- Campaign for a public sector and SOE general strike
- Call a one-day Section 77 strike
- Convene a Working Class Summit II
- Implement the Saftu and WCS resolutions for the creation of a mass workers party
On 25 August the National Executive Committee of Saftu will sit. Every member of the federation must take a huge interest in this meeting. The outcome will answer whether or not Saftu is prepared to give leadership to the working class in a world that has changed completely in just a few short months.
The ruling capitalist class is in despair. Before the pandemic the economy was already in recession and accelerating job losses were pushing unemployment towards 30%. Then lockdown. Three million additional jobs lost in a matter of weeks. One political commentator has warned that South Africa will emerge from lockdown into an “economic wasteland”; another likens the post-lockdown economic landscape to the flattened Lebanese capital Beirut. The country is now accelerating quickly into a full-blown sovereign debt crisis. Some economists predict it will arrive in just fourteen months.
The ANC government’s Supplementary Budget is almost certainly too little too late for the capitalist class. This is despite its scale and savagery making it in practice a home-grown voluntary IMF structural adjustment programme. A case of jumping before being pushed. For the working class the promised R250 billion in spending cuts is an eye-watering attack on living standards that will devastate services, jobs and pay. But austerity was already government policy before this. It took them six years to squeeze just R70 billion out of the budget. Now they must more than triple this in a fraction of the time.
The ruling class has another intractable and intertwined problem. The ANC, South African capitalism’s chief political guardian, is riven by factionalism and filled to the rafters with ‘crony cadres’. The ‘covidpreneur’ PPE-tender scandal has shoved the ruling class’s political crisis back into the spotlight. The ANC remains a completely unreliable instrument to maintain their rule. But they have no replacement. Every effort to construct a ‘safer pair of hands’ has failed. The presentation of Ramaphosa’s presidency as a ‘new dawn’ was met with cynicism by the masses from the beginning. But even this cheap paint-job is now fully smeared in the dirt of corruption and nepotism.
The ruling class is losing what remains of its precarious footing in society. The ANC’s last base within the organised working class, via the Cosatu public sector unions, is under severe strain because of the attacks it is required to carry-out on the public sector and public sector workers. Small businesses have been decimated. Big business is expected to circle its wagons in a laager through consolidations and mergers. A smaller economy and massively reduced public spending will choke the tenders, public sector and SOE appointments and BEE opportunities used to maintain patronage networks and buy the quiescence of a section of the black middle class.
The pandemic and the deepening of the economic crisis has heaped enormous new suffering upon the masses. The number of households that ran out of money for food in April more than doubled to nearly 50%. Global risk consultants are warning of global civil unrest. They have named South Africa on their ‘watch list’. What these strategists of capital fear is the development of a mass movement of the working class and poor. Under the current crisis conditions this may not only challenge capitalism’s political managers, like the ANC, but develop into a movement against the capitalist profit system itself. They are warning the ruling class to tread carefully. But the ANC’s ‘crony cadres’ are incapable of heeding their advice.
Working Class Must Lead
This is why the outcome of Saftu’s upcoming NEC is so important. Everything in the situation points to a decisive showdown between the classes developing quickly in the next period. Even the possibility of a pre-revolutionary situation opening-up cannot be excluded.
Violent clashes between police and protestors in Cape Town in recent weeks anticipate widespread spontaneous outbursts of anger in communities, food riots etc. These will be similar in character to the waves of service-delivery protests in the ten years before the pandemic. Isolated, un-co-ordinated, lacking an alternative, the ruling class can contain and suppress this type of “civil unrest”. If not ignored completely, or suppressed by state forces, any concessions will come on the terms and timetable of the ruling class.
Preparations must be made now to place Saftu at the head of the masses in the coming storm of class struggle. Workers, especially those organised in trade unions, are armed with structures to co-ordinate action across society and the power to leave the ruling class paralysed through the withdrawal of labour in strike action. Under the leadership of the organised working class the struggles of communities and the unemployed youth can be transformed into an important second front of a generalised struggle.
The organised working class also contains within it the seed of a political alternative to the disaster of capitalism. Working class organisation and action challenges the boss’s control of the workplace and the capitalist class’s control of society and suggests an alternative – workers control of the workplace and working class control of society. In a word: socialism.
But these seeds will not sprout without skilful leadership. The working class must be readied to seize the opportunities emerging from the instability caused by the pandemic and use them to shift the balance of forces in society significantly in favour of the working class.
The immediate question is organising action to defend the living standards of the working class from the attacks of the bosses and the government – what should be its character and starting point?
Mobilising the Class
Some in Saftu have made the call for a general strike. Comrade Irvin Jim, Numsa general secretary, has threatened “the Mother of all Political Strikes against a rotten and corrupt ANC government”. If by “Mother of all Political Strikes” comrade Jim means an indefinite general strike then he is posing the conquest of political power by the working class. But this is a case of mistaking the first month of pregnancy for the ninth. The class is not yet prepared for this. This is not the starting point for the working class movement that needs to be built but its endpoint!
The trade union movement itself is fragmented. The working class does not yet have a political party of its own capable of taking power. Even if mass action could force it to fall from the capitalist class’s hands… they would just pick it up again. The 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ was a series of revolutionary movements which succeeded in overthrowing powerful decades-old dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet nearly a decade later, the capitalist class remains firmly in power. In the case of Egypt, the new regime is even more repressive than the Mubarak regime the masses had overthrown. The missing ingredient was a mass revolutionary workers party with a socialist programme.
What is needed to prepare our class for the “Mother of all Political Strikes” is a clear programme for rolling action that with each successive round strengthens the unity, organisation and confidence of the working class. Woven into such a programme must be the creation of a socialist mass workers’ party.
The Marxist Workers Party has called on Saftu to call for a public sector and SOE general strike. We have raised this because of the enormous potential that exists to mobilise a determined mass struggle in the public sector on the questions of pay, jobs and privatisation. To this the pandemic has added the burning issues of PPE, safe workplaces, school re-opening and permanent jobs for all CHWs and EPWP workers. We have argued that the strike’s platform should be used to make the call for a general strike of all workers. In the current conditions this would have an electrifying effect throughout society. In other words, a public sector general strike would be an important first round, preparing a stronger second round.
The Nehawu leadership is already being pushed by its members into calling limited action. This is a reflection of the mood. A public sector strike would also play a vitally important political role in accelerating the crisis in the Cosatu/ANC Alliance and the ruling class more generally. (See our 31 July statement for expansion on the potential of a public sector general strike). Campaigning for a public sector general strike is crucial in our view. But it does not exclude Saftu pursuing other action simultaneously. We are fully in favour of Saftu calling a one-day Section 77 strike if that is possible. But there are several pit-falls in approaching this that must be avoided. These apply equally to a public sector general strike.
There must be a clear understanding of what a Section 77 strike is and what it is not. A one-day Section 77 strike by Saftu affiliates alone is not a general strike, let alone the “Mother of all Political Strikes”. At best, it would be a partial general strike. Its main role at this stage would be to raise the flag of mass working class struggle and prepare the way for its fuller development.
To assist this a Section 77 strike must not have vague aims “against the crisis”. Nor should it go to the other extreme of a multiple-page wish list filled with detailed sector and workplace grievances only understood by the workers directly affected. The strike must generalise the experience of the working class into a clear set of specific demands that brings to the forefront the class’s common interests. These could include: (1) moratorium on all job losses in both public and private sectors and jobs for all, (2) R12,500 per month minimum wage, (3) re-instate the public sector pay rise, (4) make the Social Relief of Distress social grant permanent and increase it to R3,500, and (5) permanent jobs for all CHWs and EPWP, ECD and CWP workers.
The strike must be organised as the start of a campaign that is determined to win these demands. It cannot be a once-off event that does little more than let the leadership tick a box to say it has “done something”. Even before the strike takes place the next step should have been planned-out and put on a pamphlet for mass distribution on the strike itself. This pamphlet must give clear guidance on what to do next. We propose setting the date and location for a Working Class Summit II that has as its purpose (1) the planning of a second two-day Section 77 strike, and (2) preparations for the launch of a mass workers’ party. Appeal to everyone participating in the strike to return to their workplaces, trade union structures, community and youth organisations and call meetings to elect delegations to it.
The strike platform should be used to appeal to all federations and working class organisations who did not participate to also send delegations. But this appeal cannot be left to letters between head offices. It will not be a success if Amcu’s Joseph Mathunjwa turns-up alone, claiming he ‘represents’ mineworkers. The Summit needs the mineworkers themselves to be there. Direct appeals must be made that reach rank-and-file activists and shop stewards through workplace visits with pamphlets.
The Party Needed
The issue of a workers’ party must be on the agenda of the Summit. But the discussion must not re-tread old ground that delays action. The item must be a discussion about how to implement the WCS’s existing resolution to prepare for the 2021 local election. The workers’ party must not be treated as a ‘separate project’. The role of a workers’ party is to act as the political wing of the mass working class movement that must be built. The new party must first and foremost be a party of struggle. It must set itself the task of uniting the struggles of the workplaces, communities and the youth. Participation in elections is just one tactic, a necessary and important one, to take these struggles forward.
To arm a new workers party to play the necessary role of uniting working class struggle, it will, at least in the beginning, have to be structured in a way that allows trade unions, community structures, youth groups and left political groups and parties to affiliate without being required to surrender their separate identities.
A new party must be united by a programme of action. There is no reason that this needs to be fundamentally different to the one we have outlined above for the Section 77 strike. What needs to be added and made explicit is that the party fights for a democratic socialist society and a workers’ government as the only way to realise the fundamental demands of the mass movement.
Agreement with the programme of action would be the basis for membership and affiliation. Different ideological tendencies that join the party should be given the freedom to publish and distribute their views within the structures. There is absolutely no reason why the important and necessary ideological debates that will be a feature of a new workers party should paralyse action. A basic principle of the party should be the old Marxist idea: march separately, strike together. We believe this is what the working class wants – a democratic and unifying party that campaigns on the issues that will make a real difference in their lives.
The above is not intended as a strict blueprint. It can only be breathed into life and fleshed-out by the working class itself. We are trying to illustrate the method necessary to begin the mobilisation of the mass of the working class. All the raw material is present for the working class to put its stamp upon society – to stop being a passenger in the out of control capitalist car and take-hold of the steering wheel. The Saftu leadership has a special responsibility to prepare the working class to do just this. The paralysis that has gripped the leadership over the past five months must be shaken-off and the factional manoeuvres set-aside. Every Saftu member has the right to expect a clear way forward for our class as the outcome of the NEC meeting.
PART 2: The Crisis in Saftu, the Struggle for Class Independence & the Workers Party
In Part I of our Open Letter we put forward our views on what we believe must begin to emerge from Saftu’s 25 August NEC in order to take forward working class struggle against the unprecedented health, economic and political crisis. But the fact that the NEC meeting is taking place almost a full five months into this crisis cannot be passed-over in silence. Why has there been such a delay in convening the leadership? The truth is that Saftu has been missing in inaction.
We do not mean that all of Saftu’s affiliates have been standing still in this time. Many have taken-up the challenges presented by the new era. For example, Nupsaw has won an important victory over the Gauteng Government. Thousands of Community Health Workers now have permanent jobs on more than double their current salary. But the purpose of organising together in a federation was to unite the different struggles of the working class and knit them together into a single movement. This has not been done.
Saftu’s creation in 2017 was a breakthrough. It was a crucial landmark in the realignment of the trade union movement that was set in motion by the mineworkers and the 2012 Marikana massacre. Most of the forces which founded Saftu came from splits within Cosatu. These were driven by the rank-and-file’s growing opposition to the leadership’s policies of class collaboration. These were summed-up in Cosatu’s Tripartite Alliance with the ANC and SACP – a mechanism for the policing of the working class and their subordination to the interests of the bosses. The founding of Saftu was an important organisational consolidation of the striving by hundreds of thousands of workers for their organisational, political and ideological class independence. The creation of a workers’ party would be the highest expression of this process at this point in the class struggle.
The road to Saftu’s founding was not straight-forward or free from confusion. The split of Cosatu between 2012 and 2015 was drawn-out. The mineworkers, whose action set the process into motion, have remained outside the federation, divided between the NUM, still in Cosatu, and Amcu which is unaffiliated. Cosatu has survived and still dominates the public sector, at least for now.
Many future Saftu leaders were pushed along by the mood rather than consciously leading it. This was reflected in some of the early debates in the new federation, for example, the confusion revealed in what exactly the, then popular, ‘buzzphrase’ “independent but not apolitical” meant in practise. Some in the leadership understood it to mean the effective abandonment of the political struggle – the federation would comment on political issues but not intervene in them directly except to the extent that it coincided with ‘trade union’ issues and struggle. This would mean the continuation of the dominance of the political parties of the class enemy. The worker membership however, clearly understood something very different. The new federation’s “independence” was from the capitalist parties that had wrecked Cosatu – the ANC and SACP. The positive side of this rejection, as we will explain further below, has been overwhelming support for the creation of a workers’ party amongst Saftu’s members.
The unintended consequence of Saftu’s lack of ideological and political clarity is that it has acted as a political and organisational life-support machine for Cosatu (and other federations). The Cosatu rank-and-file remains unconvinced that Saftu has drawn in full the correct political and ideological conclusions from the experience of the Tripartite Alliance. Thus, with gritted teeth, they prefer to tolerate the devil they know, rather than cast their fate to the winds of one they do not.
Nevertheless, Saftu had a promising start. In April 2018, it announced its arrival into the arena of struggle with a successful Section 77 strike. This was followed shortly after by the July 2018 Working Class Summit (WCS). This suggested that the new federation had quickly re-discovered, as the early Cosatu had understood before the capitalist ANC ‘captured’ it, the inseparable connection between the struggle in the workplace and the political struggle. Building on the Saftu founding congress, the WCS adopted a resolution in favour of creating a mass workers party on a socialist programme.
But momentum was lost in 2019. The promised Section 77 follow-up action was postponed again and again, then abandoned with no explanation, even as the ANC government stepped up its attacks. A meeting of Saftu’s Central Committee in November 2019 produced a declaration of over 4,500 words… that led to no decisive action whatsoever! Then the pandemic hit. But there was no significant response from Saftu – nothing serious to suggest that the federation was preparing to rise to its feet and meet the challenges of the new period. Instead the paralysis in the leadership that was beginning to be visible continued and deepened.
At the last NEC meeting in mid-March, as the State of Disaster was being declared, Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim instigated an attack on Saftu general secretary Vavi, accusing him of “not being accountable”. This attack was the culmination of a whole series of manoeuvres by a grouping around comrade Jim in the Numsa and Saftu leaderships. These go back to at least 2017 (and probably before). Many workers will be shocked to learn that comrade Jim attempted to block Vavi’s nomination to the position of Saftu general secretary at Saftu’s founding Congress. Numsa’s regional leaderships had to intervene to over-rule comrade Jim to allow comrade Vavi’s nomination to go through.
Unfortunately, comrade Jim’s method at the Congress was not based on tabling political differences in front of the Numsa and Saftu membership in a transparent, democratic and comradely manner, but by means of personal bureaucratic manoeuvres. This conduct had the potential to collapse the launch of the new federation. This would have been a crime against the working class, and set back workers unity and the struggle for the restoration of organisational, political and ideological class independence for a length of time impossible to estimate.
Prior to the March NEC, comrade Vavi convened a meeting of representatives of the Working Class Summit’s Steering Committee which included amongst others Nupsaw. This meeting agreed that comrade Vavi would refer to the Saftu NEC, for endorsement and actioning, a proposal to call jointly for a public sector general strike to: (i) demand the full wage increase due to the public sector the government had threatened not to pay, (ii) the implementation of the Labour Court judgement Nupsaw had won recognising Gauteng Community Health Workers as permanent employees, and (iii) the permanent employment of EPWP workers whom the Gauteng Provincial Government was threatening to dismiss. The public sector general strike date was pencilled-in for 30 April 2020 and was to be mobilised for through mass rallies in all major metros on Sharpeville Day, 21 March.
Although the CHW workers have since started receiving public sector pay rates, the government has carried out its threats to tear up the public sector wage agreement and the over 3,000 Gauteng EPWP were dismissed, thrown out onto the streets, with many not even receiving the insulting R350 Social Relief of Distress grant or food parcels. Weakness invites aggression. That this provocation by the ANC government – an invitation to the capitalist class to mount a full-scale offensive on the entire working class – has been allowed to be carried through without Saftu lifting so much as its little finger, has been interpreted precisely as weakness.
Instead Saftu has been outflanked by Nehawu’s programme of action, an affiliate from the very Cosatu that Saftu had been established as an alternative to. Of course this is a desperate attempt by the Nehawu leadership to restore its credibility in the eyes of its members. It was the Cosatu leadership that helped set a precedent for the imposition of pay deals if negotiations did not go the government’s way. The government’s insolence derived from Cosatu’s failure in 1999 to call action when the government walked-out of the negotiations and unilaterally imposed an offer the unions had rejected. Demands by delegates to Cosatu’s Special Congress for a 48-hour strike was defused by SACP leaders in senior positions in the unions, including Nehawu. Again, weakness invites aggression. The 2020 imposition is far worse than that of 1999, making it the worse attack on public sector workers since 1994.
Confirming Cosatu’s real role in the Tripartite Alliance, the Nehawu leadership hastily withdrew legal action against the government over it failures to protect health workers during the pandemic. The Nehawu leadership, like loyal class collaborators, then attempted to bail-out government by announcing that they would finance PPE supplies from the Nehawu Investment company!
The motives of the Nehawu leadership are clear. They recognise the burning anger of their members. They are attempting to defuse it through limited sectoral action, starting in the public health laboratories, instead of mobilising its entire membership, all of whom have been affected by wage theft, and a significant number, both directly and indirectly, by the PPE failures.
The Nehawu leadership’s call to action nonetheless reflects the mood not just of its membership but of the entire public sector workforce. Saftu should appeal to Nehawu for joint action. Moreover, the conditions exist today for the unification of public sector workers in a manner that combines the workplace and political issues on a higher level than was the case, for example, in the 2007 and 2010 public sector strikes.
During the 2007 public sector general strike, then Cosatu president Madisha provided the ANC government with a political alibi in defence of the continuation of the Tripartite Alliance. He claimed the strike was against the “ANC as government and employer but not as a political party”. This time the waves of revulsion unleashed by the Covid tender corruption are directed at both sides of the political split-personality Madisha attempted to separate the ANC into – as government and as party. The anti-ANC hashtags that have gone viral on social media reflect the disgust flowing through society and has reignited the desire for an alternative.
Saftu’s March NEC was an opportunity to anticipate and get ahead of these developments. In other words set the tone of the public sector fightback and position Saftu to lead it. The NEC could and should have prepared a counter-offensive along the lines proposed by the Working Class Summit’s Steering Committee: a public sector general strike on 30 April to be mobilised for by mass rallies.
Instead the March NEC discussed comrade Jim’s allegations against comrade Vavi. Not only were the issues in the public sector at boiling point, but the bosses had already begun an offensive against the working class with wide-scale retrenchments. The meeting closed without discussing or agreeing anything substantive to take working class struggle forward. Instead of mobilising the working class for a counter-offensive against the bosses and the government the NEC spent its time constructing a ‘compromise’ agreement to use Saftu’s Political & Ideological Commission to investigate – i.e. conduct a witch-hunt against – the federation’s own general secretary!
But this ‘agreement’ solved nothing because both sides then retreated into their bunkers. The de facto consequence of comrade Jim’s attack was to park the federation on the sidelines. Instead of co-ordinating the response of its affiliates to the historic capitalist crisis sparked by the pandemic, Saftu’s role was limited to issuing press releases and hosting Zoom ‘worker conversation’ workshops, turning the federation into a virtual talk-shop lamenting the crimes of the capitalist class and its ANC political management.
Belatedly, some NEC members began pushing for the NEC to be convened and start providing leadership. Scandalously, the response of Saftu president Mac Chavalala, aligned to comrade Jim, was to issue a letter postponing any meeting of the NEC until after the pandemic was over! When this will be is anyone’s guess. This was a bureaucratic move that sought to formalise the suspension of the federation through the suppression of its democratic structures. In response to this obstruction light-minded threats were made to split the federation by NEC members aligned to comrade Vavi. A constitutional crisis was developing over who had the right to call the NEC and whether or not Numsa would participate. It seems that the day was saved at the last moment by a revolt within Numsa itself that called comrades Jim and Chavalala to heel.
We are happy to be corrected if any of the details in our account are wrong. Indeed we would welcome it because we find it absolutely incredible that Saftu was brought to the edge of a disastrous split without the membership even being made aware that there was a crisis. Let the leadership speak-up and account to the members for its conduct.
The SACP II-Grouping
The Numsa leadership is not a granite block. There are different groupings and tendencies within it. Unfortunately, a still too dominant tendency is the one that was schooled and politically trained by the SA Communist Party. Whilst the comrades have broken from the party, they have not rejected it poisonous methods and ideology. Comrade Jim must be counted amongst this “SACP Mark II”-grouping. Whilst clinging to any SACP baggage it is impossible to lead the working class in the successful reclaiming of its organisational, political and ideological class independence. On the contrary, it prepares those that do cling-on for the role of frustraters of the process. This is exactly what has happened.
Responsibility for the paralysis in the Saftu leadership over the past five months lies overwhelmingly with the SACP II-grouping. We are not praise-singers for comrade Vavi and have many important political differences with him. But if anyone in the Saftu leadership is guilty of “not being accountable” it is that SACP II-grouping’s supporters in the leadership. We believe that comrade Vavi is being punished for his refusal to allow Saftu to be hijacked behind that grouping’s political project, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP). Workers who responded to the call for a new federation have not rebelled against the conversion of Cosatu into the ANC’s labour desk only to allow Saftu to become the SRWP’s labour desk.
It is the SACP II-grouping which has bulldozed the federation’s structures and ignored resolutions on the vital issue of Saftu’s role in building a mass workers party. It is the SACP II-grouping which cooked-up the SRWP behind the back of Saftu after it had already agreed on a process to take this issue forward, and then taken it a decisive step further with the convening of the Working Class Summit a year later.
The Saftu founding congress adopted a resolution making clear its intention to begin a process that would lead to the launch of a workers’ party. Numsa, the new federation’s biggest affiliate, voted in support. To give effect to this resolution, a Political & Ideological Commission was established. The PIC convened a Working Class Summit in July 2018. A thousand delegates representing 147 community, trade union and other organisations adopted a resolution to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme.
The Numsa WCS delegation was selected to ensure a significant SRWP ‘delegation within a delegation’. This group disrupted proceedings in commissions demanding to take the positions of chair, rapporteur and scribe. They demanded to know why a workers party was being discussed when one already existed in the form of the SRWP – a party that was to be launched only five months later in December 2018. When delegates objected to the conduct of the SRWP group on day two, comrade Jim himself rose to his feet threatening to take the entire Numsa delegation out of the Summit. Had this completely irresponsible threat been carried through, it could have collapsed the Summit.
It is to comrade Vavi’s eternal credit that he intervened to save the Summit from collapse. The WCS remains the most important political gathering in the democratic era and arguably since the launch of the UDF in 1983, bringing together under one roof, organised workers, working class communities, and youth for the first time since the fall of apartheid.
The MWP considers the obstruction of the unfolding of the workers’ party process on the part of the SACP II-grouping as arguably the most serious of their transgressions against both the Numsa members and the workers’ movement as a whole. It is through adherence to the basic principle of democratic centralism that workers unity in a strike action is ensured. Workers debate, for example, the question of embarking on strike action, take a vote and act on its outcome in unison. The minority is bound by the decision of the majority. If the minority defies the decision of the majority, unity in action is impossible, enabling the bosses to split the workers, and render action ineffective. This is regarded as strike breaking, but this has been the method of the SACP II-grouping.
Historic Struggle for Class Independence
The WCS resolution to establish a workers party did not spring out of a clear blue sky. Its historical significance lies in the fact that it was the political expression of a process of ideological clarification that the most advanced layers of the organised working class had been undergoing over decades – in the struggle against capitalism that commenced under colonialism and apartheid and continues under democracy.
The individual partners in the coalition of forces now in power – the ANC, SACP and Cosatu – in the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance, over the years, took it in turns to oppose and obstruct the formation of a workers’ party. But the reality of events – the collision of class forces side-by-side with the struggle for national liberation – shaped the consciousness of the working class. It hammered home the lesson that the method of the national liberation struggle was the class struggle; that the only class that could successfully lead it was the working class; that therefore the national liberation of the oppressed black majority could only be achieved through the simultaneous struggle against apartheid and capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.
The ANC and SACP fought ferociously against this approach to the developing revolution. To the inseparability of the struggles for national liberation and socialism, that experience at every turn confirmed in the minds of the working class, foretold clearly in Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, they counterposed the National Democratic Revolution, which was predicated on capitalism’s preservation by separating the revolution into distinct democratic and socialist stages (we will return to this in Part 3 of this Open Letter).
The future class antagonisms implied in a “national democratic” society that would necessitate further working class struggle after liberation was foreseen by the advanced layers of the working class. In his speech to the 1982 congress of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), a predecessor of Cosatu, secretary Joe Foster warned that the working class must not repeat the mistakes of the working class on the African continent by supporting national liberation movements that would betray them once they had taken power.
Developed to its full conclusion, the logic inherent in Foster’s warning was of the necessity for the working class to organise its own party. But Foster himself did not develop the idea to a conclusion. It is not clear that he himself understood the implication of his warning. Despite the fact that the idea of an independent party of the working class was only implicit in Foster’s speech it was interpreted by the SACP as an explicit call for a workers’ party.
In self-righteous indignation, the SACP launched a ferocious political assault on Foster accusing him of attempting to usurp the role of the SACP as the vanguard of the working class. The similarities between the role of the SRWP at the WCS thirty-six years later are unmistakeable. WCS delegates were reprimanded for wanting to “re-invent the wheel” of the workers party when one already existed in the form of the SRWP.
After Foster’s speech, however, the ANC/SACP leadership undertook a tactical U-turn. They switched from denouncing the emerging independent trade unions as “yellow”, to a tactic of political seduction. For the majority of the workers that were building these unions, and would later come together to create Cosatu, there was no separation between the workplace struggle and the political struggle against apartheid. The instinct of the organised workers’ was to wage the political struggle through their own class-based organisations. This the ANC/SACP leadership could not allow. If the organised working class was going to engage in the political struggle it had to be on their terms and not an independent class basis. The insertion of the word “congress” into the name of the federation born in 1985 signalled the political capture of the trade union movement. To ensure that there was no confusion over which of the new partners was in the ascendancy in this supposed ‘Tripartite’ alliance of equals, the alliance was to be “ANC-led”.
But the Tripartite Alliance rested on social forces with irreconcilable class interests: the ANC, representing the interests of the black capitalist class on the one side of the class barricades, and Cosatu, those of the working class on the other. Within the framework of capitalism, which moreover was, and is, in an epoch of decline, it was never going to be possible to meet even the most basic expectations of the masses. A showdown, and ultimately a rupture between these social forces was inevitable.
The Historical Significance of the WCS
The WCS was not the first attempt to break from the political hegemony of the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance. As early as 2003 Cosatu’s 8th congress, under increasing pressure to respond to the growing discontent of its members and the working class more broadly, adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of Coalitions against Poverty.
The MWP’s predecessor, wrote in October 2005, that
With red banners outlining demands for housing, jobs, a basic income grant, land, health care and housing, the meeting was composed of mainly genuine grassroots organizations, reflecting the self-organisation of working class communities against the impact of government’s disastrous neo-liberal capitalist policies on their lives. Most significant of all, was the sizeable turnout Cosatu shop stewards in a meeting free of traditional ANC struggle songs, ANC t-shirts or slogans.
The media reported that the launch of the Western Cape Coalition represented the first step in the revival of the United Democratic Front – the precursor to the re-emergence of the banned ANC that had itself been launched in Mitchell’s Plain in the Western Cape in 1983. In response to this the Tripartite Alliance immediately launched a propaganda campaign denouncing it as an attempt at “regime change”. To ensure that it would not become the precursor to the establishment of a political alternative to the ANC, all further launches were cancelled.
But 2005 was a political yesterday. The WCS met in qualitatively different circumstances. The WCS united similar forces around a common purpose: for mass action against unemployment, poverty and inequality, agreeing that their eradication requires the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. It was therefore entirely correct for comrade Vavi to warn that anyone who walked-out of the Summit, and collapsed it, would be judged harshly by history.
Numsa’s 2013 Special National Congress
Unfortunately, we have come to expect a ‘rule or ruin’ approach from the SACP II-grouping. Their often radical rhetoric hides, what in practice, has amounted to years of obstruction to the forward march of the working class. Their record is one of endlessly manufacturing delays and obstacles.
Numsa’s Special National Congress (SNC) in December 2013 was historic. Following in the footsteps of the mineworkers’, the metalworkers of Numsa attempted to retie the knot of the post-apartheid generation to that of their pre-1994 counterparts. In 1993 the Numsa congress had adopted a resolution to establish a workers’ party to contest the 1994 elections. This resolution was submitted to the Cosatu congress later that year but defeated.
Unfortunately the SNC fell significantly short of its full historical potential. The launch of a workers’ party that had been widely expected, not just within Numsa, but within the wider working class, did not take place. The 2014 elections were to take place against the background of the Marikana massacre and what it had demonstrated about the ANC’s social character and allegiance to the capitalist class. Instead, the Numsa the leadership announced merely that it would not support the ANC in the 2014 elections.
In and of itself this decision represented a major departure from the policy Numsa had followed since 1994. It represented a repudiation of the very purpose Cosatu served in the Tripartite Alliance as the political defence force and election machine of the capitalist ANC. It thus placed Numsa on a collision course with the Tripartite Alliance that would culminate in its expulsion from Cosatu.
Yet what did this decision amount to in practice in 2014? It was clear that the metalworkers intended the Congress to act immediately on the issue of a workers’ party. By not doing so the Numsa leadership in fact aided the ANC’s return to power. The announcement that Numsa would withdraw support from the ANC amounted to no more than bestowing official recognition on a process that was under way in any event – the gradual decline of the ANC’s electoral support. That withdrawal of support from the ANC would have continued regardless of the Numsa leadership’s decision. We warned that voters, angry at the ANC, especially after Marikana, would want to punish it by voting for the likes of the DA and EFF, even if they did not support their policies. This prediction was confirmed.
Not only did the SNC delay action on Numsa initiating a workers’ party, but co-operation with the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) electoral initiative was also blocked. Wasp had the backing of many of the leaders of the mineworkers’ strike committees that had led the 2012 strike wave and was initiated a year before Numsa’s SNC. The MWP’s predecessor had been a founding affiliate. The Numsa leadership continued to refuse co-operation even after Wasp proposed that Numsa in effect ‘take it over’ and field its own candidates under the party’s umbrella. This would have made a united and powerful working class electoral challenge in 2014 possible.
In the SNC’s ‘2014 Elections’ Commission, on behalf of Wasp, Weizmann Hamilton, today general secretary of the MWP, proposed that instead of the boycott implied in the SNC position, delegates should be advised to apply the evaluation criteria used in the Congress documents to analyse, and dismiss, parties such as Agang and the EFF, to decide which party to vote for. This recommendation to the Commission was agreed unanimously and enthusiastically by the delegates. However, the chairperson over-ruled the decision. He argued that it amounted to a call to vote for Wasp, and was beyond the commission’s remit, and so refused to forward the commission’s recommendation to plenary. The next day Wasp’s representatives were unceremoniously thrown out of the conference by venue security. Our message was too popular amongst the delegates who were demanding literature, and even t-shirts. Our presence threatened to upset the leadership’s efforts to take the heat and urgency out of the workers’ party issue. Thus the SNC concluded without achieving the very thing it had been called for – the establishment of a workers’ party. It was now to be ready only for the 2016 local government elections instead.
UF & MfS
The SNC was the high water mark of the ‘Numsa moment’. But instead of seizing the ‘moment’ the leadership was given by the members, an historic opportunity was squandered. Instead, under the SACP II-grouping’s leadership, Numsa members have been led along a tortuous path.
Careful to only begin acting on the SNC resolutions after the 2014 elections had come and gone, next came the convoluted (and unnecessary) United Front (UF) and Movement for Socialism (MfS). Ultimately these were a distraction from the creation of a workers’ party that dispersed and dissipated the energies of activists.
The Movement for Socialism conference was convened in April 2015 and unanimously adopted a resolution in favour of the establishment of a mass workers party on a socialist programme. The conference was concluded by Numsa’s deputy general secretary, comrade Karl Cloete, who announced the formation of a steering committee to work out a ‘road map’ toward its launch. This was never convened and was never heard of again.
The United Front suffered a similar fate. Its national launch was postponed for a second and final time in June 2015 after structures had been established in every province except KZN. The overwhelming majority of provinces defied the entirely undemocratic and dictatorial instructions of the Numsa leadership’s SACP II-grouping not to discuss participating in the elections, socialism or a workers’ party. As we wrote at the time
The debates on the key issues – whether the UF should be socialist, stand in the elections or adopt the Freedom Charter – that were to have continued at the launch, have animated activists, providing a sense that the UF is at least, and at last, beginning to take the necessary steps towards clarifying its ideological, programmatic and political character.
…The majority of provinces have come out overwhelmingly in favour of socialism and prefer the UF to stand in the elections. These developments indicate that the UF still has the potential to achieve the objectives for which the Numsa SNC gave birth to it – the unification of struggles of working class communities and of the working class in the workplace.Massive Opportunities for Working Class Struggle Despite United Front Postponement (27 June 2015)
Having ensured the SNC concluded without a workers’ party, the SACP II-grouping was not going to allow it to emerge through the MfS or the UF. Despite the crushing of the debate in the UF on the questions of a party and standing in elections, out of the blue, completely bypassing the UF’s admittedly weak structures, the UF’s banner was used to contest the 2016 elections in Nelson Mandela Bay in ‘splendid isolation’ from the rest of the movement. It seems this was a favour from the SACP II-grouping to assist the political ambitions of a disgruntled ANC faction. The results were terrible in any case.
The launching of what would become Saftu was repeatedly delayed. At Saftu’s launch in April 2017, as mentioned, comrade Jim fuelled divisions by trying to block Vavi’s nomination. In addition, the issue of a workers’ party was kept off of the agenda. It was only a speech from comrade Weizmann Hamilton that placed this vital issue before the delegates who enthusiastically embraced it, just as Numsa’s members had three-and-a-half-years earlier at their SNC when comrade Hamilton raised it there.
It was only at this point that the SACP II-grouping began to rush the SRWP into existence with comrade Jim as chairman. The zig-zag from foot-dragging to a sprint is explained purely by the SACP II-grouping’s desire to cut-across any initiative that might come from Saftu, and, later the WCS.
The facts are that the SRWP was created, if not in defiance of, then in complete disregard for, the resolution of Saftu’s Founding Congress to establish an inclusive party uniting workers, communities, youth and students. The SRWP’s launch was not mandated either by Saftu affiliates or indeed Numsa members or worker structures themselves.
Far from aiding the process towards a mass workers party, the SRWP has obstructed it. The SACP II-grouping in the Numsa leadership have thus twice – first by an act of omission – the passive withdrawal of support for the ANC, and then by one of commission – the creation of the SRWP – stood in the way of the formation of a genuine, democratic socialist mass workers party.
All of the SACP II-grouping’s stumbling and fumbling over recent years confirms a deeply bureaucratic and undemocratic approach. They are not motivated by advancing the interests of the working class except in as far as this coincides with defending their positions in Numsa. Dominating the emerging new workers’ movement is seen as crucial auxiliary to this. The way in which the SRWP was launched was the culmination of this wrong approach.
Any genuine workers’ leader should have been thrilled by the Saftu and WCS resolutions committing to help bring into existence a mass workers party. They signalled the willingness of broader working class forces to be part of such a project. But the SACP II-grouping did not view it this way. They saw it as a threat and so has acted to paralyse both Saftu and the WCS to prevent either from moving forward. Even in the SRWP, the rank-and-file played no more than a token role, if that, in the development of its programme, policy, manifesto or the election of its leadership – all of which were prefabricated and imposed at the December 2018 founding conference sparking walk-outs.
Numsa members should be insulted by the SACP II-grouping’s attempts to portray the creation of the SRWP as a fulfilment of the mandate of the 2013 SNC. This is nothing but ‘spin’ to try and disguise that the SRWP was imposed on Numsa itself. Leave aside that Numsa held a Congress in December 2016 where the workers’ party was only touched on in the vaguest terms, the manner in which a leadership carries forward a mandate must take account of changes in the situation. In 2013 Numsa was still inside Cosatu. Saftu did not exist. The WCS had not taken place. There was absolutely no ‘mandated’ reason that the SACP II-grouping had to proceed in the bureaucratic way that it did. Working with Saftu and the forces assembled by the WCS to unite the broadest possible sections of the working class for the creation of a workers’ party was the only course of action genuinely in keeping with the spirit of the SNC’s mandate.The SACP II-grouping made a choice not to do this.
But if the manner in which the SRWP was launched was the culmination of the SACP II-grouping’s obstructionist approach, it also seems to be its high point. Now the fall to Earth is beginning. There is growing dissatisfaction with their conduct within Saftu, Numsa and even the SRWP.
Despite efforts to fill the SRWP with ‘loyalists’, some genuine activists did find their way into the party. The 2019 election results would have been a huge disappointment to them. Having given the leadership the benefit of the doubt over how to proceed with the party there is now a questioning and re-examination underway.
A widespread complaint within the SRWP is its complete inactivity and lack of campaigning. Its highly abstract ‘revolutionary propaganda’ is completely disconnected from the real political landscape and the events and issues shaping the lives of the working class. What is produced is completely superficial. There is no effort to apply Marxism to the analysis of events to guide working class struggle. The SRWP has no publications we are aware of. Its website is a set of dead stone tablets that the working class must either accept or not. This is then sprinkled with r-r-revolutionary postures on international issues. This approach can never develop a cadre capable of wielding Marxism as a living breathing method for interventions and leadership in the class struggle, let alone win the support of the masses.
Now the revolt is breaking to the surface. The SRWP’s Western Cape convenor has written a highly critical letter to the leadership which describes “the sinking Titanic which is the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party” and “the absence of leadership as the rudder of the organization”. The letter also confirms the existence of an undemocratic internal regime and strongly hints at the growing influence of careerist elements. This is not surprising to us. It is an inevitable product of a party that grew out of, and has based itself upon, the SACP II-grouping in the Numsa bureaucracy and not the working class.
The Western Cape letter calls for the convening of an SRWP Special Congress. We call on all genuine SRWP members to support this call and campaign for it within the party. However, we are not optimistic about the campaign’s chances of success. The sad reality is that the SRWP is just a piece being moved around the factional chess board in the unhealthy manoeuvring within the Numsa bureaucracy ahead of its end-of-year Congress. Whether or not an SRWP Special Congress goes ahead will be determined by whether or not it will help or hinder the SACP II-grouping to win positions. If they calculate that a SRWP Special Congress will allow opposition to them to consolidate and pass a negative verdict on their leadership before they are certain of re-election in Numsa they will never allow it to go ahead.
If we are wrong (and we hope we are!), and an SRWP Special Congress does go ahead, structures must campaign for the SRWP to stop obstructing the Saftu and WCS workers’ party process and throw its full weight behind it. The seismic shifts underway in society as a result of the unprecedented health, economic and political crisis, as we have outlined in Part 1 of this Open Letter, offers the working class the chance to get back on track with the reclaiming of its organisational, political and ideological independence, including, decisively, the creation of a mass workers party with a socialist programme.
PART 3: The Crisis of Programme
In Part 2 of our Open letter we described the obstructionist role of an “SACP Mark II”-grouping inside the Numsa and Saftu leaderships that is blocking the working class’s struggle to reclaim its organisational, political and ideological independence. We appealed to genuine members of the SRWP, one of the obstacles created by this group, to support the Saftu and WCS workers’ party process.
The SRWP’s support for the Saftu and WCS workers’ party process does not automatically require the liquidation of the SRWP. But the justification for separate organisations is determined by the existence of clearly defined differences of ideology, programme and method. The Marxist Workers Party is crystal clear on the reason for its existence and clear on the programme to which we are trying to win the working class. We would suggest to genuine members of the SRWP that as part of their struggle for a Special Congress they examine the programmatic and ideological foundations of their party, its methods etc.
We think these comrades will find that the SRWP, as a creation of a section of the Numsa bureaucracy, has been dressed in an ideological suit that fits their interests and not the interests of the working class. We believe that the idea of the National Democratic Revolution continues to guide thinking in the party. This Stalinist ‘theory’ is imported from the SACP. It teaches that the end of apartheid and introduction of bourgeois democracy was the victory of the first ‘democratic stage’ of the South African revolution. At some point, after a period of ‘national’ development on a capitalist basis, the second ‘socialist stage’ will begin. The NDR rejects everything that Marxism teaches the working class, resuscitates everything that Lenin campaigned against in building the Bolshevik party, and ignores what made victory in the 1917 Russian Revolution possible. Clinging to the NDR can only ever create an SACP Mark II.
The world is dominated by imperialism. The world market was long-ago carved-up and an international ‘division of labour’ imposed on the terms of the imperialist powers. Against this back-drop, the NDR’s ‘democratic stage’ could never look any different to the South African experience over the past 26 years – continued poverty, basic human needs unmet, mass unemployment, growing inequality, economic stagnation, social decay reflected in crime, drug-addiction, violence against women and children etc.
It is more likely that the NDR’s ‘first stage’, ‘bourgeois parliamentary’ i.e. capitalist democracy, will be rolled-back by a ruling class no longer able to afford the ‘luxury’ of democracy, than that it will ever guide the working class to socialism. The Marikana Massacre, state capture and corruption, the limitations on the right to strike in the LRA Amendment Act, the militarised lockdown and Ramaphosa’s resuscitation of the State Security Council the apartheid regime ruled through in its last decade, are just some of the indications of the anti-democratic tendency inherent in the ruling capitalist class as it struggles to maintain its grip on society. Contrary to the NDR, it is only socialism that can consolidate and guarantee the democratic gains of 1994.
But the NDR serves the material interests of those trade union leaders who enjoy privileged lifestyles and fear losing them. At weekends and on public holidays they are free to service their ‘base’ and make radical socialist speeches in front of the angry and frustrated workers whose wages pay their inflated salaries. But on weekdays the NDR teaches that compromise with the bosses is not just necessary but a revolutionary duty. No other approach can flow in practise from the idea that “now is not the time for socialism” and that “the balance of forces are unfavourable”. The NDR is a treacherous policy for class collaboration, at best positioning the trade unions as a “loyal opposition”.
NDR in Action
The Cosatu leadership has of course mastered this balancing act between the classes. But it continues to be reflected in the programme and methods of the SACP II-grouping’s leadership. They have all but formalised a division of labour between the SRWP and Numsa that reflects the mistaken framework of the NDR. The SRWP leadership makes abstract propaganda in favour of a future socialist revolution, then, wearing their ‘Numsa hats’, carefully limit the real struggles of workers which might actually prepare the way for that revolution.
In the five-week long 2014 metalworkers’ strike, the SACP II-grouping in the Numsa leadership were at pains to insist that the strike was “not political”. An iron wall was erected between the highly political outcomes of Numsa’s Special National Congress, which had taken place just months earlier, and the on-the-ground struggle of Numsa’s members. In 2015, during the crisis in the steel industry, the SACP II-grouping in the Numsa leadership continued with the same “it’s not a political strike” line. They did not demand the nationalisation of the sector under democratic workers’ control, but supported the bosses’ call for the government to impose tariffs on imported steel. Ultimately, this meant defending the bosses’ profits by passing-on increased steel prices to the rest of society. And job losses went ahead anyway!
More recently, at SAA, after heroic strike action by the workers, the SACP II-grouping in the Numsa leadership, instead of broadening the struggle by mobilising more widely in the aviation sector and SOEs, supported the bosses’ and ANC government’s business rescue. But predictably the only things rescued were the banks’ loans. After sowing false illusions in business rescue, over two-thirds of the 4,000 strong SAA workforce have seen no alternative but to agree to take voluntary severance packages. This organised, militant bastion of working class power has been destroyed.
Last month there was a strike at SCAW metals against an attempt by the bosses to use the pandemic and lockdown as an excuse to cut allowances. This was called-off with Numsa agreeing to make concessions. Sometimes a retreat in the class struggle is unavoidable. But that is not what happened at SCAW. According to Numsa’s own press release the strike was ended to help the bosses with their “current financial pressures”. Grovelling before the bosses, comrade Jim continued:
This agreement is proof of the willingness of the union and workers to make sacrifices where justified, [Justified by what? The bosses’ profit margins?] and where employers engage in a constructive and sincere engagement, in order to find a solution which will suit all parties.[Why are illusions being sowed that labour and capital have common interests?] … We are not unreasonable and neither are our members. And the fact that we were able to negotiate an amicable solution to end this strike, whist at the same time, addressing key concerns of employees at Scaw backs this up.[Reasonable according to who? Bourgeois ‘public opinion’?] [Our emphasis.]
This approach is the complete opposite to the war-footing that the working class needs to be placed upon if it is not to fall to the bottom of the abyss to which capitalism has led it. How does the position adopted at SCAW fit with Jim’s almost simultaneous call – safely away from workers actually involved in struggle! – for the “Mother of All Political Strikes”? The same mistaken approach of the SACP II-grouping in the Numsa leadership is repeated again, and again, and again. There is a stubborn refusal by the SACP II-grouping to do anything whatsoever to politicise strikes, to link them to the incapacity of capitalism to take society forward, let alone raise socialist demands. But all of these strikes took place when they were supposedly carrying out Numsa’s mandate to create a workers’ party to lead the socialist revolution! What is reflected in this approach if not the NDR in action?
On the other hand, we believe that the Saftu leaders supporting comrade Vavi have made serious mistakes in how they have responded to the crisis provoked by the SACP II-grouping. It was wrong not to trust the membership with information about the crisis within the Saftu leadership and adopt a “not in front of the children” approach. What was needed was a campaign to mobilise the rank-and-file, including that of Numsa, to break the paralysis.
But instead of systematic work within the federation itself, comrade Vavi’s supporters chose to avoid confronting the bureaucratic obstacle in their path, and instead, tried to take a short-cut around it. Their efforts went into trying to build a ‘working class wing’ of the middle class C19 People’s Coalition. The failure of all but two Saftu affiliates to participate in the C19 Coalition’s “Working Class Day of Action” on 1 August seems to have led these comrades to re-evaluate their approach and return to their posts in Saftu, pushing, successfully, for the convening of the NEC. But the cost of their mistaken approach remains five wasted months. (See our statement distributed on the 1 August Working Class Day of Action here.)
Since mid-April the Marxist Workers Party has called on the Saftu leadership to convene a Special Saftu Congress and a Working Class Summit II. The world had changed in a matter of weeks and we believed it was urgent that the working class be re-armed and prepared for the new era. This demanded the fullest and most democratic discussion throughout all Saftu affiliates and the sympathising organisations brought together by the Summit (see Part I of this Open Letter for more explanation of our WCS call).
The paralysis in Saftu’s leadership may have been temporarily broken and the NEC called, but the crisis is not resolved. This makes the need for a Special Congress more urgent. The membership must hold both sides to account. It would be a mistake to try and sweep recent events under the carpet. They must be reckoned with and lessons learned. Without this there is a danger that the crisis will quickly re-erupt and paralysis return. But it is also necessary if Saftu’s claim to be a democratic and worker-controlled federation is not hollow. It is our understanding of the Saftu constitution that a Special Congress can be convened by the CC or at the request of one-third of affiliates. Whatever the technical mechanism used, we call on Saftu to set the date. If the SACP II-grouping blocks this to keep their misconduct hidden behind closed doors let it be reflected in the record and publicised throughout the federation.
Despite his popularity amongst the workers , comrade Vavi has a tendency to ‘seek refuge’ with the middle class left. This tendency has become especially pronounced in the course of 2019. It is not an accident that this coincides with the escalation of tensions with the SACP II-grouping.
Reformist middle class ideas have become the main thrust of Saftu’s public position and are put forward in press statements, media interviews, memoranda etc. This approach has centred on appeals to the ANC government to reduce interest rates, introduce tax reforms and apply economic stimulus packages. Press releases praising the British capitalist economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) have confirmed that Saftu HQ is looking for guidance from the book of Keynesianism. This has ideologically positioned Saftu as an echo chamber for reformist economists and commentators in the capitalist media.
This clearly goes against the founding of Saftu as a “revolutionary and socialist oriented federation”. The ritualistic and abstract tagging-on of the word “socialism” at the end of press releases which are otherwise Keynesian throughout does not fix the problem. Rather than shoring-up Vavi’s position, this approach has further weakened it, giving his opponents ammunition and opportunities to posture as “more revolutionary”.
Marxists support every reform that improves the lives of the working class. But we oppose reformism – the sowing of illusions that any reforms can be made permanent without replacing capitalism with socialism. Keynesianism in all its modern forms is a political project to save capitalism from revolution. On the one hand, it reflects the recognition of the middle class and sections of the capitalist class that capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands of the masses. On the other hand, it reflects their distrust and fear of the working class and the socialist revolution. Keynes himself summed this view up when he pointed out his concern that when faced with the starvation imposed by the crises of capitalism “men will not always die quietly”.
This is why Keynesians address themselves first and foremost to the capitalist state, just as Saftu’s recent press releases have. They believe the task is to convince the ruling class to see reason and provide the masses with an ‘honourable poverty’ that takes the heat out of the class struggle. They view this as a more ‘practical’ approach than the risky and unpredictable business of revolution which might threaten the relative privileges of the middle class it is so popular amongst.
Elitism runs through Keynesianism. The problems of capitalist society are not seen as political, arising from the class struggle, but technical, a question of competent economic management. So the insecure middle class seeks refuge in the arms of a neutral technocratic state from a class struggle in which it can play no independent role. They treat the class struggle as an intellectual misunderstanding, instead of the life and death matter it is. Problematically for Keynesianism the class struggle is real and this neutral state does not exist.
None of Keynesianism’s ‘economic fixes’ resolve the fundamental contradictions at the heart of capitalism that make unemployment, poverty, exploitation and economic crises inevitable. To the extent that the ruling class picks these ideas up, and puts them down again, is determined entirely by their attempt to defend their interests whilst navigating the class struggle they of necessity must recognise. The massive economic stimulus packages in the imperialist countries, and even the ANC’s weak imitations, including the temporary introduction of the SRD social grant, demonstrates this. Predictably an entire swathe of the ‘progressive’ middle class has mis-read these developments and seen in them the awakening of a possibility to influence the state to embark upon a more benevolent and ‘inclusive’ path. This is what the C19 People’s Coalition represents.
The practical consequences that flow from Keynesianism for the workers movement are little different to those of the NDR. It encourages the de-politicisation of working class struggles and class compromise. Keynesianism is another useful suit that privileged trade union leaders can wear that allows them a degree of radical posturing whilst accommodating themselves to the bosses and the continuation of capitalism.
The crisis of leadership in Saftu is ultimately a crisis of programme. There has been no serious reckoning on the part of the majority of Saftu’s leadership with the lessons of Cosatu’s degeneration. Many of the wrong ideas and methods have been imported into the new federation. The persistence of bureaucratic rivalries is one symptom of this.
Leon Trotsky explained that, “In the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can be really independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution.” (Our emphasis.) Saftu members will not be able to fully purge the policies of class collaboration and complete the journey to reclaiming their organisational, political and ideological independence until they have consciously rejected the NDR, Keynesianism and all other varieties of reformism, embraced genuine Marxism and made revolutionary trade unionism the official policy of Saftu.
Saftu’s “independence” can have real meaning only if it is understood as defending the interests of the working class which created it. On the political plane this can be assured only by Saftu playing a leading role in the formation of a workers’ party, from which it retains its independence by ensuring its direct control over it, turning the party into the political wing of a revolutionary mass movement in which the organised working class will play the decisive role. Any other policy means surrendering the political terrain to the minority capitalist class.
The majority of the existing leadership is unlikely to embrace these ideas spontaneously. There must be a campaign within the federation for the correct policies. Otherwise workers will remain hamstrung by a leadership that zig-zags around whilst empirically groping its way forward. We call on all those who have read this and agree with our analysis to contact us to discuss the formation of a Marxist Trade Union Network that sets itself the task of consolidating a genuine revolutionary current within the trade union movement. This appeal is not limited to Saftu. The work needs to be conducted across the entire trade union movement to build the cadre and the leadership capable of leading the working class in the struggle for socialism.
Sunday Times, 9 August 2020
“Apocalypse Just Now: Can SA’s economy still be saved?”, Financial Mail (6 August 2020)
“Protests Predicted to Surge Globally as Covid-19 Drives Unrest”, London Guardian, 17 July 2020
Numsa press release (4 August 2020)
29 July 2020
Keynes, Collected Works, Volume II