South Africa: Workers Movement on the Rise

Zwelinzima Vave: Reinstate

By Peter Manson. Originally published in the Weekly Workernewspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

It is absolutely clear that the African National Congress will be re-elected by a large majority in the South African general election, now just three weeks away on May 7.

However, most commentators are speculating about the likelihood of a reduction in that majority, on a drastically reduced turnout. In 2009 the ANC won 65.9% support – just short of the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution. The 76% turnout was seemingly relatively high, but not so good when you consider that around seven million adults (23% of those entitled to vote) did not register in the first place.

It is virtually certain that the numbers voting on May 7 will fall considerably. Indicative is a campaign calling for no vote to the ANC, which was launched last week by over 100 former ANC stalwarts, of varying prominence. Amongst them is Ronnie Kasrils, for 20 years a member of both the ANC national executive and the South African Communist Party central committee. The campaign is entitled ‘Sidikiwe! Vukani! Vote no!’ – the first two words being translated as ‘We are fed up! Wake up!’ As for ‘Vote no!’, that has been interpreted as a call to abstain, to spoil your vote, or to vote for anyone but the ANC, according to which member of the campaign you ask.

Not exactly a positive, active alternative then, but perhaps typical of the widespread, but largely passive, disillusionment with the ruling party. The problem is that the SACP – the main cheerleader for the ANC and undoubtedly the key component of the tripartite alliance (alongside the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the ANC itself) – has served to demobilise the masses with its absurd claim that the current period of neoliberal privatisation and capitalist stabilisation represents a “national democratic revolution” that is the “most direct route to socialism” in South Africa.

But that is now wearing so thin that even the likes of Kasrils, who was minister for the intelligence services (!) for four years until 2008 – has now jumped ship, much to the chagrin of the SACP. “The ANC has had 20 years to prove itself,” says Kasrils, but has failed to do so. He makes the obvious equation of Marikana, where 34 miners were shot dead by police in August 2012, and Sharpeville, when 69 peaceful protestors were mowed down by the apartheid police in 1960. For the SACP such statements are a sign of Kasrils’ sharp turn to the right – compared to the days when he oversaw the South African bourgeoisie’s spy apparatus, presumably.

So, for example, for the SACP-loyal South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), people like Kasrils “demonstrate clear signs of being bitter and disgruntled and suffering from permanent anger for losing their leadership positions”. According to Sadtu’s April 16 statement, “A call for a no vote by Kasrils and crew is a vote of no confidence on democracy and a call of no confidence on law and order. This call is in fact against the establishment of a government, and as such a call for anarchy.” If ever there was a declaration by ‘communists’ of absolute political bankruptcy, this was it. The SACP is truly plumbing the depths.

But Sadtu is not the only ‘communist’-led union that now sides absolutely with the bourgeois state and its “law and order”. Here is how the National Union of Mineworkers defends its members who are scabbing against strikers led by the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union in the platinum belt: “we urge the law enforcement agencies to crack down on the sponsors and the perpetrators of butchery”: ie, strikers, who have attacked NUM scabs.1

As for the SACP and Cosatu themselves, they issued a joint call on April 16 for workers to “unite, close ranks and vote ANC”.

Cosatu split

However, both organisations are now deeply divided. Cosatu is literally split down the middle between ANC/SACP loyalist unions like Sadtu and the NUM, on the one hand, and oppositionist unions, including the largest, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the South African Municipal Workers Union and the Food and Allied Workers Union, on the other. In fact nine of the 19 Cosatu affiliates grouped together earlier this year to demand a special congress – a demand that was unconstitutionally rejected by those around Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini.

The issue that sparked the split was the suspension last October of general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi – ostensibly over an affair with an office worker he had recruited, but in reality because he was increasingly being regarded as a thorn in the side of the tripartite alliance for his criticisms of the ANC. However, Vavi’s suspension was challenged legally by Numsa after the pro-ANC/SACP Cosatu leadership refused to call a special congress and on April 4 it was overturned by the high court in Johannesburg. Three days later, a triumphant Vavi returned to work, as jubilant supporters demonstrated outside the federation headquarters, while loyalists fumed.

For instance, the National Health and Allied Workers Union called on the central executive committee (CEC) to continue with its disciplinary moves – against both Vavi and Numsa: “The federation should do what it has to do … and if this means expelling those who want to remain within the federation whilst destroying some Cosatu unions and who see themselves as opponents of our alliance, then let it be. It must surgically remove them, root and branch …”2

But enough was enough for the ANC, which intervened in the shape of its deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and deputy secretary general, Jessie Duarte. The two were despatched to the April 8 meeting of the CEC, where they successfully called for a “ceasefire” – hopefully until after the general election. According to the CEC statement subsequently issued, decisions on any disciplinary moves would be suspended for at least 14 days. Nevertheless, the statement continued in a threatening, though vague, manner: “The meeting agreed, however, that all affiliates, provincial structures and individual comrades must fully comply with the principles underlying the process and cease making statements or speeches which contradict each other, desist from any ill-disciplined activities or events and refrain from making comments which are divisive or disruptive and could worsen the current problems facing the federation.”3

In other words, the loyalists had reluctantly agreed to hold their fire for the sake of the ANC. But perhaps they need not have worried, since Vavi immediately distanced himself from the oppositionists. In a speech on April 10 he listed the ANC ‘successes’ of the past two decades in terms of houses built, electricity and water supplied to shacks, and the increase in higher education students. He concluded: “These advances explain why Cosatu remains firmly in support of the African National Congress.”

True, he repeated his previous general criticism: “We can say again that our attempts to make the second decade [of ANC power] a decade for the working class in economic terms dismally failed … the second decade, just like the first decade, has seen capital disproportionately benefiting from our freedom.”

But Vavi’s talk of support for the ANC set the warning lights flashing for oppositionists – particularly Numsa and its general secretary, Irvin Jim, who said that if Vavi campaigns for the ANC it will be “at his own peril”. Earlier this year a special congress of the 330,000-strong metalworkers’ union voted unanimously to break from the ANC and not to support it in the general election. Delegates also voted to set up a “Movement for Socialism”, with the eventual aim of establishing a workers’ party that would contest the elections in five years time. Not exactly a case of seizing the moment.

And, while Jim may be clear that the ANC is an agent of the bourgeoisie and that the SACP (of which, as far as I know, he is still a member) has betrayed the working class, his politics remain those of left social democracy. For example, in a speech last week he called for “a fundamental restructuring of our economy, away from the exploitative economy we inherited from the days of colonialism … We have to replace this with a modern economy based on manufacturing industry.”

He went on: “This is why we are campaigning for the achievement of what we have called our ‘Lula moment’, inspired by the policies adopted by the former president of Brazil, who faced very similar problems of unemployment, poverty and inequality as we face, but chose the route of economic expansion, and higher minimum wages and social grants.”4

The problem is, says Jim, that “We have failed to implement our most fundamental policy document – the Freedom Charter.” The plan must be to “harness the surplus of the mining and financial sectors. We must place it in the control of the people through democratic state ownership and worker control. And we must use this surplus to build manufacturing industry as the centrepiece of infrastructure and social service delivery.”5 A reformist, national socialist schema, of course.

By the way, the split within Cosatu has been mirrored by what is happening in its constituent unions – even those whose leadership is still controlled by loyalists. For example the teachers’ union, Sadtu, suspended its own president, Thobile Ntola, last August after he invited Vavi to address a provincial union conference and stated in an interview that members in the Eastern Cape were backing the Cosatu general secretary. After the rest of the Sadtu leadership moved against Ntola, he commented: “I am the president of Sadtu. I don’t understand why I can’t answer questions from journalists. I guess they did not want me to attend the Cosatu special central executive committee meeting” (where he would no doubt have voted the ‘wrong’ way).

Critical vote

So the SACP majority remains the most loyal component of the ANC, while the opposition is not exactly rushing to set up its promised workers’ party. However, there is a working class organisation that will be contesting on May 7, and that is the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), originally set up on the initiative of the handful of comrades from the Democratic Socialist Movement, the South African affiliate of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International.

Despite Wasp’s invitation to Irvin Jim and Numsa to join its leadership, the union declined and has refused to support Wasp or any other candidates. Nevertheless, Wasp is standing a full national slate, plus candidates in three of the nine provinces. The CWI has managed to raise the necessary deposits, totalling R335,000 (£18,900), which Wasp will retain if it manages to get one candidate elected. And that is a distinct possibility, since MPs are elected completely proportionally under the party list system. There is no minimum threshold for parliamentary representation, so Wasp needs just 0.25% of the national vote to see its top candidate elected to the 400-seat parliament.

And Wasp is proud of the fact that the number one on its list is Moses Mayekiso – Numsa’s first general secretary two decades ago, who was an ANC MP from 1994-96. But Wasp omits to inform readers of its web article6 that Mayekiso was later to become CEO for Sanco Investment, which was involved in the formation of a company offering tenders for parts of the state-owned electricity company, Eskom. He also had an interest in Nexus Connexion, involved in the privatisation of telecommunications.

Well, perhaps he has mended his ways and has gone back to his militant union roots. Wasp has certainly managed to persuade a number of union and working class militants to join its list, and has drawn up a set of policies for its proposed “mass workers’ party” that are well to the left of what the Socialist Party in England and Wales proposes in Britain, based on widespread nationalisation under workers’ control.

It promises: “All Wasp MPs and MPLs [Members of Provincial Legislatures] will take no more than the average wage of a skilled worker. The additional salary will be ploughed back into the building of Wasp and supporting struggles of workers, communities and youth … Wasp will make real use of the ability to remove sitting MPs and MPLs from their position if they become corrupt or do not fully stand by the manifesto of the party. This right of recall will not be vested only in the leadership of Wasp, but in the membership of Wasp and all Wasp affiliates.”7

Other democratic commitments include the scrapping of ‘black economic empowerment’ – “no elite, neither white nor black, should own and profit from the economy at the expense of the majority”. In fact “Genuine black economic empowerment is socialism” – which Wasp says is “the only genuine way to transfer ownership and control of the economy to the black majority rather than a black elite”. Similarly “real ‘affirmative action’” would mean placing “hiring practices under the democratic control of workers’ committees in nationalised industry at the level of the workplace”.8

Wasp was previously calling for workers to abandon Cosatu and individual loyalist unions in order to set up a “socialist trade union federation”.9 But in its latest pronouncements this has, thankfully, been moderated: “Cosatu must be reclaimed as an independent organisation of the working class and once again become the centre of struggle. In the meantime, those forces – in particular Numsa – must campaign for the maximum unity of the working class in struggle irrespective of the stage of the campaign to reclaim Cosatu. Ultimately, if the battle to reclaim Cosatu is lost, the swift foundation of a new socialist trade union federation – a refounding of Cosatu – is a task that must urgently begin.”10

While, of course, it would be highly desirable for trade unions to be “socialist” – ie, committed to working class power – first and foremost we need a united union movement that includes all workers, irrespective of their political affiliation. Also what is meant by “socialist”? After all, Cosatu as currently constituted declares itself to be not only socialist, but “revolutionary”.

There are other substantial weaknesses in Wasp’s policies, inherited as they are from the DSM/CWI. While its position on the unions is now much better, its attitude to the established organisations of the working class – not least the SACP – remains sectarian. In addition, its manifesto is based on national socialism (there is no mention of the need for an international movement for working class power). Nevertheless, it is highly positive that workers throughout South Africa will be able to vote – however critically – for a slate of working class candidates on May 7.






5. Daily Maverick April 10.


7. Ibid.





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