OPEN LETTER | To Saftu Members

  • Campaign for a public sector and SOE general strike
  • Call a one-day Section 77 strike
  • Convene a Working Class Summit II
  • Implement the Saftu and WCS resolutions for the creation of a mass workers party

Dear comrades,

On 25 August the National Executive Committee of Saftu will sit. Every member of the federation must take a huge interest in this meeting. The outcome will answer whether or not Saftu is prepared to give leadership to the working class in a world that has changed completely in just a few short months.

The ruling capitalist class is in despair. Before the pandemic the economy was already in recession and accelerating job losses were pushing unemployment towards 30%. Then lockdown. Three million additional jobs lost in a matter of weeks. One political commentator has warned that South Africa will emerge from lockdown into an “economic wasteland”; another likens the post-lockdown economic landscape to the flattened Lebanese capital Beirut.[1] The country is now accelerating quickly into a full-blown sovereign debt crisis. Some economists predict it will arrive in just fourteen months.[2]

The ANC government’s Supplementary Budget is almost certainly too little too late for the capitalist class. This is despite its scale and savagery making it in practice a home-grown voluntary IMF structural adjustment programme. A case of jumping before being pushed. For the working class the promised R250 billion in spending cuts is an eye-watering attack on living standards that will devastate services, jobs and pay. But austerity was already government policy before this. It took them six years to squeeze just R70 billion out of the budget. Now they must more than triple this in a fraction of the time.

The ruling class has another intractable and intertwined problem. The ANC, South African capitalism’s chief political guardian, is riven by factionalism and filled to the rafters with ‘crony cadres’. The ‘covidpreneur’ PPE-tender scandal has shoved the ruling class’s political crisis back into the spotlight. The ANC remains a completely unreliable instrument to maintain their rule. But they have no replacement. Every effort to construct a ‘safer pair of hands’ has failed. The presentation of Ramaphosa’s presidency as a ‘new dawn’ was met with cynicism by the masses from the beginning. But even this cheap paint-job is now fully smeared in the dirt of corruption and nepotism.

The ruling class is losing what remains of its precarious footing in society. The ANC’s last base within the organised working class, via the Cosatu public sector unions, is under severe strain because of the attacks it is required to carry-out on the public sector and public sector workers. Small businesses have been decimated. Big business is expected to circle its wagons in a laager through consolidations and mergers. A smaller economy and massively reduced public spending will choke the tenders, public sector and SOE appointments and BEE opportunities used to maintain patronage networks and buy the quiescence of a section of the black middle class.

The pandemic and the deepening of the economic crisis has heaped enormous new suffering upon the masses. The number of households that ran out of money for food in April more than doubled to nearly 50%. Global risk consultants are warning of global civil unrest. They have named South Africa on their ‘watch list’.[3] What these strategists of capital fear is the development of a mass movement of the working class and poor. Under the current crisis conditions this may not only challenge capitalism’s political managers, like the ANC, but develop into a movement against the capitalist profit system itself. They are warning the ruling class to tread carefully. But the ANC’s ‘crony cadres’ are incapable of heeding their advice.

Working Class Must Lead

This is why the outcome of Saftu’s upcoming NEC is so important. Everything in the situation points to a decisive showdown between the classes developing quickly in the next period. Even the possibility of a pre-revolutionary situation opening-up cannot be excluded.

Violent clashes between police and protestors in Cape Town in recent weeks anticipate widespread spontaneous outbursts of anger in communities, food riots etc. These will be similar in character to the waves of service-delivery protests in the ten years before the pandemic. Isolated, un-co-ordinated, lacking an alternative, the ruling class can contain and suppress this type of “civil unrest”. If not ignored completely, or suppressed by state forces, any concessions will come on the terms and timetable of the ruling class.

Preparations must be made now to place Saftu at the head of the masses in the coming storm of class struggle. Workers, especially those organised in trade unions, are armed with structures to co-ordinate action across society and the power to leave the ruling class paralysed through the withdrawal of labour in strike action. Under the leadership of the organised working class the struggles of communities and the unemployed youth can be transformed into an important second front of a generalised struggle.

The organised working class also contains within it the seed of a political alternative to the disaster of capitalism. Working class organisation and action challenges the boss’s control of the workplace and the capitalist class’s control of society and suggests an alternative – workers control of the workplace and working class control of society. In a word: socialism.

But these seeds will not sprout without skilful leadership. The working class must be readied to seize the opportunities emerging from the instability caused by the pandemic and use them to shift the balance of forces in society significantly in favour of the working class.

The immediate question is organising action to defend the living standards of the working class from the attacks of the bosses and the government – what should be its character and starting point?

Mobilising the Class

Some in Saftu have made the call for a general strike. Comrade Irvin Jim, Numsa general secretary, has threatened “the Mother of all Political Strikes against a rotten and corrupt ANC government”.[4] If by “Mother of all Political Strikes” comrade Jim means an indefinite general strike then he is posing the conquest of political power by the working class. But this is a case of mistaking the first month of pregnancy for the ninth. The class is not yet prepared for this. This is not the starting point for the working class movement that needs to be built but its endpoint!

The trade union movement itself is fragmented. The working class does not yet have a political party of its own capable of taking power. Even if mass action could force it to fall from the capitalist class’s hands… they would just pick it up again. The 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ was a series of revolutionary movements which succeeded in overthrowing powerful decades-old dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet nearly a decade later, the capitalist class remains firmly in power. In the case of Egypt, the new regime is even more repressive than the Mubarak regime the masses had overthrown. The missing ingredient was a mass revolutionary workers party with a socialist programme.

What is needed to prepare our class for the “Mother of all Political Strikes” is a clear programme for rolling action that with each successive round strengthens the unity, organisation and confidence of the working class. Woven into such a programme must be the creation of a socialist mass workers’ party.

The Marxist Workers Party has called on Saftu to call for a public sector and SOE general strike. We have raised this because of the enormous potential that exists to mobilise a determined mass struggle in the public sector on the questions of pay, jobs and privatisation. To this the pandemic has added the burning issues of PPE, safe workplaces, school re-opening and permanent jobs for all CHWs and EPWP workers. We have argued that the strike’s platform should be used to make the call for a general strike of all workers. In the current conditions this would have an electrifying effect throughout society. In other words, a public sector general strike would be an important first round, preparing a stronger second round.

The Nehawu leadership is already being pushed by its members into calling limited action. This is a reflection of the mood. A public sector strike would also play a vitally important political role in accelerating the crisis in the Cosatu/ANC Alliance and the ruling class more generally. (See our 31 July statement for expansion on the potential of a public sector general strike). Campaigning for a public sector general strike is crucial in our view. But it does not exclude Saftu pursuing other action simultaneously. We are fully in favour of Saftu calling a one-day Section 77 strike if that is possible. But there are several pit-falls in approaching this that must be avoided. These apply equally to a public sector general strike.

There must be a clear understanding of what a Section 77 strike is and what it is not. A one-day Section 77 strike by Saftu affiliates alone is not a general strike, let alone the “Mother of all Political Strikes”. At best, it would be a partial general strike. Its main role at this stage would be to raise the flag of mass working class struggle and prepare the way for its fuller development.

To assist this a Section 77 strike must not have vague aims “against the crisis”. Nor should it go to the other extreme of a multiple-page wish list filled with detailed sector and workplace grievances only understood by the workers directly affected. The strike must generalise the experience of the working class into a clear set of specific demands that brings to the forefront the class’s common interests. These could include: (1) moratorium on all job losses in both public and private sectors and jobs for all, (2) R12,500 per month minimum wage, (3) re-instate the public sector pay rise, (4) make the Social Relief of Distress social grant permanent and increase it to R3,500, and (5) permanent jobs for all CHWs and EPWP, ECD and CWP workers.

The strike must be organised as the start of a campaign that is determined to win these demands. It cannot be a once-off event that does little more than let the leadership tick a box to say it has “done something”. Even before the strike takes place the next step should have been planned-out and put on a pamphlet for mass distribution on the strike itself. This pamphlet must give clear guidance on what to do next. We propose setting the date and location for a Working Class Summit II that has as its purpose (1) the planning of a second two-day Section 77 strike, and (2) preparations for the launch of a mass workers’ party. Appeal to everyone participating in the strike to return to their workplaces, trade union structures, community and youth organisations and call meetings to elect delegations to it.

The strike platform should be used to appeal to all federations and working class organisations who did not participate to also send delegations. But this appeal cannot be left to letters between head offices. It will not be a success if Amcu’s Joseph Mathunjwa turns-up alone, claiming he ‘represents’ mineworkers. The Summit needs the mineworkers themselves to be there. Direct appeals must be made that reach rank-and-file activists and shop stewards through workplace visits with pamphlets.

The Party Needed

The issue of a workers’ party must be on the agenda of the Summit. But the discussion must not re-tread old ground that delays action. The item must be a discussion about how to implement the WCS’s existing resolution to prepare for the 2021 local election. The workers’ party must not be treated as a ‘separate project’. The role of a workers’ party is to act as the political wing of the mass working class movement that must be built. The new party must first and foremost be a party of struggle. It must set itself the task of uniting the struggles of the workplaces, communities and the youth. Participation in elections is just one tactic, a necessary and important one, to take these struggles forward.

To arm a new workers party to play the necessary role of uniting working class struggle, it will, at least in the beginning, have to be structured in a way that allows trade unions, community structures, youth groups and left political groups and parties to affiliate without being required to surrender their separate identities.

A new party must be united by a programme of action. There is no reason that this needs to be fundamentally different to the one we have outlined above for the Section 77 strike. What needs to be added and made explicit is that the party fights for a democratic socialist society and a workers’ government as the only way to realise the fundamental demands of the mass movement.

Agreement with the programme of action would be the basis for membership and affiliation. Different ideological tendencies that join the party should be given the freedom to publish and distribute their views within the structures. There is absolutely no reason why the important and necessary ideological debates that will be a feature of a new workers party should paralyse action. A basic principle of the party should be the old Marxist idea: march separately, strike together. We believe this is what the working class wants – a democratic and unifying party that campaigns on the issues that will make a real difference in their lives.

Leadership Needed

The above is not intended as a strict blueprint. It can only be breathed into life and fleshed-out by the working class itself. We are trying to illustrate the method necessary to begin the mobilisation of the mass of the working class. All the raw material is present for the working class to put its stamp upon society – to stop being a passenger in the out of control capitalist car and take-hold of the steering wheel. The Saftu leadership has a special responsibility to prepare the working class to do just this. The paralysis that has gripped the leadership over the past five months must be shaken-off and the factional manoeuvres set-aside. Every Saftu member has the right to expect a clear way forward for our class as the outcome of the NEC meeting.

Continue to Part 2

[1]Sunday Times, 9 August 2020

[2]Apocalypse Just Now: Can SA’s economy still be saved?”, Financial Mail (6 August 2020)

[3]Protests Predicted to Surge Globally as Covid-19 Drives Unrest”, London Guardian, 17 July 2020

[4]Numsa press release (4 August 2020)