SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 175 February 2014

Socialism Today 175 - February 2014South Africa: the struggle for a new workers’ party

Widespread anger is sweeping across South Africa, stoked by mass poverty and inequality, and the massacre of miners in Marikana. The leaders of the ANC – supposedly the party of liberation – sit at the top of the corrupt system. Increasingly, workers are looking for a genuine alternative, and last year saw the formation of the Workers and Socialist Party, and the decision of the Numsa union to withdraw funding from the ANC. Reporters from the DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST MOVEMENT (CWI South Africa) write.

The strike wave in the mining sector in 2012 – which came to international attention in the atrocity of the Marikana massacre – was the opening battle in a new phase of the class struggle which is redrawing the social and political landscape of South Africa. If Marikana was the earthquake, then the decision at the recent special congress of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) to withdraw support for the governing African National Congress (ANC) was an aftershock at least equal in intensity to the original tremor.

The abandonment of the ANC by swathes of the working class is a process that has been underway for an entire period. It is rooted in the compromise made by the ANC in the negotiations that ended the racist apartheid segregation system and led to the first democratic elections in 1994. In guaranteeing the preservation of capitalism, and adopting in 1996 the neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy, the ANC surrendered the economic levers that would have made possible a dramatic improvement in the living conditions of the majority. Instead, unemployment, poverty and inequality have increased under the ANC’s ‘democratic’ rule.

Today, South Africa is the most unequal society on the planet according to the Gini Coefficient measure. Twelve million go to bed hungry every night. A staggering 8.6 million are unemployed, with 3.3 million youth aged 15-24 not in employment, education or training. The full extent of the social crisis is revealed in horrifying rape and crime statistics, among the highest globally. South Africa has the worst child homicide rates in the world, and more suicides than the US and UK – 23 every day and another 230 attempting to, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. It reports that the youngest to commit suicide was a seven year-old girl. Levels of corruption in government mimic and rival that in the private sector.

Rocked by the world economic turmoil which set in in earnest in 2008, the crisis of capitalism no longer rests only on the shoulders of the working class but is affecting the middle class too. The University of South Africa’s Bureau for Market Research points out that 60% of the businesses started in Soweto in 2007 were no longer operating by 2010. First quarter statistics for 2013 from the National Credit Bureau show that 9.5 million of the 20.1 million ‘credit active consumers’ have defaulted on one or more payments. With unsecured lending skyrocketing to R165 billion (£9.4bn), a doubling over two years, 48% of credit users are one step away from bankruptcy.

Workers’ struggle

The mining industry remains a powder keg. The Marikana massacre saw the ANC government, the mine bosses and the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) collude in the premeditated shooting dead with automatic weapons of 34 striking miners. After a lull in struggle from the end of 2012 following two months of sector-wide strikes, through the first half of 2013, as the bosses and mineworkers took stock, the miners took militant action again and again in the course of 2013. Legal and illegal strikes and occupations took place on issues ranging from mass redundancies, wage demands and the victimisation of trade union activists. South Africa is now holding its breath awaiting the likely commencement of a wage strike at the world’s three largest platinum producers in the Rustenburg area. A strike at the fourth largest producer, Northam in Limpopo, is entering its third month.

However, the high point of industry-wide workers’ unity, achieved in 2012 under the leadership of the independent strike committees, has given way to a more complicated picture. The struggles of 2013 were waged under separate trade union banners. In the months of the lull, the previously marginal Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) displaced the NUM as the majority union in the mining industry’s core of the platinum belt and the Gauteng goldfields. The NUM is still the majority union in the gold mines of the Free State, the Northern Cape iron ore mines, and diamond mines dotted around the country. It retains a residual membership in the platinum belt. The continuing treacherous role of the NUM and the sectarianism of the AMCU leadership have led to the fracturing of the mineworkers’ unity.

AMCU has not turned out to be the union the mineworkers hoped it would be when they joined en masse. Its leadership has no serious strategy for winning the R12,500 (£709) a month minimum wage demand that was central to the strikes of 2012. Instead, the leadership is engaged in a destructive competition with the NUM for members and influence that sees mineworkers’ interests take second place. Jealously guarding their new mass membership, the AMCU leaders are suspicious of workers’ independence and initiative, refusing to set up democratic structures. Shop stewards have been appointed rather than elected, and full-time organisers who get on the wrong side of the union's president – many, former strike committee leaders – are summarily dismissed from the union.

An advanced layer of mineworkers is already growing frustrated with AMCU’s approach. After the experience of Marikana, they will not long tolerate another union that lets them down or stifles them. Mighty struggles loom in the mining industry and AMCU could find itself discarded as rapidly as it was picked-up.

Contradictions in the Tripartite Alliance

The displacement of NUM by AMCU is the most high-profile case of the dissolution of the post-1994 political settlement. The Tripartite Alliance – the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – can no longer contain the class contradictions inherent in an alliance led by the now openly neoliberal ANC, backed up by the Stalinist SACP, and the trade unions under the Cosatu umbrella. This process has been developing over a number of years, reflected in splits from nearly all Cosatu affiliates and the rise of a new generation of independent unions.

Marikana and the miners’ strikes of 2012 have rapidly accelerated this process. In the past 18 months, the NUM has lost more than 150,000 members and been relegated from the position of Cosatu’s largest affiliate to fourth place. This haemorrhage of members is not just a blow to the NUM and Cosatu but represents the breaking of the political link between the mass of mineworkers and the ANC.

Recognising the rising tide of working-class anger, the ANC has embarked on a policy to attempt to neuter resistance by fully subordinating Cosatu within the Alliance. Reflecting the resistance of the mass of the working class to this process, opposition to the ANC has centred on Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. He is a vocal critic who refused elevation to the ANC’s executive, the leadership’s preferred method of co-opting workers’ leaders. The pro-ANC, Cosatu right-wing has responded with a witch-hunt leading to the suspension of Vavi, formally for an affair with a subordinate.

Numsa has come to his defence, recognising that the attack on Vavi represents an attempt by the ANC, and the capitalist class behind it, to destroy the independence and militant traditions of Cosatu once and for all. This stand is a reflection of the Numsa leadership’s base among the most class conscious workers in the factories. With 338,000 members, Numsa is now Cosatu’s largest affiliate. It describes itself as a ‘revolutionary trade union’ committed to socialism. Numsa has been at the forefront of attacking the ANC’s repackaging of the neoliberal Gear policies as the new National Development Plan (NDP) which will form the basis of the ANC’s 2014 election manifesto.

It was Numsa which moved a resolution at Cosatu’s 1993 congress calling for the establishment of a workers’ party. It was defeated, but the views underpinning the resolution have, on the basis of experience over the past 20 years of ANC rule, become the views of the majority of Cosatu members. This was demonstrated in a survey of the political attitudes of Cosatu shop stewards. Completed before the Marikana massacre, it found that 67% would support a workers’ party if it was formed by Cosatu.

Numsa has been campaigning to force Cosatu’s right-wing, pro-ANC leadership to call a special congress to give the rank-and-file of its affiliates a say on what is, in reality, a battle for the soul of Cosatu. Having rallied another eight affiliated unions to support the call for a special congress, the leadership is constitutionally bound to convene one but is resisting the call out of fear of being removed from office. In a brazenly cynical move, the right-wing eventually conceded that a special congress could go ahead, but only after the 2014 elections. In other words, a debate on the fundamental issue driving the crisis in the federation – the slavish support for the ANC and its anti-working class policies – will only take place after the resources and personnel of Cosatu have been used to help get the ANC into power for another five-year term!

Against this background, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM – CWI in South Africa), along with the representatives of six mineworkers’ strike committees, took the historic decision to found the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) in December 2012. Shortly after, the National Strike Committee, which at its height represented over 150,000 miners, gave its backing to WASP. Formally launched in Pretoria at a rally of over 500 workers, including representatives from all the key mining areas, WASP has been steadily building its support. In December 2013 the National Transport Movement, a 50,000-strong split from the Cosatu affiliated transport union, affiliated to WASP.

Numsa’s stand

In light of the Cosatu leadership’s obstruction to the call for a special congress, and the recognition of the changed political situation post-Marikana, the Numsa leadership convened its own special congress so its members could decide on a way forward. This took place at the end of last year. Among other things, the leadership was seeking a mandate to support its recommendation that the union should withdraw support for the ANC.

The anger and sense of betrayal that delegates felt for the ANC and SACP leaderships was on full display throughout the conference. The Marikana massacre was given centre-stage as a "deliberate act in defence of mining profits", marking a "turning point in the social and political life of South Africa". This meant "business as usual" can no longer continue. In this, Numsa’s analysis is at one with the CWI. In an emotive plenary session, survivors and family members of the Marikana martyrs were welcomed to thunderous applause and singing.

At no point did a single delegate make any serious argument for continuing to support the ANC. In the minds of Numsa members the reality is clear: the ANC and SACP are parties of the capitalist class. The decision not to support the ANC was easily won. Numsa will withhold the R2 million (£113,500) donation it would otherwise have made to the ANC’s election war-chest. In addition, Numsa has ended all ties with the SACP.

These decisions alone would warrant Numsa’s special congress going down in history as the most important labour movement meeting since the founding of Cosatu in 1985 – at the height of the mass struggle against apartheid. But delegates adopted many more radical positions. It was decided that the monthly R800,000 (£45,400) affiliation fee Numsa pays to Cosatu will be withheld until a special congress takes place, and that Numsa would march on the first Central Executive meeting of Cosatu in February 2014 demanding the convening of a special congress.

Numsa will call on Cosatu to break from the Tripartite Alliance and will wage a campaign to win the other affiliates to that position. If Numsa fails in its struggle for a "militant, independent, unified Cosatu", it was decided it would "begin the process of forming a new federation". Alongside the decision to reject Cosatu’s traditional principle of ‘one union, one industry’ and expand the scope of Numsa’s recruitment, including in the mining industry, it has consciously put itself on a course that will lead to a showdown with the right-wing in the coming months.

But it is not just within the structures of Cosatu and the Alliance that Numsa has dropped a bombshell. Numsa is positioning itself to be at the heart of working-class struggle in the next period and provide the leadership that the Cosatu right-wing has abdicated. A series of rolling ‘socio-economic strikes’ are being planned for the first half of 2014 on wider issues affecting the working class and poor beyond Numsa members’ immediate workplace interests. In other words, Numsa is seeking to organise political general strikes, with the first planned for 26 February.

Unfortunately, there were weaknesses in the positions adopted by Numsa in regard to the upcoming general election. At this stage, it has held back from taking a decision to support an alternative party in 2014. It has simply reiterated the right of Numsa members to vote as individuals according to their convictions. Instead of taking a clear position on 2014, it decided to launch a ‘united front’, modelled on the United Democratic Front of the 1980s, to unite the struggles of workers and communities while simultaneously helping to bring into being a ‘movement for socialism’.

In the run up to its special congress, Numsa was invited to "take its place in the leadership of WASP". WASP’s democratic and federal structure would allow Numsa to use the WASP umbrella to stand its own candidates, selected by its own procedures. Numsa could take its opposition to the NDP into the national parliament as an ancillary to the struggles that will be waged in the workplaces and communities.

At Numsa’s special congress the leadership laid down the criteria that any political party would have to meet in order to warrant political support. These criteria were endorsed by the delegates in the adoption of the secretariat’s report. WASP clearly meets these criteria. WASP was born out of the struggles of the mineworkers and bases itself on the working class. WASP stands for the nationalisation of the mines, banks, commercial farms, factories and other big business on the basis of workers’ control as part of the struggle for a socialist society. WASP is a thoroughly democratic organisation.

As part of the adoption of its new political strategy, the Numsa leadership was given a mandate to "be alert" to a "party committed to socialism standing for elections in future". WASP has repeated its call for Numsa to take its place in the leadership of WASP and support and stand candidates under the WASP umbrella in 2014, as a crucial part of building the new movement for socialism.

Nonetheless, the limitations of Numsa’s specific position on the 2014 elections cannot detract from the monumental shift in the political landscape that its decision heralds. The break-up of the post-1994 political settlement is now well advanced and the path towards the political independence of the working class embarked upon. Numsa’s decision has accelerated the process begun by the mineworkers in 2012. In recognising the changed political situation post-Marikana, Numsa has taken this process on to a far more conscious level.

Socialism Today 175 - February 2014

The 2014 election

Against a continuing background of widespread strikes and community protests, and the watershed of Marikana, the general election to be held in the first half of 2014 will be the most hotly contested since the end of apartheid. The fragmentation of Cosatu is simultaneously the breaking of the political link with the ANC among growing sections of the working class. Additionally, 2014 will be the first election in which the so-called ‘born-frees’, with no memory of the liberation struggle, are eligible to vote.

The ANC is terrified and in deep denial about its prospects. The booing of president Jacob Zuma at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela showed that in the minds of the masses there is an enormous gulf between Mandela’s ANC, which led the liberation struggle, and the present day ANC, which is a cesspit of corruption, cronyism and self-enrichment. If the passing of the ‘father of the nation’ cannot rally support and in fact precipitates one of the starkest displays of mass rejection, then the ANC’s nightmare scenario of receiving less than 50% of the vote cannot be ruled out.

The capitalist class is already planning for the end of the ANC’s 20-year dominance. The main opposition Democratic Alliance has attempted to give its leadership a ‘black face’ to try to appeal to a wider layer of the black population, and to dispel its image as a party of white privilege. Such is the craving for an alternative it is having some success.

Additionally, former World Bank director and liberation struggle hero Mamphela Ramphele has launched Agang SA (Sotho for ‘build’), primarily on an anti-corruption ticket. While an ANC victory in 2014 is all but guaranteed, the likely breakup of the Tripartite Alliance in the next period poses the possibility of a future DA/Agang coalition bolstered by splits from the ANC as a new ‘safe pair of hands’ for capital.

The Economic Freedom Fighters

Reflecting the political vacuum which 20 years of compromise by the workers’ leaders has created, WASP is not the only force to have emerged to the left of the ANC. Julius Malema, former president of the ANC’s Youth League, expelled as a potential liability and threat to the power of the ruling clique – an episode itself exemplifying the degeneration of the ANC leadership – belatedly launched the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in October. Malema bases himself on the black youth, in particular the urban poor, but also on more privileged layers frustrated by the lack of opportunities flowing from the ANC’s compromise with capitalism.

The EFF puts forward a left populist programme of land redistribution (modelled on Zimbabwe) and state-led development (looking toward China). Inheriting a swathe of the structures of the ANC’s Youth League, and the connections and resources of a section of the new black elite, Malema has been able to make rapid gains.

In spite of the ideological limitations of the EFF, and the cloud of corruption charges hanging over its leader, the ideological distinctions between the EFF and WASP were not that clear to the working-class youth attracted to the EFF banner. Understandably, unity against the ANC government is given precedence over the differences between the forces on the left. Regrettably, the EFF rejected WASP’s proposal for collaboration in the form of an electoral bloc standing joint lists of candidates while maintaining the independence of the respective organisations. The EFF leadership’s position amounted to a demand for the liquidation of WASP.

Following a meeting between WASP and EFF leaders, including Malema, there was an agreement to engage in a written exchange to clarify the respective positions. WASP has yet to receive a reply to the letter written to the EFF (click here).

Among the organised working class the EFF is treated with caution. This was reflected in the explicit rejection of the EFF (alongside Agang) at Numsa’s special congress. But, given the growing hatred of the ANC, and Numsa’s failure to follow up its rejection of EFF with a clear alternative, it could pick up the votes of workers looking for the most effective way to strike a blow against the ANC.

For a new mass workers’ party

The launch of WASP, and the subsequent developments in Cosatu and Numsa, represents the confirmation of our perspective – first advanced in 1996 with the ANC’s adoption of Gear – that the ANC would come into collision with its working-class base and that the question of the working classes’ political independence would assume a central position. Duly, the Marxist Workers Tendency as we were known then stepped outside of the ANC to campaign for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. With the adoption of Gear, the ANC had become the conscious representatives of the capitalist class publicly committed to the preservation of its system of exploitation. It could no longer be argued credibly that forces for socialism would be found in the ANC.

The DSM set itself the strategic task of the formation of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. This entailed campaigning for Cosatu to pull out of the Tripartite Alliance and supporting all struggles, while championing the idea of the formation of a mass workers’ party. Subsequent to the adoption of Gear, developments in the class struggle confirmed the DSM’s perspectives. A sharpening of tensions between the classes followed, reflected in dramatic increases in strikes, protests in tertiary education institutions and what subsequently became known as service delivery protests.

Throughout this period the DSM pointed out consistently that the argument being advanced by the SACP and Cosatu leadership that the Tripartite Alliance was necessary to preserve working-class unity was false. We pointed out that the Alliance partners represented the irreconcilable interests of the capitalist class. Further, that Cosatu’s political loyalty to the ANC would come into collision with its obligations to its membership. That Cosatu would suffer collateral damage as the divisions within the ANC, engendered by the escalation in the class struggle, spilled over into the federation. That Cosatu had no God-given right to exist and that its very future would be placed in jeopardy as the federation’s leadership attempted to reconcile the irreconcilable. This perspective has been emphatically confirmed by the march of events.

The initiative of the DSM and the mineworkers’ independent strike committees to launch WASP has been entirely justified by events, and by the continuing possibilities that are opening up. In recognising what Marikana represented – and acting when the rest of the so-called left stood aside – we have ensured that the DSM remains a factor in the situation, building on our decisive intervention in the miners’ strikes in 2012. In co-launching WASP we have occupied a strategic pass, requiring significant working-class forces heading in the direction of a break with the Alliance to engage with us, including the Numsa leadership.

The formation of WASP has accelerated and sharpened the lines of debate taking place among the working class in the wake of Marikana. The decisions of Numsa, following on those of the mineworkers, will lead to the formation of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme in the next period. WASP will remain central to that process, especially with the likelihood of winning of one or more MPs in May. It will work with all forces genuinely seeking to advance the interests of the working class in the revolutionary struggle for a socialist society.

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