OPEN LETTER TO SAFTU | PART 3: The Crisis of Programme

Dear comrades,

In Part 2 of our Open letter we described the obstructionist role of an “SACP Mark II”-grouping inside the Numsa and Saftu leaderships that is blocking the working class’s struggle to reclaim its organisational, political and ideological independence. We appealed to genuine members of the SRWP, one of the obstacles created by this group, to support the Saftu and WCS workers’ party process.

The SRWP’s support for the Saftu and WCS workers’ party process does not automatically require the liquidation of the SRWP. But the justification for separate organisations is determined by the existence of clearly defined differences of ideology, programme and method. The Marxist Workers Party is crystal clear on the reason for its existence and clear on the programme to which we are trying to win the working class. We would suggest to genuine members of the SRWP that as part of their struggle for a Special Congress they examine the programmatic and ideological foundations of their party, its methods etc.

We think these comrades will find that the SRWP, as a creation of a section of the Numsa bureaucracy, has been dressed in an ideological suit that fits their interests and not the interests of the working class. We believe that the idea of the National Democratic Revolution continues to guide thinking in the party. This Stalinist ‘theory’ is imported from the SACP. It teaches that the end of apartheid and introduction of bourgeois democracy was the victory of the first ‘democratic stage’ of the South African revolution. At some point, after a period of ‘national’ development on a capitalist basis, the second ‘socialist stage’ will begin. The NDR rejects everything that Marxism teaches the working class, resuscitates everything that Lenin campaigned against in building the Bolshevik party, and ignores what made victory in the 1917 Russian Revolution possible. Clinging to the NDR can only ever create an SACP Mark II.

The world is dominated by imperialism. The world market was long-ago carved-up and an international ‘division of labour’ imposed on the terms of the imperialist powers. Against this back-drop, the NDR’s ‘democratic stage’ could never look any different to the South African experience over the past 26 years – continued poverty, basic human needs unmet, mass unemployment, growing inequality, economic stagnation, social decay reflected in crime, drug-addiction, violence against women and children etc.

It is more likely that the NDR’s ‘first stage’, ‘bourgeois parliamentary’ i.e. capitalist democracy, will be rolled-back by a ruling class no longer able to afford the ‘luxury’ of democracy, than that it will ever guide the working class to socialism. The Marikana Massacre, state capture and corruption, the limitations on the right to strike in the LRA Amendment Act, the militarised lockdown and Ramaphosa’s resuscitation of the State Security Council the apartheid regime ruled through in its last decade, are just some of the indications of the anti-democratic tendency inherent in the ruling capitalist class as it struggles to maintain its grip on society. Contrary to the NDR, it is only socialism that can consolidate and guarantee the democratic gains of 1994.

But the NDR serves the material interests of those trade union leaders who enjoy privileged lifestyles and fear losing them. At weekends and on public holidays they are free to service their ‘base’ and make radical socialist speeches in front of the angry and frustrated workers whose wages pay their inflated salaries. But on weekdays the NDR teaches that compromise with the bosses is not just necessary but a revolutionary duty. No other approach can flow in practise from the idea that “now is not the time for socialism” and that “the balance of forces are unfavourable”. The NDR is a treacherous policy for class collaboration, at best positioning the trade unions as a “loyal opposition”.

NDR in Action

The Cosatu leadership has of course mastered this balancing act between the classes. But it continues to be reflected in the programme and methods of the SACP II-grouping’s leadership. They have all but formalised a division of labour between the SRWP and Numsa that reflects the mistaken framework of the NDR. The SRWP leadership makes abstract propaganda in favour of a future socialist revolution, then, wearing their ‘Numsa hats’, carefully limit the real struggles of workers which might actually prepare the way for that revolution.

In the five-week long 2014 metalworkers’ strike, the SACP II-grouping in the Numsa leadership were at pains to insist that the strike was “not political”. An iron wall was erected between the highly political outcomes of Numsa’s Special National Congress, which had taken place just months earlier, and the on-the-ground struggle of Numsa’s members. In 2015, during the crisis in the steel industry, the SACP II-grouping in the Numsa leadership continued with the same “it’s not a political strike” line. They did not demand the nationalisation of the sector under democratic workers’ control, but supported the bosses’ call for the government to impose tariffs on imported steel. Ultimately, this meant defending the bosses’ profits by passing-on increased steel prices to the rest of society. And job losses went ahead anyway!

More recently, at SAA, after heroic strike action by the workers, the SACP II-grouping in the Numsa leadership, instead of broadening the struggle by mobilising more widely in the aviation sector and SOEs, supported the bosses’ and ANC government’s business rescue. But predictably the only things rescued were the banks’ loans. After sowing false illusions in business rescue, over two-thirds of the 4,000 strong SAA workforce have seen no alternative but to agree to take voluntary severance packages. This organised, militant bastion of working class power has been destroyed.

Last month there was a strike at SCAW metals against an attempt by the bosses to use the pandemic and lockdown as an excuse to cut allowances. This was called-off with Numsa agreeing to make concessions. Sometimes a retreat in the class struggle is unavoidable. But that is not what happened at SCAW. According to Numsa’s own press release[1] the strike was ended to help the bosses with their “current financial pressures”. Grovelling before the bosses, comrade Jim continued:

This agreement is proof of the willingness of the union and workers to make sacrifices where justified, [Justified by what? The bosses’ profit margins?] and where employers engage in a constructive and sincere engagement, in order to find a solution which will suit all parties.[Why are illusions being sowed that labour and capital have common interests?] … We are not unreasonable and neither are our members. And the fact that we were able to negotiate an amicable solution to end this strike, whist at the same time, addressing key concerns of employees at Scaw backs this up.[Reasonable according to who? Bourgeois ‘public opinion’?] [Our emphasis.]

This approach is the complete opposite to the war-footing that the working class needs to be placed upon if it is not to fall to the bottom of the abyss to which capitalism has led it. How does the position adopted at SCAW fit with Jim’s almost simultaneous call – safely away from workers actually involved in struggle! – for the “Mother of All Political Strikes”? The same mistaken approach of the SACP II-grouping in the Numsa leadership is repeated again, and again, and again. There is a stubborn refusal by the SACP II-grouping to do anything whatsoever to politicise strikes, to link them to the incapacity of capitalism to take society forward, let alone raise socialist demands. But all of these strikes took place when they were supposedly carrying out Numsa’s mandate to create a workers’ party to lead the socialist revolution! What is reflected in this approach if not the NDR in action?


On the other hand, we believe that the Saftu leaders supporting comrade Vavi have made serious mistakes in how they have responded to the crisis provoked by the SACP II-grouping. It was wrong not to trust the membership with information about the crisis within the Saftu leadership and adopt a “not in front of the children” approach. What was needed was a campaign to mobilise the rank-and-file, including that of Numsa, to break the paralysis.

But instead of systematic work within the federation itself, comrade Vavi’s supporters chose to avoid confronting the bureaucratic obstacle in their path, and instead, tried to take a short-cut around it. Their efforts went into trying to build a ‘working class wing’ of the middle class C19 People’s Coalition. The failure of all but two Saftu affiliates to participate in the C19 Coalition’s “Working Class Day of Action” on 1 August seems to have led these comrades to re-evaluate their approach and return to their posts in Saftu, pushing, successfully, for the convening of the NEC. But the cost of their mistaken approach remains five wasted months. (See our statement distributed on the 1 August Working Class Day of Action here.)

Since mid-April the Marxist Workers Party has called on the Saftu leadership to convene a Special Saftu Congress and a Working Class Summit II. The world had changed in a matter of weeks and we believed it was urgent that the working class be re-armed and prepared for the new era. This demanded the fullest and most democratic discussion throughout all Saftu affiliates and the sympathising organisations brought together by the Summit (see Part I of this Open Letter for more explanation of our WCS call).

The paralysis in Saftu’s leadership may have been temporarily broken and the NEC called, but the crisis is not resolved. This makes the need for a Special Congress more urgent. The membership must hold both sides to account. It would be a mistake to try and sweep recent events under the carpet. They must be reckoned with and lessons learned. Without this there is a danger that the crisis will quickly re-erupt and paralysis return. But it is also necessary if Saftu’s claim to be a democratic and worker-controlled federation is not hollow. It is our understanding of the Saftu constitution that a Special Congress can be convened by the CC or at the request of one-third of affiliates. Whatever the technical mechanism used, we call on Saftu to set the date. If the SACP II-grouping blocks this to keep their misconduct hidden behind closed doors let it be reflected in the record and publicised throughout the federation.


Despite his popularity amongst the workers , comrade Vavi has a tendency to ‘seek refuge’ with the middle class left. This tendency has become especially pronounced in the course of 2019. It is not an accident that this coincides with the escalation of tensions with the SACP II-grouping.

Reformist middle class ideas have become the main thrust of Saftu’s public position and are put forward in press statements, media interviews, memoranda etc. This approach has centred on appeals to the ANC government to reduce interest rates, introduce tax reforms and apply economic stimulus packages. Press releases praising the British capitalist economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) have confirmed that Saftu HQ is looking for guidance from the book of Keynesianism. This has ideologically positioned Saftu as an echo chamber for reformist economists and commentators in the capitalist media.

This clearly goes against the founding of Saftu as a “revolutionary and socialist oriented federation”. The ritualistic and abstract tagging-on of the word “socialism” at the end of press releases which are otherwise Keynesian throughout does not fix the problem. Rather than shoring-up Vavi’s position, this approach has further weakened it, giving his opponents ammunition and opportunities to posture as “more revolutionary”.

Marxists support every reform that improves the lives of the working class. But we oppose reformism – the sowing of illusions that any reforms can be made permanent without replacing capitalism with socialism. Keynesianism in all its modern forms is a political project to save capitalism from revolution. On the one hand, it reflects the recognition of the middle class and sections of the capitalist class that capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands of the masses. On the other hand, it reflects their distrust and fear of the working class and the socialist revolution. Keynes himself summed this view up when he pointed out his concern that when faced with the starvation imposed by the crises of capitalism “men will not always die quietly”.[2]

This is why Keynesians address themselves first and foremost to the capitalist state, just as Saftu’s recent press releases have. They believe the task is to convince the ruling class to see reason and provide the masses with an ‘honourable poverty’ that takes the heat out of the class struggle. They view this as a more ‘practical’ approach than the risky and unpredictable business of revolution which might threaten the relative privileges of the middle class it is so popular amongst.

Elitism runs through Keynesianism. The problems of capitalist society are not seen as political, arising from the class struggle, but technical, a question of competent economic management. So the insecure middle class seeks refuge in the arms of a neutral technocratic state from a class struggle in which it can play no independent role. They treat the class struggle as an intellectual misunderstanding, instead of the life and death matter it is. Problematically for Keynesianism the class struggle is real and this neutral state does not exist.

None of Keynesianism’s ‘economic fixes’ resolve the fundamental contradictions at the heart of capitalism that make unemployment, poverty, exploitation and economic crises inevitable. To the extent that the ruling class picks these ideas up, and puts them down again, is determined entirely by their attempt to defend their interests whilst navigating the class struggle they of necessity must recognise. The massive economic stimulus packages in the imperialist countries, and even the ANC’s weak imitations, including the temporary introduction of the SRD social grant, demonstrates this. Predictably an entire swathe of the ‘progressive’ middle class has mis-read these developments and seen in them the awakening of a possibility to influence the state to embark upon a more benevolent and ‘inclusive’ path. This is what the C19 People’s Coalition represents.

The practical consequences that flow from Keynesianism for the workers movement are little different to those of the NDR. It encourages the de-politicisation of working class struggles and class compromise. Keynesianism is another useful suit that privileged trade union leaders can wear that allows them a degree of radical posturing whilst accommodating themselves to the bosses and the continuation of capitalism.

Way Forward

The crisis of leadership in Saftu is ultimately a crisis of programme. There has been no serious reckoning on the part of the majority of Saftu’s leadership with the lessons of Cosatu’s degeneration. Many of the wrong ideas and methods have been imported into the new federation. The persistence of bureaucratic rivalries is one symptom of this.

Leon Trotsky explained that, “In the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can be really independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution.” (Our emphasis.) Saftu members will not be able to fully purge the policies of class collaboration and complete the journey to reclaiming their organisational, political and ideological independence until they have consciously rejected the NDR, Keynesianism and all other varieties of reformism, embraced genuine Marxism and made revolutionary trade unionism the official policy of Saftu.

Saftu’s “independence” can have real meaning only if it is understood as defending the interests of the working class which created it. On the political plane this can be assured only by Saftu playing a leading role in the formation of a workers’ party, from which it retains its independence by ensuring its direct control over it, turning the party into the political wing of a revolutionary mass movement in which the organised working class will play the decisive role. Any other policy means surrendering the political terrain to the minority capitalist class.

The majority of the existing leadership is unlikely to embrace these ideas spontaneously. There must be a campaign within the federation for the correct policies. Otherwise workers will remain hamstrung by a leadership that zig-zags around whilst empirically groping its way forward. We call on all those who have read this and agree with our analysis to contact us to discuss the formation of a Marxist Trade Union Network that sets itself the task of consolidating a genuine revolutionary current within the trade union movement. This appeal is not limited to Saftu. The work needs to be conducted across the entire trade union movement to build the cadre and the leadership capable of leading the working class in the struggle for socialism.

[1]29 July 2020

[2]Keynes, Collected Works, Volume II