SAFTU’S SECOND CONGRESS | The Ideological, Organisational and Political Re-Armament of the Working Class Must Begin

by Weizmann Hamilton

The note of optimism and determination of the declaration delegates issued at the end of Saftu’s Second Congress (23-26 May 2022) will be greeted with a sense both of relief and encouragement by Saftu members and the working class as a whole. Its commitment to “stand shoulder to shoulder with the working class in their battles and promote a socialist alternative to the capitalist crisis” will be particularly welcome. It will reinflame the hopes both of Saftu members and the wider working class that the original aims with which the new federation was established in 2017 – to revive the traditions on which the modern working class was built, worker control of the unions, the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society – can now recommence in earnest.

The declaration must be taken as a promise to the wider working class to resume the battle against capitalism abandoned in the first eighteen years of post-apartheid bourgeois democratic illusions that the 2012 mineworkers uprising dealt a serious blow to. Whilst that strike itself was drowned in blood, it was nonetheless victorious, coming close to winning their demand for R12,500. Much more important, however, were the political repercussions of the mineworkers uprising and the Marikana massacre.

The mineworkers had forced back onto the workers movement agenda the question of the political and class independence of the working class. This led to Numsa’s Special National Congress to formally announce a break from the Tripartite Alliance and the placing of the establishment of a workers party on the Congress’s order of business.

This threat to the very foundations of the post-apartheid capitalist dispensation and the political emancipation of the working class from the Tripartite Alliance was the real reason for Numsa’s expulsion from Cosatu. Saftu, whose birth Numsa spearheaded, is in that sense the political offspring of the martyrs of Marikana.

The Congress’s outcome promises at the very least the beginning of the re-establishment of the role Saftu was entrusted with – that of the leadership of the working class in struggle. Provided the lessons of its first five years are properly digested, Saftu may now be poised for the revival of the traditions of workers’ control, workers’ democracy and socialism abandoned by Cosatu. The ideological and political re-armament of the workers movement is now within Saftu’s grasp.


The real political significance of the congress was buried by a media looking for confirmation of the prevailing prejudices against unions of a hostile capitalist class and ignorant middle class chatter that unions have lost their relevance. Overwhelmingly media coverage presented the conflict at the congress as merely a predictable union power struggle between Comrades Jim and Vavi in particular.

Correct as the Saftu declaration is in pointing out that the doomsayers had been defied, it did not draw out the character of the underlying class forces at play and the implications of its outcome. Consequently the survival of the Congress and Saftu as a federation is simplistically presented. It is as if the outcome of the congress was the result of a ‘kumbaya’ consensus amongst delegates who had come to their senses and miraculously found each other. This was no Zoo Lake festival. It was a war in which the very survival of Saftu was at stake.

The Saftu congress was rescued by the courage and determination of the class fighters, the rank-and-file particularly of the militants amongst the Numsa delegates. In open defiance of the dictatorship of the grouping led by their General Secretary, Irvin Jim, which we have characterised as the SACP 2.0, these comrades registered themselves as Numsa-2 and asserted the rights of the genuine voice of the rank-and-file to be heard and felt. It is to the Numsa-2 rank-and-file opposition that Saftu owes the chance to go into battle once again. The members not only of Numsa and Saftu, but the entire working class owe these comrades an enormous debt of gratitude.

It would be difficult to find a comparable reign of Stalinist terror in any union than the one created by the SACP 2.0-grouping in Numsa. Even before the congress the battle lines had already been drawn. On one side was Numsa-2, the rank-and-file custodians of Numsa’s original traditions. On the other was the SACP 2.0 determined to trample these traditions underfoot. In an attempt to ensure a pre-determined outcome for the Saftu congress – a coup against its leadership and the ousting particularly of Comrade Vavi – the SACP 2.0 attempted to cripple regions and locals to strangle their democratic right to elect delegates of their choice.

The composition of the congress delegation, shop steward councils and regional congresses was manipulated by purges. “Troublesome” locals and regions were invaded and collapsed by thugs masquerading as members who were even bailed-out with union funds after being arrested. Shop stewards, chairpersons and secretaries were suspended on trumped up charges and barred from attending the congress. At least one region, Ekurhuleni, was placed under administration – its democratically elected structures suspended by bureaucratic fiat.

The aim?  To produce a herd of either terrified or loyal sycophants – the SACP 2.0-grouping’s voting fodder. The Eastern Cape Region’s chairperson reported on social media that he had uncovered a plot to assassinate him and even a date for his funeral. The Second Deputy-President, Comrade Ruth Ntlokose went into hiding after receiving death threats. At least one shop steward is reported to have been killed following his discharge from hospital after surviving the first assassination attempt.

Despite this the Numsa-2 comrades remained resolute. At the Saftu congress itself they faced further attempts to purge delegates. Administrators were ordered, under threat of victimisation, to write letters to the employer to cancel delegates’ leave. But Numsa-2’s courageous example inspired delegates from other affiliates to join them in saving Saftu from this near-death experience. We salute the Numsa-2 comrades.

Subversion Thwarted

The SACP 2.0-grouping had come to the Saftu congress prepared to collapse it if their attempt to extend the dictatorship they had established over Numsa was not extended to the federation itself. “Did you know that Saftu is Numsa?” one of them had boasted at the manipulated Numsa Hlanganani regional congress weeks before in a widely circulated video clip. Their strategy was to place Comrade Vavi’s head on a tray to intimidate delegates with a US president George Bush-style ‘shock and awe’ strategy at Numsa’s own congress to ensure Comrade Jim’s re-election.

Comrade Jim’s prospects of re-election had been significantly undermined by revelations of eye-watering corruption in the court case over the curatorship of 3Sixty, a subsidiary of Numsa’s Investment Company. This was aggravated by Independent Electoral Commission revelations of donations totalling R2.1m to a number of parties standing in open opposition to the “revolutionary socialism” of the SRWP he is a president of. These include the pro-capitalist ANC and EFF, the unashamedly xenophobic Patriotic Alliance and the political vehicle of the openly corrupt Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ANC, the African Transformation Movement.

The SACP 2.0-grouping fired the first shot – demanding that congress take a vote to overturn the suspensions of the four National Office Bearers (NOBs). These NOBs had attempted to usurp the National Executive Committee’s (NEC) exclusive constitutional authority to suspend NOBs by suspending Comrade Vavi. Neither the disciplinary process against the NOBs, nor the investigations into the allegations of abuse of a credit card against Comrade Vavi ordered by the NEC, had been completed.

Despite the fact that this was clearly a cynically calculated attempt to nullify the suspensions, Congress denied Comrade Jim the opportunity to carry out his threat to withdraw Numsa from the congress, by conceding to a vote. The motion to reinstate the suspended NOBs was defeated; the suspensions now reaffirmed by the federation’s highest decision making body – Congress itself.

Refusing to accept the defeat, Comrade Jim outrageously then demanded that the suspended NOBs be allowed to contest elections for the new leadership. With the SACP 2.0 again threatening to withdraw Numsa, delegates once again conceded to avoid a collapse of congress. Despite the election of some on the SACP 2.0 slate, including the suspended treasurer, the result was a resounding defeat for them.

Had Comrade Jim’s cabal succeeded, Saftu might have averted a death by hanging at the congress. But it would have faced a death by a thousand cuts under the leadership of his faction.

The success of the SACP 2.0-grouping would have succeeded in obliterating all attempts to resuscitate the organisational, ideological and political traditions that Saftu had been entrusted with reviving. Outside congress, the balance of forces between the classes would have swung for the foreseeable future even more towards the capitalist class and their political management in government.            

It is thanks to the Numsa-2 comrades in the main that Saftu has been able to repel a coup against Comrade Vavi, and to prevent the reinstatement of the most prominent of Comrade Jim’s cronies, ousted President Mac Chavalala, and Deputy General-Secretary Moleko Phakedi. Their courage prepared the ground for the counter-offensive against the SACP 2.0-grouping’s assault on the foundations of worker-control, militancy and socialism on which the modern labour movement was originally built in the 1980s, and which Saftu was created to restore. 

The most politically significant of the victories of the Numsa-2-led rebellion was the election of Comrade Ruth Ntlokose as the new Saftu president. She had been elected as Numsa Second Deputy-President at Numsa’s 2016 Congress, against Comrade Jim’s preferred candidate. Since then Comrade Ruth had endured a ceaseless campaign of vilification, marginalisation, attempts to have her suspended and death threats before the Saftu Congress. Not once did she flinch.

She renounced all the perks of office that have enabled other NOBs loyal to the SACP 2.0-grouping to enrich themselves with luxury houses, farms and sedans – enjoying lifestyles that could not be explained even by their extravagant salaries alone. She stood her ground with fearless criticisms of the serious misconduct of Comrade Jim in defence of Numsa’s traditions of worker control. She has taught Comrade Jim and all, especially women workers, the meaning of the slogan “Wathinti’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo” (“You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock”).

Re-Discover Working Class Politics

Whilst we must celebrate the outcome of the Saftu Congress, we need to temper our celebrations with sobriety.  We must be clear that what has been achieved is but the taking of the first step – the establishment of a platform on which the reassembly of the forces of the organised workers in Saftu must be re-built. Saftu must now rearm itself organisationally, ideologically and politically to become the leading formation of the working class both in the workplace and on the political plane.

The Congress met against the background of the deepest economic crisis in the post-apartheid era, an accelerated polarisation between the classes, and unprecedented coordinated attacks on the working class by all wings of the capitalist ruling class – the capitalist ANC government at national, provincial, local and State-Owned Enterprise level, the private sector bosses, determined to make the working class pay for the crisis of their system, and their judicial-wing providing these attacks with constitutional legitimacy.

The depth of the global and South African economic crisis does not, however, alone explain the hardened intransigence and more hostile belligerence of the ruling economic, political and judicial elite. The ruling class has surveyed the strength of the trade union landscape, taken note of the divisions, the rivalries, shifting alliances and the general stagnation of membership across the board. They have noted with satisfaction as well the absence of unity amongst the working class as a whole; the service delivery protest taking placed in isolation from each other and from the rest of the working class and the sporadic student protests underlining their organisational disarray.

What would have given them the greatest confidence, however, is the state in which Saftu itself was at the beginning of the Congress. Just as the birth of Saftu had raised the hopes of the working class five years ago, so it had the fears of the political and economic ruling elite. The capitalist class is gripped by a mortal fear for the future of the capitalist post-apartheid dispensation; the working class is yearning for its end.

As we pointed out in our previous statement (see here), Saftu must urgently address its considerable weaknesses by a brutally frank and honest reappraisal of its serious shortcomings. The spelling-out of some of these in painful but frank detail in the NEC report is to be welcomed.  These include the failure to unite workers in the same sector, the poaching of each other’s members, leaders’ infatuation with grand, secretary general and presidential titles, and the subordination of the workers’ collective interests to the personal ambitions of leaders. All of these have diminished the unions’ capacity to defend workers basic rights, wages and conditions in the workplace.

Union Investment Companies

An absolutely necessary starting point should be union investment funds. The Saftu NEC’s report to congress on this question is unfortunately ambiguous. This suggests that a full grasp of their dire implications continues to elude the leadership despite its impact on the pre-Congress developments and the coalition of forces that attempted to topple Comrade Vavi.

It is to the everlasting shame of the Matusa leadership – whose breakaway from Samwu was amongst others due to rampant corruption – that they entered into a coalition of the corrupt at the Saftu Congress. That the SAPU leadership aligned themselves with the SACP 2.0 is no accident. They still have to explain allegations that they colluded with the SAPS top-ranks to remove their own president in exchange for promotions to senior positions as lieutenants, colonels and brigadiers. An SACP 2.0 victory would have legitimised the looting of members subscriptions through investment companies which amongst others invest not only in sectors they organise but those organised by fellow affiliates.

A victory for the SACP 2.0 would thus have meant the continuation of the process of converting unions effectively into bosses of their own and other unions’ members with a vested interest in raising profits and therefore defending low wages and poor working conditions. In 2012 the NUM’s co-ownership of uBank with the Chamber of Mines with mineworkers as its primary clientele, led to then General Secretary Frans Baleni – himself on an annual income at the time of R1 million a year – publicly repudiating the mineworkers’ demand for R12,500 per month in the months leading up to the Marikana massacre as “excessive”.

Investment companies are the most effective instruments for the subversion of the unions. Through providing the leadership with a ladder to climb out of the social ranks of the members they represent, they enable the outlook of the bourgeoisie to reshape that of the trade union leadership. They become the conscious “labour lieutenants of capital” committed to weakening the trade unions – in a word to become counter-revolutionaries.

Saftu must take a clear and unambiguous position on investment companies. They must be repurposed as strike funds in a war chest for class battles. The bourgeois convention that they operate under a board staffed by paid employees on extravagant salaries at arm’s length from the union must be abolished. They must come under the direct control of the unions as part of the general responsibilities of fincoms accountable to the democratically elected structures of the unions with the same reporting obligations, the same transparency, and the same workers’ oversight as any other structure.

Conflict of Class Interests, Not a Personal Power Struggle

Such an approach would assist in lifting the veil of confusion the media has thrown over what lay at the root of the Saftu crisis. Unfortunately the congress declaration glosses over this merely stating that:

We must be wise enough to acknowledge that we have made mistakes that have paralysed and caused unnecessary divisions. This has not been in the interests of the trade union movement or of the working class as a whole. Despite the negative media coverage shown at the opening of our National Congress, the reality is that we were realigning our perspectives in the face of a brutal capitalist onslaught. All sides in the Federation have acknowledged that it is time to move on and look outwards.

Comrade Vavi’s subsequent peace overtures to Comrade Jim referring to their personal family ties unfortunately reinforces the confusion the media is sowing. The ambitions of individual leaders in the trade unions or on the political plane cannot be explained simply by their personal failings.

It would of course be absurd to suggest that their conduct is explained by any of the corrupt leaders taking their orders directly from Luthuli House or the Brenthurst Foundation. They do, however, in the final analysis, regardless of the different degrees of consciousness of their personal roles and whatever personal ties they may have to the ANC leadership and even the bosses themselves, serve the interests of one or the other of the two main classes in mortal combat for control of society – the working class or the capitalists. The battle for the control of Numsa and Saftu is an expression of the class struggle. It is only in the capitalist class’ interests that the working class should be wracked by division and paralysed. It is only in the working class’ own interests that they be organisationally, ideologically and politically united.

In that sense, the question that Comrade Vavi asked in the lengthy document he wrote to affiliates last year after the SACP 2.0 offensive against him had been re-ignited in earnest, “which class interests do they (the forces around Comrade Jim’s grouping) represent?” is correct. But it is not enough to merely pose the question; it is necessary to answer it.

We welcome the congress declaration’s affirmation of Saftu as a Marxist federation. This means it stands for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. There can be no reconciliation between the two fundamentally contradictory aims of the pro-capitalist SACP 2.0, who require the suppression of workers’ control and trade union democracy as a prerequisite for the unrivalled influence of the aspirant black bourgeoisie over the workers’ movement, and Numsa-2 supported by the Saftu majority, who stand for the defence of these traditions. This is how the matter should be approached – as an indirect expression of conflict between the irreconcilable aspirations of the working class and the capitalists. It is not simply a personal conflict and/or power struggle between individuals. Comrade Vavi should be throwing his and the new leadership’s full support behind the Numsa-2 opposition as they head towards their congress in July.

A personal reconciliation that reduces to a mere conflict of personalities what are in fact the influence of fundamentally different class forces is unprincipled. It confuses both Numsa and Saftu members fresh from a bruising war in which they had successfully defended Saftu from the SACP 2.0 and repelled the plot to oust Comrade Vavi himself. However, to consolidate this victory it is necessary to elevate what can otherwise appear as ‘narrow’ differences over organisational methods and cultures – ‘business unionism’ vs. worker’s control – on to the political plane of which organisational questions are, in the final analysis, a reflection. Saftu’s first five years have also tested the pre-Congress leadership’s, especially Comrade Vavi’s, “independent [from political parties] but not apolitical” policy. Implicit in this was scepticism over whether it was in fact necessary for the working class to have its own party, or, put another way, a suggestion that trade union organisation alone was sufficient to safeguard the political independence of the working class. This is the dead-end of syndicalism that is in fact not a new phenomenon in the history of the working class movement internationally. The federation’s ‘near death experience’ under the blows of the aspirant black bourgeoisie has again proved this policy as inadequate.

Saftu’s ‘near death experience’ and the degeneration of sections of its’s and it’s affiliates’ leaderships is also a warning. The hostile class pressures acting on the federation have not ended with the set-backs for the SACP 2.0 grouping. Ultimately, the only defence against the influence of hostile class forces on the workers’ movement is an explicitly working class political agenda. This requires a programme that can only be based on the ideas of socialism and Marxism. The Numsa-2 opposition should organise itself as a conscious Marxist tendency to arm itself to resist the pressure that led to the bureaucratisation and degeneration of the SACP 2.0-grouping. But this programme requires an explicitly political vehicle too which can only take the form of a workers party. It is urgent that what is implicit in the rank-and-file rebellion of Numsa-2 and the Saftu majority in defence of workers’ control and trade union democracy is made explicit in the conscious struggle for a red-blooded socialist and Marxist programme and the creation of a workers party.

The Saftu congress battle moreover, was but the first. The SACP 2.0-grouping’s next target is the Numsa congress itself. Its outcome will be critical for the working class.  A split in Saftu’s largest affiliate and one of the country’s and the African continent’s biggest unions, cannot be excluded. That is what is inherent in the logic of the disastrous actions the SACP 2.0-grouping. The Numsa-2 rank-and-file opposition is entitled to expect the full support of the new Saftu leadership and the Congress as a whole to prevent this and to defend what Numsa historically stands for. It is on this foundation that Saftu must built.

The Significance of Numsa-2

If the Numsa-2 comrades and the Saftu majority embrace the struggle for the ideological and political rearming of the workers’ movement it could potentially re-tie the knot of history with the traditions of the guiding layers of the working class of the 1970s and 1980s for whom the struggle for national liberation was inseparably bound up with the struggle against capitalism and the establishment of a socialist SA. The most far-reaching political conclusions of this layer had to be suppressed to cut across the incipient socialist revolution in the 1980s. Apartheid had become unsustainable economically for the capitalist class. Its escalation of repression had proven not just impotent but a provocation towards a mass armed insurrection. Apartheid had to be dismantled institutionally to save capitalism and provide it with democratic legitimacy.

To the extent that Comrade Jim’s repugnant conduct is fuelled by his personal ambitions, it coincides with the interests of the capitalist class for alternative points of social and political support and the dividing and weakening of the working class through, for example, sponsoring reactionary xenophobic formations like ActionSA. The capitalist class’s political party representatives in parliament are in various states of crisis reflected in falling electoral support of especially their main instrument – the ANC. Although aimed primarily at the ANC, the electoral stay-away that has lost it the electoral support of millions, has not benefitted the main opposition DA and EFF. This confirms a growing alienation of the masses from the post-apartheid bourgeois democratic political dispensation.

The conduct of the SACP 2.0 is but the toxic effluent of the ideological and political degeneration of sections not just of the Numsa leadership, but of Cosatu – patient zero of the union corruption epidemic. This process goes back decades and has its roots in the political capture by the ANC, brought into the Tripartite Alliance political prison by its ideological sheriff, the SACP. In essence the process entailed turning the Cosatu leadership against the socialist outlook of its members and reconciling it to a post-apartheid capitalist order.

Numsa’s traditions of worker democracy, worker control and socialism were forged in the furnace of the struggle against the capitalist class on the shop floor and the struggle for national liberation on the political plane under apartheid. Mawu was born out of the historic Durban strikes in 1973.  The 1973 strikes marked the beginning of the working class’s entry into and leadership of the broader working class struggle against apartheid and capitalism.

Metal workers played a leading role in shaping the ideological and political course of the working class struggle at each critical point over nearly half a century. Mawu played a leading role in the formation of the Federation of SA Trade Unions (Fosatu) in 1979. In the insurrectionary 1984-86 period that shook the apartheid regime, Mawu led the historic September 1984 Transvaal general strike uniting youth and communities under the leadership of the organised working class in one of the most significant political milestones on the road to working class unity. This fired the momentum for the defiance of the 1985 and 1986 States of Emergency and Cosatu’s birth in between.

The understanding that the struggle against apartheid and capitalism were inextricably bound up with each other was expressed in then-Mawu General Secretary Moses Mayekiso’s statement at Cosatu’s founding congress that the struggle was for a socialist South Africa. This reflected the predominant outlook of the leading layers of the working class at the time. It was reaffirmed in the words of the 1987 Cosatu congress banner “socialism means freedom”.

It is no accident that Numsa was the first to recognise the betrayal the ANC was spearheading under the SACP’s bankrupt Stalinist two-stage ideological (mis)direction and moved a resolution at the 1993 Cosatu congress for the formation of a workers party to fight for socialism. Though defeated, Numsa was again at the forefront of attempting to reclaim the working class’ ideological and political independence twenty-two years later.

After the Marikana massacre had laid bare the ANC’s capitalist class-character in the blood of the martyrs of the Marikana massacre, the Numsa members pressured its leadership to call the 2013 Special National Congress to emancipate itself from the Tripartite Alliance, break with the SACP and put the formation of a workers party back onto the agenda.

By 2013, however, the political and ideological degeneration of the current leadership had undergone a qualitative transformation resulting in conscious support for the capitalist class and its political representatives. It was first publicly demonstrated in the workplace by its betrayal, in collusion with ANC President Mbeki, of the Uitenhage auto workers. This was followed on the political plane by its campaign for Zuma as ANC president. But, like an elastic band that has been stretched too far and snaps back into place, the shockwaves that rippled through the workers movement in the wake of Marikana, finding expression throughout the trade unions, and especially in Numsa, forced the Jim-leadership onto a different track than they would otherwise have chosen. They had to adopt more complex manoeuvres to simultaneously appease the rank-and-file upon whom they ultimately depended without fatally jeopardising their own narrow class aspirations. That the class-captured current leadership placed itself into direct political opposition to its own membership was inevitable.

Its conduct, outlined above, followed logically. It undermined the Political and Ideological Commission, the Saftu Founding Congress had established to explore the creation of a workers party, and attempted to collapse the 2018 Working Class Summit it had convened. Unbeknown to genuine SRWP members, it was formed not as a road towards a workers party but as a roadblock to obstruct the building a mass workers party. The present leadership had become committed to the SACP’s first stage of the National Democratic Revolution – the programme for the development of a black capitalist class – and therefore the indefinite postponement of the second socialist stage, ensuring the continued social and political subjugation of the working class under capitalism.

The rebellion of the rank-and-file against this Stalinist dictatorship is therefore an attempt to retie the knot of history between the present generation and their predecessors of 1993. What is at stake is not only Numsa’s fate but that of Saftu.

The ordinary SRWP members have begun to recognise that this party was not launched to achieve socialism but to prevent it. This is why the withdrawal of the benefit of the doubt its leaders have enjoyed has turned from a trickle into a flood with open criticism voiced at Saftu’s May Day event.

Comrade Jim’s failed attempt to force the SRWP onto Saftu was calculated to disguise the reality that, having failed to attract the voluntary support of a genuine revolutionary party and being humiliated in the 2019 general elections, he was now aiming to secure a base of support through the involuntary drafting of Saftu members into it.

In the final analysis it would have achieved no more than providing capital with a service previously provided by the SACP. No longer able to depend on the SACP to play the role of providing the ANC with the ideological “communist” dignification of its capitalist policies in a discredited Tripartite Alliance, capitalism was now being offered a new political cover. It was to be politically clothed in new “revolutionary socialist” costumes provided by the SACP 2.0 dressmakers that bureaucratically dominates the SRWP leadership itself. The SACP 2.0 have cast themselves in the role of the new post-Marikana class collaborators and political strike-breakers.

The logic of where this leads to is shown in the trajectory of the SACP itself and its political prisoner Cosatu. The full extent of its degeneration was captured by the then-SACP Deputy General Secretary, Jeremy Cronin’s denunciation of the mineworkers strike as led by a “Pondoland vigilante mafia”. The Cosatu leadership’s failed attempt to bus in Cosatu members to “reclaim Rustenburg from the hands of counter-revolutionaries” showed it was prepared to trigger worker-on-worker bloodshed.

Further evidence of the connection between these practices amongst trade union leaders and their reactionary role in the workers struggle is illustrated by the trajectory of the Cosatu leadership. It was to go on after the Marikana massacre to switch their support from Zuma, under whose watch the massacre took place, to Ramaphosa who had created the climate for the massacre by his denunciation of the mineworkers’ strike as a “criminal act that must dealt with concomitantly”. Going even further, the Cosatu leadership supported Ramaphosa’s reactionary LRA amendments aimed at crippling the right to strike, emasculate picketing and to end strikes deemed “damaging to the economy”, “too violent” etc.

It is the Marikana massacre that created the conditions for the resuscitation of the idea of a workers party that now is on the agenda of the workers movement – specifically Saftu’s. The Numsa members’ attempt to answer the call of the mineworkers was unfortunately obstructed by the SACP 2.0 led by Comrade Jim. They ensured that the 2013 Special National Congress, called for by the members to create a workers party, was prevented from doing so.

Although the Cosatu leadership expelled Numsa for denouncing the Marikana massacre and withdrawing its support for the ANC and breaking with the SACP, the Numsa leadership had already been infected by the ideological degeneration of the Cosatu leadership as a whole. This degeneration engulfed the section of the leadership that had gained ascendancy in Numsa. The self-enrichment opened new possibilities for their elevation into the capitalist class. To shield them from accountability and self-enrichment, the establishment of a corrupt authoritarian regime became a necessity.

This is the sociological basis for the inversion of their ideological views from anti-capitalist to pro-capitalist. It is the reason that the Numsa leadership denounced the 2018 WCS declaration to create a mass workers party on a socialist programme. It explains its engagement in political strike breaking by launching the SRWP in defiance of the 2018 WCS Declaration, behind the backs of both the Numsa and Saftu members five months after the summit.

Under the guise of the radical-sounding phraseology of the National Democratic Revolution, the bankrupt Stalinist two-stage theory they stand for has led to catastrophic defeats in China 1925-27, Spain 1936-39, Indonesia in 1965 and Chile 1973 amongst others. Like the SACP, their position is for the indefinite postponement of the second, socialist stage, i.e. for capitalism to be perpetuated. Unlike the SACP original, for its imitation, the SACP 2.0, the colour of capital matters. They stand for the development of a black capitalist class to displace “white monopoly capital” at the summits of the economy as the working class’s new slave masters.

But RETism is not the only hostile class force exerting its pressure on Saftu. In fact, the pressure of the aspirant black bourgeoisie is far weaker than that of the dominant-wing of the capitalist class – politically organised in the Ramaphosa-wing of the ANC, the DA etc. – which stands for the preservation of the post-apartheid political and economic dispensation as it was negotiated in the early 1990s.  This pressure is reflected far more in the Saftu head office which has often offered itself as no more than a press office with regular denunciations of the bosses and the ANC government over this or that policy or action stemming from its neo-liberal capitalist programme without offering a clear socialist alternative.

Such alternatives as are offered are the regurgitations of ideologically demoralised left academics and NGOs all fighting separate single issue causes who have lost confidence in socialism and even the working class. They propagate the illusion that a better capitalism is possible. From Saftu head office have come appeals to the government for e.g. stimulus packages, lower interest rates, and even, astonishingly, to follow the example of the IMF – the prime enforcer of global neo-liberalism and arch enemy of the working class especially in the neo-colonial world.

These policies were in any case originally introduced to bail out the banks, stimulate investment in the real economy and, most importantly, to quell working class revolt. Led by the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England a number of the more powerful central banks in the advanced capitalist countries are now recoiling from them. The reason is that they have not only failed in their economic objectives but have created new problems for capitalism: unprecedented levels of household, government and corporate debt. Today the world economy is heading towards stagflation – a combination of economic stagnation, inflation – as well as recession.

Despite this renewed sharpening of the capitalist crisis, rarely are there calls for nationalisation under workers control from Saftu head office. There also hardly any attempts to use the multifaceted crises of capitalism to put the case for the abolition of capitalism and the socialist transformation off society.

The logic of such a socialist programme would require simultaneously stepping-up workplace resistance and a union recruitment campaign as well as taking urgent steps towards the creation of a workers party. The idea implicit in the political outlook of advisors to the pre-Congress Saftu leadership is that the capitalist class will succumb to reason, to impassioned appeals to their humanity, and the force of reasoned argument, is naïve to say the least. Capitalism will only be defeated by the argument of force – the organised power of the working class united in the workplace and on the political plane.

The class struggle is political. That the social, economic and political struggle are inextricably bound up with each other was the mother’s milk of the founders of the modern labour movement in the 1970s and 1980s. This is today still better understood by workers than the leadership constantly attempting to build Chinese walls between the two. The clarity on the political and ideological questions has a direct impact on the methods and therefore the capacity of fighting in the workplace.      

The members of other federations, especially of Cosatu from which Saftu had broken away over its class collaborationist betrayals, are seething with discontent towards and even hatred of their leaders. But given what they have observed – Saftu resembling a cat standing over a saucer of steaming with the hot milk of a workers party – they have elected to stay with the devil they know.

Instead of a mass exodus such as that from the NUM during the 2012 mineworkers uprising after the Marikana massacre, only a minority has come over in small numbers to Saftu. With gritted teeth and bitter frustration the majority remains trapped in the Tripartite Alliance class collaborationist prison.

Whilst the Cosatu workers in particular have rebelled against their leaders by withdrawing support from the party they recognise as that of the class enemy, the ANC, and thereby marching in step with their Saftu comrades on the political plane, they have remained apart from them in the workplace.  Workers do not easily abandon the class organisations they have built over decades. It takes great events, and even then, a clear fighting alternative, before they will rebel against the degradation of the organs of struggle their unions originally were, into instruments for the enrichment of a corrupt, incompetent, ideologically and politically bankrupt leadership.

Politically Saftu has failed to follow the logic of its break not just from Cosatu but from the Tripartite Alliance as a whole. Saftu has disappointed workers looking towards it from outside not only in the workplace but on the political plane.

Step onto the Political Plane

At the same time Saftu has failed to fulfil workers’ political expectations by leading the formation of mass political socialist alternative to a paralysed ANC whose support has now collapsed so steeply that it may not be able to form a government on its own in 2024. This has left workers politically disoriented, registering their rejection of the capitalist political establishment through a mass stay away from the polls.

This has achieved the widespread desire to weaken the ANC and its main capitalist opposition, which includes both the DA and the EFF. But it will not threaten the rule of the capitalist class nor bring the socialism Saftu stands for any closer. Instead the capitalist class’s interests will be protected through a pro-capitalist coalition despite all the risks of instability. Socialism will not replace capitalism the way winter gives way to summer. It has to be fought for by the working class. For that it needs a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

Saftu took a potentially historic step forward when it convened the Working Class Summit in 2018. Over a thousand delegates representing 147 community, youth and trade union formations adopted a declaration to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme. Following a period of paralysis to which the SACP 2.0-grouping in Numsa was central, the WCS is to be reconvened.

The absence of Saftu affiliates from the WCS process resulting from the paralysis of the SACP 2.0’s conscious attempt to undermine it. This grouping is attempting to steer Saftu away from the possibility a workers party emerging out the WCS process over which it would have no control. This has resulted in the Steering Committee being dominated by NGOs and left academics providing the reference point for the reformist positions expressed in Saftu head office statements. The Steering Committee should be acting as a centripetal pole of attraction for the unification of all struggles in all sectors of the working class behind the organised working class. Instead it has become a centrifugal umbrella legitimising the separate existence of a proliferation of single-issue causes led by mainly small middle class groups of individuals self-described as “movements”.  The new Saftu NOBs must reassert the authority of the organised working class in Saftu which initiated the WCS process.

Unfortunately the Saftu congress declaration makes no reference to it despite a provisional date for it having been set. Instead it makes a commitment to convening a Socialist Conference, with no timeframes and most important off no clear purpose.

Unless the Socialist Conference is being mistaken for the WCS, it would mean that Saftu will lead us down the same dead-end as the SACP 2.0-grouping which ahead of the Numsa 2013 SNC created the United Front and the Movement for Socialism. As we asked at the time, who would be members of the either of these that would not at the same time also be members of the workers party the Numsa 2013 SNC was expected to announce? The same question can be asked of the proposed Socialist Conference.

The vacillation over the workers party that has unfortunately marked the position, particularly of Comrade Vavi, cannot continue. This manifested itself in statement denouncing capitalism on the one hand and calling upon the government to address the economic crisis through the very measures developed by the central banks and the IMF, whose example, astonishingly, one statement from head office called upon the government to follow.

Comrade Vavi attended the provincial Working Class Summit in the North West on 5 June 2021, only to announce on television that the WCS had no intention of launching a workers party. This is what Marxists describe as centrism – the swinging in different directions between the conflicting pressures of the working class and the capitalists. A choice has to be made between sowing illusions in capitalism and condemning it. This vacillation causes confusion, disorients the working class, and disarms it ideologically and politically.

The first order of business for Saftu in the class struggle in the workplace is a public sector general strike. The retreat government has announced on wages still amounts to a cut in real terms. To save its system, it has no alternative and thus no intention of deviating from the savage cuts in social spending plunging the working class broadly into even deeper poverty. Working class communities must be united behind the public sector workers against their common enemy.  With further hikes in fuel, electricity, administrative and food prices looming, a public sector general strike must be used as a platform to build towards the 3-day general strike Saftu has announced.

The reconvened WCS will be meeting precisely as a socialist conference. But it should be more than a debating convention. It must set a date for the launch a mass workers party on a socialist programme. By then the ideological and political rearmament should have clarified the following:

  • The political processes that had given rise to the need for Saftu as a new federation, including: a recognition that the post-apartheid political and economic dispensation has begun to unravel; that global capitalism is at an impasse and going through the convulsions of its death throes
  • That a better capitalism is not possible; that capitalism will not collapse on its own but must be overthrown; that Saftu must reassert uncompromisingly its commitment to the socialist transformation of society
  • That Saftu must therefore play a leading role as much in workplace as it does on the political plane
  • That the only type of political party that Saftu can hold accountable is party that it has itself played a leading role in creating, that is a workers party built by its members and the working class broadly on a programme representing the interests of the working class as a whole
  • That such a party must as a bare minimum be based on:
    • the principle of the elections of all officials subject to the right of immediate recall
    • a workers representative on a workers wage
    • the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers control and management
    • free healthcare
    • free education
  • That the above should form the starting point for a democratic debate for the development of full workers manifesto for socialism

A public sector general strike to mobilise for a 3-day national general strike would serve as an effective form of action to bring together in action organised workers, working class communities in solidarity and united struggle against their common enemy: the neo-liberal capitalist ANC government cutting wages and social services to serve the interests of the bosses.

The preparatory committees, democratically elected and accountable, must be retained as pre-party formations for any other action that may be necessary. They will a ensure that the leadership of the workers party be composed of leaders democratically elected by members of the different structures.

Setting the date for the launch on May Day, 2023, will provide time for the structures to be built, for the preparations for the launch itself to act as a common unifying point of reference for struggles in the workplace, in communities in education institutions and on the political plane.

The ideological and political re-armament of the workers movement is now within Saftu’s grasp. Rearmed, Saftu can act as a catalyst to set into motion the process of the extension of the reach of the working class towards the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

“A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s Heaven for?” (Robert Browning)