Will Saftu’s support for EFF shut down take working class struggle forward?

By Weizmann Hamilton

The Saftu leadership has listed a catalogue of disasters that face the working class, from the downward spiral of the economy, to the rise in crime, gender based violence, mass unemployment, corruption etc. The federation’s first National Executive Committee of 2023 at which these were discussed concluded emphatically that SA is a “failed state”.

The press statement released following the meeting laments that: “Despite the glaring crisis, the working class remains divided, fragmented, and weakened more than ever before. The working class has, because of these weaknesses, failed to offer a coherent alternative to the worsening crisis of capitalism. We have no movement for socialism in place that can take up the battles against the structural crisis and mobilise the poor against this unfolding crisis of capitalism.”

The statement confesses that “we recognise that the internal divisions made us lose the 2018 moment in which we burst into prominence by organising the biggest protest action not seen in a long time in our country. “ It states further that the NEC debated a series of discussion papers but in relation to action, resolved to support the EFF’s call for a National Shut Down on the 20th March, 2023.

The MWP believes that far from taking the movement forward, the EFF Shutdown will have the opposite effect. It will solve neither the serious organisational problems facing Saftu, nor overcome its stagnation. Far more seriously, it will sow complete confusion, and raise serious questions over the Saftu leadership’s commitment to the political, ideological and class independence of the federation and of the working class. The Saftu leadership appears to be in complete ideological and political disarray.

Astonishingly, whilst bemoaning the disunity amongst public sector unions, the statement makes no reference to the fact that SAFTU declared an indefinite public sector strike in February and at the time of writing, sporadic strikes, of an intense character, are taking place particularly in the health sector. There appears to have been no discussion at the NEC on how to turn the EFF Shutdown into a programme of mass action; let alone a programme to unite public sector workers.  All there has been isa statement of support for the public sector unions’ decision not to return to collective bargaining for 2023 unless the 2022 demands are met, when more than half have already done so.

Not a single one of the five papers discussed at the NEC was devoted to the public sector strike.  No recognition appears to have been given to the full implications of the government’s biggest attack on the public sector workers, and ultimately, the entire working class since 1994. Now into its fourth year since the unilateral cancellation of the 2020 leg of the 3-year agreement signed in 2018, this attack poses the most serious threat to the right to collective bargaining and therefore trade union rights themselves in the post-apartheid era.

It will reinforce the conservatism of the likes of the supposedly politically “independent” PSA whose general manger Reuben Maleka publicly expressed an “understanding” for the government’s fiscal position and its claim that it cannot afford the unions’ demands. If the PSA and Fedusa have zig-zagged from sympathy with government, to action, and then to capitulation, this reflects on the one hand, the pressure of its membership and the leadership’s fear of its rank-and-file turning against it on the one hand, and their reformism on the other. The Sadtu leadership’s similar vacillation in accepting the 3% wage increase reflects the careerist ambitions of its leadership to be rewarded for its cowardice with positions in the ANC NEC and government.

Disarming the working class ideologically and politically.

Regrettably Saftu’s press statements repeatedly confirm that the leadership suffers from the illusion that a better capitalism is possible – the ideological basis for the same reformism as the Fedusa, PSA, Naptosa, Hospersa and Sadtu leadership. Inherent in reformism is betrayal. Their leadership’s refusal to support the indefinite public sector strike, abandon all the demands of the last three years, and to return to collective bargaining must be called by its proper name: strike breaking.       

The content of the Saftu posters and pamphlet for the EFF’s action unfortunately are soaked in the same political prison inmate soup of reformism. There is no call for nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers control merely a call for the renationalisation of SOEs without qualification; no explanation that privatisation, savage budget cuts, outsourcing, lack of investment etc. are rooted in the crisis inherent in capitalism. The demand for “industrialisation” does not touch the questions of ownership and control and is drawn straight from the SACP’s bankrupt two-stage theory and the National Democratic Revolution’s postponement of socialism into the indefinite future.

There is no reference to the fact that this particular phase of capitalism’s worst crisis globally since the 1930s Great Depression has now entered its 15th year since the 2008 global financial implosion. The 2008 Great Recession that followed led to the loss of a million jobs in SA alone and marked the beginning of the escalation of the class war on the working class that in reality began with the imposition of Gear in 1996, onto a qualitatively new level.

 There is consequently no call to use all mass action simultaneously for the achievement of immediate demands and as a school of preparation for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. There is complete silence on the decision taken by the same NEC to reconvene the Working Class Summit to implement its 2018 declaration to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme. 

Instead the misleading impression is created that the state is failing simply due to nepotism, corruption, lapses in moral judgements etc. confusing the symptoms with the causes — the crisis inherent in capitalism. Malcolm X said there can be no capitalism without racism. The same applies to corruption – it is the lifeblood of capitalism.

Weakness invites aggression

The capitalist class will be highly encouraged by the failure of the unions to mount any effective resistance to the offensive it has given its political management, the ANC government, to carry out. Already the government is preparing legislation to declare education an essential service with a penalty of imprisonment for defiance.

As we pointed out before, where government leads the private sector will follow. The smaller of the steel and engineering sector employer associations, Neasa, encouraged by the Numsa leadership’s capitulating to signing an unprecedented 5-year agreement with a no-strike clause included, is planning to table a proposal at Nedlac – the ruling political and economic elite’s strike breaking class collaborationist instrument, which the Saftu leadership has celebrated being admitted into – to be exempted from the agreement. It is a calculated attempt to smash centralised bargaining.

The Constitutional Court’s condonation of the government’s 2020 wage theft was accompanied by a denunciation, in the most hostile language of class warfare, of the public sector union’s demand for compliance with PSCBC Resolution 1 of 2018 that provides for three-year multi-term agreement on salary adjustments and improvements to conditions of service for employees. The Concourt’s backing for government’s false claim that it could not afford to pay an increase it signed in a legally-binding agreement, has also provided the private sector the constitutional cover to follow suit. The Concourt has thereby proven that the judiciary is the legal and constitutional arm of the capitalist state whose feigned “independence” is to protect capitalism from the democratic demands and pressures of the working class majority in defence of the parasitic capitalist minority and their political representatives.

If this is allowed to stand, collective bargaining will be reduced to a ritual where unions turn up at bargaining councils to accept like beggars whatever the employer has to offer. By issuing a statement of support for the public sector unions without any programme of mass action, the Saftu NEC has in effect disregarded its own slogan “don’t moan, organise!” and abandoned the public sector unions to their fate.  The General Secretary of SAFTU claims that they are not joining but participating in the EFF Shutdown in partnership with other left leaning parties and formations to broaden the platform for unity.  By supporting the EFF’s  Shut Down without even the public sector union demands at front and centre and without Saftu’s own independent programme of action, it effectively turns Saftu into a political mobilising force for the EFF leadership’s political ambitions. It exposes the fatal weakness of Saftu’s position that it is “independent but not apolitical” in preventing the federation from becoming the political tool of political parties which it has played no role in creating and over which it has no influence.

This would be dangerous enough if it were not clear what the EFF’s class and ideological character is. TheEFF is no new kid on the block. Under the cover of its radical rhetoric and red parliamentary regalia, its pro-capitalist position has been revealed with crystal clarity by its political track record since its establishment a decade ago. [See insert here]

The EFF – a petty bourgeois nationalist formation

It represents the interests of a section of the aspirant black capitalist class, bitterly frustrated that it has failed miserably to dislodge “white monopoly capital” from the summits of the economy. With only one black-owned company in the top 100 of the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, these mafikizolo capitalists without capital have had to settle for the humiliation of BEE crumbs. This is the reason that the EFF insists that the problem in post-apartheid SA is not class but race. The logic of its position is that the working class would be better off exploited by “black monopoly capital.” It has no interest in working class unity on the basis of a socialist programme. It ignites racial antagonism, between black working class people and white, Indian and Coloured.

Upon its entry into parliament in 2014, it repudiated its commitment to its MPs only taking a skilled workers wage, becoming the Gucci socialists they are widely derided as. It has abandoned its call for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy in favour of calling for a state bank, the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank and the establishment of a Sovereign Wealth Fund – all within the framework of capitalism.

It rudely rejected Numsa’s invitation to the 2014 International Symposium to debate international experiences of workers parties. Numsa’s 2013 Special National Congress evaluated all new political formations since the previous elections by the following criteria: whether they were (i) democratic (ii) working class (iii) had a track record of struggle (iv) socialist. It failed to meet these criteria and disqualified the EFF as a party that it could support in the 2014 general elections.

EFF – no track record of promoting united working class struggle

The EFF has shown no consistent inclination to support worker struggles and only sporadically in communities. Where the EFF has intervened in workplace struggles, often in response to calls by workers frustrated by the failure of the unions to organise them, they have done so to set up labour desks not to aid the unionisation of workers, but to counter-pose the EFF to unions.  EFF Labour Desks have been established in an attempt to extend its electoral base into a social layer that on the whole it has failed to find any significant support. This is so also because the traditions of non-racial working class unity comes into direct collision with its own class ambitions to become absorbed into the very capitalist system workers are in daily struggle against.

Having deceived its followers with radical posturing on the land question, it has politically condoned the anti-democratic system of traditional leadership. This institution is used to enrich a rural elite through deals with multinationals looting the minerals in the former bantustans on salaries paid to them by the state.

 They perpetuate the dispossession suffered under apartheid and want to legislate the oppression of women who, through the Traditional Courts Bill stand effectively to be reduced to second class citizens deprived of the rights to justice available to the rest of the country.            

In 2016, the EFF propped up the DA mayors in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela in exchange for control of portfolio committees with control over multi-million rand tenders. It advanced the pretext that the DA, which it ritually denounces as a “racist party of white monopoly capital”, was a lesser devil compared to the ANC. Especially since the 2021 local government elections, they’ve been making and breaking coalitions with anyone and everyone with reckless abandon.

As we pointed out at the time, the EFF’s de facto coalition with the DA was a dress rehearsal for entering into a pro-capitalist coalition at a national level. This has now been confirmed by its Commander-in-Chief Malema, who has publicly indicated the EFF’s willingness to enter into a coalition government with a Mashatile-led ANC. There is cold cynical calculation between humiliating Zuma and popularising the “pay back the money” slogan, and having a tea party with him; humouring Ramaphosa with an accommodative stance and then campaigning for his resignation. Malema is auctioning off the EFF to the highest bidder between the two ANC factions for seats for his own kitchen cabinet in a future coalition government.

The EFF has had a cloud of corruption swirling around it since it was conceived with the On Point Engineering corruption involving its CIC that the former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela investigated. This was followed by the VBS scandal and acceptance of donations from the self-confessed corrupt tobacco smuggler Adriano Mazotti. Politically it has provided an ideological point of reference to the Radical Economic Transformation faction – the more brazen of the two corrupt factions fighting for control of the ANC.

The EFF is the political and ideological external incarnation of the ANC. It is committed to partnering with it to implement the very same policies that has been such a disaster for the economy, the working class and increasingly the middle class.

What are the implication of the EFF’s acceptance of Saftu’s conditions?

The Saftu leadership argues that it has protected itself from being compromised by the conditions they have laid down for its support. It will no doubt be argued that there is nothing in the arsenal of strategies and tactics of Marxism that it professes to subscribe to that excludes entering into this agreement in pursuance of the aim of establishing as broad a front as possible. Nor is the EFF the first formation in history with a capitalist leadership and a working class base. Lenin referred to the British Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers party. Did Lenin not say, we will be told, that agreements can be entered into with the devil and his grandmother in pursuit of the working class cause? This agreement, however, has nothing in common with Marxist strategies and tactics and will undermine rather than further the working class cause.

Where the Bolsheviks entered into united fronts with such formations, it was been on the basis of marching separately but striking together for the purposes of winning over the members and followers of such formations over to their programme by exposing the shortcomings of the programme of the other formations. That is the reason that united front principles entail the complete separation of banners and no concessions whatsoever on principles or programmes.

Limiting its demands to no calls for support for any single party does not only fall short of Marxist methods. Such an agreement is meaningless and reveals a pitiful naivety on the part of the Saftu NEC. These so-called pre-conditions will cost the EFF nothing. They will promise Saftu anything without the slightest intention of considering itself bound by it. Even if EFF leaders say absolutely nothing about support for any single party, it is the one calling the action. The action will be seen as Saftu surrendering its independence and endorsing the EFF as its preferred political party. It is either the height of political naivety… or worse, conscious deception of the Saftu membership.

Is the abandonment of the Steering Committee of the WCS permanent?

When the Saftu NEC first proposed, after its second congress, to the Extended Meeting of the Working Class Summit Steering Committee that the EFF and SACP be invited to the summit to be used at the same time to work out the implementation of the 2018 Declaration and to prepare for the 24th August National Shut Down, the proposal was roundly rejected by WCS affiliates. The leadership undertook to take the views of the affiliates back to the NEC who had made these proposals.

Comrade Vavi, however, made the astonishing admission that he refrained from criticising the EFF leadership’s corruption – such as the looting of the VBS savings bank – in order not to alienate its base. Remaining silent on a principled issue such as corruption is the opposite approach to that demanded by the Marxist tactic of the united front, which historically served to expose anti-revolutionary leaders of mass organisations. It would be legitimate for workers to question whether Comrade Vavi’s approach to the EFF’s corruption amounts to condoning it.

The EFF leadership would only agree to such a concession provided the Saftu leadership agrees to make no call for a single party either. This means in practice that Saftu has entered into an agreement to make no mention of its 2017 founding congress resolution to prepare the road towards the formation of a workers party, the Working Class summit it convened in 2018 which adopted a declaration to form one, and the steps it began in 2021 to reconvene the summit for that purpose.  

The ANC, despite its precipitous decline, still has a larger base than the EFF. Why is it acceptable to subject the ANC to the legitimate trenchant criticism, including referring to them as hyenas and to remain silent over the EFF’s? How does this educate and empower the EFF membership? It is one of the factors that earned comrade Vavi his expulsion from Cosatu. One would have thought that comrade Vavi would wear expulsion on those grounds as a badge of honour and apply the same to all parties.

The Saftu president, Ruth Ntlokose, nonetheless attended the EFF birthday celebrations praising its Student Command lavishly. Whilst Vavi chose not to honour the SACP’s invitation to its congress, he attended a PAC and Azapo event.

These actions must be considered against the background of comrade Vavi’s role in repudiating the commitment of the WCS to the establishment of a workers party on television on 5th June 2021. This was after the North West Provincial Working Class Summit, originally intended to be first in a series of provincial summits to prepare for the reconvening of a national summit to debate the implementation of the 2018 WCS Declaration.

At the Extended WCS Steering Committee on July 2022 the Saftu leadership agreed to separate the mobilisation for the Saftu 24/8 National Shut down from the convening of what Saftu president Comrade Ntlokose described as the Political Summit.  There has been no Steering Committee since.

After the second congress, the Saftu NEC also issued a call for the entire ANC government to resign. The MWP celebrated this believing that the Saftu NEC has recognised that the growing desire, expressed more and more loudly and repeatedly, for the ANC government to be removed from office, makes the reconvening of the summit to implement the 2018 declaration even more urgent. Of course the ANC will not resign voluntarily. It has to be removed from office. But surely the answer to the question: if the ANC government must resign, what is to replace it? is the reconvening of the WCS Summit, in Comrade Ntlokose’s words, as a Political Summit to work out the steps for the establishment of a workers party that Saftu recommits itself to in its latest NEC statement?

Unfortunately, Saftu has not once repeated that demand since. Instead it has retreated. By the time the candle lit vigil was held at Eskom, the demand had been diluted to that for the removal of De Ruyter alone.

Opportunities squandered

Disappointingly the Saftu leadership has squandered several opportunities to turn its demands for the ANC’s resignation into action. The deeper the economic and social crisis has become, the more the factional ANC’s civil war has escalated, the more both factions have confirmed their corruption, the more, unfortunately, the Saftu leadership appears to be recoiling from its own founding congress resolution to form a workers party confirmed by the 2018 WCS for the workers party to be built on a socialist programme.   

Since the initial statement for the ANC government to resign, there has been no repeat of that demand. In between then and now we instead have a decision to march together with a political party, the EFF, which has the opposite aim: to prop up the ANC government in a pro-capitalist coalition!

These opportunities were provided by the success of the 24/8 National Shut Down last year. As the subsequent Extended WCS Steering Committee acknowledged the event was poorly organised and its full potential was not realised. But for what it lacked in numbers, it made up for in it political significance. This lay in the fact that the Cosatu rank-and-file had succeeded in compelling their leaders to join the action. It was the first time since the formation of Saftu that members of both federations engaged in joint action.

The foundation had been laid for this unity to be consolidated both in the workplace and as well as on the political terrain. The Cosatu congress provided a golden opportunity for the latter. Having humiliated both Ramaphosa and Mantashe respectively at May Day and at the congress itself, delegates tabled a resolution calling upon Cosatu not to support the ANC in the next general elections.

The adoption of the resolution was not in the end adopted immediately. A desperate leadership ensured it was deferred to a special congress in May 2023. But the message was unambiguous: the Cosatu delegates had arrived at the same conclusion as the Saftu rank-and-file to break with the ANC and Tripartite Alliance. An opportunity presented itself to both comrades Vavi and Ntlokotse who have been invited to the congress with full speaking rights, to call upon Cosatu to support the WCS initiative to form a mass workers party. Unfortunately the opportunity was not taken.

Another opportunity presented itself with the public sector wage negotiations deadlock. Initially all the federations united in their decision to demand the payment of the 2020 increase, to meet the 10% demand for 2022 and not to  commence with 2023 negotiations until these were resolved.

The attack on public sector workers’ wages – to reduce the public sector wage bill – and cuts in social spending which lie at the root of the near-collapse of social services originates in the government’s strategy to reduce the budget deficit caused by lowering corporate tax and service government debt.  The working class is being asked to pay the bill to further enrich the capitalist class. The World Bank has classified SA as the most unequal society in the world as a result of these policies which have enabled the top 10% to own 84% of wealth and assets leaving the bottom 50% with negative wealth. The public sector dispute provides the opportunity to unite organised workers and working class communities against the same government around the same issue – neo-liberal austerity and capitalism.     

The MWP has called upon Saftu to use this opportunity to galvanise the forces out of which a mass workers party can be built by forging unity through the establishment of committees of struggle across federations and between organised workers and working class communities.

In the post 2nd congress period the crisis has plunged new depth with continuous blackouts, the Phala Phala scandal and the manipulation of the parliamentary process, as well as the ANC conference to keep Ramaphosa in office. All of these combined with the accumulated crises that have gone before, underlines the urgent necessity for the way forward as proposed by the MWP to be implemented.

Calling a WCS and Conference of the Left divisive

The Saftu NEC’s call explicitly for a Conference of the Left and, implicitly, for a movement for socialism is a regurgitation of the same failed strategy pursued by the Numsa SACP grouping. Out of that came the disastrous, divisive and failed experiment with the SRWP. We asked at the time what will be discussed in these separate events that cannot be placed on the agenda of a workers’ party. The same question applies to the separation being proposed by the Saftu NEC.

The purpose of a minimum programme is not to accommodate contradictory class aspirations. It is to unite all the different sections of the working class in struggle. It is the recognition of the necessity to unite the three main theatres of struggle: students, working class communities and the workplace that persuaded Saftu’s founding congress to establish the Political and Ideological Commission and to convene the 2018 WCS.

A minimum programme         

The public sector dispute remains unresolved. Saftu can still play the leading role in overcoming the divisions in the unions that have opened up this year. The enormous anger in the Sadtu rank-and-file has now spilled out into social media platforms across the country questioning where the leadership got a mandate for their abject capitulation in accepting the government’s 3% wage offer. Nehawu members are openly defying the court interdicts and demanding the union breaks from the Tripartite Alliance.

It is doubtful there will be a mass response to the EFF-led Shut Down. Whatever its outcome, it is no substitute for Saftu to fulfil the expectations its birth engendered: the reclaiming of working class political and ideological independence and the establishment of a mass workers party on a socialist programme. The mood in the country, amongst poor communities, workers and the middle class provides Saftu the opportunity to place itself at the head of national movement for socialism across the country, the anger, the rapidly accelerating crisis in the ANC—all mark the maturing of the conditions for the mobilisation of a general strike of workers.                

A minimum programme consisting of demands reflecting the specific struggle in the three  theatre of workers, communities and students  could for example consist of the following:

1. Nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers control and management

  • Permanent jobs for all
  • End outsourcing and casualization
  • A minimum wage of R12 500 a month

2. Free quality education from pre-school to university fully funded by the state

  • Abolish tuition fees and scrap student debt
  • Scrap NASFAS and SETAS and redirect funds to tertiary insitutions
  • Fill all vacancies from grade R to university

3. Free quality healthcare

  • Nationalise pharmaceutical companies under workers control and management
  • Merge all private and state healthcare facilities
  • Fill all health care vacancies

4. End Eskom privatisation – transition to renewable energy without loss of jobs – retrain workers for renewable energy jobs

5. Fight gender based violence

  • Shelters for abused women with properly trained staff
  • Courts and police stations must be properly equipped with trained personnel and resources to deal with investigations of GBV, rape, human trafficking and other related crimes.
  • Equal pay for equal work and conditions of service
  • Free quality care facilities for early childhood and the aged
  • No to the Traditional Courts Bill – fight for equality of men and women before the law and in every other way in the whole of South Africa

6. No to xenophobia – for workers internationalism

7. The election of all elected representatives  subject to the right of immediate recall

8. A workers representative on a workers wage.

 A workers party established on this basis will encourage working class communities to unite under countrywide socialist civic which can democratically debate and develop this platform. Similarly students can do the same. Such a platform can also serve as the basis for united socialist trade union federation.

We call upon all civics, youth formations and trade unions across all federations to democratically debate this proposed platform and enrich it. The Saftu NEC bemoans the absence of a movement for socialism etc. We believe this to be a public admission of the abdication of responsibilities. In any event the Saftu leadership could never have been expected to carry out this responsibility on its own. Without the democratic pressure of the working class leadership the Saftu leadership become vulnerable to petty bourgeois class pressures hence the toenadering with the EFF leadership.  

Therefore above all, we call upon all these sectors of the working class movement to take the initiative. Come together in a Campaign for a Mass Workers Party on a socialist programme.

Such a party would unite the working class around a common point of reference programmatically and towards united mass action.

The working class worldwide is beginning to reclaim its place as the only force that has the power defend fundamental democratic rights, and to put an end to attacks on the working class that have escalated particularly over the last fourteen years since the 2008 global financial crisis.

A mass workers party on a socialist programme will serve as a point for reference for the working class on the African continued and worldwide.

We believe it is not too late for SAFTU to redeem itself by using the Shutdown as a platform to reassert its central strategic objective of uniting the working class around a set of demands such as those proposed above to begin this process.