SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Re-building the movement in South Africa

South African workers are back on the move, with a two-day general strike in October following the mass protest at the UN world summit and an important municipal workers’ union strike. But how can the struggle against the neo-liberal ANC government be taken forward? WEIZMANN HAMILTON of the Democratic Socialist Movement, the South African section of the CWI, writes.

THE THREE-WEEK strike by the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU); the 20,000-strong march by the coalition of anti-privatisation protestors under the banner of the Social Movement Indaba; and October’s two-day general strike by the Congress of South African Unions (COSATU), individually and collectively represent developments of enormous political significance in the struggle of the South African working class. With leaderships having different and even contrary understandings of the aims, nature, tasks, strategies and tactics of the working class struggle, a common thread nevertheless ran through all of them – opposition to the African National Congress (ANC) government’s neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy.

The three-week SAMWU strike was the longest since the ANC came to power. The August 31 march (A31) on the Joburg UN World Summit on Sustainable Development was the largest anti-government protest since 1994. And the COSATU general strike – the third in so many years – was the first two-day general strike since the ANC came to power. Each drew venomous attacks by the ANC government and president Thabo Mbeki in particular. But together, within a space of three months, they have reinforced the growing awareness that the ANC government, despite its protestations to the contrary, is an anti-working class government and the conscious political representative of capitalism in South Africa. These events have also revealed the vacuum that exists on the left of the political spectrum in South Africa and the need for a political voice for the working class based on a programme that uncompromisingly represents their interests.

Collectively, these events brought into sharp relief the political differentiation that has begun to occur on the South African landscape as a consequence of the class conflict engendered by the ANC government’s neo-liberal capitalist policies. The convulsions on the white right are also a reflection of the same process, with the disintegration of the Democratic Alliance, the atrophy gripping the Democratic Party, and the death agony of the New National Party (NNP). Its demise has merely been postponed by the life support machine offered to it by the ANC through the floor-crossing manoeuvre (a recent ruling that representatives can jump from one party to another without losing their seats).

The black parliamentary and semi-parliamentary right are similarly wracked by political tensions. The contradictions choking the Pan-African Congress (most recently on Zimbabwe), the haemorrhaging of the Azanian Peoples’ Organisation (AZAPO), and the United Democratic Movement’s failure to prevent councillors from crossing the floor to the ANC despite its desperate attempt reinvent itself as a social democratic party – all of these represent the damning verdict of a working class that does not see them as an alternative.

The role of COSATU

DESPITE THE POSITION of the COSATU leaders, of the three events cited above, without detracting from the importance of each on its own, the internecine strife that has broken out in the Tripartite Alliance in the wake of COSATU’s general strike is undoubtedly the most significant. The Tripartite Alliance between COSATU, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the ANC has served as a political detention centre for the working class, with the COSATU and SACP leadership cast in the role of prison guards employed by the political management of capitalism – the ANC government – to prevent a mass breakout.

The pressures exerting themselves on the Tripartite Alliance are rooted in the crisis of capitalism, with its inability to solve even the most basic problems of society now expressing itself with extreme sharpness even in the citadels of the world economy. Twenty years of neo-liberalism has provoked growing international working class resistance in every corner of the planet.

Like their counterparts internationally, however, the ANC government is pressing ahead with its neo-liberal programme. Its determination is reinforced by the fact that privatisation offers the quickest way for the fulfilment of its historical mission, the creation of a prosperous non-European bourgeoisie – described by Nelson Mandela as long ago as 1956 as the aim of the Freedom Charter. The open contempt of the ANC towards its ‘tripartite partner’ COSATU is rooted in this reality.

As a demonstration of this contempt, the day after the general strike the ANC government announced its plans for the listing of the state telecoms company, Telkom, for next March. This may satisfy the ANC and its capitalist masters that it will not be forced to retreat on its privatisation agenda. But it will merely aggravate the social problems and accelerate the pace of political differentiation, compelling the working class to look for an alternative vehicle to carry its class and political interests. Although the COSATU leadership still clings pathetically to an abusive marriage the fact is that, as the Business Day editorial pointed out the day after the strike, ‘the Tripartite Alliance has run its course’ (3 October).

The protestations of the COSATU and SACP leadership that what occurred in the first days of October was not a political strike against the ANC, will make absolutely no impression on the ANC leadership or its capitalist backers. So far as the ANC is concerned, the role of COSATU in the Alliance is to police the working class, not to organise strikes. But if such pleadings fool neither the ANC nor the working class, it causes confusion amongst the latter, complicates the process of political differentiation, and delays the emergence of an alternative. Whilst the COSATU leadership insists that remaining in the Tripartite Alliance is necessary to maintain the unity of the working class, it will in fact become a source of disunity.

COSATU has historically played a central role in the struggle of the working class, providing the spinal column of the mass working class movement that smashed apartheid. But even COSATU has no divine right to exist. The continued refusal of the COSATU leadership to accept the challenge of Mbeki and the ANC is not simply due to misplaced political loyalty. It is based on the fact that the majority of COSATU leaders accept the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. Many have a direct interest in capitalism, with possibilities for self-enrichment provided by union investment companies involved in the same privatisation the general strike was called to protest against. Many are merely serving a political apprenticeship in the unions while waiting for the right offers to come along in government or the corporate world, hoping to follow those such as former COSATU leaders Jay Naidoo and Sam Shilowa into the cigar-smoking and champagne-sipping world of self-enrichment amongst the new black elite.

The explanation for the corruption now rampant in many COSATU affiliates, and the financial crisis rocking them, is political. It is politics that explains the decline in service to members and the decline in membership, not just retrenchments.

The contradictions riddling COSATU leadership statements are based on the illusion that it is possible to give capitalism a human face. This idea of a ‘developmental state’, peddled by the SACP as a ‘strategic objective’ of the ‘national democratic revolution’, is a pernicious fairy tale. By denouncing the agenda of the ‘socialist revolution’ and counterposing it to that of the ‘national democratic revolution’, Mbeki has exposed the ‘national democratic revolution’ for what it is – a capitalist programme. The admonition of SACP leader Jeremy Cronin to critics of the party – that to take Lenin’s position that you are either for capitalism or socialism is ‘unhelpful’ – has been fatally undermined by Mbeki’s open declaration that the ANC has never been socialist. Whilst the SACP acknowledges this it still insists in Umsebenzi Online (Volume 1, No.1, 16 October 2002) that the ANC "is not anti-socialist" even as it privatises. For all its comical efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable and protect the ANC, the SACP leadership has been rewarded by Mbeki with their own favourite ideological insult: "ultra-left". In reality, the sharp conflict between the ANC and COSATU is based on the fact that despite the shared ideological position on the fundamental question of capitalism, the ANC represents the interests of the capitalist class while COSATU rests on the working class. The interests of these social forces are fundamentally irreconcilable.

Unless the problem of the COSATU leadership is resolved, the cohesion and possibly the very existence of COSATU itself is threatened in the medium to long term. Although the bosses and the government are making exaggerated claims that the strike was a flop, it cannot be denied that the turnout was lower than in the 2001 general strike. Far from this signalling weakening opposition to privatisation, however, as the ANC is claiming, it is a warning by the rank-and-file that they are not prepared to be turned and off like a tap. They do not wish to be marched half-way up the battle hill and then down again as the leadership refuses to see the writing on the wall.

A split in COSATU would be an enormous setback for the working class and could lead to the break-up of the unity and cohesion of the working class itself. This unity and cohesion has held so far despite these acute contradictions. This is a question of huge historical importance that the rank-and-file must give urgent attention to. Rank-and-file committees must be formed to discuss a programme to return COSATU to its socialist roots. COSATU resolved around the 2001 general strike that if the ANC failed to respond to its demands, a conference must be called to review the Tripartite Alliance. It is now abundantly clear that the ANC is unapologetically and unashamedly capitalist. COSATU must be taken out of this class collaborationist arrangement and preparations made for the launch of a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

The Anti-Privatisation Forum

COSATU’S AUTHORITY EXTENDS well beyond its membership. Its failure to provide consistent resistance to neo-liberalism and a coherent alternative to capitalism, however, has left working class communities to fight water and electricity cuts and evictions on their own. Both the COSATU rank-and-file and working-class communities are to the left of the COSATU leadership – with the latter organising spontaneous resistance to the government’s attacks – and have drawn far-reaching conclusions about the nature of the ANC government. As a result of COSATU’s paralysis, its own membership and structures have, with this or that isolated exception, failed to throw their weight behind working-class community resistance. A vacuum has resulted that is partially being filled by the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF).

Events are not waiting for COSATU, as the magnificent 20,000-strong anti-World Sustainable Development Summit demonstration indicates. Held under the banner of the Social Movement Indaba, its ideological position was provided in the main by the Anti-Privatisation Forum even though the forces for the demonstration were provided also by the Landless Peoples Movement and the Palestinian Solidarity Committee. The August 31 (A31) anti-World Summit demonstration was significant not only because of its size – the biggest anti-government protest since the ANC came to power. Following the successful demonstration at the World Conference Against Racism last year, A31 was a humiliation for the Mbeki regime which first tried to ban it and then to out-manoeuvre it by organising a counter-demonstration. Despite the intimidating presence of armed riot police and armoured vehicles all along a route deliberately lengthened in a futile attempt to exhaust the marchers, it attracted at least four times as many participants as Mbeki’s own rally in the same township, Alexandra, where the march started off.

A31 represented a turning point in the development of the Anti-Privatisation Forum, which is now a recognised political factor earning the notoriety to be mentioned directly by Mbeki himself. Hitherto the APF drew its support mainly from older, working-class, predominantly women, township residents. Since the August 31 march, youth have begun to join the APF, which represents a huge step forward. Yet precisely because of its increased stature, the Anti-Privatisation Forum must urgently address its own ideological, strategic and tactical positions. Unless this is done, there is no guarantee that it will fill the vacuum.

Regrettably, the Anti-Privatisation Forum’s public statement on the general strike contains formulations that can give rise to misunderstandings of its position. The statement that the government’s tactics of sowing division in the working class "will continue as long as key sections of the working class continue to give political support to the capitalist ANC government" implies that sections of the working class are in someway at least partly responsible for what the government is doing. It also fails to distinguish between the COSATU leadership and the membership, and reflects a failure to understand that the membership’s loyalty to COSATU is based on the historical role the union federation has played and the enormous sacrifices made, including the shedding of blood, to build it. Workers will not abandon COSATU lightly without attempting several times over a long period to transform it and return it to the traditions it was founded on, especially if there is no viable mass alternative with a coherent programme. Whatever the ANC and COSATU leadership may claim, in the eyes of COSATU members this was a political strike against the government even if it is not their intention at this stage to unseat it.

The statement also failed to offer a clear alternative programme, referring only to the existence of "real working-class alternatives" to those of the government without explaining what these were. It appealed to the working class to stand on the "left side of the class line" as if the working class is on the right. It calls for unity "to move forward to another South Africa, (and) another world". But unless this ‘other’ world is socialist – a word that does not appear anywhere in the statement – it can mean all things to all men and is not a basis on which to attract workers to the APF banner. At least the SACP and COSATU continue to adhere to ‘socialism’, even if it is only in words. They do so because they understand that more than elsewhere in the world, socialism has not been completely discredited within the South African working class or obliterated from their consciousness. The ambiguous formulation of the APF statement is a repetition of the mistaken position of the mainly middle-class academics who form part of the anti-globalisation movement who put it forward in the mistaken belief that this will ensure the continued unity of the movement. The South African working class is against privatisation and the government’s GEAR policy and many are clearly opposed to capitalism. It is their rhetorical staple diet in the Tripartite Alliance. Even the ANC denies it is neo-liberal, with the support of the SACP and COSATU leadership. What is required is a socialist alternative that is internationalist in approach, an explanation of how it would work, and why a socialist programme is the only alternative. The rise of the Anti-Privatisation Forum’s stature also means that it must reach clarity on the need for a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme – again something the statement is silent on.

A new political situation

THROUGH THE COURAGEOUS action of the A31 demonstration the Anti-Privatisation Forum has made an enormous contribution to the legitimisation of protest against the ANC government from outside the ranks of the Tripartite Alliance. Together with the SAMWU strike and the COSATU general strike, the Anti-Privatisation Forum has contributed to an important turning point in the political situation in South Africa. The organised working class in COSATU may not at this stage be openly supporting independent working-class actions and formations such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum. But the terrain on which the APF is marching has been partially prepared by workers in COSATU – through the biggest public-sector strike ever in 1999, the general strike against the amendments to the Labour Relations Act in 2000, and the one-day anti-privatisation general strike last year.

But there is a potentially deep well of sympathy to the APF, as demonstrated at the Wits COSATU regional shop stewards council before the general strike. The Anti-Privatisation Forum must make itself worthy of the support of the workers and must now ready itself by addressing the above questions. It must also address the political question of elections and encourage working class communities to stand independent candidates in the next local government elections on the Anti-Privatisation Forum platform.

The Anti-Privatisation Forum is not yet a mass force despite the success of A31. Despite the role of the COSATU leadership, it attracted three times as many participants to its Johannesburg demonstration during the general strike as marched in Johannesburg for the A31 demonstration. At least half of the A31 forces were not mobilised by Anti-Privatisation Forum affiliates but by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee and the Landless Peoples Movement which, at least ideologically, is not on the same wavelength as the Anti-Privatisation Forum and has a right-wing position on Mugabe. Despite the enormous sympathy that exists for it, the working class is still examining the colour of the APF’s political money. It is not at all preordained that the Anti-Privatisation Forum will become a mass force of hundreds of thousands. To place itself in a position to build on the sympathy and support it enjoys it must clarify all these issues.

With the ANC government’s blind determination to press ahead with its neo-liberal programme, the attacks against the working class will intensify. Resistance will grow and the crisis in the Alliance will deepen. The conditions will ripen even more for the Anti-Privatisation Forum to fulfil its potential.


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page