Biggest union ready to split historic ANC alliance
Things in the workers movement are very fluid, writes Peter Manson. The South African Communist Party is certainly heading for a profound crisis
At last the popular front that dominates South African politics - the African National Congress-led tripartite alliance - is being called into serious question. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the country’s largest trade union with 330,000-members, decided at its special congress on December 19 to withdraw support from the ANC.
The Numsa congress was called as a result of the failure of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to comply with the demand of nine of its 19 affiliates to call a special congress in response to the deep divisions over Cosatu’s unstinting support for the ANC government. That despite its ongoing attacks on the working class. On October 9 federation president Sidumo Dlamini issued a statement agreeing to convene such a congress, as he is constitutionally obliged to do if a third of affiliates demand one, but he cited “practicalities” and “expense” as reasons for not doing so immediately. Cosatu’s regular congresses are held only once every three years and the next one is not due until September 2015, so what’s the hurry? Especially when there is a general election coming up and the passing of motions highly critical of the ANC - or even calling for the ending of the alliance - would be a big embarrassment to the loyalists.
Matters came to a head in August last year, when Cosatu’s central executive committee voted to suspend its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, ostensibly over an affair with a Cosatu office worker he had recruited. But in reality the loyalists had jumped at the opportunity to remove from office a man who had increasingly become a thorn in the side of the government and the tripartite alliance, consisting of the ANC itself, Cosatu and - last but not least - the South African Communist Party. (Actually ‘tripartite’ is no longer strictly correct, since the alliance now also includes the South African National Civics Organisation - hardly a prominent or powerful grouping.) Vavi has been addressing dissident bodies, including the Numsa congress, and the SACP/ANC-loyal Cosatu leadership under its president, Dlamini, claims this is breaking the terms of his suspension.
The remarkable thing about all this is that the main protagonists on both sides of the Cosatu battle lines, including Dlamini and Vavi, are members of the Communist Party. Since 1994 the SACP has been part of every ANC government. SACP members, in the name of the “national democratic revolution”, have remained part of an administration that, almost from the beginning, abandoned the social democratic elements of the ANC programme, the Freedom Charter, and pursued a neoliberal, pro-business, Thatcherite policy of privatisation - in fact SACP ministers have often fronted such policies. Today SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande (minister of higher education), and his number two, Jeremy Cronin (deputy minister of public works), are among seven SACP government members.
But for many SACP members the justification for all this is wearing a bit thin. Participation in government is supposed to be driving forward the national democratic revolution (NDR), which, as SACP tops never cease reassuring us, is apparently “the most direct route to socialism”. And it is in Cosatu that a rebellion of SACP oppositionists has manifested itself. What we are seeing is effectively a division between unions led by SACP loyalists and those headed by party oppositionists, such as Numsa’s general secretary, Irvin Jim.
A resolution adopted unanimously by the 1,050 delegates at Numsa’s special congress called the alliance “dysfunctional, in crisis and paralysed”. It is “not an instrument in the hands of these struggling masses”, whose struggles today are “largely leaderless”. In a stark condemnation of the party that many of the militants in the hall once supported, the motion went on to say: “The reality is that there is a political vacuum and the working class is on its own.”
The text goes on to bemoan the fact that the Freedom Charter has been “completely abandoned in favour of rightwing and neoliberal policies”. That is because the alliance “has been captured and taken over by rightwing forces. Those who are perceived to be against neoliberalism or advocates of policies in favour of the working class and the poor are seen as problematic, isolated or purged.”
The motion concludes that there is “no chance of winning back the alliance to what it was originally formed for; which was to drive a revolutionary programme for fundamental transformation of the country, with the Freedom Charter as the minimum platform to transform the South African economy”.
Similarly, the “chance of winning back the SACP” - which “has become embedded in the state” - for the “struggle for working class power” is “very remote”. Therefore Numsa calls on Cosatu itself to “break from the alliance”.
The motion sets out a two-pronged approach leading, effectively, to the formation of a rival, more leftwing SACP - a return to the imagined party of principle campaigning for the Freedom Charter as a “minimum platform”. So Numsa “must lead in the establishment of a new united front that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the [United Democratic Front] of the 1980s. The task of this front will be to fight for the implementation of the Freedom Charter and be an organisational weapon against neoliberal policies …”
In parallel the union wants to “explore the establishment of a movement for socialism” and intends to “convene a Conference on Socialism”. It should “conduct a thoroughgoing discussion on previous attempts to build socialism”, as well as “current experiments”, such as the experience of countries including “Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Greece ...”
All this gives you a flavour of the weakness of the SACP oppositionists. In their mind, the original SACP schema - for the alliance to use the Freedom Charter to pursue the NDR - was perfectly sound, but unfortunately the party lost its way and instead began to manage capitalism. Overlooked, of course, is the small detail that this outcome was inevitable. The idea that it is possible to gradually reform the bourgeois state in favour of the workers, until one day, miraculously, it can be transformed into an organ of the working class, is a utopian absurdity. Communists should only agree to participate in a government committed to the immediate implementation of our full minimum programme under working class rule.
The Numsa congress also called on president Jacob Zuma to resign with immediate effect because of his administration’s pursuit of neoliberal policies, including the so-called ‘national development plan’, and condemned his administration’s track record, which is “steeped in corruption, patronage and nepotism”. This follows the latest scandal over the revelation that 206 million rands (£12 million) of state funds have been spent on Zuma’s home, allegedly for security upgrades. Ironically Numsa was among the major unions that, under the direction of the SACP, helped propel Zuma to power in 2009, having been part of the campaign to recall former president Thabo Mbeki.
Numsa also said it planned to recruit new members in other industrial sectors, for which it has been condemned by loyalist unions for contravening the principle of ‘one industry, one union’. In reality many unions have already extended their representation way beyond their original territory: for example, there are nowhere near 330,000 metalworkers - whom Numsa was originally formed to organise, as its name indicates. Yet that is the size of its membership.
Numsa also voted to suspend payment of affiliation fees to Cosatu, until such a time as the federation agrees to call the special congress it is constitutionally bound to convene. It has also cut off contributions to Cosatu’s political fund, which has been used to finance the SACP.
It goes without saying that the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), set up by the Committee for a Workers’ International last year, is ecstatic about all this, but is less pleased by the fact that Numsa has not bothered to reply to Wasp’s invitation to the union to “take its place in the leadership of Wasp”. The CWI is demanding trade unionists break not only from the ANC, but also from the SACP and Cosatu, and support “the launching of a socialist trade union network”.1 Hopelessly sectarian, of course, but, unfortunately, a split in the ranks of the unions seems on the cards.
This can be seen in, for instance, the reaction of the SACP/ANC-loyal National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu). In a statement issued on December 21 it dubbed Numsa’s stance a “public charade of militancy and a political bluff” and condemned its “liberal abstentionist position on the 2014 elections” - Numsa has said it will “neither endorse nor support the ANC or any other political party” in the general election that is due to be held between April and July.
Nehawu’s statement clearly amounts to a demand to expel Numsa from Cosatu: “We expect the federation to take action against this union’s leadership, as they have blatantly undermined the standing decisions of Cosatu for far too long.” What is more, the SACP loyalists leading Nehawu cannot even bear to be in the same room as comrades like Irvin Jim: “We cannot any more discuss the political challenges that are facing our ANC-led alliance - for that matter, anything political - in the presence of these turncoats, within our own structures. As far as we are concerned, they no longer have any say on the political agenda of our federation.”
The expulsion of Numsa is presented as a pre-emptive, defensive action, since apparently it has only “chosen to remain in Cosatu in order to continue with its campaign of anarchy”, intending to “weaken and ultimately destroy Cosatu”.
ANC Youth League national convenor Mzwandile Masina was also less than polite in his condemnation of the Numsa general secretary. According to Masina, Jim has a “personal vendetta against the president” and he “continues to embarrass us every day”. It is “time for him to fuck off”.
At least that is what reporters thought he said. But, no, they had misheard, as the ANCYL pointed out in a statement ‘correcting’ reports of Masina’s crude language. Noting “the public discomfort and outcry” over its convenor’s words, the Youth League stated that in fact Masina had invited Jim to “fork off” - a phrase which “had been used as early as the 14th century in the English language”, meaning “go a separate way; leave”. It is “not vulgar language or a swear word”. Of course not.
But, to return to Wasp, which intends to stand a slate of candidates in the general election, it labelled Numsa’s decision to leave the ANC “a bold and historic move”. But, as we have seen, Numsa has said it will not be supporting anyone in the election - it seems to want a new party to be set up in time for the 2019 elections! This, of course, shows a complete lack of political acumen. The key in situations like this is the need to maintain momentum and, with a general election just months away, now would be the perfect time to take the initiative.
On December 20 the SACP published an online article entitled ‘The alliance is not a trap to the working class’, written by its national spokesperson, Alex Mashilo, who is also deputy secretary of the Young Communist League. Writing apparently “in his personal capacity”, Mashilo crassly attempts to employ Karl Marx to justify the SACP’s class-collaboration and condemn Numsa and the SACP oppositionists for their “separatism”. The task, he writes, quoting Marx, is to “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy”. And in order to do that we must “spare no site of struggle, including the state”. For, you see, “the struggle continues in all key sites of power until complete victory is secured”.
Mind you, the SACP aim of completing the “national democratic revolution” seems very far from that elusive “complete victory”. After almost 20 years of pursuing the NDR, capital is more secure than ever. Returning to Mashilo’s article, the SACP spokesperson states:
Suggestions to move away from our revolutionary alliance and fragment the progressive trade union movement do not alter the fundamental problems of the class balance of forces, which are characterised mainly by the bourgeois as the ruling class. On the contrary, such suggestions or similar postures only stand to serve the oppressors of the working class, the exploiters. There is no way division among the workers and within the working class can serve their interests.
Unlike helping to run the bourgeois state, of course, which is fully in the interests of the working class.
Continuing in best ‘official communist’ style, Mashilo states:
For the communists, the Freedom Charter can be characterised, to borrow from Marx and Engels in the Communist manifesto, as a programme for the achievement of the immediate aims and enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class, while simultaneously pursuing the struggle for a socialist transition to communism: ie, the future. There is no contradiction between the two. In fact they are mutually reinforcing and dialectically interlinked.2
It really is an art to employ all those fine, principled Marxist phrases to justify a course that runs directly counter to what is being advocated, don’t you think? In the 20 years since the defeat of apartheid the relative impoverisation of the masses has increased. The ANC has continued to implement its neoliberal programme at the expense of the working class, the unemployed and the destitute shack-dwellers.
Admittedly, according to the SACP “year-end message” issued on December 22, “particular policies such as Gear” (the Thatcherite Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme, adopted in 1996) were “not helpful”. An understatement, if ever there was one. Gear was implemented for well over a decade and ‘son of Gear’, the national development plan, is to continue the ‘good work’.
The statement points out defensively:
Millions of our people now have access to human and labour rights, shelter, clean water and sanitation, electricity, education at all levels, HIV treatment, social security and welfare, to mention but a few. The SACP welcomes these advances, which under no circumstances can amount to a sell-out.3
This is so full of half-truths, it is difficult to know where to start. Take “shelter”. The number of households in ‘informal settlements’ - ie, shacks - stands at around 1.1 million (over 9% of households, probably some five million people), according to research published by the Housing Development Agency in 2012. It is generally agreed that the number of shacks has only marginally decreased since 1994.4
It is true that many now have access to electricity and water, and I suppose you could say that electrified shacks and access to water represent “advances”. But those services must still be paid for - an impossibility for many.
How about “education at all levels”? Before I left Cape Town last week, I spoke to a primary school teacher who works in an area almost exclusively consisting of ‘coloured’ (mixed race) people, and she told me that because of funding cuts the school can no longer afford to employ separate teachers for children whose first language is either English or Afrikaans. She now has to divide teaching time for her class of over 40 between the two languages - first setting the English speakers some work and then turning her attention to those who understand Afrikaans better.
To make matters worse, the Afrikaans speakers are mainly shack-dwellers, while those whose first language is English mostly live in formal housing. Unsurprisingly the two groups do not share a common learning culture - the parents of the Afrikaans-speaking children are more concerned with feeding their family than ensuring they do their homework. They cannot afford to pay school fees or buy the necessary books and stationery, which are not provided by the state. The teacher herself is obviously grossly overworked, but the main union at the school, the ANC-loyal South African Democratic Teachers Union, does not seem to be interested in fighting this scandal.
Threat to ANC?
The situation in Cosatu is clearly very fluid - for the first time the SACP’s hegemony over the workers’ movement is facing a serious challenge. This in turn will surely force the party leadership to review its current line of unflinching support for the ANC. A new workers’ party, sponsored by some of the big unions, which could take millions of votes from the ANC, would throw the SACP into crisis, with a substantial section of its 170,000 members open to defection.
Of course, the ruling class would not exactly be unhappy to see such a split. It has long hoped that the ANC would break its ties with Cosatu and, in particular, the SACP, which are regarded as unreliable elements, having the potential to create obstacles and act against capitalist interests. One black businessman I spoke to said that the tripartite alliance was an anachronism. Apartheid has long since been defeated and now what is needed is ‘normal’ bourgeois politics. He said he would be able to understand it if the ANC acted as a type of Labour Party, “serving the interests” of the working class, but in reality the ANC “shits on workers”.
Up to now there has been no alternative to the ANC from the point of view of the ruling class. Since 1994, its electoral support has hovered around 66%-67%. In 2009 it picked up 65.9% of the popular vote, giving it 264 MPs in the 400-member parliament - just three short of the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution. The second largest party, the Democratic Alliance, is a direct descendant of the apartheid National Party and, despite all attempts to ditch this legacy and promote blacks onto its leadership, membership and support are still largely white. The DA won 16.7% (67 seats) in 2009 and has no chance of getting much bigger because of its history.
The third largest party in 2009 was the Congress of the People (Cope), which secured 30 seats thanks to its 7.4% showing. Cope is a rightwing split from the ANC and sections of the establishment hoped that it might become an alternative party to finally end ANC domination. But, to give you an idea of the extent of its decline, Cope has decided that it has come to the end of the road and is now the main mover of the newly formed Collective for Democracy, an alliance set up to contest the general election along with four other parliamentary opposition parties. These are the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (18 seats last time), the Afrikaner-dominated Freedom Front Plus (4), the tiny African Christian Democratic Party (3) and the even smaller United Christian Democratic Party (2). The IFP seems to have changed its mind about joining the new grouping already, but, with or without Inkatha, the Collective for Democracy is clearly a hopeless project. It will surely demonstrate that the whole is not always more powerful than the sum of its parts - especially when those parts are so absurdly disparate.
Meanwhile a party that is not at all to the liking of the ruling class looks set to take large numbers of votes from the ANC. I am talking about Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. The EFF is a black nationalist formation - Malema himself was previously president of the ANC Youth League, but was expelled from both the league and the ANC in 2011 for portraying Zuma’s government “in a negative light” and now he is the “commander-in-chief” of the EFF troops with their red berets. The EFF has taken to posing on the extreme left, calling for land redistribution and large-scale nationalisations.
In the absence of a substantial independent working class party, the EFF looks like having a clear run in the elections, when it comes to winning the votes of disaffected ANC supporters among the urban poor and the 25% of the adult population that is unemployed. It is not impossible that ANC support will drop below 50% for the first time. The electoral system is very favourable to small parties - the 400 MPs are elected proportionally from party lists and there is no minimum threshold. So a party that wins just 0.25% of the national vote will gain a seat - assuming it can raise the punitive deposit, that is.
That means it is quite possible that Wasp will win a seat or two - no doubt the CWI will be helping with the finance. However, I must be blunt: Wasp, with its 100 or so members, does not provide the basis for an alternative to the SACP, whose claimed membership is rather larger (170,000).
There can be no short cut to winning the battle for the soul of the existing working class movement. That battle must be waged within the existing organisations, particularly the Cosatu unions and the SACP. Numsa, despite the far from adequate politics of its leadership, has shown that the SACP’s class-collaborationist hegemony can be challenged.