South African left: Attempt to go round already existing mass organisations
Wasp might be able to sting the SACP/Cosatu bureaucracy. But, asks Peter Manson, can it become a mass party capable of leading a socialist revolution?
On March 21 the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) was launched in Tshwane, South Africa at a meeting attended by 500-600 workers. It was set up on the initiative of the Democratic Socialist Movement, which is the South African affiliate of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International.
Wasp is intended to be the “broad mass party” which the Socialist Party in England and Wales believes is a necessity everywhere. Everywhere traditional working class parties, whether Labourite or social democratic, have now gone over completely to the bourgeoisie and, according to the SPEW/CWI theory, are completely useless even as sites for struggle. The task now is to found fighting alternatives, which, at this stage, can only be ‘broad’ - ie, parties where all class-conscious workers can come together. The CWI will provide such parties with the “Marxist, revolutionary spine”1 and eventually - how we are not told - a Marxist party will emerge.
According to the CWI website, The launch of Wasp “surpassed all expectations”. It reports: “Over 500 Tshwane workers, mineworkers’ delegates, trade union and community activists packed Lucas Van Den Bergh Community Hall in Pretoria ... The hall could not accommodate the turnout and attendees overspilled onto the neighbouring field.”
Continuing in optimistic vein, the CWI notes: “It is without a doubt that Wasp is striking a chord with working class people. Today’s launch will have worried many in the establishment - the ANC and their partners in government, the Cosatu leadership and big business. A new power is rising. The working class are getting organised and they are preparing a mighty challenge to the status quo. The ideas of socialism are being re-embraced.”2
The CWI report names three DSM speakers at the launch, plus Joe Higgins, the Irish Socialist Party TD. Also on the platform were Elias Juba, chair of the national mineworkers committee, set up with the encouragement of the DSM, and Ephraim Mphahlela, president of the breakaway National Transport Movement union. The CWI/DSM enthusiasm for new working class organisations is not restricted to alternative parties: it also calls on workers to break with the existing trade unions, mostly affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, dominated by the South African Communist Party and linked to the ruling African National Congress.
The CWI also states that “workers’ delegates” from “supporting organisations” spoke at the launch and names those from seven different mining companies. Many such workers have become increasingly disgusted with the leadership of the official unions, tied as they are to the ANC-SACP-Cosatu tripartite alliance, and have responded positively to the DSM’s activism.
During last year’s strike wave, which saw the establishment hit back through the police slaughter of 34 miners at Marikana, the DSM was inadvertently given a helping hand by the SACP, which dubbed the CWI comrades “counterrevolutionary”, falsely blaming them for rank-and-file violence directed against National Union of Mineworkers shop stewards. This only served to boost the DSM’s standing amongst mineworkers and there was a brief period when the group seemed to feature in the mass media virtually every day. DSM speakers were invited to address rallies organised by unofficial strikers and attended by hundreds - not bad for an organisation of a few dozen comrades.
So should the launch be seen as a success for at least the first stage of the mass party ‘theory’? Well, not exactly. Pretoria was chosen for a reason. It was the site of a bitter (and ultimately successful) strike by municipal workers, where DSM comrades have been active in support. Most of those attending the launch were striking local workers with time on their hands, not the “delegates” named by the CWI.
In fact, the first attempt at a launch had occurred in December in Limpopo, one of the sites of the mass miners’ strikes. The DSM and “representatives of strike committees” had arranged a rally at a huge stadium. But this was a flop. As a result of “the withdrawal of the permission by police hours after it was granted to hold the rally at a stadium in Limpopo, the draconian bail conditions of leaders of the Bokoni Platinum strike committee and the shunning of the event by the media”, there were “just 20 delegates present”, according to the DSM’s own statement.3 Following what were “more than likely to be deliberate acts of sabotage”, the intended launch “had to be pared down to a founding meeting”.
Personally I do not find this very convincing. Permission to hold the rally in the stadium was withdrawn, some workers could not get there because of “draconian bail conditions”, and the media just did not cooperate. But surely that does not explain the dismal attendance. Not unless the DSM had been counting on the Bokoni workers to swell the numbers, as the municipal workers at Pretoria did on March 21.
But the DSM tried to put a brave face on things. The Limpopo “founding” was, nevertheless, an event with “the potential to change the political landscape of South Africa” and, in any case, “We will formally launch Wasp on March 21 - Sharpeville Day, 2013.” Strangely the December 18 2012 statement on the Limpopo debacle issued by the DSM executive committee can no longer be found on the group’s own website, nor that of the CWI.
So what sort of party will Wasp be? Well, for a start, its immediate demands are far more radical than what you would expect from the “broad mass party” the CWI envisages for Britain. Or at least they are looking further down the road to SPEW-style national socialism. Wasp’s five-point manifesto reads:
1.Kick out the fat cats. Nationalise the mines, the farms, the banks and big business. Nationalised industry to be under the democratic control of workers and working class communities. Democratic planning of production for social need, not profit.
2. End unemployment. Create socially useful jobs for all those seeking work. Fight for a living wage of R12,500 [£900] per month.
3. Stop cut-offs and evictions - for massive investment in housing, electricity, water, sanitation, roads, public transport and social services.
4. For publicly funded, free education from nursery to university.
5. For publicly funded free healthcare accessible to all.4
The would-be party sums up its “principles” in the following points:
- We reject outright the corruption of pro-capitalist politicians and political parties.
- All Wasp candidates for publicly elected positions - whether councillors, MPLs or MPs - are elected subject to the right of immediate recall.
- For workers’ representatives on workers’ wages. All officials elected on the basis of the Wasp manifesto will only take the wage of an average skilled worker. The remainder will be donated back to Wasp.5
Wasp will be campaigning for “rolling mass action across mining communities to build up towards a one-day general strike”. It will “extend solidarity in action with all workers and working class communities in struggle whenever the need arises”. It intends to convene a conference to “flesh out its manifesto”6 and elect a leadership “before the end of the year”7 and it has set itself an ambitious target of collecting “one million signatures in support of building Wasp by August 16 2013”.8 It intends to contest the 2014 general election.
The DSM has said that existing left groups are free to join Wasp, while retaining their own distinct platforms. For example, the tiny Workers International Vanguard Party reports: “We have been assured that we can participate under our own name and with our own programme.” It concludes: “There will be a congress within a few months; if it adopts an opportunist position on elections, we will go our separate ways, but for now we hope to march together with the Wasp comrades in the class battles that are breaking out daily.”9
In an interview with the press after the launch, DSM general secretary Weizmann Hamilton said: “The working class is on its own. It has no alternative but to reclaim its class independence and political independence.”10 That independence is always contrasted to the fact that the existing mass organisations are tied hand and foot to the ruling class. The CWI approvingly quotes a speaker at the launch as saying: “During the strike we saw the NUM, Cosatu, the ANC and SACP - none of them came to defend us. Instead they attacked us. It was the DSM alone that came to us when we were on the mountain, and stayed there with us to fight.”11
But the Wasp/DSM policy of calling on workers to abandon the existing organisations of the class is clearly mistaken. The SACP, claiming just under 200,000 members, is the already existing mass workers’ party, albeit one that is completely under the bureaucratic control of leaders committed to the ANC-led tripartite popular front. Cosatu, which still enjoys the allegiance of millions of workers, is capable of leading militant trade union struggles, although they are always tempered by the perceived need to support the ‘party of liberation’, the bourgeois ANC.
In South Africa the unions are held back by ‘official communists’; in Britain by Labourites. It has always been the nature of the union bureaucracy to act as intermediaries between militant workers and the ruling class. But that does not lead us to call on workers to walk out and establish ‘pure’ replacements. Those replacements cannot but be affected by the tendency towards domination by the same bureaucratic caste.
There can be no short cut in the battle for working class bodies worthy of the name. We have to start where workers are currently organised and encourage them to fight to win back control of their unions. The setting up of rival unions will, self-evidently, result in fresh divisions and a weakening of our forces.
The same applies to the SACP. This, the largest ‘official communist’ party in the western world, attempts to keep workers loyal to the ANC through its ‘Marxist’ jargon about the “national democratic revolution” and talk of “building socialism now”. It will be impossible to win the mass of workers to the ideas of genuine, internationalist socialism without engaging with, taking on and defeating the SACP’s popular frontism. That, in my opinion, can only be done from the inside and the outside. In other words, a combined strategy.
What of the state of the DSM itself? How does it shape up to the task of providing Wasp with its “Marxist, revolutionary spine”?
Speaking at Socialism 2012, Alec Thraves, the SPEW comrade most involved with the CWI’s South African affiliate, stated that he believed the DSM’s membership had increased to around 100 following the organisation’s relative prominence during the miners’ strike wave.12
During my recent visit to Cape Town, I met with comrade Michael Helu, the group’s representative in the city. While he believed that possibly up to 500 had expressed an interest in joining the DSM across the country, that was different from calling them members. In fact, the recruitment surge seemed to have passed Cape Town by: it still had only around six comrades, he said.
The DSM held its own conference over the weekend of February 9-11, attended by “about 60 members and visitors”, including comrades Taaffe and Thraves. The conference “adopted a target of reaching 300 paid-up members by September”, according to the DSM website.13 It goes without saying that the “delegates unanimously affirmed the DSM’s and mineworkers’ committees’ initiative to build the new Workers and Socialist Party as a broad socialist party in response to the lack of a working class political voice, which was apparent in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre”.
The commentary continues: “The conference was in many ways a rebirth of the CWI in South Africa. Based on the new and old members gathered over the weekend, we are confident that the DSM will be able to catch up with history - by continuing to grow its small forces into a true revolutionary party that can constitute the backbone of the beginnings of the Workers and Socialist Party.”
Meanwhile, the CWI has launched an appeal to raise £30,000 for the DSM, which will helping to finance the group’s “full-timers”. In fact the CWI already pays the wages of the DSM’s single full-timer - its effective leader, Liv Shange - to the tune of R3,000 (£214) a month. The appeal will also help ensure that the long-awaited next edition of the DSM paper, Izwi Labasebenzi, is produced (last published May-July 2012).
I do not wish to pour cold water over the attempt to build a new working class party in South Africa. In fact I welcome the fact that thousands of workers are questioning the established bodies and looking for an alternative. But there is no getting away from the serious shortcomings represented by this particular attempt. I am not just talking about the lack of any roots among the class of the DSM, the group upon which Wasp will have to depend (although, given the mass pro-socialist sentiment that exists, one million signatures is not an impossibility). Nor the gross inadequacies of the CWI version of ‘socialism’. I am talking most of all about the criminally divisive attitude to existing working class bodies.
The fight for a genuine party of the class must be fought in parallel with the fight to win back the unions and wrest the SACP from the control of the popular-front bureaucrats. Don’t turn your backs on Cosatu and the SACP. Demand that they break with the capitalist ANC and uphold the independent interests of the working class.
1. The words of general secretary Peter Taaffe, speaking at SPEW’s Socialism 2012 weekend school. See ‘Unity of the left can wait’ Weekly Worker November 8 2012.
7. According to spokesman Mamatlwe Sebei, quoted in City Press March 22.
10. Times Live March 22.
12. See ‘On a publicity high’ Weekly Worker November 8 2012.