REVIEW: AUGUST 24 SHUTDOWN | Enormous Potential to Build a United Mass Movement Against the ANC Government and Capitalism Must be Seized

Cosatu Members Approach Union Buildings.

The growing demand for working class unity took a step forward on the August 24 National Shutdown. The merger of the Cosatu and Saftu rallies on the lawns of the Union Buildings was a powerful statement of class solidarity and one of the most welcome sights since the 2015 split in the workers’ movement. Relenting to the mood on the day, the Cosatu leadership was forced to welcome the thousand-plus Saftu members, who moved as one, to stand side-by-side with their Cosatu brothers and sisters. Cosatu members’ rapturous welcome of Comrade Vavi to the stage was a signal of solidarity with Saftu. Throughout the day “working class unity” was the one rallying call guaranteed to receive thunderous applause and deafening cheers.

Whilst the numbers marching nationwide were modest overall, they matched, or came close to matching, Saftu’s 25 April 2018 Shutdown which was widely regarded as a success. The largest march in Tshwane was attended by at least 5,000. Protests were also more widespread than in 2018, taking place in up to eleven different cities simultaneously. The number of community and youth organisations that took part in marches, even if mostly limited to a layer of activists, gave a decisive reminder that it is the working class which has the organisation and cohesion necessary to place itself at the head of the masses in struggle.

In the period before the National Shutdown workers from unions in different federations had already begun to lay the groundwork for unity. In the recent Sibanye and Eskom strikes for example, workers pushed through bureaucratic obstacles to impose unity between ‘rival’ trade unions. August 24 confirmed that this reflected a widespread mood. Workers know that unity is crucial for successful struggle. By insisting on it the class is straining to prepare itself to fight back against the attacks raining down on it. More clearly than their leaders, workers can see the massive struggles that lie ahead and want to enter battle prepared.

Many workers would have looked towards the National Shutdown with hope and the expectation that what they were building in individual workplaces would begin to be built on a national scale. The capitalist class on the other hand viewed it with contempt, but also with dread. Their confidence in the trade union leaderships, particularly of Cosatu, that they would continue to hold back the working class and diffuse its’ anger, was to be tested. It is by the criteria of the different classes’ expectations that the impact of National Shutdown must be evaluated. It may be true that the economy was not “shutdown” and that the numbers marching were modest. This has been harped on by the bourgeois media. But for the workers’ movement to draw pessimistic conclusions would be a fatal misreading of August 24.

There has been no shortage of strikes as workers respond to the cost of living crisis by taking action on pay. The trade union movement demonstrates almost daily its deep organisational roots and that for the working class it remains the first line of defence. This year alone workers have downed-tools in mining, metal, manufacturing, on farms and in the public sector. The day after the Shutdown over 500 workers at RCL Foods began a strike over pay. A strike certificate has been issued at Transnet. Wage-talks at Sibanye’s platinum-division have opened under the threat of strikes. A sector-wide security guards’ strike is possible and the entire public sector continues to hover on the threshold of action. Based on this alone, August 24 had the potential to be one of the biggest political protests against the ANC government since it came to office.

But for workers to have been willing to weave the readily-available material of the months-old strike wave and the numerous ongoing disputes into a single general strike they wanted reassurance that their leaders were approaching August 24 seriously. Above all else this would have meant unity in preparations for the Shutdown within and across federations and a clear signal that it would be used as a first-step to rally the forces of the working class for a sustained campaign. But the trade union leaders failed to give this reassurance. In the absence of this, August 24 was always going to be limited to a day of action and not a “Shutdown” or general strike. The serious shortcomings of the trade union leadership as a whole must be faced squarely in the face. The shop stewards and activists across both federations who consider themselves Marxists should feel duty-bound to conduct an honest assessment.

Wrong Signals

In the weeks leading-up to the Shutdown we campaigned for workers to demand that their leaders make it the first-step in a campaign of rolling mass action. For this it was crucial to answer the question “what next?” by outlining what action would come after 24 August even before the Shutdown took place. We proposed naming a day in September for a further one- or two-day Shutdown linked to a call for mass marches in all major cities. After the failure of the Saftu leadership to follow-through on the success of the 25 April 2018 ‘general strike’, and Cosatu and Saftu’s shared failures of the 7 October 2020 and 24 February 2021 ‘general strikes’, not to mention the refusal of the majority of public sector trade union leaders, especially in Cosatu, to lead a struggle on pay over the past two years, despite repeatedly threatening it, workers needed reassurance that their leaders were serious about using August 24 to open a new chapter of working class struggle.

To our knowledge, across the leaderships of both federations, in no interview, press conference, or even press release, was a single concrete proposal made on what would come after August 24. At most an occasional vague utterance was made about the National Shutdown being “the start” of something. Against a background of repeated disappointments this was completely inadequate. Workers could have had no confidence that August 24 would be anything other than a once-off. This suspicion would have been deepened by the conduct of both the Saftu and Cosatu leaderships in the run-up to the Shutdown.

Saftu initiated the National Shutdown. On the central question of unity its leadership played a good role. They correctly wrote a letter to Cosatu, Nactu and Fedusa, inviting them to participate and make the day a joint-action. To our knowledge Nactu and Fedusa refused to even engage. The Cosatu leadership, rather than responding positively, become preoccupied with what they see as their bureaucratic-rivalry with Saftu over members and influence. It feared being seen as ‘less militant’ for not having initiated the Shutdown itself. At the same time Cosatu leaders recognised that if they sat on their hands whilst Saftu took action alone they would incur the anger of their own members. This led them to the ludicrous position, put forward in interviews, press conferences etc., that they had always been planning a strike on 24 August and it was sheer coincidence that Saftu was as well! When pushed that regardless of the origin of the date would it not make sense to unite, Cosatu President Losi insisted there would be no “joint-action”. This reduced August 24 to a trade union equivalent of the Soweto Derby – rival fan clubs competing to mobilise the most supporters, chants the loudest etc. Her revelation in an interview after the event, that the Cosatu leadership never intended August 24 to be a “shutdown”, merely a day of action, is a public confession of the false pretences under which it called upon workers to mobilise.

The sectarianism of the Cosatu leadership continued on the day. In Tshwane, despite both federations advertising the same assembly point, the Cosatu leadership attempted to quarantine its members. They assembled separately and embarked upon their march to Union Buildings alone despite the Saftu leaderships’ expectation to march jointly. After the two marches arrived at Union Buildings two separate rallies began. The Cosatu leadership even hung a massive banner between trees, seemingly to ‘screen’ their members from the fact that a Saftu rally was taking place barely a hundred meters away! The initiative for the unification of the rallies came from the Saftu leadership. Unlike the 7 October 2020 “general strike”, which also saw separate rallies, the mood of workers across both federations – amongst whom it was easy to hear the complaint “why are we not together?” – gave the Cosatu leaders no choice but to agree.

Despite a broadly correct attitude to the question of workers’ unity, in the run-up to August 24 the Saftu leadership itself was badly organised, hesitant and showed little confidence that workers would respond to the Shutdown call. As late as 17 August, Comrade Vavi was insisting that the Saftu NEC had decided the day was literally a “stay-away” – workers would simply sit at home with no organised actions to bring them together. Unfortunately, this reduced Saftu’s appeal to the other federations to a symbolic gesture. There was discontent with this decision within Saftu and its allies in the Working Class Summit. This, combined with some affiliates deciding to organise their own actions regardless, plus the pressure of Cosatu announcing marches in major cities, led to a last-minute change of plans. On the evening of 18 August, with just five days to go, the Saftu NEC decided to mobilise for marches. This retrospectively squandered the opportunity to use the Saftu Shop Stewards Councils, convened the previous weekend, as a lever for mobilisation. It also meant that the first run of posters and pamphlets being used by shop stewards and activists to build support for the Shutdown did not even advertise the marches.

An important factor in the Saftu leaderships’ hesitation was the factional divisions in the federation that the recent Saftu and Numsa Congresses have ultimately failed to resolve. We will return to this in future material. The consequence for August 24 however was the de facto refusal of the Irvin Jim-led faction of Numsa, Saftu’s largest affiliate, to mobilise support for the Shutdown – a criminal act of strike-breaking and not for the first time. The result on the day, as Jim’s faction intended, was that in Tshwane at least, Cosatu members outnumbered Saftu members by around three-to-one. We salute those Numsa members who participated in defiance of their leadership.

With this as the background to the Shutdown many workers would have held back from participating. This was clearly not the conduct of leaders serious about initiating the first act in a serious campaign of rolling mass actions that would bring them into a head-on confrontation, not only with the bosses and the government, but the capitalist system itself. But to judge the event only by its failure to realise the full potential of what the current intensity of the class struggle suggests was possible would be to miss the significance of what was achieved. Overall, August 24 can be regarded as a success despite the trade union leaders.

Missed Opportunity

On the marches we repeated our call for workers to demand that their leaders use the platform of the Shutdown to outline the next steps for a united campaign of rolling mass action. Unfortunately, as in the build-up to the Shutdown, not one leader across either federation made a single concrete proposal about what would come after August 24. Workers would have left the rallies with no guidance about what to do next and orkers who stayed away would have felt vindicated in their suspicion that the trade union leaders were not serious. Even in a lengthy NewzRoom Afrika interview the day after the Shutdown, Comrade Vavi did not touch the question of “what next?”.

In addition to calling on Cosatu members to campaign for their federation to leave the Tripartite Alliance we made a special appeal to Saftu members to demand that their leadership use the platform of the Shutdown to re-proclaim its intention to launch a workers party. It was crucial to link this to definite action. After a decade of false starts and broken promises on this crucial issue, again, workers needed reassurance that this time their leaders were serious. Therefore, we proposed that the Saftu leadership announce its intention to set a launch-date for the party at a reconvening of the Working Class Summit before year-end. The only Saftu leader to even touch the idea of the workers party or the Working Class Summit was President Sebei of the Saftu-affiliated Giwusa union (also a member of the Workers and Socialist Party). But unfortunately Comrade Sebei left the party and the Summit where they have been for the last several years – floating up in the air unconnected to any actual commitment or proposal for action.

Ahead of the Shutdown we pointed out that even if the day itself was a triumph, as, overall, August 24 was, ultimately, its success “… will be decided by whether or not it is used as a platform to begin a sustained campaign of rolling mass actions with the aim, not only of transforming the living standards of the working class and poor, but preparing the working class for political power too.” At this point in time therefore, the jury must still be regarded as ‘out’ on the place that August 24 will occupy in the history of the workers’ movement.

Crisis of Leadership

What explains this complete inability of the leaders of either federation to actually give leadership to the working class? Ultimately, the crisis of leadership is the crisis of programme which both federations are mired in and the political and ideological disorientation this causes. Neither the Cosatu nor the Saftu leadership has an alternative to the crisis of capitalism, let alone to the system itself. To the extent that socialist and Marxist language persists in the mouths of the federations’ leaders it has been stripped of any revolutionary meaning and hides a reformist (i.e. capitalist) content.

(We have recently been challenged by those advising the Saftu leadership to justify our charge that the federation has a reformist programme. After having listened to all the speeches on 24 August, read the memorandum and watched dozens of media interviews, before and after the day, we have no hesitation in repeating this characterisation. We will return to it in more detail in future material.) 

The leaders of the workers’ movement are all therefore terrified of unleashing a mass movement that would, as it develops, come into collision with the limits of the capitalist system. This is starkly posed given the depth of the current worldwide capitalist crisis. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine on an already crisis ridden world has now grown into the so-called “cost of living crisis”. In 80% of the world’s countries inflation is over 6%. In many it is significantly higher. There have been mass protests in several countries and the first revolution of the post-pandemic era has already broken out in Sri Lanka with the overthrow of the Rajapaksa government. One of the ruling class’s ‘risk intelligence’ companies has warned of “numerous powder kegs” and said that of the world’s 198 countries, more than half are at risk of conflict, instability and civil unrest. No one can doubt that South Africa must be near the top of the list.

Mass movements will develop in the next period regardless of the role played by the leaders of the working class. Winning even the most modest reforms is going to require a massive show of working class force. But at a certain point, all the movements that will develop, will be faced with the choice of going beyond capitalism, i.e. revolution, or of retreating. The way to prepare these movements for this is for the working class, armed with a revolutionary socialist programme, to place itself at the head of the masses. It is class conscious movements of this character that the bourgeois fears above all else. It is the working class that has the power to lead mass movements that challenge not just the rule of specific governments but of the capitalist system itself. Unfortunately, in most countries the leaders of the working class are not prepared to play a revolutionary role in such situations and so they desperately want to avoid them.

The question of working class political independence – i.e. the creation of a socialist mass workers party – concentrates these contradictions into one issue. This is the most straightforward vehicle that would allow the working class to take power. As long as such a party does not exist, the leaders of the working class are safe from being forced in this direction by the masses. They do not want power and would not know what to do with it if they had it. That is why they recoil from the creation of a workers party.

For the Cosatu leadership this takes the form of continuing to insist that workers support the ANC government. They march against a party which attacks its members as both employer and government one day and then call on workers to vote for it the next. This contradiction is denied by the leadership through the contortions of the SACP’s National Democratic Revolution (NDR) and the mirage of the Tripartite Alliance. However, the eyes of the vast majority of the working class roll in despair at this repeatedly re-enacted play-fight.

In Saftu, the politically and ideologically bankrupt SACP-2.0 faction around Irvin Jim in the Numsa leadership, still guided by the false premises of the NDR, has tried to recreate the Tripartite Alliance… …outside of the Tripartite Alliance! The place of the SACP was to have be taken by the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, another top-down self-appointed “vanguard” of the working class. Struggling to find a ‘progressive’ faction of the capitalist class to ally with, and whose skirts they can hide behind, the SACP-2.0 faction has had to hedge its bets. Via the Numsa Investment Fund it has continued to fund the ANC, but has also funded the Radical Economic Transformation flotsam and jetsam of the aspirant black capitalists outside it, in parties like the EFF, ATM and others.

It is a step-forward that beyond Numsa the Saftu leadership has overwhelmingly jettisoned this Stalinist baggage. But with no conscious attempt to replace it with a genuine revolutionary theory, the leadership is left groping its way forward (or backward) empirically. This makes the vacillations of the Saftu leadership over the creation of a workers party stand-out all the more sharpely. The mood of the class pushes them again and again to the threshold of action, they stare into what, in the absence of a revolutionary Marxist perspective, appears as an abyss, and retreat. But they are trapped in the contradictions of their own inaction. For example, the latest Saftu NEC statement, under pressure to reflect the mood of the class, called on the ANC government to “step aside”. To be replaced by what, comrades?

The newly-elected Saftu leadership is currently in one of its phases of retreat on the political front. It is again courting the different petty bourgeois capitalist parties that have stalled electorally, like the EFF, or, like grave-diggers, are disinterring the now-skeletal remains of the PAC, Azapo and even the UDM. They are desperately hoping that one of them will provide a middle ground between the two-horned capitalist devil of the ANC and a class-independent workers party, i.e. between capitulation to capitalism and the socialist revolution.

Both the Cosatu and Saftu leadership are lagging far behind the working class and their own members. There is an overwhelming sentiment across society that the “ANC government must go!”. But this lacks an organised and above all a class conscious expression. The ANC’s vote continues to collapse. In the 2021 local government elections it finally fell below 50%. The latest opinion polls indicate that the ANC will never recover and that the 2024 elections will usher in a new period of capitalist coalition governments. That the EFF leadership has already indicated its willingness to enter a capitalist coalition with the ANC should be an instant red-line for the Saftu’s leadership’s renewed flirtation with the Commander-in-Chief.

On August 24 the most common response of workers – from both federations – to our material calling for the creation of a workers party was, “when is this party being launched?”. There was not even a flicker from the crowd when Comrade Vavi announced that representatives of the EFF, the PAC and Azapo were present. Workers did not care. However, when an SACP speaker, toyi-toying with his own party-line, said “let us build a powerful socialist movement that will be able to hold this government accountable” he received applause and cheers. What was this if not an expression of support for the idea a workers party, however distorted it might have been after passing through the SACP’s prism of ideological distortion.

Way Forward

The capitalist class and their ANC government have absolutely no intention of making a single concession to any of the demands around which August 24 was called.  Minister in the Presidency Gungubele briefed the media immediately after receiving Cosatu’s memorandum saying the Cosatu leadership should “relook” at their demands. Members of Cosatu and Saftu will have to take matters into their own hands to ensure that August 24 is cemented as the opening act of a campaign of rolling mass action and to consolidate the important steps toward unity that have been taken.

Workers in both federations will need to organise in their structures to lobby their leaders to name the date for another Shutdown. But workers should not wait for their leaders. To make a trade union united front a reality they will need to create facts on the ground. This could take the form of joint-strike preparation committees that unite workers across federations, or, if more appropriate, joint-meetings of the locals of the federations, or even its provincial structures. These should campaign for the federation leaderships to follow their example and create a national planning structure that ensures future Shutdowns are fully coordinated. The spectacle of separate marches and separate rallies on the same day must be banished.

In the next round of action every effort should be made to achieve at least a partial general strike. This is entirely possible out of the raw material that the class struggle has already created. Public sector pay needs to be central to the next round of action. This should be offered as the legal strike that workers are demanding but their leaders resist calling. The ongoing wave of wage-strikes needs to be unified around demands for a minimum wage of R12,500 and an inflation-linked sliding-scale of wages that sees wages rise automatically with prices. By placing such a demand at the forefront of future action, workers will be reassured that their workplace- or sector-level action is complemented by full national mobilisations.

August 24 demonstrated the unique power of organised workers to give a lead to the entire working class. A strategy to mobilise beyond the ranks of the labour movement needs to be more thoroughly prepared for the future. Public sector workers striking for pay need to make it clear that they are simultaneously striking in defence of public services that communities rely upon. Demands for a higher minimum wage and inflation-proof automatic increases need to be linked to existing demands for a Basic Income Grant whilst demanding jobs for all. In this way the majority of unemployed youth can be reached. Newly created joint-strike committees and revived united locals would be able to reach out to communities and the youth and draw them into a campaign of rolling mass action embracing the entire class.

United mass actions and the emergence of unifying cross-federation structures to coordinate them will begin to pose the possibility of a more thorough and permanent re-unification of the workers movement. Up to recently some in Saftu may have had the idea that the unity of the workers’ movement would be rebuilt by the steady growth of Saftu and its eventual eclipse of Cosatu reducing the latter to irrelevancy. In practice this would have had to come about by mass exoduses of members, as in 2012-13 when the NUM haemorrhaged 100,000+ members to Amcu in barely a year, defections of entire unions, as in 2015 when Numsa and Fawu left Cosatu, or a combination of both. Conversely, some in Cosatu may have expected Saftu to be no more than a flash-in-the-plan. That after making an early impact it would quickly collapse, its remnants fading-away and its members being reabsorbed.

It is clear that at this stage of the class struggle neither scenario will happen. Workers have a loyalty to organisations that they spilled blood and wept tears to build. This applies both to Cosatu’s affiliates, with their roots in the liberation struggle, and to Saftu’s affiliates, whose leaders and members withstood tremendous pressures to forge a new federation. It took the seismic shocks of Marikana to fracture Cosatu and give birth to Saftu. But ten years on the force of these shocks has dissipated and are no longer sufficient to topple buildings. It will take future great events to complete the work of forging a class-independent workers movement which Marikana began. In the meantime Cosatu and Saftu will both remain features of the landscape. This reality is the starting point in 2022 from which the task of building workers’ unity must begin.

The need for a socialist trade union confederation – i.e. a federation of federations – as a concrete form that workers unity could take will make itself increasingly felt in the next period. However, this will not be achieved by the simple coming together of Cosatu and Saftu (and Nactu and Fedusa) as they are currently constituted. The struggle for workers’ unity and the building of a socialist trade union confederation is inseparable from the struggle for the political and ideological rearming of the entire workers’ movement. Central to this will be the struggle to purge the movement of corruption and careerism and re-build the traditions of worker-control and democracy. Above all else this means fighting against the root cause of these problems in policies of class collaboration, replacing them with policies of revolutionary trade unionism that have the working class’s organisational and political independence as their foundation.

In Saftu this requires that its members campaign for the federation to push ahead with the creation of a workers party – setting a launch date at a re-convening the Working Class Summit before year-end. Planting the flag of working class political independence and raising it for the entire class to see will have an electrifying effect in the brutal conditions of intensified capitalist crisis. Cosatu should be invited to attend the Summit with special efforts made to mobilise individual affiliates and rank-and-file members. Saftu’s pushing ahead with the creation of a workers party will act as a stimulus to Cosatu members to build a campaign to force their leaders to abandon support for the Tripartite Alliance and take a step toward uniting with Saftu in the struggle for a genuinely mass workers party embracing the majority of organised workers.

Armed with a socialist programme, such a party would be able to attract the support of communities and the youth. United and politically armed, all the ingredients will be present for the development of a mass revolutionary movement conscious of the tasks necessary to carry through the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a socialist society.