Spartacist South Africa No. 12
Split in COSATU
Break with the Tripartite Alliance!
For Class Independence of the Proletariat from ALL Bourgeois Parties!
The expulsion of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) from the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) in November brought to a head the faction fight that had been raging between different wings of the bureaucracy. It took a 15-hour marathon meeting for the COSATU central executive committee to reach the 33-to-24 vote in favour of kicking NUMSA out. The charges against NUMSA were: attempting to march on the federation headquarters; withholding subscription fees pending the convocation of a COSATU special congress; organising along the value chain as opposed to along industrial lines; withholding electoral support to the African National Congress (ANC) as well as demanding that COSATU withdraw from the Tripartite Alliance; and refusing to pay political levies to both the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
The reactions to the expulsion have further highlighted the deep fissures within the federation, including within individual affiliates and along regional lines. For instance, the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) and South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) in the Eastern Cape Province opposed the expulsion, while their respective national leaderships supported it.
Besides NUMSA, the leaders of seven other affiliates have boycotted meetings of the central executive committee and other leadership structures in protest. These unions supported NUMSA’s demand for a special congress to settle the differences in the federation and elect a new leadership, while continuing to support the ANC in the 2014 general elections. The leaders of NUMSA and its sympathisers complain that the expulsion was a betrayal of “worker mandated positions”. Initially these unions mobilised around the defence of Zwelinzima Vavi after he was suspended as COSATU general secretary in mid-2013 for having sex with a junior COSATU employee. Over the years Vavi has acquired mastery over the art of speaking from both sides of his mouth, thus faithfully containing class struggle and reassuring the bosses while feeding illusions that he championed the interests of the working class. Such illusions were heavily pushed by the NUMSA tops and their left coat-tails, who hailed Vavi’s return to office (courtesy of the South West Gauteng High Court) as a great victory for the working class.
But with the crisis in COSATU sharpening, the two-faced Vavi is running out of room to manoeuver. In a “heart felt letter” to the federation justifying his failure to attend the press conference after the November meeting that expelled NUMSA, Vavi claimed he would “not be able to defend a decision that I honestly believe is contradicting and undermining organised workers and broader working class unity”. Nonetheless, a couple weeks later at a special central executive meeting he struck a deal to have his disciplinary charges stayed—and subsequently went on to act as spokesman in defence of the expulsion!
The ANC’s response to the split was melancholic. Without a doubt the ruling party is lamenting the loss of voting cattle for elections. More fundamentally, the ANC is concerned that the fracturing of COSATU undermines its ability to contain worker militancy (which, for the ANC, offsets the gain of having a more compliant COSATU). This was expressed by ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe, who whined that the bourgeois ANC “will not be as good as it is when it has a strong alliance”.
The SACP tops, on the other hand, could barely conceal their glee over NUMSA’s expulsion. Blade Nzimande, SACP general secretary and minister of higher education, called NUMSA a “stinking corpse” that had to be kicked out of COSATU. The Communist Party tops and the NUMSA tops have been at each other’s throats for quite some time, with Irvin Jim and other NUMSA bureaucrats constantly denouncing the SACP for abandoning its supposed “vanguard role” (by which Jim and Co. mean the refusal to mouth even the most empty criticisms of the government under Zuma for the purpose of promoting illusions in the Alliance). Despite the falling out, there is no fundamental political difference: the NUMSA leadership upholds the Stalinist programme of class collaboration that has long been a hallmark of the SACP. They have no principled opposition to coalition with bourgeois parties. In fact, Nzimande and other alliance leaders have argued that the factional divisions in the COSATU bureaucracy began when Jacob Zuma spurned Irvin Jim’s proposal to have Zwelinzima Vavi installed as his deputy.
The faction fight within the COSATU bureaucracy is a symptom of the deepening class contradictions in society. Among the oppressed majority, the anger against the ravages of the post-1994 neo-apartheid capitalist system has reached explosive levels, leading to differences among the Tripartite Alliance tops over the best way to respond. The Alliance—a South African variant of the popular front, a coalition of reformist-led workers organisations (such as the SACP and COSATU) with bourgeois parties (such as the ANC)—has for decades served to betray the interests of the working class by chaining them to their capitalist exploiters. The NUMSA tops, notwithstanding their recent calls for COSATU to end the Alliance, do not have anything fundamental against such coalitions—after all, Irvin Jim and other NUMSA leaders have for decades done their utmost to maintain the treacherous Alliance, including selling out strikes of their own members.
We Trotskyists never gave an ounce of political support to the ANC or the Tripartite Alliance. In the 1994 elections, the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist)—of which Spartacist South Africa is a section—opposed any support to the ANC, declaring:
“A vote for the ANC—including its Communist Party members and affiliated trade-union leaders of COSATU—is a vote to perpetuate the racist oppression and superexploitation of the black, coloured (mixed-race) and Indian toilers in a different political form. The workers and all the oppressed must be mobilized independently of the capitalist masters.”
—“South Africa Elections: ANC’s Deal with Apartheid Bosses”, Workers Vanguard No. 598, 15 April 1994.
For Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!
According to the SACP leadership and others in the pro-Zuma faction, it was NUMSA’s violation of the principle of industrial unionism that forced COSATU to expel them. NUMSA’s only response is to point out that many unions in the federation have been poaching each other’s members for years. Indeed, this is an open secret, and it is clear that those like the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) tops who attack NUMSA for this are simply trying to cover up their own class-collaborationist betrayals.
In general, revolutionaries favour organising workers in one union in a given industry in order to maximise the strength of the working class against the capitalists and give the widest possible layer of workers the chance to evaluate competing political programmes on the basis of their experience. However, we do not condemn all splits within the trade unions out of hand; these need to be judged on a case-by-case basis. When the majority of mineworkers at the big platinum mines near Rustenburg turned their back on the NUM to join the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) during the 2012 wildcat strikes, we defended their right to do so and pointed out: “It is the NUM tops’ class treachery that is fundamentally responsible for undermining workers’ unity in the mining industry” (“Miners Struggle Shakes Neo-Apartheid Capitalist Order”, reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 23, February 2013). In the cases where NUMSA has recruited workers from other COSATU unions (like at Eskom and Transnet), these have been minorities, with the majority of workers retaining their allegiance to the already-established unions. These splits do little to advance the workers’ ability to struggle, and mainly serve to divide the workforce and isolate the most militant, critical-minded elements from the majority of the workers.
In any case, new unions are not in and of themselves an answer to the bosses’ attacks. What is necessary is the forging of a class-struggle leadership in the unions, based on complete independence from the bourgeoisie and its state, as a crucial part of building a revolutionary workers party that champions all the exploited and the oppressed. This is anathema to the class-collaborationist NUMSA tops (and to the AMCU leaders), who are fundamentally no less committed to the bourgeois order than their rivals in the COSATU bureaucracy.
The NUMSA leadership and other affiliates have consistently resorted to the courts to carry out their factional battles (for example, the months-long case to get Vavi reinstated). It therefore came as no surprise when NUMSA promised to fight their expulsion in the bourgeois courts. True to their word, on the 19th of November, together with seven other sympathising affiliates, they jointly filed papers to force COSATU to hold a special congress. These kinds of actions are antithetical to workers democracy—they consolidate government control over the labour movement and promote suicidal illusions in bourgeois “justice”. As revolutionary Marxists, we oppose suing unions as a breach of elementary class principles. Bourgeois courts—which, together with the police and prisons, constitute the core of the capitalist state—are the enemies of the proletariat and have no business in the affairs of working class organisations. Remember that the courts were used to charge, under apartheid law, the comrades of the 34 slain mineworkers at Marikana. Labour must clean its own house! Cops and courts out of the workers movement!
NUMSA’s “United Front”: Class Collaboration Recycled
NUMSA’s special congress in December 2013 created high expectations among their base and other COSATU members. Particularly the decision to withhold the electoral support to the ANC (while leaving it to individual members to decide which party to vote for), which seemed to many like a step toward ending the working class’s subordination to the ANC and the government. But while dropping political support to the ANC is a potentially significant step, the alternative to the Tripartite Alliance proposed by the NUMSA tops—the “United Front”—has nothing to do with working class independence and everything to do with channelling the discontent of their base into a “new” class-collaborationist alliance. We warned in a leaflet distributed at the special congress: “The formation envisioned by the NOB proposal, like the UDF [United Democratic Front] of the 1980s, is a popular front and has nothing at all in common with the united front tactic as employed by the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky and the early Communist International. ... The popular front is not a tactic to advance the interests of the working class, but a class collaborationist betrayal of those interests”.(See “Metal Workers Union drops Electoral Support to ANC”, Workers Vanguard No. 1039, 7 February 2014.)
This has been confirmed over the whole of last year in their attempts to get the “United Front” off the ground. In typical popular-front fashion, the meetings they have held throughout the country have featured representatives from all class backgrounds—from trade unionists, “social movement” types, “NGOs”, religious organisations, former mayors and government ministers, to bourgeois political parties like the Democratic Alliance, United Democratic Movement and Pan Africanist Congress (invitations were also extended to the ANC and Malema’s bourgeois-populist Economic Freedom Fighters). All of this was capped off by a “People’s Assembly” in December 2014, where a few hundred handpicked delegates elected a national working committee. Besides the president of NUMSA and some “left” intellectuals, the working committee includes Ronnie Kasrils, former intelligence minister in the Alliance government, and Zanoxolo Wayile, former ANC mayor of the Nelson Mandela Metro.
The programme tying all this up is the bourgeois Freedom Charter. Irvin Jim highlighted this when he listed “two main criteria” for adherence to the “United Front”: opposition to neo-liberalism and support to the Freedom Charter. The 1955 Freedom Charter is an example of a populist programme. Populism and neo-liberalism are two different policy options for the capitalists, both based on the exploitation and oppression of the working class. There is nothing “socialist” about the Freedom Charter. Nelson Mandela, a revered icon of the “liberation movement”, explained in his 1956 article “In Our Life Time” that the Charter was “by no means a blueprint for a socialist state”; rather, it sought to ensure “the development of a prosperous Non-European bourgeois [i.e. capitalist] class”. As we noted in our December 2013 leaflet, under the neo-apartheid system the superexploitation of mainly black labour and grinding oppression of the masses remain unchanged. “To try to foist the bourgeois Freedom Charter on the working class now means ignoring the experience from the past 20 years of continued suffering under this system and preparing the way for more betrayals and defeats.”
The “United Front” and the Left
Coming off the December 2014 “United Front” assembly, the Mail and Guardian published an article quoting a host of “left” academics looking to jump on the NUMSA bandwagon (“Left moves to seize the moment”, 1 January, mg.co.za). A central theme is the authors’ desire to be rid of “the dusty Marxist-Leninism in the history books”, which they lament “still permeates Numsa”. The “new” alternatives they promote are the “left-leaning models” of bourgeois rule adopted by some capitalist regimes in Latin America and the likes of the petty-bourgeois Syriza party in Greece: “The consensus ... is that free-market capitalism may have failed, but so has 20th-century socialism.”
This drivel is typical of the anti-communist “death of communism” ideology that has increasingly permeated the reformist left following the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In the same vein, the M&G authors quote Mazibuko Jara of the Democratic Left Front (DLF), who hailed the NUMSA tops’ international trips and political schools, where “21st-century socialism” and other such fads were hyped, as “a conscious attempt to unlearn the baggage of the SACP”. The “unlearning” Jara and the like have in mind has nothing to do with rejecting the class collaboration that defines the SACP’s programme (and which the NUMSA tops embrace wholeheartedly); they are worried about removing the “taint” of Bolshevism, the October Revolution and the Soviet workers state, which the SACP wrongly claims as its heritage.
Those fake-Trotskyist outfits that refused to defend the Soviet Union against counterrevolution share their own portion of blame for the fact that the Stalinist-derived SACP is still able to posture as heirs of Lenin. For example, both the founders of the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP)—the Taafeites of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and their international co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International—and the Cliffites of Keep Left, who are buried in the popular-frontist DLF, fully supported counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. They sided with the imperialists and their stooges, and sometimes even stood on the same counterrevolutionary barricades with them in fighting to destroy the bureaucratically degenerated workers state.
In sharp contrast, we of the ICL fought tooth and nail for the unconditional defence of the Soviet Union and the deformed workers states in Eastern Europe against imperialism and counterrevolution. For example, we distributed over 100 000 copies of a Russian translation of the August 1991 article, “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!”, throughout the Soviet Union. There we pointed to the need for workers mobilisations to clean out the counterrevolutionary rabble on Yeltsin’s barricades, thus opening the road to proletarian political revolution against the decrepit Stalinist bureaucracy that had fatally undermined the workers state through decades of nationalist misrule and conciliation of imperialism. (For an in-depth Trotskyist analysis of the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union and what the ICL did to fight it, see the Spartacist pamphlet How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled, August 1993, where that article is reprinted.)
The counterrevolution was a huge defeat for the workers and oppressed internationally, opening the way for increased imperialist depredations around the world and throwing back consciousness. It also created the conditions for the negotiated settlement that ended apartheid, by allaying the white minority rulers’ fear of the “rooi gevaar”. Today South Africa is one of the few countries where, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, large sections of the proletariat still identify subjectively with communism. It is crucial that advanced workers be won to the genuine communism of Lenin and Trotsky—the revolutionary, internationalist programme that guided the workers to victory in the October Revolution. Stalin and his heirs trampled on this programme and dragged it through the mud, promoting the anti-revolutionary dogma of “socialism in one country” and the treacherous pipe dream of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism, selling out revolutions abroad while at the same time politically expropriating and gagging the Soviet workers.
Needless to say, the fake Trotskyists and other pseudo-socialists who spit on the Soviet workers state and cheered its counterrevolutionary destruction are in no position to do this: those who are unable to defend the past gains of the international working class will never be able to fight for new ones. The DLF and WASP, along with most of the rest of the so-called socialist left in South Africa, are now abjectly tailing the NUMSA bureaucracy, hailing their class-collaborationist “United Front” as a great step forward to “socialism”. Even bourgeois mouthpieces like The Star have noted how the metalworkers union has found easy allies in the DLF and WASP. For many years, the founders of these groups supported the ANC and were even buried inside of it.
Both the DLF and WASP seek to build “mass workers parties” which essentially are no different from the reformist party that the NUMSA bureaucracy is considering (the “Movement for Socialism”). The broad, heterogeneous parties that DLF, WASP and the NUMSA tops all envision are a variant of the “party of the whole class” concept developed by Karl Kautsky (a pre-eminent theoretician of the Social Democracy before World War I). Kautsky maintained that there should be only one party based on the working class in every country, embracing all tendencies which supported such a party, however antagonistic their programmes and policies. Lenin made a decisive break from this concept following the collapse of the Second International when its main parties voted to support their “own” imperialists in the mass slaughter of World War I. In Socialism and War (1915), Lenin and G. Zinoviev declared: “Today unity with the opportunists actually means subordinating the working class to their ‘own’ national bourgeoisie, and an alliance with the latter for the purpose of oppressing other nations and of fighting for dominant-nation privileges; it means splitting the revolutionary proletariat of all countries.” In this spirit, Spartacist South Africa seeks to recruit advanced workers and declassed intellectuals, on the basis of a revolutionary Trotskyist programme, to building a party of the Bolshevik type.
Permanent Revolution: The Only Road to Black Liberation
The NUMSA bureaucracy’s “United Front” harks back to the “anti-imperialist united front” slogan promoted by Stalin and Bukharin in the late 1920s. This slogan was an expression of the “two-stage revolution” schema, meaning that uprisings in the colonial and semi-colonial countries should have as their aim placing the bourgeoisie in power (the “first stage”). The fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat (the “second stage”) was relegated to some other time in the future. In reality, the second stage amounts to the butchering of workers. History shows that the moment the nationalists have consolidated their grasp on power, they always turn on their supposed working class “allies”, meting out bloody repression—like in the Marikana massacre, for instance. From Shanghai in 1927, to Spain in the late 1930s and Chile in the 1970s, the second stage’s time line is marked with the blood of workers.
The NUMSA tops have made it amply clear that their commitment to the “two-stage” Stalinist betrayal is not to be questioned. Like the SACP tops, they justify this class collaboration by saying this is needed to achieve the national liberation of the black majority and other burning democratic aspirations of the masses—the “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR). But the bankruptcy of the NDR is becoming increasingly apparent. The post-1994 neo-apartheid system has not changed the brutal national oppression of the black majority. The migrant labour system, wretched backwardness in the former bantustans, hideous oppression of women, and many other aspects of the oppression suffered by the non-white masses—these can only be completely addressed through the overthrow of capitalism. What is needed is for the proletariat to fight independently of all bourgeois forces, placing itself at the head of the struggle for the national liberation of the black majority and acting as a tribune of all the oppressed.
This is at the heart of Leon Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution. As he explained, in countries of belated capitalist development like South Africa, the “complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation”. In South Africa, we concretise this perspective with the slogan of a black-centred workers government. As Trotsky emphasised in a 1935 letter to his supporters in South Africa: “Insofar as a victorious revolution will radically change not only the relation between the classes, but also between the races, and will assure to blacks that place in the state which corresponds to their numbers, insofar will the social revolution in South Africa have a national character.”
This has nothing to do with the “nation building” programme—promoted by the ANC and other nationalists—of establishing a unitary “nation” based on the artificial borders imposed by imperialism. In order to maintain its rule in the face of widespread discontent, the ANC necessarily must pit sections of the non-white oppressed masses against each other, continuing the “divide-and-rule” tactics inherited from the white minority rulers. A black-centred workers government would include full participation and champion the democratic rights of the coloured and Indian toilers, as well as those whites who accept a government based centrally on the black working class. It would also grant full citizenship rights to all immigrants, including the migrant labourers from around the region—who form a significant section of the proletariat in mining and other key sectors—and their families. Working out a democratic, egalitarian and rational solution to all these questions requires a socialist federation of Southern Africa.
As Trotsky insisted, “The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena” (The Permanent Revolution, 1931). A black-centred workers government in South Africa would have a vital interest in the victory of workers revolutions internationally, particularly in the imperialist centres in North America, Europe and Japan. As stated in the ICL’s “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” (Spartacist [English edition] No. 54, Spring 1998):
“the victory of the proletariat on a world scale would place unimagined material abundance at the service of human needs, lay the basis for the elimination of classes and the eradication of social inequality based on sex and the very abolition of the social significance of race, nation and ethnicity. For the first time mankind will grasp the reins of history and control its own creation, society, resulting in an undreamed-of emancipation of human potential, and a monumental forward surge of civilization.”