South Africa: Official ‘communists’ split unions
It is impossible to overstate the crisis facing the SACP, writes Peter Manson
In order to defend its popular front with the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party has embarked upon a deliberate and criminal policy of splitting the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
These three organisations - the ANC itself, the SACP and Cosatu - make up the tripartite alliance, which, under ANC hegemony, is supposed to be leading the “national democratic revolution” that will end “racialised inequality”; and, as the SACP never tires of telling us, this is supposedly “the most direct route to socialism” in South Africa. The reality, of course, is rather different.
Inequality is today greater than it was in 1994, the year the ANC formed the first post-apartheid government. The ANC’s manifesto for the coming, May 7, general election proudly boasts that over the last five years “More of our people have been lifted out of extreme poverty” - only another few million to go then. Meanwhile, capital has never felt more secure, thanks to the ANC government’s neoliberal policies of cuts and privatisation - often fronted by ministers who are SACP members, as it happens.
It was always going to be only a matter of time before sections of the poor and working class began to rebel. And, embarrassingly for the popular front, that rebellion is not only raging in the run-up to the election, but significantly it has occurred in the very heart of the trade union movement. Cosatu affiliates are now fundamentally split between ANC/ SACP loyalists and oppositionists.
The current stand-off began when Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was suspended from his post in October 2013 - ostensibly over an affair with an office worker, but in reality the SACP establishment wanted rid of a man who had become far too critical of the ANC over its attacks on union members and the working class as a whole. But Vavi, an SACP oppositionist, had struck a chord and his suspension led to calls for a Cosatu special congress - not just to reinstate Vavi, but to reverse the federation’s pro-ANC positions and remove all ANC apologists.
Although in the end nine of the 19 Cosatu affiliates demanded a congress, the leadership prevaricated, quoting “practicalities” and “expense”. The constitution states that a special national congress (SNC) must be called if a third of affiliates demand one, nevertheless, on February 10 the central executive committee met and for the first time gave a straight ‘no’ to the call. According to the official Cosatu statement, “The CEC raised problems which an SNC would cause affiliates, including financial constraints, a full programme of other events, election work and the fact that this is the year of the central committee. In this context the meeting decided to decline the request for an SNC.”1
Not even an attempt to excuse the failure to comply with Cosatu’s own constitution, note. Instead, the CEC went onto the offensive - first and foremost against the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), which in December held its own special congress in response to the Cosatu leadership’s blatant abrogation of duty - not only in relation to its constitution, but in relation to the ANC-led attacks on the working class. Over 1,000 delegates, representing 330,000 Numsa members, voted unanimously to fight for a new Cosatu leadership and, just as significantly, for the withdrawal of all support from the ANC. It also decided that, since “the chance of winning back the SACP for the struggle for working class power” was “very remote”, Numsa would attempt to set up both a fighting “united front” and a “movement for socialism” that, in due course, would lead to a new working class party.
Because the union’s new stance was deemed to be against “Cosatu policy”, the CEC determined to write to Numsa demanding it “give reasons why it should not be suspended or expelled from the federation”. It also “agreed to write to the other eight unions who requested the SNC to ask them to clarify their views on Numsa’s special congress declaration and resolutions”. In other words, distance yourself from Numsa or you’ll all be out on your ear.
But if the Cosatu bureaucrats were hoping to isolate Numsa, this move had the opposite effect. The nine rebel unions immediately issued a joint statement (which at least Cosatu has posted on its website) supporting the metalworkers’ stance in all respects: “Only an SNC will unite Cosatu, reinvigorate it and provide a leadership that can robustly defend workers’ interests,” it declared. “The current leadership faction is running away from an SNC because they know that the vast majority of workers, including in their own unions, want a militant, democratic and fighting Cosatu, with a leadership including Zwelinzima Vavi at the helm to fight for their interests. For these reasons we will continue to campaign for a special national congress and we will use all constitutional and legal means to do so.”2
Numsa has already begun moves to force Cosatu to comply with its constitution. Talking of which, Cosatu itself has employed solicitors to advise on moves against Vavi. The charges against him have moved far beyond those concerning “inappropriate use” of the federation’s premises (having sex with an employee) and now encompass “irregularities” and a “conflict of interest” over the purchase of the new Cosatu headquarters. It is implied that Cosatu paid over the odds for the new premises to the advantage of companies linked to Vavi’s stepdaughter and wife.
I would simply point out that, irrespective of the validity of these charges, they are very convenient for the ANC/SACP loyalists. But it has to be said that the nine rebel unions are not quite so convincing in their point-blank dismissal of them as they are when it comes to the accusations against Numsa. For example, they state in relation to the decision to cut off support from the ANC and SACP: “If the workers in a union decide to elaborate or change existing policy, surely they cannot be restricted because it might be different from an existing Cosatu policy? How would a Cosatu policy ever change if this was outlawed?”
Numsa also stands accused of “poaching” members from other unions - it has stated it will attempt to recruit in a number of industries. But the nine correctly point out that all unions have expanded beyond their original remit as a result of the close connection between different industries, especially given the fact that most workers are actually unorganised: “What this means is that there are very large overlaps in every sector, and is why Cosatu affiliates need to review their scope and find ways of organising workers in the most effective manner.” It asks: “Instead of attacking Numsa, why are the current leadership faction unable to look forwards, and think about how to recruit the more than 70% of workers in our country who are not organised by any union?”
The statement concludes: “The attacks on Numsa are designed to isolate an affiliate that has questioned a number of fundamental policies and entrench an unambiguous class orientation, and is prepared to challenge the thinking of the ruling class …. Let it be said, loud and clear, Numsa have endorsed the position shared by all the nine Cosatu affiliates who remain wholly committed to building a democratic, worker-controlled and independent Cosatu.”
Whither the SACP?
It is clear then that the SACP is losing its once firm grip over the unions. Many leading trade unionists may still be party members, including among the rebels, but more and more they are becoming oppositionists. Hence the revolt over the SNC is taking place within the other 10 affiliates, including those headed by the most obdurate ANC loyalists.
For example, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) was first off the block condemning Numsa for having “blatantly undermined the standing decisions of Cosatu” and effectively called for Numsa’s expulsion. But this provoked an upsurge in Nehawu that could see that union’s position reversed. As for the National Union of Mineworkers, once the proud organiser of South Africa’s most militant workers, it has lost literally thousands of members, as miners have deserted it in droves for the rebel (non- Cosatu) Association of Miners and Construction Union (Amcu).
The NUM’s continued attachment to the ANC led to an increasing tendency away from militant action and things came to a head when the police brutally shot dead 34 miners at Marikana in August 2012. Like the SACP, the NUM leadership blamed the Amcu “counterrevolutionaries” for the deaths and refused to utter even a word of criticism of the police for their use of automatic weapons against strikers. No wonder there has been an anti-ANC upswell amongst rank and file NUM members - just like the mood within the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union, where four of the seven regions are in rebellion against the loyalist leadership.
So you can see why the Cosatu bureaucracy has refused to convene an SNC. If it were called today, then it is a distinct possibility that the whole lot would be booted out. And - just as serious a concern for the SACP tops - it would very likely ditch the tripartite alliance. That would not exactly stop the ANC winning the May election, but it would severely damage the party. And, the longer the leadership leaves it before calling a congress, the more certain that outcome would be.
So it is clear what the SACP’s ‘solution’ is: kick out the Cosatu dissidents and then everything can get ‘back to normal’. It matters not a jot that the union movement is split down the middle: the governmental alliance must be held together at any cost. Such behaviour is class treachery pure and simple. But, perhaps worse, it is plain stupid. The loyalists cannot hold the fort - everything points against it. Surely it is only a matter of time before just about every Cosatu union is won to break from the alliance and, as a direct corollary, they will also dump the SACP, which up till now has been hegemonic within the workers’ movement.
Perhaps the SACP is playing a canny game. Maybe it will pre-empt the move by Numsa and others to launch a new workers’ party somewhere down the line and itself provoke a split from the ANC. There is general agreement among the South African commentariat that if there were a credible workers’ party it would win wide support and probably pose a serious electoral threat - unlike what passes for the current opposition.3
If the SACP had had any sense of strategy (and perhaps been less in thrall to the allure of government office), it would have already accepted that, even in its in own terms, the “national democratic revolution” had been betrayed by the ANC neoliberals. It could have used, say, Marikana as the trigger for a split and the launch of a Labour Party (not that I am advocating such a course of action). It would have been able to carry the entire union movement with it and win support from a far wider constituency than its claimed membership of 170,000.
But, no, the SACP is the ANC’s most reliable and influential support organisation. Following president Jacob Zuma’s February 13 ‘state of the nation’ address, the SACP issued a statement that used the word ‘welcome’ no fewer than 13 times. Apparently these ‘communists’ agreed with everything Zuma said - although there was one hint of criticism: “the president could have said more about the negative role played by dominant private-sector oligopolies …The collusive behaviour of these same players in critical sectors of our economy … needs also to be much more firmly outlined and dealt with.”
Yes, just like other sections of capital have been “dealt with”, I suppose. The SACP statement ends with a call to “our people, the working class and the poor, to continue voting for the ANC to lead our socio-economic and political transformation and development project towards the achievement of the Freedom Charter’s vision.”4
So, no, the SACP will not lead a split. It is destined to be sidelined, as, one after the other, the unions desert the ANC and put their resources behind the new party which Numsa seems determined to establish. Doubtless, a good part of the SACP’s membership will follow them. General secretary Blade Nzimande and his number two, Jeremy Cronin, will in all likelihood go the way of so many ‘official communists’ before them: succumbing to ‘modernisation’ and total reconciliation with capital - not to mention the rewards that are commensurate to two such loyal government ministers.
3. See ‘Opposition in disarray’ Weekly Worker February 13.