What role can Saftu play in uniting the working class?

For a socialist programme of militant struggle – time for workers to take the offensive against the bosses’ attacks

by Shaun Arendse

Workers are under attack by the bosses and the politicians that defend the capitalist profit system. There have been tens of thousands of job losses on top of existing mass unemployment. To boost their profits the bosses will use the new R3,500 poverty-level minimum wage as a wage-ceiling and not a wage-floor.  Tax rises, price increases and budget cuts to services are worsening poverty and inequality.

The background to this assault is the crisis of the capitalist economy – here in South Africa and worldwide. The economy is stagnant. The bosses’ battle plan is driven by the need to protect their profits by squeezing workers harder and harder. Defending jobs and fighting for wage rises will meet ever greater resistance.

This is why the right to strike and to picket is being undermined by the ANC government. They want to make it harder for workers to fight back. Now they are threatening to punish the mineworkers for striking by de-registering the AMCU trade union. They want to teach the whole working class a lesson. But workers again and again show their willingness to fight to defend jobs and wages. Strikes and community protests are at record highs.

What will it take to turn the tide on the bosses’ attacks? How can the working class move from the defensive on to the offensive? How do we build a class-independent and united movement of militant, democratic worker-controlled trade unions?

The Workers’ Movement

The potential power of the working class is huge – especially those workers organised in the trade unions. Some pessimists complain that ‘only’ 1 in 4 workers are organised. This is actually amongst the highest in the world! But a simple head-count is the wrong way to view the issue. The key thing is where those workers are organised. They are organised in all of the most decisive sectors of the economy – mining, manufacturing, transport and public services. In other words, the working class organised in the trade unions has enormous social weight. This gives them the potential to lead the vast working class majority of the unemployed, the poor, the unorganised and the youth.

But the trade unions are divided into hostile camps. There are four federations and nearly 200 trade unions. Too often one united bosses’ organisation sits across the table from divided union leaders who see each other as the main enemy. The enormous potential power of a united working class is not focused on the point of attack. Our army is scattered and marching in different directions. There is a crisis of working class leadership.


Saftu is an historic attempt to build a new working class leadership. Its creation reflects a growing mood amongst workers that consciously rejects the poisonous politics of class collaboration – and wants to do something about it. Class collaboration is where ‘leaders’ claim to represent workers interests but in practice defend the right of the bosses to exploit workers.  These wrong politics lock Cosatu in its alliance with the ANC. But Saftu is emerging as a new political reference point for struggle. The importance of this has already been demonstrated. If Saftu had not organised the 25 April 2018 strike, the minimum wage and attack on the right to strike would have passed without a whisper of organised protest.

But Saftu is not yet a decisive pole of attraction for the working class. This is reflected in the attitude of the Cosatu membership. In 2012-13 there was a mass movement of mineworkers from the Cosatu-affiliated NUM to the un-affiliated AMCU. But there has not yet been a mass movement of workers from Cosatu to Saftu. Why? We think it is because things are not yet clear to millions of workers. They want to be certain that Saftu is a genuine alternative that can show a clear way forward in struggle. If Saftu is just another rival to their current union – there are plenty of them! – then workers will not be motivated to move. But they are watching to see what Saftu does.

For Saftu to earn its leadership of the organised working class it needs to be armed with a bold socialist programme. This is the only answer to the capitalist economic crisis. The capitalist profit system must be exposed. But socialist rhetoric is not enough. Every corrupt sell-out trade union leader postures as a ‘revolutionary’ and a ‘socialist’. Workers will want to be able to see that Saftu is different. A real socialist programme must be able to guide workers in action.

Socialist programme

Economic sabotage by the bosses needs to be exposed and an alternative offered. The trade union principles of democratic workers control must be extended into growing control of the workplace. Workers will not prioritise the interests of CEO salaries and shareholder dividends over the interests of the working class.

  • Fight all retrenchments and closures! Demand nationalisation of job shedding big businesses under democratic workers control. If the bosses’ refuse to keep jobs, workers refuse to let them keep their businesses! Organise workplace occupations to enforce nationalisation.
  • Workers’ economic planning to end unemployment! Demand the working week is reduced to 30 hours with no cuts in pay. Share out the work with the unemployed. Demand democratic control of hiring and firing and the re-design of shift patterns by workers’ representatives.
  • Reject the ANC’s poverty-level minimum wage! Fight for a living wage of R12,500 per month for all full-time workers. Demand a rigorous regime of workplace inspections under the democratic control of workers’ representatives to enforce compliance.
  • Expose the bosses’ lies! Abolish so-called ‘business secrets’. Demand that the financial accounts of big business are opened to inspection by workers’ representatives. When the bosses say “we can’t afford it” workers must say “prove it”!

If the bosses and their politicians continue giving the working class the bill for the crisis of their profit system they must be pushed aside – nationalise non-complying big business under democratic workers control.

We call on Saftu members to campaign for the federation and all of its affiliates to adopt a clear socialist programme. Every strike and protest should be politicised around these demands and talked about by Saftu leaders in every media interview.

Mass campaign

The bosses will resist these demands ferociously. A socialist programme challenges the very foundation of their system. Private ownership of the economy ‘justifies’ their economic dictatorship and allows them to chase profits at the expense of workers and society. Nationalisation and democratic control by workers’ representatives challenges this. A mass movement is needed.

We call on Saftu to organise its planned two-day strike within the 60 day de-registration ‘notice period’ given to AMCU – i.e. before the end of June. This can be used to appeal to the mineworkers’ to join the strike. In Sudan, protestors are occupying the streets outside the HQ of the military dictatorship demanding that they go. Workers in South Africa should follow this bold example and occupy the streets outside the Department of Labour in Tshwane to demand:

  • Hands off the mineworkers! Withdraw the threat to de-register AMCU – the workers’ movement will clean up its own house! Organise workers to demand and defend democratic workers’ control in all trade unions.
  • Defend the right to organise and strike! Scrap the LRA amendments. Move on to the offensive with a workers & trade union freedom bill drafted by workers’ representatives – end the bosses’ petty abuses and restrictions on the rights to workplace organisation. Organise a march to parliament to demand it is tabled – and passed! Organised mass defiance of unjust labour laws that prevent workers from defending themselves.

A call must go out that guides workers in how to overcome the organisational divisions within the trade union movement. No genuine trade union leader has anything to fear from workers unity; those that oppose workers’ unity must be exposed.

  • Build co-ordinated campaigns of rolling mass action on all issues facing the working class. Build industry- and sector-wide action-committees that unite the workers of all federations, unions, and those not members of unions in campaigns of rolling mass action.

Workers Party

The elections next week are dominated by parties and candidates that either assisted the attacks on the working class over the last five years, or just shrugged their shoulders in disinterest. The Zuma-led ANC tabled the LRA amendments; the Ramaphosa-led ANC voted them through.  The DA supported them but wanted the attacks to go even further! Where was the EFF’s campaign to defend the right to strike? Not a word. Workers need their own party. This cannot be viewed as an optional ‘side project’. Workers challenge the bosses’ control of the workplaces every day. They must challenge their political control of society too.

On 8 May WASP is calling for a vote for the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP). They at least stand for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. However, we have serious doubts that the SRWP will be the vehicle for working class unity in the struggles ahead, given its track-record until now (see WASP website). From 9 May we call on the SRWP to support the building of a unifying, democratic and open socialist mass workers party, organised on a federal basis so that the SRWP, WASP and other working class and socialist organisations can affiliate.

  • Build working class unity! Support the Saftu-Working Class Summit workers’ party process. Build a unifying, democratic and open socialist mass workers party, organised on a federal basis to unite the struggles of the workplaces, the communities and the youth, as a vital step toward the creation of a mass revolutionary party