by Weizmann Hamilton*

27 April 2019

On 7 April 2019, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) held its three-day inaugural congress. About a thousand delegates attended claiming to represent a membership of 20,000. Many working class activists may heave a sigh of relief. After many false starts and delays, maybe now, a serious trade union-based challenge can offer an alternative to the crisis of capitalism in the upcoming elections and beyond.

Numsa secretary general, Irvin Jim, the SRWP’s first chairperson, says: “The SRWP is the party that fights for the whole of the working class – it grew out of the decision by NUMSA in 2013 after analysing the state of the working class, to build a workers’ party. But the SRWP is not the NUMSA workers’ party. It is not the SAFTU workers’ party. It is for all socialist workers in SAFTU, COSATU, NACTU, FEDUSA, Solidarity.” Is this a serious promise to use the SRWP to build the political unity of the working class? Or is it just rhetoric?

2013-2019 – delays

Precious time was lost following Numsa’s 2013 Special National Congress. The NUMSA leadership argued then that, whilst it had withdrawn support from the ANC, it was up to its members to decide for themselves who to vote for in the 2014 elections. WASP warned that in the absence of a working class alternative, people would vote for opposition parties to punish the ANC.

Using socialist rhetoric, the EFF secured nearly 1.2 million votes, winning 25 seats. The DA achieved 22%, its highest ever vote. But the number of voters abstaining in protest grew to 12 million. By the 2016 local elections the ANC’s 62% majority had declined to 54%, with the loss of three key metros. We pointed out at the time that this was a “thunderous rebuke” by the working class. Most alarmingly for the ANC, these results posed the possibility that it might not secure an outright majority in 2019 and could be forced into a coalition government.

Since then the ANC’s worsening internal crisis is expressed in the continued factional civil war. So alarmed are the strategists of capital that there is a call from their ranks for DA voters to switch to the ANC to strengthen ‘their man’ Ramaphosa. In desperation, the ANC has followed the DA into the sewer of xenophobia to shore up electoral support.

Under the pressure of the capitalist class, the Ramaphosa regime is resolved to present the bill for the ever deepening economic crisis to the working class. The right to strike and picket has been attacked with the support of the class collaborators in the Cosatu and Fedusa leaderships. Emboldened, Ramaphosa is set to proceed with the privatisation of state-owned enterprises starting with the breakup of Eskom.

Through its local government coalitions with the capitalist DA, the EFF has confirmed its reactionary class character. As we predicted after the 2016 elections, it has now announced its willingness to enter into a coalition with the ANC at national level. The EFF has zig-zagged between the warring factions in the ANC as it positions itself to negotiate a place in a possible pro-capitalist coalition. It has thus shifted economic policy to the right.

SRWP’s debut

Whatever its precise configuration, the incoming government will be poised to intensify the attacks on the working class. For the capitalist parties, elections are an attempt to legitimise these attacks. Until now there has been no working class opposition in parliament. The SRWP therefore has entered the electoral stage at a time when the vacuum on the left has been sharpened and the class war is poised for a significant escalation.

The SRWP will of course not win the elections nor is it contesting with this aim. That it was launched officially less than two months before the elections, itself shows a light-minded attitude towards using parliament for mass mobilisation.

In the wake of the Marikana massacre, with the support of the mineworkers’ independent strike committees, WASP was launched as a broad federal formation to build the widest possible unity around a clear revolutionary socialist programme. WASP proposed collaboration with NUMSA and invited it take its place, alongside other formations, in accordance with its numerical and political weight.

On the basis of its 300,000 membership alone, Numsa could have secured at least six seats for working class MPs with a proper campaign. The burning anger over the Marikana massacre meant there was a strong sentiment in favour of a working class alternative. Such a working class-led party would have acted as an electoral pole of attraction for the 67% of Cosatu shop stewards in favour of a workers party, and could even have attracted the support of significant sections of the middle class. Millions of disaffected voters, disillusioned with the existing parties, could have supported it.

More importantly, the workers’ representatives in parliament could have used it as a platform to unite working class communities, students and the organised working class for mass mobilisation against the capitalist ANC government. But the votes that might otherwise have gone to such a party, went instead to the EFF. Throughout the intervening five years, with each twist and turn of the class struggle, WASP has called on the Numsa leadership to act decisively and play its role in helping to fill the working class political vacuum. Had the Numsa leadership made use of the time, matters could have been different in 2019. The Numsa leadership must take full responsibility for this.

Despite this, for the purpose of the 2019 elections, there can be only one place at the barricades of the class struggle on 8 May: against the parties of capitalism. The capitalist parties have never been in deeper crisis. The elections offer the working class the opportunity to accelerate that crisis and make the necessity for a mass working class party even clearer.

The Working Class Summit

WASP supports the processes that commenced at the Working Class Summit (WCS) convened by Saftu in July 2018. The WCS brought together over a thousand delegates from 147 community organisations, Saftu affiliates and student formations. The forces that made up the WCS have many shortcomings. Their ideological levels are uneven and even contradictory ranging from Pan-Africanism to socialism. The social movement organisations present ranged from NGO types to genuine grassroots organisations.

Despite this the WCS was an historic gathering which resolved on the need for a mass workers party based on socialism, reflecting the views of the overwhelming majority in attendance. Debate will continue in the provincial and regional WCS structures that it was agreed to roll out. WASP believes that the WCS process offers the best prospects to build a genuine socialist mass workers party that can unite the broadest possible layers of the working class.

WASP is not contesting the 2019 elections, and with the WCS process requiring more time, we are calling for a vote for the SRWP on 8 May. Of the contesting parties, the SRWP is the only one that has arisen from the organised working class. It is the only party that stands, at least in words, for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

Our call to vote for the SRWP is, however, a critical one. By this we mean that from 9 May, after the elections, we call upon the SRWP to throw its full weight behind the WCS process to create a mass workers party with a democratic federal character that guarantees all supporting organisations a real say in the formation of the party, its ideology, programme, policies and to be represented on its elected structures.

The SRWP has serious shortcomings ideologically, in its organisational methods and in the democracy of its internal party regime. The SRWP’s early documents cited Marx and Lenin, but also, unfortunately, Stalin and Mao. The distortions of Marxism made by the latter two, which WASP will deal with in more detail in the future, are reflected in the problematic approach of the SRWP leadership. They are clearly still basing themselves on the concepts of the National Democratic Revolution as the “shortest road to socialism” – in reality the Stalinist two-stage theory. This poses not academic, but fundamental questions of strategy, perspectives and organisation. It places a serious question mark over whether the SRWP will act as a force for working class unity after the elections or become an obstacle towards it.

Origins of workers party idea

The history of the idea of a workers party goes back to the beginnings of the modern organised labour movement. It was first alluded to by the president of Cosatu predecessor, the Federation of SA Trade Unions (Fosatu) Joe Foster, in a speech at its 1982 congress. The idea came under vicious SACP attack as a challenge to its self-proclaimed role as the “vanguard” of the working class. At Cosatu’s 1993 congress, Numsa’s resolution calling for the formation of a workers party to challenge the ANC in the historic 1994 elections was defeated.

However by then, through its domination of Cosatu and its affiliates, the SACP had succeeded in barring the way towards the emergence of such a party. Subordinating the independent interests of the working class to those of the aspirant black capitalist organised in the ANC, the SACP captured the Cosatu leadership from birth, imprisoning it in the class collaborationist Tripartite Alliance and commandeering its members to act as the ANC’s electoral mobilisation machine.

Over the next twenty years the idea of a workers party survived amongst only a minority, reflected in Cosatu shop steward political attitude surveys. But support grew as the capitalist character of the ANC-led government became clearer. From a substantial minority of 30% in 1998, support for a workers party had grown to a crushing majority of 67% by 2012. This was even before the Marikana massacre.

Marikana, the workers party and Numsa

In addition to exposing the class character of the ANC as a party of capital, the Marikana massacre resulted in fatal political collateral damage for Cosatu. The credibility of the Tripartite Alliance now lies shattered in the political rubble of the Marikana earthquake. Cosatu’s then biggest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers, suffered a mass exodus. The Cosatu leadership revealed its role as the lieutenants of capital in the labour movement by expelling Numsa for its uncompromising criticism of the ANC, SACP and Cosatu. The Marikana massacre thus lifted the idea of a workers party from the pages of survey questionnaires onto the centre stage of the political arena.

In the entirely new political era now opened, Numsa called a Special National Congress (SNC) in 2013. Its resolutions re-tied the knot of history with the generation of 1993. It resolved to unite the left under a Movement for Socialism (MfS), working class communities under a United Front (UF), and the working class under a workers party.

Unfortunately, in its determination to keep complete control of all three, the Numsa leadership attempted to keep discussions on socialism and a workers party off the agenda. Despite the enthusiastic support of provincial structures across the country the UF was shut down. The Movement for Socialism suffered a similar fate. The MfS conference unanimously supported the establishment of a mass workers party on a socialist programme. A Steering Committee was agreed on to develop a road map towards its establishment. It was never convened.

In the meantime, Numsa’s expulsion from Cosatu gave momentum to the formation of a new federation.  By 2017, Saftu was launched. At Saftu’s founding congress WASP raised the need for Saftu to grab hold of and pursue the creation of a mass workers party on a socialist programme. A Political & Ideological Commission was formed to take the discussions further.  In March 2018, this Commission reported to the Saftu NEC that “in the current capitalist crises, the only way forward is the building of a Workers Party”. This report in turn led to the convening of the Working Class Summit on 21 and 22 July 2018 to further broaden the forces involved.

Unfortunately the Numsa leadership’s ‘rule or ruin’ approach towards the UF and MfS was transferred to Saftu and the WCS. Unlike the 1993 Numsa generation which placed the resolution for a workers party before the Cosatu congress, the present Numsa leadership by-passed its own federation. Not once did the Numsa leadership raise their plans to launch the SRWP for discussion at the Political & Ideological Commission – established to build a broad consensus across Saftu’s 20+ affiliates on how to proceed in filling the working class political vacuum. Nor did they raise it at the Saftu NEC. With many Saftu affiliates alienated, they had no delegates at the SRWP launch.

At the WCS itself, the conduct of SRWP-supporting Numsa delegates nearly caused the Summit to collapse. They attempted to dominate proceedings in commissions, including the imposition of chairs, scribes and rapporteurs.  Their conduct was seen as an attempt to bully communities into endorsing their party, confirming fears that like all other parties, they merely wanted votes to pursue their parliamentary ambitions. It also strengthened the arguments of the ultra-left who oppose any participation in parliament.  

The WCS took place a full eight months before the SRWP was launched. Why did the Numsa leadership try to obstruct attempts to build broad support across trade unions, communities and youth organisations for the creation of a mass workers party? Surely, with Saftu already a year old by then, with the successful and explicitly political 25 April 2018 strike against the ANC government behind them, which Numsa had supported, this was an opportune time to proceed? Why did they argue there was no need to reinvent the wheel, when in fact the SRWP wheel was put on the road only after Saftu had clearly taken up the issue of the workers party?              

Democratic credentials

The emphasis on democratic control and accountability that marked the discussions around a mass workers party at the WCS, stands in sharp contrast to the proceedings at the SRWP launch congress.  Delegates were hand-picked from selected Numsa structures on a factional basis and padded with praise singers from small left groups. In what was supposed to be an elective congress, the delegates were confronted with a predetermined slate compiled by a self-appointed bureaucracy, that they were expected to endorse.

Astonishingly, the Numsa first deputy president is reported to have motivated for the endorsement of the leadership slate by saying that as the SRWP is a socialist party there was no need for elections! This is Stalinism not Leninism. It is bureaucratic centralism not democratic centralism. In the uproar that ensued, a number of regions protested and demanded to consult the Independent Electoral Commission.

The Western Cape delegates, having initially walked out in protest, withdrew their nominees. The SRWP leadership has no representation from either the Western or Eastern Cape.  The SRWP constitution provides for five yearly congresses. The rank-and-file of the party will thus have a say in the election of a leadership imposed on them only in 2024. The SRWP constitution not only provides exemption from elections for so-called founding members, but for all office bearers and structures to be elected by secret ballot. 

Party character

Given Numsa’s crushing political weight in the SRWP, an evaluation of the party’s character cannot be separated from that of the Numsa leadership itself. It is an undeniable fact that the Numsa leadership is deeply split. Ahead of its 2020 congress, tensions are mounting between contending factions. Despite the claim that the SRWP represents the long delayed implementation of the resolutions of Numsa’s 2013 Special National Congress, the party carries the unmistakable birthmark of these factional battles.

In the manner in which it was established, its organisational methods and the ideological outlook of the dominant Numsa leadership faction, the SRWP is not the party envisaged either by the Numsa members themselves at their 2013 SNC, or the fulfilment of the aspirations of the Working Class Summit. Tellingly, support for the SRWP amongst Numsa members themselves is less than overwhelming.

One of the most critical questions that must be answered is how the SRWP is funded. Before it was exposed as an instrument for the “democratic” exploitation of the working class, the SACP was at least funded by a levy from some Cosatu affiliates and continues to be accommodated in its headquarters. There is no Numsa or Saftu SRWP levy. Yet the SRWP has been able to purchase new branded vehicles, thousands of t-shirts and election posters, paid organisers and luxury venues. If the SRWP is not funded by its members this insulates the leadership from democratic control and accountability. It also opens the party to the influence of capitalist class pressures.

Underlining this, in October 2018, the respected investigative journalists at amaBhungane wrote a piece on the corrosive effect the Numsa Investment Company was having on the democratic structures of the union and the accountability of leadership. The long list of unanswered questions included what the relationship is between the Numsa leadership and various Zuma-supporting champions of “radical economic transformation” like Transform RSA; or the prominent presence of the Numsa Investment Company at the National Funeral Practitioners Association of SA’s ceremony to honour Zuma. NafupaSA has called for the banning of Indian and white funeral undertakers from doing business in African townships. 

The meeting between Irvin Jim and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma during the contest for the ANC presidency has never been satisfactorily explained. Previous media ‘exposés’ on NUMSA have raised questions about the links between Irvin Jim and the American-Caribbean billionaire and owner of the multinational IT company, Thoughtworks, Roy Singham. amaBhungane directly asked Irvin Jim about any involvement of Singham in the SRWP – presumably as a major funder – but the question went unanswered.

It is true that the capitalist owned media has been used, and will continue to be used, to discredit the trade union movement and any party or movement supporting socialism. However, the way to combat this is not, certainly in the first instance at least, to ignore serious charges raised in public – but to answer them! That is, of course, if there is nothing to hide. On balance, it seems highly likely that the corrosive ‘funding model’ which played an important role in the political degeneration of Cosatu is being re-created in the SRWP itself.

SRWP must join Saftu’s WCS’s mass workers party process

All serious socialists stand for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. That is ABC. But, to paraphrase Trotsky, the alphabet of revolutionary socialism only begins with its first three letters – it does not end with them. A programme, even a genuine revolutionary one, and the party that promotes it, cannot be imposed. It must be tested by events and win the approval of the masses and the active participation of the leading layers of the working class.

WASP raises our criticisms from fraternal but firm point of view for consideration by Numsa members, Saftu members, participants in the WCS, genuine SRWP activists and the wider working class and encourages them to be debated throughout the movement. Contrary to claims by supporters, the SRWP leadership has never approached us for political collaboration. With the SRWP decision whether to contest or not delayed, WASP devoted its efforts towards the Saftu-WCS process.  Unfortunately the supporters of some of the small left groups seeking shelter in the SRWP have subjected WASP to unprovoked political attacks on social media, mischaracterizing, among many things, our long history and proud record in the struggle for the creation of a mass workers party.

We stand for a mass workers party on a socialist programme that unites in struggle the workplaces, the communities and the education institutions. Such a party must be open, democratic and federal in character to allow for the fighting unity of existing working class organisations. This can lay vital foundations for the development of a mass revolutionary party capable of leading the working class in the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. The arena that provides the most fertile ground for this at this stage of the class struggle is the Saftu-WCS process.

We are on the edge of tumultuous events worldwide. The capitalist classes, bereft of ideas about how to avoid the social convulsions that will be detonated by a new edition of the 2008 Great Recession, are experiencing splits – one of the pre-conditions for revolution. As the magnificent movement of the masses in the Sudan and Algeria show the African working class masses stand ready to join their counterparts worldwide in internationalist collaboration for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

* Originally published as How should workers use their vote on 8 May? by the WASP National Committee