WORKING CLASS SUMMIT DEBATES | The Workers Party Discussion Paper & the Crisis in Saftu

Over the last few weeks momentum towards convening a second Working Class Summit has been regained. The first Summit, convened by the Saftu trade union federation, took place in July 2018 and was attended by 1,000 delegates representing trade unions, communities, youth and other organisations. Most importantly the Summit “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.” However, the process toward implementing this resolution by launching a workers party stalled.

The Covid-19 pandemic has enormously complicated the reconvening of the Summit over the past two years. But this has not been the most important factor. The ongoing factional struggle within the Saftu leadership is at the heart of the nearly four-year delay. This struggle has now exploded into public view with the attempted suspension of Saftu general secretary Vavi by Saftu leaders aligned with the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (see here).

Comrade Vavi has publicly confirmed, for example in media interviews, that central to the divisions in the Saftu leadership is the question of the SRWP and the workers party. This is something that the Marxist Workers Party has long pointed-out in explaining the repeated de-railings of the WCS’s re-convening. The SRWP was created by a section of the Numsa leadership led by comrade Irvin Jim – which we have characterised as the SACP-2.0 grouping – to cut across the WCS workers’ party process (see here, here and here).

At the beginning of 2021, in a previous attempt to build momentum towards the re-convening of the Summit, five discussion papers were commissioned. These are now being widely circulated in the movement. One of them deals with the workers party and makes proposals on the way forward for the implementation of the 2018 Summit’s decision. In preparation for the reconvening of the WCS in 2021, (now to take place in June 2022) provincial summits were planned where these papers were to be discussed. At the first of these, in June in the North West, SRWP-supporting Numsa members objected to the presentation of this paper after all others had been discussed. The writing team’s lead author, Weizmann Hamilton, was banned from attending the summit.

This paper, in addition to dealing with the programme, ideological and political foundations, principles and methods of building the workers party, also ties together and gives a way forward to the other four papers which deal with various manifestations of capitalism’s crisis. We are publishing the workers party paper below to assist in its widest-possible circulation as we believe it can help clarify many of the issues in the Saftu crisis.

It is good that the wrecking-role of the SRWP is finally in the public arena. It is unfortunate, however, that it was forced into the open by the escalation of the factional struggle within Saftu to a full-blown crisis. It would have been far better if all issues had been placed before the Saftu membership in an open and systematic way. Instead it has been largely hidden-away in the summits of Saftu’s leadership structures where bureaucratic manoeuvres by all groupings has dominated over open political debate of the real issues in front of, and involving, Saftu’s members. We warned about the consequences of this in our 2020 Open Letter to Saftu Members.

The result is widespread confusion about what exactly is being proposed about the workers party, its relationship to Saftu, the place of the SRWP, its link to struggle, parliament and questions of programme, structures etc. Especially in Numsa this confusion has been consciously sown by the SACP-2.0 grouping, for example counterposing the “vanguard” SRWP to a “reformist” and “counter-revolutionary” “mass” workers party (which we have answered here), exaggerating the role of NGOs in the 2018 Summit etc. The vacillations of a number of other individuals and organisations in the WCS, blowing hot and cold on the 2018 decision to create a workers party, has deepened the confusion. For example a campaign for a workers party has been counterposed to setting a date to launch a workers party, new ‘umbrellas’ for struggle have been created rather than promoting the WCS and linking it to the workers party process etc.

The workers party paper proposes a way forward that answers this confusion. Of heightened relevance is the paper’s analysis of the anti-working class ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ forces. Their influence is clearly a factor in the Saftu crisis. Not only is the SRWP blocking the unfolding of the workers party process, but Numsa’s finance-capital-wing, its Investment Fund and subsidiaries – increasingly the tail that wags the dog – and controlled by the SACP-2.0 grouping, has been funding anti-working class political parties, especially those from the RET stable.

The broader political analysis in the paper, although a year old, has been further confirmed by events. The ongoing crisis of capitalism, already deepened by the pandemic is now worsened still further by the war in Ukraine. The ruling class continues to win battles in its war against the working class. There has been another austerity budget. The Concourt’s upholding of the government’s theft of the 2020 public sector pay increase has now clearly become an attack on collective bargaining itself as government announces in advance of negotiations wage cuts in real terms. Mass retrenchments in the private sector epitomised by the brutality of the Clover/Milco bosses are set to continue as the world economic crisis deepens.

The November 2021 elections, in which the ANC’s vote fell below 50% for the first time, confirmed the overwhelming rejection of the capitalist parties by the working class and poor. The search for an alternative was again on display in the explosion of independent candidates and proliferation of community-based parties. The ‘July riots’ and the emergence of Operation Dudula and other organised right-wing xenophobic forces, confirms that reaction stands ready to occupy the political vacuum. All of this demands a political response from the working class.

The events of the past year have confirmed the political and economic perspectives outlined in the paper. As a process of discussion and debate re-starts through WCS structures we also encourage all Saftu members to read the workers party paper and all Saftu structures to debate it. Let the debate be about what is actually on the table and not the straw-men that have been created. The discussion document can only be enriched by such a process. The Marxist Workers Party fully endorses the workers party paper.


Why the 2018 Working Class Summit Resolution to Establish a Workers Party Was Correct

The Way Forward

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.

Declaration of the Working Class Summit, 2018

The decision at the 2018 Working Class Summit to move forward with the creation of a workers party was historic. Saftu must be applauded for convening that initial Summit and for re-convening it now.

The Declaration adopted by the 2018 WCS provides clear principles to guide the creation of a new workers party. The new party must be built on solid working class foundations and it must be led by the working class. The new party must defend its class independence from the influence of other classes and their organisations and political parties. Its programme must have at its heart the revolutionary struggle for the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with socialism.

In the two years since the 2018 Summit the world has been hit by the Coivd-19 pandemic. This has piled further hardship on the backs of the working class. Not only illness and death, but growing hunger, homelessness, poverty and unemployment. The pandemic has accelerated all of the underlying contradictions of capitalism. The economic dislocation has accelerated the looming sovereign-debt crisis. The response of the ruling capitalist class has been to intensify the war on the working class through attacks on public sector pay, the erosion of social grants, privatisation and cuts across the board to health, education and service delivery in general.

The deepening crisis in the ruling class is revealed in the intensified factional struggles in the ANC and the DA. Looting and profiteering has continued through the pandemic. This is an admission that there is no way forward for society on the basis of capitalism. But as Marx explained no ruling class ever leaves the scene of history voluntarily. Nor, as Lenin explained, will capitalism collapse on its own. It has to be overthrown by the conscious action of the organised working class. The death agony of capitalism will continue to engulf society, as the ruling class intensifies attacks on the working class. In attempts to divide it, it will encourage the creation of reactionary, racist, ethnic and xenophobic formations. This will continue for as long as the vacuum created by the absence of a workers party remains. The preparation for the building of a workers party to prepare for the conquest of power is an urgent necessity.

Consciousness

The working class is ready to begin this task. The period of mass illusions in the ANC has long-passed. It began to breakdown the day after the 1994 elections. The aspirations of the working class and poor masses for a radical improvement in living standards and a better life immediately collided with the reality of a government committed to the defence of capitalism. This basic contradiction has shaped working class consciousness over the past 27 years. It is a process that has sometimes developed below the surface. At other points it has exploded dramatically and seized the attention of society. But the direction of travel has been clear – towards breaking the shackles of class collaboration and establishing the working class’s political independence. Like an unstoppable incoming tide, the ebbs become increasingly shorter, and the flows become a flood.

As early as 1998, Cosatu’s survey of shop stewards’ political attitudes indicated 30% support for a workers party after only one term of ANC government. In 2005, Cosatu’s CEC decided to establish Coalitions Against Poverty. Despite a boycott by both the ANC and SACP, 1,300 representatives from 70 organisations, including a sizeable delegation of Cosatu shop stewards, came together to fight job losses and poverty. Scared of its own success, and under pressure from the ANC and SACP, the Cosatu leadership wound-up the initiative.

The 1999 elections were the high-water mark in voter turnout. The struggle for political rights was won by the working class at the cost of enormous sacrifices. The steady decline in turnout reflects the growing bitterness of the working class and poor that so much was sacrificed for so little material progress. It has underlined that for the working class “democracy” is not an abstract principle. It is understood as a weapon in the class struggle. When that weapon is blunted because of the lack of a clear class alternative – i.e. a workers party – large sections of the working class see little point expending energy to wield it. But this has not meant passivity. Working class anger found new channels. Most notably the growth of service-delivery protests which have grown in breadth and intensity as electoral turnout has declined.

By 2012 Cosatu’s shop steward survey found that fully 67% of its shop stewards supported the establishment of a workers party. The significance of this is magnified by the fact that this survey was completed before the Marikana massacre. It was this event, like no other, before or since, that drew a line in the sand, dividing the democratic-era into two. It transformed the working class’s growing anger into a decisive realignment in the landscape of working class organisation – a decisive change of quantity into quality.

The NUM plummeted from the position of Cosatu’s largest affiliate to fifth place as mineworkers’, especially in the platinum and gold mines, abandoned it. This led, in time, to the rise of Amcu. Taking Marikana as its reference point Numsa’s 2013 Special National Congress withdrew support from the ANC, called on Cosatu to break with the Tripartite Alliance and committed to explore the possibilities for creating a workers party. As a direct result, over the next two years, Cosatu split, expelling its largest affiliate, Numsa. This led to the creation of Saftu in 2017. At its founding Congress Saftu picked-up the workers party baton and agreed to continue running with it. This led to the current Working Class Summit process.

What remains of the ANC’s base amongst the organised working class in Cosatu’s public sector unions is under severe strain as a result of the government’s attacks on public sector pay. A further split is very possible. The creation of a workers party would almost certainly accelerate this process. The ANC’s 2019 election results fell below 60% for the first time since 1994 posing the possibility of it not being able to form a government on its own in 2024. This would mean a pro-capitalist coalition between the ANC (or the CR faction if there is a split), the DA as Steenhuizen has already intimated, and other smaller parties.  It is not excluded that the EFF could join such a coalition. However it is constituted, its aim would be to preserve the current capitalist order. The fact that 9 million did not register means the ANC retains the active electoral support of only 28% of those who have the right to vote. What the ANC retains of its electoral support is not based on enthusiasm, but due to historical inertia that only continues because of the lack of a credible alternative.

Political

Since the birth of the South African working class the question of creating a workers party has repeatedly surfaced. There is no space in this paper to re-visit, for example, the creation of the CPSA in the 1920s, how the question of a political alternative was contested in the 1950s in response to the imposition of apartheid, or the debates that regularly gripped the reborn trade union movement from the 1970s in what is often remembered (and caricatured) as a struggle between “workerists” and “populists”.

The post-Marikana re-alignment of the trade union movement – which is by no means complete – gave birth to two different working class party-initiatives. The first, the Workers and Socialist Party contested the 2014 elections; the second, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party contested the 2019 elections. Neither initiative achieved an electoral breakthrough. It is unclear if the SRWP intends to continue contesting elections. The experience and lessons of both initiatives should be brought into the WCS workers party process for discussion and debate by the activists that participated in them.

What marks-out the WCS process from these two initiatives is the broader working class forces already involved. Not only are there the community and youth organisations, working class campaigns etc. assembled by the Summit, but, crucially, a trade union federation, Saftu, organising workers across the different sectors of the economy as its anchor. This immediately places the WCS workers party process on a qualitatively higher footing than what has gone before and poses the very real possibility of the working class finally achieving a significant breakthrough on the political front.

Ideology & Programme

The 2018 Declaration’s clear statement that the task of the new workers party will be to “…conquer social, economic and political power, abolish the capitalist system and replace it with socialism” is an excellent ideological and programmatic starting point for the new party. The struggle for the socialist transformation of society is clearly posed as today’s struggle.

Implicit in this is the rejection of the SACP’s ‘two-stage’ National Democratic Revolution (NDR). This theory argues that in the neo-colonial world a first ‘democratic’ stage of the revolution must precede a second ‘socialist’ stage. The postponement of the second, socialist stage means in practice, the prolongation of capitalism and the exploitation of the working class. Since 1994, the beginning of the democratic stage, this theory has been on trial. After 27 years it has been disproved. In neighbouring Zimbabwe, the NDR’s trial is in its forty-first year with even worse results!

Instead of seeing the emergence of a ‘patriotic’ black bourgeoisie predicted by the NDR, that would be capable of developing society, a parasitic black bourgeoisie has emerged. The corruption in which this new ‘faction’ of the capitalist class is mired, indistinguishable from that of the predominantly white capitalist class under colonialism and apartheid, has filled society with disgust precisely because it has occurred under a government democratically elected by the black majority. For the black bourgeoisie ‘majority rule’ meant dominating the summits of a capitalist economy. To fulfil their historic aim to dislodge ‘white monopoly capital’ from the summits of the economy, this weak upper class segment of the black population would have had to mobilise the  black predominantly working class majority. Fearing that this would arouse the socialist aspirations so pronounced amongst organised workers and youth, and thus pose a threat to the very capitalist system into which it aspired to be absorbed, the ANC leadership prostrated itself before big business at home and imperialism abroad, abandoned the Freedom Charter and adopted the neo-liberal Gear policy.

Corporate tax cuts, and the consequent reduction in tax revenue led to the closure of teacher and nursing training colleges, commercialisation of basic services, and a decline in investment. This has led to catastrophic levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality more extreme than under apartheid. Thus the ANC has presided over de-industrialisation in favour of the easier option of opening up the public service and SOEs for self-enrichment through the creation of a highly paid privileged bureaucratic elite, and looting the public sector for tenders. Ironically for the NDR’s ‘democratic’ stage, society is becoming less democratic. The police are increasingly used to suppress protests and even kill protesters. The right to strike has been curtailed and the unelected judiciary plays a growing role in defending anti-working class government policies from the pressure of the working class.

In reality the NDR was a Trojan Horse in the working class movement. Under the cover of revolutionary rhetoric it defended the interests of the aspirant black capitalist class. Its organisational expression in the Tripartite Alliance was designed to strip the working class of its independence and remove it from the national stage as an organised political force by mobilising the working class, via Cosatu, to support the ANC, a party committed to the preservation of capitalism and therefore of working class slavery.

Fast-forward to today and supporters of the NDR ultimately occupy the same ideological ground as the various ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ forces, including the Zuma/Magashule faction of the ANC, the EFF and others. The RET forces want to carve-out a bigger space for the self-enrichment of a ‘black elite’. In practise this means defending their right to loot the public sector via the tender system, or various schemes to expand BEE, create ‘black’ state banks etc.

The ideological and programmatic step-forward taken by the 2018 Declaration that turns its back on these anti-working class ideas needs to be consolidated in the next phase of the WCS workers party process. The drawing of the ideological class lines needs to be deepened, making clear the working class’s rejection of all wings of the capitalist class, black and white. This must include emphasising internationalism – socialism’s lifeblood – to counter the xenophobia and racism of different political formations. This will become of even greater importance as the crisis in the southern African region intensifies and the need for working class international solidarity becomes evident.

For a socialist economy to meet the needs of the working class majority.

  • Nationalise under democratic working class control the biggest companies in all the key sectors of the economy: agriculture, mining, construction, transport, manufacturing, telecommunications, wholesale, retail and distribution.
  • Integrate nationalised industry according to a democratic socialist plan of production to raise wages – including a R12,500 p/m minimum wage – protect and create new jobs and end poverty and unemployment.
  • Develop the trade union struggle for control in the workplace over wages, shifts, health and safety, job losses etc. into a struggle for workers’ control of the production process itself.
  • No to the privatisation of SAA, Eskom and the other SOEs! Re-structure the SOEs on the basis of socialist nationalisation and democratic workers control.
  • Abolish all tenders and outsourcing in the public sector and SOEs. Kick-out big business ‘consultants’. Bring workers and services in-house. Absorb all workers on EPWP, CWP, CHW and other slave-labour programmes.

Agreement with these ideas should be the basis for participation in the WCS workers party process.

Vehicle for Struggle

The new workers party must not be treated as a ‘separate project’ to the struggles being waged by the working class in the workplaces, the communities and by the youth in the schools, colleges and universities. The new workers party must first and foremost act as the unifier of working class struggle. This must happen organisationally but also politically and ideologically by the party generalising the experience of different working class struggles into a common programme creating a national reference point for the entire class.

The opening-up of a clear political front in the class struggle will strengthen existing campaigns and struggles. There is a long tradition of revolutionaries using hard fought for democratic rights and the structures of the capitalist state as an auxiliary to the struggles being waged in the workplaces and on the streets. The public sector workers are currently in the frontline of the class struggle. It is upon them that the fire of the entire ruling class – the government and the judiciary marching in step – is concentrated. They wish to break the power of the public sector workers and cow the rest of the working class into submission to save their system. The working class counter-offensive needed would be enormously strengthened if backed-up by a party mobilising the working class and youth throughout society behind them and promising to reverse and back-pay the cancelled final-leg of the 2018 pay agreement upon coming to power. The initial groundwork for this can be laid by EPWP workers acting as the frontline for the workers-party-in-waiting by standing one of their own to replace the corrupt councillors hiring and firing them at whim. Participation in elections can be an important tactic to take struggle forward.

Likewise there is a long tradition of revolutionaries using the platform of elections to expose the economic dictatorship of the capitalist class that lies behind the democratic façade. By for example basing the election of MPs on the principle of the right of immediate recall and of a worker’s MP on a workers wage, the understanding of the entire working class about the tasks necessary to abolish capitalism can be raised.

This should be the understanding of the relationship between working class struggle and elections that the new party bases itself upon. Two fronts in one class struggle.

Campaigns

It is not only to existing struggles that the new party must look. For every group of workers that have organised together to find a trade union, or for every community that has created its own crisis committee, there will be another dozen that will do so if given a clear lead. The new workers party must help create its own constituency by leading campaigns out of which the structures and working class leadership of the party will be constructed. These could include:

  • A campaign for R12,500 p/m minimum wage, linked to organising the unorganised in Saftu trade unions.
  • A campaign to pay the withheld public sector pay rise and lift the pay freeze, again linked to building Saftu’s public sector unions, with the goal of a public sector general strike.
  • A campaign to repeal the LRA Amendments Act linked to agitation for a Trade Union Freedom Bill that the new workers party will table if represented in parliament.
  • A campaign to organise all workers on EPWP and other slave-labour programmes to struggle for permanent jobs.
  • A campaign to organise the unemployed to fight for massive job creation, linked to demands for increases in social grants, a basic-income grant and the massive extension of training via the TVETs
  • A campaign for the nationalisation of the big construction companies and a massive public works programme to clear the housing backlog with decent houses for all in need.
  • A campaign for free quality education, health and social services for all

These are suggestions. It would be prudent to ensure the platform covers the most critical demands and not be expanded to address every ill in society. Additional demands can be included in the manifesto that must be developed as part of the process of building the party.  The exact campaigns and their details should be finalised in discussion at the June Summit.

Interim Structures & Way Forward

Building the workers party will be a process. The initial structures used to begin that process will almost certainly not resemble the ‘finished product’. It is pointless at this early stage to build elaborate castles in the sky.

The most basic work of assembling the raw working class material to make the new party a success must be the first priority. The basic socialist political programme outlined above should be used as the basis for engagements with other working class organisations that are not yet part of the process with the hope of winning them to participation.

To create momentum and interest for this a launch date for the party should be announced immediately. Workers Day 2022 would be an appropriate date for the launch date. A date would act as countrywide point of reference, end the sense of isolation of individual struggles and provide a sense of unity in struggle around a common purpose.  The intention to contest the 2024 elections should also be declared. At the launch, decisions about the name, logo, manifesto and the further development of the party’s structures and leadership can be taken. Before then, debates should be organised to build the maximum unity on all the key questions and to tease out points of disagreement for example.  

A national steering committee should be elected at the WCS tasked with (1) carrying the process to the launch, (2) organising the necessary debates to prepare for the launch, (3) leading engagement with other working class organisations, and (4) overseeing the launching of campaigns to swell our ranks with the working class.

The WCS workers party process will rely enormously in this first phase (and probably beyond) on Saftu. This is as it should be. In taking this step Saftu has clarified that the independence it wishes to preserve is from the alien class pressures of the capitalist class. Intervening in the building of a workers party through its direct participation in its construction, the development of its programme, and its members and shop stewards occupying positions within and acting as its anchor while remaining organisationally separate from it, is the most effective way of supplementing the role of the federation as the guardian and champion of working class interests in the workplace, on the political plane.

As the 2018 Declaration correctly states “…the working class is decisive in bringing about a radical socialist change, because of their role in the production of wealth”. As the basic organisations of the working class, the trade unions must be the backbone of the new party, and, as the Declaration continues, “…draw behind [the working class], and into the struggle, all the oppressed people.” Saftu and its affiliates must have representation in the steering committee that corresponds to their social weight.

The development of Working Class Summit provincial structures must continue. These should be given the main responsibility for taking the agreed campaigns to the working class, striving to develop themselves into local centres of co-ordination for working class struggle. They should become centres of debate with different ideological tendencies supporting the process given the freedom to publish and distribute their views. There is absolutely no reason why the important and necessary ideological debates that will be a feature of developing the new party should paralyse action. It must be understood that WCS structures will become structures of the new party following the launch.

The working class is yearning for a democratic and unifying party that is capable of campaigning and giving leadership on all the issues that will make a real difference in their lives. It falls to Saftu and the forces assembled around the Working Class Summit to initiate it. Let us more forward in unity!