After apartheid

For revolutionary unity

In the last of three articles on South Africa Peter Manson examines the state of the left

In South Africa ‘socialism’ is not a dirty word. It is firmly entrenched in the tradition and language of the revolutionary struggle against apartheid. Not only are the South African Communist Party and the main trade union centre, Cosatu, officially committed to a “socialist South Africa”, but many groups and individuals within the African National Congress, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and the ‘black consciousness’ Azanian Peoples Organisation (Azapo) also claim adherence to their own version of socialism.

In March this year a new group, the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa), was formed by a group of Azapo members. It immediately boasted of 20,000 adherents (an exaggeration). Its leaders declared against the agenda of the International Monetary Fund and for the working class. Whites would not be barred from Sopa, it announced, although they would be required to accept the ideology of black consciousness.

When the populist Bantu Holomisa was expelled from the ANC for exposing corruption within the organisation last year, he set up the National Consultative Forum and called for submissions regarding the nature of a future party. ‘Socialism’ was explicitly mentioned as one option in his first programmatic document. A couple of small left groups took up the invitation and used the opportunity to put forward a revolutionary working class perspective. Needless to say, Holomisa preferred to join forces with Roelf Meyer, former National Party minister, to form the United Democratic Movement - an attempt to create a more ‘leftwing’, multiracial NP. Nevertheless the UDM too no doubt contains a fair sprinkling of ‘socialists’.

What of the revolutionary left itself? A decade ago the SACP could have been placed in this category, but today its leaders see their main task as containing and suppressing the masses’ revolutionary aspirations. Whereas the SACP has around 75,000 card-holders, the forces to its left are tiny by comparison.

The Workers Organisation for Socialist Action (Wosa) comes from a tradition of anti-apartheid struggle independent of the ANC. Although it claims several hundred members, the organisation is a loose one with very few activists. It has no regular publication. Its national chair, Neville Alexander, told me that it was “very difficult” for the left to publish in South Africa. He appeared to believe that even the SACP does not have the resources for anything more than its two quarterly publications. He said that “nobody reads in South Africa” - apart from the thousand or so left activists. Not a bad target to aim for initially, I would have thought.

The bulk of Wosa’s membership and support is in the Western Cape, among the ‘coloured’ population. A majority of ‘coloureds’ preferred the National Party to the ANC in 1994, leaving the Western Cape the only province with an NP administration. For that reason Nelson Mandela has been wooing what he sees as ‘coloured’ groups - including Wosa - trying to persuade them to back the ANC in the 1999 elections. Comrade Alexander told me he informed Mandela that Wosa would not back any capitalist party, although it would support any measure it viewed as favourable to the working class.

In December 1997 Wosa hosted an international conference of revolutionary socialists in Cape Town. It was jointly sponsored with the Italian group, Socialismo Rivoluzionario. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (Britain) was an original sponsor, but dropped out over differences with RL (apparently, amongst other things, over the definition of the Soviet Union).

Apart from Wosa, the other left organisations all originated as offshoots of various British or US revolutionary groups. The Socialist Party’s sister organisation, Militant, is still in existence, I am informed, but has not published for several years. The minister for the environment, Pallo Jordan, describes himself as a “socialist of Marxist persuasion” and is said to be very close to the Militant comrades - if anybody can find them.

The SWP clone, the Socialist Workers Organisation, last published the South African Socialist Worker in November 1997, despite having received financial backing of several thousand rands from London. The Workers International Vanguard League broke from the British Workers Revolutionary Party and is currently in search of a new ‘international’. Other Trotskyite groups have liquidated themselves into organisations like the International Labour Resource and Information Group and the Alternative Information and Development Centre, which receive funding from international bourgeois and church sources.

One organisation which appears to be making a genuine attempt to build a non-sectarian revolutionary current is the International Socialist Movement, whose founder-members broke from the Socialist Workers Organisation in 1994 after Cliff loyalists informed them their SWO membership had “lapsed”. The comrades had objected to the way certain (incorrect, they believed) policy decisions had been bulldozed through as ‘directives’ from London and they had called for a democratic conference. The ISM describes SWP-type regimes as “centralised democracy”, where “a centralised bureaucracy holds all the levers of power and manipulates other groups and its own members while allowing them a level of local democracy” (ISM statement, 1996).

However, in reacting to their experience of SWP bureaucratic centralism, the comrades are in danger of bending the stick too far - against the whole notion of active leadership. The ISM’s bi-monthly paper, Revolutionary Socialist, rebukes those who believe that

“a revolutionary leadership can emerge to encourage, educate, assist and ‘bring on’ the ‘lesser’ cadre in a top-down way. Such structures inevitably end up with self-perpetuating leaderships, despite their protestations to be, at root, democratic” (February-March 1998).

Terry Bell, the editor of Revolutionary Socialist, told me that the ISM thought a rotating leadership was desirable. In my opinion it is utterly utopian to believe that the latest recruit can be the equal of an experienced leader, when it comes to questions of politics and organisation. It is one of the leadership’s duties precisely to “encourage, educate, assist and ‘bring on’” the whole organisation, but it must seek to persuade the membership through democratic debate.

The ISM makes clear that it still adheres to the theory of state capitalism. However, it adds:

“We do not make this definition of the Stalinist system in Russia a central point of our theory; it is not the party ‘line’. Rather it is the result of the application of what we see as classic Marxist analysis. And we must at all times remain open to arguments which may put an alternative. This not only sharpens our own arguments; it may also provide more or better insights” (Revolutionary Socialist February-March 1998).

In a previous pamphlet the group stated: “A revolutionary workers’ party bases itself on the active minority inside the class which wants to fight against the whole system. This is crucial because most of the time only a minority of workers are directly involved in this struggle.” It continued:

“A genuine revolutionary party ... must also be the ‘memory of the working class’ - the place where history is discussed and lessons of struggle are debated. Above all it is a party which functions on the basis of the search for theoretical clarity; it does not hide nor blur its differences in order to maintain an organisational unity” (Mass workers’ party or revolutionary party undated).

These statements clearly represent a very positive break from the sterile method of Cliffism.

Nevertheless it is a matter of regret that the ISM reduced the frequency of Revolutionary Socialist in 1997, up to which time it appeared monthly. Comrade Bell told me that this was done to allow the group to concentrate on study. But surely researching, debating, writing and intervening with a serious political paper facilitates continuous and enriching study - not only for the editorial team, but for the whole collective.

The comrades should not be complacent in the knowledge that they are “the only group producing a regular ... paper” on the South African left (‘Updated note’, April 1998). That places a huge responsibility on their shoulders to inform and provoke discussion amongst advanced workers.

Although both the ISM and Wosa are formally committed to cooperate with other left groups, the ISM comrades did not attend the main sessions of Wosa’s international conference. Comrade Alexander states that they refused to come, but comrade Bell says his group was excluded because of its unwillingness to sign the conference ‘base document’. He rightly contends that such a conference should have aimed to achieve unity through discussion, and participants should not have been expected to give carte blanche to a document they played no part in producing. Nevertheless, unless the ISM’s differences with the base document were of a fundamental nature, it might have been better to ignore secondary differences of emphasis in the pursuit of revolutionary unity.

The ISM has started to win support among workers from the black nationalist tradition. Clarence Hadebe, formerly secretary general of the Pan-Africanist Students Organisation (affiliated to the PAC) has now joined the group. While still secretary general of Paso, he wrote in the pages of Revolutionary Socialist: “The only genuine route to socialism is the formation of a clear revolutionary socialist party with the ultimate aim of organising the working class to seize power and impose their own dictatorship, the dictatorship of the proletariat. The working class, through the principle of socialism from below, alone can overcome the yoke of capitalism and impose its own democracy ... But the working class can only achieve this if it crushes the bourgeoisie - and that includes the African bourgeoisie” (March 1997). Quite a break from the politics of black nationalism.

A group of left Paso members seemed set to follow comrade Hadebe when - unbelievably - the ISM decided to introduce the ‘principle’ of banning dual membership. The potential recruits preferred to deal with their unfinished business in Paso rather than immediately join the ISM. In my view this ‘ban’ was profoundly mistaken. The only organisational principles should be those that aid the building of the revolutionary party. Members of mass organisations - whether they be the PAC, Azapo, Sopa or indeed the SACP itself - ought, while working under revolutionary discipline, to use their positions of influence to shape those movements.

A prime site for this type of work must surely be the South African Communist Party. Here is an organisation which uses the language of revolutionary Marxism to cover it’s blatantly reformist policies. As our interview with comrade Mvuyisi (see opposite) demonstrates, the SACP is full of contradictions. It contains thousands of militants with genuinely revolutionary aspirations.

It is certainly ironic that elements of the revolutionary left can, on the one hand, place their greatest emphasis on work within the Labour Party in Britain, while, on the other hand, avoiding like the plague any contact at all with the ‘Stalinist’ SACP.