One working class – one struggle. For a trade union united front against job losses, privatisation and austerity.
What role should Saftu play?
by Shaun Arendse
The announcement of major job losses at SA Airways on 11 November was a deliberate and calculated provocation. The government has provoked strike action to test the response of the workers movement and ‘public opinion’ ahead of the assault on the public sector and public sector workers being prepared to satisfy imperialism’s watchdog, Moody’s. But the government debt crisis is only one symptom of the profound crisis of South African and world capitalism. The entire system is sick (see Part One: SA’s Economic Crisis – No Way Out for the Working Class under Capitalism). On the same day that SAA’s 944 job losses were announced, ArcelorMittal declared plans to close its Saldanha Bay plant with the loss of more than 2,000 jobs.
A crisis of such depth poses a stark choice for the workers movement. Labour and capital are already fighting a guerrilla struggle of growing intensity – strikes at CBI Electric, Spar South Rand Distribution Centre and Joburg City’s Metrobus to name just a few recent skirmishes. The class enemy’s tanks are now beginning to roll. A further intensification of the class struggle is posed. The bosses have been preparing. The 2018 LRA amendments were designed to cripple the right to strike. The determined strike at SAA shows that workers will fight. But simply repelling attacks is not enough.
The crisis of capitalism needs to be overcome and resolved in the interests of the working class. This can only be done on the basis of wide scale nationalisations and democratic economic planning that lays the foundations for a socialist economy. To achieve this, the workers movement must move on to the offensive in the class struggle. The question of leadership will be crucial. What role will the Saftu leaders play?
To fight effectively workers need to be armed with a programme and strategy that can overcome the capitalist crisis. This can only be built upon a clear perspective – a clear understanding – of the character and nature of the crisis (see Part One).
Over recent months, in a number of statements, Saftu has put forward measures including (i) opposition to corruption, outsourcing, austerity and privatisation in the public sector, (ii) for more ‘progressive’ taxes on big business and the rich, and (iii) changes to government monetary policy. The centrepiece is a proposal for a R500 billion stimulus package to be funded through more government borrowing, which, presumably, on the basis of (i) to (iii), would not escalate the government’s existing debt crisis.
A wing of the capitalist class, both in SA and internationally, are calling on governments to adopt similar reformist neo-Keynesian measures. The class content of such a programme is to restore economic growth on a capitalist basis – i.e. on the basis of the private ownership of the economy to create profits for the owners through the exploitation of the labour of the working class – in the hope that wealth will ‘trickle down’ to the working class. Unfortunately, Saftu’s programme remains firmly within this capitalist framework. There is no serious mention of nationalisation or democratic economic planning. This makes Saftu’s programme utopian because it flies in the face of the global experience of the class struggle since the 2007/8 world financial crisis.
We were alarmed by how socialism was referred to in Saftu’s August NEC Statement in connection with violent crime – the statement said that what “the working class cannot afford to do is say we are waiting for socialism”. This suggests that the Saftu leadership thinks the struggle for socialism is something separate and apart from the class struggle which rages day-in and day-out. This would be fatal for Saftu’s ability to give leadership to the working class in this economic crisis. Marxists fight for all reforms that benefit the working class. But we oppose reformism – the idea that reforms can last under capitalism and lead incrementally towards the socialist transformation of society. The struggle must be fought with the understanding that however successful our battles, any gains will always be under threat as long as capitalism exists.
The capitalist class is refusing to invest because of a chronic lack of demand, especially in a country as impoverished as South Africa (see Part One). The struggle between the classes does not arise from an intellectual misunderstanding between them. It is rooted in their irreconcilable interests. Without decisive socialist measures that place the commanding heights of the economy under the control of the working class any ‘alternative’ policy must persuade the bosses to co-operate. But they will simply refuse if it is not in their immediate interests. The utopian idea that the bosses can be convinced to act in the interests of ‘society’ runs through Saftu’s recent statements. Lebohang Phanyeko (a WASP member, see The Founding of the Marxist Workers Party) expressed this idea on behalf of Saftu on the protest march outside Ramaphosa’s Second SA Investment Conference. He called on the assembled representatives of the ruling class “to do the right thing” and invest in the economy. Broadcast throughout the afternoon on SAfm, this sowed illusions in the class enemy and did nothing to prepare the working class for the struggle ahead.
Only armed with a bold socialist programme will the working class be capable of leading society out of the impasse into which the bosses and their politicians have led it. At the heart of this programme must be the demand for the nationalisation of the banks and other major financial institutions alongside the biggest companies in all the key sectors of the economy – agriculture, mining, construction, transport, manufacturing, wholesale and retail etc. Upon the basis of democratic working class control and management of nationalised industry, economic planning can be introduced. What is profit under capitalism would be transformed into a vast social fund. With the profit motive abolished, social need would be the determining criteria for spending and investment. Wages could be raised and unemployment eliminated. All the long neglected social needs of the working class – for housing, social services, hospitals, schools etc. – could be met.
The ruling class will never agree to this. Only a mass movement led by the working class can make it a reality. Uniting the greatest number of workers in struggle will be crucial. The co-operation of Numsa and NUM at Eskom points in the direction of how such a movement can develop: a united front of the trade union movement. Numsa and NUM could call joint marches (to Union Buildings and other targets) against privatisation, job losses and austerity. Each could appeal to their federations to support the march and mobilise their shop stewards and members for it. This could have a powerful effect on the working class, laying the foundation for a general strike capable of stopping the entire country.
For the Saftu leadership, the purpose of a united front would not be to paint the leadership of Cosatu red. It would be to speed up Cosatu’s decline – to break the more than one million workers still in Cosatu from the Tripartite Alliance. The inevitable attack on public sector workers that the ANC government must carry out will position them as the main enemy of the members of Nehawu, Sadtu and Samwu in particular. Ramaphosa is keenly aware of the importance of the public sector for his remaining base amongst the organised working class. He will tread carefully. Saftu will need to be skilful in exploiting the contradictions.
If at this stage, it proves impossible to use the Numsa/NUM co-operation as a lever on Cosatu, Saftu should go ahead with marches anyway, making a loud appeal to Cosatu’s shop stewards and members to participate in defiance of their leadership (the same for AMCU, Nactu and Fedusa). This can be given flesh if Saftu shop stewards and members pioneer the revival of industrial locals – workplace based structures that unite workers regardless of union affiliation.
However, the entire united front tactic will only work if Saftu sufficiently distinguishes itself from the Cosatu leadership and offers a clear way forward to all workers on the basis of a bold socialist programme.
Across the world mass movements are taking place. All the ingredients are present for South Africa to join this wave. But the major weakness of these movements is present in SA too – the lack of a political alternative. If and when capitalist governments are toppled by mass movements, who will take the power? It is only the working class which is capable of building socialism. Workers need a party.
The Working Class Summit that Saftu convened in July 2018 made a clear declaration in favour of a workers party. In October 2018, Saftu’s Special Central Committee endorsed this, building on previous Saftu positions in favour of a workers party. Now things have gone quiet. The report of Saftu’s September Political & Ideological Commission does not even mention the workers party! Why? Almost certainly because of the creation of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party by a section of the Numsa leadership behind the back of Saftu.
A workers party which unites the class’s struggles in the workplaces, the communities and in the schools, colleges and universities will be an indispensable weapon for this struggle, against this capitalist crisis. It cannot be treated as a side project or an optional extra. The workers party is part of the preparation of the working class to take power and lead society out of the capitalist crisis. But a party cannot be imposed on the struggle; it must grow out of it. To begin building the political unity of the working class, a workers party will need to be organised on a federal basis in its initial stage – allowing unions, community structures, youth campaigns and the existing working class political groups and parties, including the MWP and the SRWP, to affiliate.
On the basis of a successful march, especially one led by a trade union united front, the Working Class Summit could be reconvened, to prepare a general strike, especially as a response to the February budget, and tackle again the burning question of working class political representation – a workers party.
- For a national day of action – march against job losses, privatisation and austerity. One working class – one struggle. For a trade union united front to prepare a general strike. Build industrial locals to unite workers across unions.
- Fight all retrenchments and closures! No privatisation of SAA, Eskom or other SOEs. Demand the nationalisation of job shedding big businesses under democratic workers control, enforced through workplace occupations.
- Once a member, always a member! Retrenched workers to retain union membership and full democratic rights in union structures. Organise the chronically unemployed under the leadership of the trade union movement by building unemployed workers locals in communities.
- Workers’ economic planning to end unemployment! Demand the working week is reduced to 30 hours with no cuts in pay. Share out the work with the unemployed. Demand democratic control of hiring and firing and the re-design of shift patterns by workers’ representatives.
- Reject the ANC’s poverty-level minimum wage! Fight for a living wage of R12,500 per month for all full-time workers. A rigorous regime of workplace inspections under the democratic control of workers’ representatives to enforce compliance. Demand that the financial accounts of big business are opened to inspection by workers’ representatives. On the basis of proven unaffordability, subsidies and tax relief to small and family businesses.
- Defend the right to strike and organise! Scrap the LRA amendments. Fight for the passing of a trade union freedom bill increasing the powers of trade unions, drafted by workers’ representatives. Organised mass defiance of unjust labour laws that prevent workers defending themselves.
- Implement the Saftu and Working Class Summit resolutions on the workers party. Build a unifying, democratic and open socialist mass workers party on a federal basis, uniting the struggles of the workplaces, the communities and the youth, as a vital step toward the creation of a mass revolutionary party. Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance.
- Take society’s wealth into the hands of the working class! Nationalise under democratic working class control Standard Bank, ABSA, FNB & Nedbank along with the entire financial sector. Guarantee the savings of all working and middle class people and small businesses. Bond and debt relief for struggling home-owners and small businesses. Abolish garnishee orders! For a state monopoly on credit.
- Combat the ratings agencies and the sabotage of the bosses! For a state monopoly of foreign trade alongside capital and price controls enforced by democratically elected committees of workers and poor communities.
- For a socialist economy to meet the needs of all. Nationalise under democratic working class and community control the banks, the mines, the big commercial farms, the big factories, big businesses and big retailers. For a democratic socialist plan of production to invest in job creation and poverty alleviation. Build solidarity and international links with the workers of the world – lay the basis for a worldwide socialist plan of production.
 See for example: (1) The Statement of the National Executive Committee of Saftu (26 August 2019), (2) Saftu Rejects Moboweni’s Economic Strategy Plan (30 August 2019), (3) Zwelinzima Vavi on Illicit Cash Flows and Why Unions Must be Concerned (3 October 2019), (4) Saftu Predicted Mboweni’s Assault on Workers and the Poor (30 October 2019), and (5) SAFTU Statement on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Second Investment Conference (5 November 2019).
 Declaration of the Working-Class Summit, 21-22 July 2018, Soweto
A Workers’ Party and the 2019 elections
The Working Class Summit unanimously agreed on the need to build working class power in all workplaces, communities and society in general.
A clear majority agreed on a need to build an independent, democratic and revolutionary working-class political party, which will be strong enough to conquer social, economic and political power, abolish the capitalist system and replace it with socialism.
It was agreed that the working class is decisive in bringing about a radical socialist change, because of their role in the production of wealth, but that it needs to draw behind it, and into the struggle, all the oppressed people. The party must be a voice for the working class, but it must also unite all those involved in the anti-capitalist struggles that seek to bring about socialism.
In this regard, such a working class party must work to unite the broadest possible front of existing working class formations, which will lead to unity discussions and joint programmes.
A revolutionary party requires not just strong leadership cadre, but it must also be democratically owned and controlled by workers and not built from the top so that workers and communities become foot-soldiers rather than architects of the new party.
The need to create a Working Class Party should not be influenced by the 2019 elections. Whilst elections will always be both a tactic and the political necessity, the Working Class Party will seek to create a party for a fundamentally change of the power relations in society. We however will discuss the approach the working class should take on the forthcoming 2019 general elections.
The process of forming this party must also be open, democratic and inclusive of all the working class so that it is not run from the top down but is a democratic vehicle to unite and mobilize the whole working class.
SAFTU in conjunction with the Steering Committee will ensure the discussion on the Working Class Party resumes and is democratically conducted in all the structures on the ground.
 Declaration of the SAFTU Special Central Committee, 17 October 2018
We have debated the question of the formation of a Workers’ Party, guided by the position adopted by SAFTU’s founding congress, that “we are committed to fight the exploitation of workers and must be ready to engage in the transformation of our societies to counter capitalist exploitation, inequalities and poverty. We are inspired by Marxism-Leninism and Marxist pan-Africanism, based on a commitment to socialism, internationalism, all of which are complementary.”
We took note of the decision by SAFTU’s NEC and a report by our Political and Ideological Commission (PIC) that in the current capitalist crises, the only way forward is through building a Workers Party, in line with the founding Congress’s resolution, and that only the working class can sustain the struggle and overthrow the ruling class and its barbaric capitalist system.
We also took note that a very similar resolution of the Working-Class Summit, which “unanimously agreed on the need to build working class power in all workplaces, communities and society in general. A clear majority agreed on a need to build an independent, democratic and revolutionary working-class political party, which will be strong enough to conquer social, economic and political power, abolish the capitalist system and replace it with socialism.”
We agreed in principle that creation of the working class party is of critical importance. We also agreed to continue the discussion within our ranks and also with the Working Class formations as a whole. In this regard, we are convening a major workshop to look at such issues as the timing of the creation of such a party, the modalities of the party, its programme, its relationship with existing socialist oriented parties and international experiences in forming such parties, including how these have related to the issue of power and use of elections as a tactic and a weapon.
We reaffirmed that SAFTU remains independent but not apolitical. We reject the idea that SAFTU should itself either create, or turn itself into a political party.
We also agreed that a working-class party cannot be built in the boardroom but in campaigns in the streets, and that it must be democratically built by workers from the bottom up, with the fullest possible discussion of its polices and structure.
The workshop referred to above will pull together left-wing parties from South Africa, Europe and South America, and sympathetic intelligentsia who align themselves to the working class and socialism, to help us with the theoretical and programmatic modalities of a Workers Party.