SAFTU’S SECOND CONGRESS | Time for a Counter-Offensive Against Bosses and Government

Saftu’s second congress is taking place at a time of the sharpest escalation of the struggle between the classes in the post-apartheid era. Over the nearly three decades since the defeat of apartheid and installation of the ANC in office, the dreams, hopes and aspirations of the working class lie shattered. The ANC government was voted into government to reverse inequalities, reduce mass unemployment and eradicate poverty. It has done the opposite. It has presided over a jaw-dropping redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich and the plundering of the country by domestic and international capital, earning SA a classification as the world’s most unequal society.

Superimposed on the crisis resulting from the looting of the country by the established capitalist class is the criminality of the forces the bitterly frustrated black capitalist class – the Radical Economic Transformation forces in and outside the ANC – raging at their impotence at dislodging “white monopoly capital” from the summits of the economy. There are now regular debates over whether SA is headed towards becoming a failed state as infrastructure, hospitals, schools and the even the weather service stagger from cuts.

World Economy Heads Towards New Crisis

SA’s economic prospects are worsened by a world economic crisis that has persisted for fourteen years since the 2008 global financial crisis. Having failed to recover from both the 2008 financial crisis as well as the Covid19 pandemic, it is showing signs of heading towards a new global recession as the headlines in the world’s major newspapers indicate.

Despite their fears of a social revolt, the capitalist class globally is now committed to unwinding Quantitative Easing – the stimulus packages, and ultra-low interest rates — used to avert a crash in 2008 and under the Covid19 pandemic. QE has not only failed to stimulate investment but has created unprecedented levels of corporate, government and household debt that threaten a new global economic shock.

Because QE entailed printing money unrelated to increases in the production of goods, it has proven to be a high octane fuel igniting the fires of inflation. US inflation for example, has reached its highest level in forty years, at the same time as prices have been pushed up by global supply chain snarl ups, as well as food and fuel shortages resulting from the war on Ukraine.  The world economy is heading for stagflation – inflation combined with stagnation as well as a catastrophic Ukraine war-driven increase in food prices, hunger and starvation, especially in the neo-colonial world.

As they recoil from QE, central banks across the world are focussing particularly on “wage inflation”, ie attempts by the working class, trying to recover from the disasters of the last fourteen years of capitalist economic crisis by taking action for increased wages. They are raising interest rates hoping to find the “right level” to avoid inducing a recession. The “right level” is one that reduces demand, ie takes money out of workers’ pockets, nullifying wage increases. The remedy the central bank economic doctors are prescribing to patients suffering from shortness of breath is to tighten the grip of their hands around their neck, choking them.

SA’s Economic Prospects

For the neo-colonial world this poses the threat of an upward re-evaluation of foreign debt, the threat of default, and a “flight to quality” as investors flee to the “safe haven” of a stronger US$. SA’s Reserve Bank has not even waited for direct orders from Washington. The latest increase in interest rates of 0.5% is the highest in six years. SARB Governor Lesetja Kganyago, a recent winner of the Central Banker of the Year award, has promised more in the new upward cycle.  

Despite the lower interest rates of the past few years, the share of annual income households spent on debt servicing has remained stubbornly at around 70%. We will now be forced to choose between buying food and paying for transport, and debt servicing. The increased costs of mortgage, car, furniture repossessions and personal loans will lead to defaults. Higher transport, food and energy costs will combine with the impact on food and oil price rises resulting from the war in Ukraine and the government’s reinstatement of the fuel levy it had temporarily suspended.

Even before these increases come into effect, the cost of an average basket of basic foods has risen to R4 500 a month – nearly three times Ramaphosa’s minimum wage and 12 times the insulting R350 social relief of distress grant which millions of eligible people are not receiving anyway.

As interest rates head towards what some economists predict could be 6.3% by next year, the burden on the shoulders of the working class will become even heavier. The numbers of the 19m of the credit impaired (in arrears by tween 1 and 3 months) will swell significantly.

ConCourt Judgement on Public Sector Wages – A Declaration of Class War

It is against this background that the ConCourt judgement on the public sector wages must be understood. In an unprecedented development, the courts have now joined the capitalist class and the ANC government in this offensive against the working class. The Concourt’s judgement written in belligerent language dripping with anti-working class antagonism, had dealt a crippling blow to the credibility, even the legitimacy of public sector collective bargaining, setting a dangerous precedent.

It will inspire the bosses in the private sector to harden their stand already encouraged by other anti-union High Court judgements. If the economy can be used to justify cuts in the public sector, why not the private sector? The constitution already qualifies socio-economic rights by making their realisation “subject to available resources”.

It amounts to a declaration that there is no constitutional right to a decent standard of living and that freedom under capitalism does not include freedom from poverty. As Tito Mboweni said in responding to the question why he cut social grants in his last budget, “There is no contract that says the government is obliged to increase grants.” It confirms what Lenin pointed out: that under capitalism democracy is for the rich.

This explains the arrogance of the bosses in Clover and the mining industry. Confident that they have the backing of the ANC government, Sibanye has dug in its heels and rejected the mineworkers demand for a R1000 a month increase even as they award CEO Neil Froneman a R300m increase. This amounts to R25m a month and nearly R1m a day! It explains the government’s own arrogance in the public sector wage negotiations which they are bothering to participate in only to get the union leaders, who capitulated last year, to rubberstamp yet another predetermined attack. Weakness invites aggression.

Given these perspectives, the necessity for unity in struggle has never been greater. A counter-offensive against this onslaught is absolutely imperative. The weaponry of the class enemy in government, state-owned enterprises and the private sector is trained on both organised workers’ wages and conditions, but also on the wider working class through savage social spending cuts.

In preparation for the battle to enforce these attacks, the government is now closing loopholes in the LRA amendments Ramaphosa came to office armed with. Having denounced the mineworkers’ 2012 uprising as a “criminal act that must be dealt with concomitantly” and creating the climate for the Marikana massacre, he is now determined to cripple the right to strike through compulsory secret balloting, rendering picketing powerless through draconian restrictions, and even to give his government the power to unilaterally call off a strike they regard it as “damaging to the economy”.

Begin the Counter-Offensive with a Public Sector General Strike

The MWP warned in 2020 that the public sector wage struggle will not be settled in the courts but in the streets. Whilst there was nothing wrong in principle in taking the legal route, it was supposed to be no more than a tactic, subordinate to mass action, to win the hearts and minds of the working and middle class public. The courts have, however, now made it clear where they stand.

The government’s “take it or leave it” arrogance derives from the fact that, emboldened by last year’s abject surrender, they are confident they have the Cosatu and Fedusa union leaders in their pockets; the former as voluntary inmates in the class collaborationist political prison of the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance, the latter supposedly “independent.” There is no need to await the outcome of the negotiations. From the standpoint of the government the outcome is already predetermined. The unions must abandon negotiations and mobilise for a public sector general strike now.

Saftu must appeal to the wider working class reeling from the non-payment of wages for example to Denel workers, the violation of collective agreements in local government and the savage social spending cuts for join action against our common enemy – the capitalist ANC government.

A public sector strike on its own is not likely to be enough to change the balance of class forces back in favour of the working class. The government is determined to achieve a “primary budget surplus” by 2023/4. This requires even more savage cuts in public spending in which the public sector wage bill continues to sit in the bull’s eye position of its targets. At the same time it is speeding up privatisation. Following the rejection of a banking license to enable the Post Office to operate as state-owned bank, approval of handing electricity supply over to private sector profiteers and the sale of SAA, Transnet is now being opened up for the private sector.

At the same time, the mining bosses are demonstrating their own determination to face off the mineworkers by taking the losses in profits as production stands still even if the losses exceed the cost of the increases the workers are demanding. The bourgeoisie, as Trotsky pointed out, is the most class conscious of the classes in society. Together with the government, and the judiciary, they want to break the power of the unions.     

The workers must more than match them in what must be approached as preparations for a class war. Showing their determination, the mineworkers are themselves already prepared to take the losses from the bosses’ “no work no pay” rule. A public sector strike must therefore be used as a dress rehearsal for a national general strike. The mood amongst the working class is there. The role of the public sector workers in putting Ramaphosa to flight from the May Day rally in Rustenburg is an indication of the preparedness of workers to unite in action in the private and public sector.

Preparation for a public sector general strike followed by a national general strike would provide the appropriate climate for the resolution of the crisis. It would enable the federation to focus its energies on the class struggle, for unity in action. This would enable Saftu to claim the right to lead the working class like the early Cosatu before its SACP-orchestrated capture by the capitalist ANC.

Today the Cosatu leadership has been converted into what Trotsky described as the lieutenants of capital in the labour movement. They have supported Ramaphosa’s LRA amendment on the right to strike, accepted the attacks on the public sector workers. They have become so detached from, and insolent towards, their members that that they invited Ramaphosa to address a May Day rally at the scene of his greatest crime, his hands dripping with the blood of the martyrs of Marikana.

Saftu Needs a Socialist Renewal

But a resolution of the crisis would be by no means automatic. A brutally frank re-evaluation of the no-longer-so-new federation is imperative. A number of Saftu affiliates have continued the same practices that were rife in Cosatu. These practices include the establishment of union investment funds, self-enrichment of leaders, corrupt sweetheart relationships with management and the suppression of internal democracy. The competition between unions in the same sector result from remuneration policies for officials who see themselves as CEOs that enable them to live lifestyles far above the members they represent, complete with luxury vehicles and fancy properties.

This congress must commit itself to:

  • The reestablishment of workers control and democracy within all affiliates
  • The election of all officials subject to the right of immediate recall
  • A worker’s representative on a workers wage – no officials to earn an income higher than that of the average income of a skilled workers within the sector
  • Abolish trade union investment funds – turn investments into savings for strike and solidarity funds
  • The active involvement of all members and shop stewards in working class community struggles
  • The stepping up of the programme of building locals linking workers across all sectors, government, state-owned enterprises and the private sector and communities

Saftu’s crisis is not, however, the result of the moral failings of individual leaders. In the final analysis Saftu’s crisis is rooted in the ideological degeneration that infected a number of Saftu affiliates themselves before they broke from Cosatu.

The worst example is the faction dominating the Numsa leadership. The MWP has set out its analysis of the degeneration of this Numsa faction in previous statements. The whole of Saftu must back the rank-and-file rebellion now underway in Numsa.

As mass action is prepared there must at the same time be a process of ideological clarification and renewal. Saftu was formed out of the yearning by workers for a return to the socialist ideas championed by the leading layers of the working class and youth in the 1980s. The 2012 mineworkers uprising was in reality driven by workers to resuscitate those ideas, and to reclaim the proletariat’s class independence. That same message is the one that came from Rustenburg on May Day.

The failure to understand this has contributed towards the crisis in Saftu today. The leadership has unfortunately succumbed to the ideological triumphalism of the global capitalist class following the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union. Some of the statements emanating from Saftu head office makes for bewildering reading. There have been calls for a stimulus package, lower interest rates and, astonishingly, for the government to follow the example of the IMF! This an outlook reflecting illusions that a better capitalism is possible. It is called reformism. It is break with socialism.

Saftu therefore finds itself torn between competing varieties of reformism. The one represented by the SACP 2.0 grouping aligned to the ANC’s RET faction dominating Numsa who want capitalism with a black face; the other hoping for capitalism to be given a social-democratic heart transplant.

A national general strike must therefore not be limited to the wage demands. It must be approached as a political mobilisation to remove this government from office by the 2024 elections and to abolish this rotten capitalist system. This will require the creation of a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

Saftu’s founding congress committed itself to the clearing the way to the formation of a workers party. The Political and Ideological Committee convened a Working Class Summit in 2018 which adopted a declaration for the establishment of a mass workers party on a socialist programme. This was subsequently endorsed by the Central Committee.

Four years later, after a wholly unacceptable delay in its implementation, the WCS is set to reconvene. This represents an enormous and potentially historic step forward. The reconvened WCS must set a date for the launch of the workers party; we propose May 2023.

The capitalist class’ post-apartheid bourgeois democratic dispensation is in political disarray. Its main party, the ANC, is torn apart by ad debilitating factional civil war. The capitalist class is acutely conscious of the danger and are preparing a Plan B – a pro-capitalist coalition government made up of the ANC, the DA and ActionSA. The EFF leadership would be quite prepared to be part of such a coalition in exchange for a cabinet position.

A mass workers party would be able to fill the vacuum on the left and combat the xenophobia fomented by Operation Dudula, ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance. Capitalists are pouring money particularly into ActionSA headed by the right wing neo-liberal former head of the Free Market Foundation, Herman Mashaba. The divisions in the working class caused by xenophobia serves capitalist interests.

A date set in advance for the launch of the workers party would send a signal to the wider working class that Saftu is serious. It would act as a countrywide point of reference for the unification of all strugglers in communities, education institutions and the workplace. A public sector general strike, followed by a national general strike would provide the perfect platform for the preparation for the launch of a mass workers party on a socialist programme.