cuba and Venezuela.
And the bourgeoisie is not exactly shaking with fear. For example, while Imraan Buccus of the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute points out that “the road is open” for the SRWP to “capture a currently vacant political space on the left”, its emergence should be considered as “an important step towards the normalisation of our politics, and towards offering real choices to the electorate”.5
And an article in the online Daily Maverick contends that the SRWP could be a blessing in disguise for the ANC. Perhaps the new party could play a similar role to that of the SACP in helping to keep the working class in its place:
It may be possible for, say, the ANC to reach an agreement with Irvin Jim’s SRWP, because of his support from organised labour. If the ANC can get the SRWP to cast its ballot for the ruling party, Jim may be offered a place in the sixth administration.6
That seems very unlikely right now, of course, given the clear positions the SRWP has just adopted. But such statements should act as a warning against complacency. The SRWP should be regarded as a site for struggle in the battle for genuine Marxism and proletarian internationalism.
‘Declaration of the 14th Party Congress’, July 15 2017.↩