Reprinted below is an excerpt of a 19 July article written by our comrades from Spartacist/South Africa. Since the publication of this article, an opposition grouping within the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) appealed to the capitalist courts to interdict the union’s congress, an act of pure class treason that our comrades denounced in a subsequent leaflet, “Capitalist State: Hands Off NUMSA!” (4 August).
The May congress of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) made it unmistakably clear that both SAFTU and its largest affiliate, NUMSA, are in a massive crisis. The main expression of this crisis so far is a split in the bureaucracy, running up through the top leadership, and a bitter struggle for organisational control between the two factions — supporters of SAFTU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi on one side and supporters of NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim on the other. The struggle for positions repeatedly threatened to plunge the May congress into chaos and split the federation. At one point, pro-Jim delegates marched toward the podium singing “ungayiyijahi impi, iyabulala [don’t rush to war, it’s deadly]” as Vavi tried to steamroller obstacles to the election of his slate. Many expect the battle to continue at NUMSA’s 11th national congress, which has now been postponed twice as Jim and his allies try to suppress revolts in a number of regions by NUMSA members aligned to Vavi.
Despite the ferocity of the organisational struggle, both sides try to obscure the political issues while making a big show of unity. Behind this crisis is something neither faction wants to (or can) address: the utter failure, since the split from the ANC/SACP/COSATU [African National Congress/South African Communist Party/Congress of South African Trade Unions] Tripartite Alliance in 2013-15, to bring about the revival of a militant and powerful trade-union movement that would defend and advance the interests of the black toiling masses. This is what left-wing workers hoped for at the time of the split. Many also expected it to lay the basis for some kind of new political voice of the working class, feeling thoroughly disillusioned with the wretched pro-capitalist SACP leaders. These hopes have been utterly betrayed. The fundamental reason is not a “lack of urgency” or organisational incapacity, as preached by the pseudo-Marxist left groups whose whole strategic outlook is defined by supporting and pressuring one faction of the bureaucracy or the other — WASP [Workers and Socialist Party], Marxist Workers Party (MWP), Keep Left!, etc. The root cause is the nationalist, class-collaborationist programme of the NUMSA/SAFTU leaders, who despite their secondary differences all seek to re-furbish the nationalist popular front by building a “left” version of the Tripartite Alliance.
The past two years of pandemic and crisis, in particular, have laid bare how totally bankrupt and treacherous this is. As the working class was pummelled by the virus, capitalist attacks and a worsening jobs bloodbath, the “left” labour traitors at the head of NUMSA/SAFTU stood with the Randlords and the ANC government in every critical situation — from supporting the starvation lockdowns and shoving “shared sacrifice” down their members’ throats, to chaining workers to the warring ANC factions and betraying the desperate food rioters during the July 2021 unrest. While the SACP/COSATU tops openly and viciously attacked the workers from inside the capitalist government, the NUMSA/SAFTU leaders loudly denounced the government in words — only to support it and betray workers in deeds. This made them more effective at subordinating the mainly black proletariat to the racist capitalist exploiters in this crisis, as they were better able to contain the anger and militancy of left-wing workers.
These betrayals underline again a fundamental truth, which class-conscious workers must grasp to advance their interests: The genuine independence of the workers movement from the Randlords and their black government frontmen, can only be ensured through forging a revolutionary leadership on the basis of a programme for black proletarian power. Everybody knows that South Africa today is a smouldering powder keg of social discontent — the only questions are when the next explosion will come and, most importantly, which direction it will go. The alternatives, posed point blank, are either the road of workers revolution based on the power of the millions-strong black proletariat, or a worsening spiral of misery and reaction. There is no middle ground.
In the year since the July 2021 food riots, the social misery at the root of that plebeian upheaval has only grown worse in every way, from sky-rocketing costs of living, hunger and starvation, to worsening economic chaos and mass unemployment. This year has also seen a revival of strikes and protests, demonstrating that despite decades of massive betrayal at the hands of its leaders, the South African working class has not been decisively defeated. It remains militant and relatively well-organised, and many workers subjectively want to fight for communism, insofar as they understand it. At the same time, the potential for reaction — marked by increasingly murderous divisions along racial, ethnic and tribal lines — is clearly shown by the near-weekly anti-immigrant attacks and marches by pogromist outfits like Dudula.
In this explosive situation, a programme limited to trade-union struggle is utterly inadequate for addressing any of the tasks facing the working class. To fight for the burning needs of the working masses — for jobs and a living wage; for access to land and quality, racially-integrated housing; for abolition of the racist migrant labour system and liberation of particularly black women from the former bantustans — necessarily poses the question of which class will rule. To defend and advance its interests, the mainly black working class must place itself at the head of the struggle for the liberation of the black African masses and the coloured and Indian toilers — a struggle which must culminate in a black-centred workers government to expropriate the Randlords as a class and struggle to extend proletarian revolution to the imperialist centres. This is the core of the Trotskyist programme of permanent revolution, which provides the only progressive solution to the intense race and class contradictions of neo-apartheid.
The key task is forging a revolutionary leadership of the working class, based on strict political independence from the bourgeoisie and its nationalist frontmen. The crisis in SAFTU/NUMSA can be an important opening if it is used to bring about a real break from the nationalist-reformist programme of Jim, Vavi and Co among the union militants who are disillusioned with their leaders. This requires cohering a revolutionary pole as the nucleus of a Leninist vanguard party. Toward that end, we offer a Trotskyist perspective on some of the burning issues posed by the current crises, which we believe to be indispensable for this task. To workers and youth looking for a revolutionary road out of neo-apartheid misery, we urge you to consider these points and get in touch with Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) to discuss the way forward.
Permanent revolution vs
When NUMSA and other unions split from the Tripartite Alliance in 2013-15, it was a response to massive working-class anger against all the betrayals the SACP and COSATU tops committed as a necessary part of subordinating the proletariat to the capitalists and running neo-apartheid capitalism — betrayals represented for many workers by the 2012 Marikana massacre. But this response was distorted and deformed by the pro-capitalist leadership of the split, which from the very outset sought to ensure that the organisational break from the Alliance would not lead to a political break from the bourgeois programme of the nationalist popular front. Vavi, Jim and Co remain fully committed to the nationalist class collaboration that paved the way to the Marikana massacre and all the other bloody betrayals in the first place — just as they were when they supported [Jacob] Zuma as ANC president a second time in December 2012, a few months after the massacre. But they recognised at a certain point that they needed to formally disavow Zuma and the ANC if they were to maintain the credibility needed to continue serving the bourgeoisie as left-talking labour lieutenants.
After decades of neo-apartheid, the betrayal of the anti-apartheid struggle is so glaringly obvious that any political leader now abandoning the ANC must explain this betrayal. The NUMSA/SAFTU leaders’ answer is to throw sand in the eyes of left-wing workers. They acknowledge that the negotiated settlement [CODESA, formally ending apartheid] kept economic and social power in the hands of the white capitalist rulers, ensuring the continued national oppression of the black majority. This is absolutely true, but it is merely admitted as a smokescreen to peddle the lie that this monumental betrayal of black freedom was simply an “unfortunate” oversight by the ANC and Alliance leaders. The NUMSA/SAFTU leaders tell workers that the Tripartite Alliance government could have been an instrument for suppressing the white rulers, instead of “becoming captured” by them, if only the ANC had adopted different policies and changed some clauses in the CODESA agreement and the Constitution.
This is pure parliamentary cretinism. It isn’t constitutional clauses and the like — ultimately nothing more than scraps of paper — that are decisive for maintaining the dominance of the bourgeoisie, but the capitalist state. The essence of the negotiated settlement and “power sharing” deal was that the Tripartite Alliance tops took over administering that state — which they could only do on behalf of the white rulers, becoming black frontmen for racist capitalist rule. For the capitalists, this was dictated by the need to “adapt or die”: co-opting the leaders of the ANC Alliance offered the best hope for preserving their system in the face of a militant and powerful black workers movement, many of whom saw their fight as being one for socialism and red revolution. All wings of the nationalist popular front were critical to helping the capitalists out of this tight spot. This included left critics like the NUMSA leaders, who played a crucial role in pacifying and politically disarming left-wing workers. They betrayed these workers by telling them that, since socialism is supposedly “not yet on the agenda”, the only game in town is “swelling the ranks” of the ANC to push it to the left.
Today, the NUMSA/SAFTU leaders must cover up this historic betrayal in order to promote the lie that a solution to the misery of neo-apartheid capitalism can be reached through a “course correction” to re-furbish the nationalist popular front. For Jim and the NUMSA tops, this is expressed in the call to “get the national democratic revolution (NDR) back on track”. For Vavi and his supporters (including pseudo-Trotskyists like WASP and MWP), it is to push for a return to COSATU’s founding principles of “democratic socialism” and “workers control”, and resurrect the UDF-era [United Democratic Front] version of the nationalist popular front. While their rhetoric and appetites conflict in some ways, what they have in common is that they are pro-capitalist programmes based on opposing a fight for black proletarian power. Instead, they seek to politically tie the proletariat to populist bourgeois-nationalists and other “left-leaning” bourgeois forces (the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters], NGOs, etc). As a result, they necessarily prepare the way for new betrayals of socialism and black freedom.
Capitalism in South Africa is built on the national oppression and dispossession of the black majority. Superexploitation of mainly black labour in the mines, farms and factories produces mountains of wealth for the Randlords and their Anglo-American imperialist senior partners. These rapacious exploiters will never give up power peacefully, through negotiations or reforms. The only way to break their economic and social domination is through workers revolution to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the black African masses and the coloured and Indian toilers. For a black-centred workers government! The struggle for national liberation will be the strategic motor force for proletarian socialist revolution in this country. The key requirement is the proletariat’s complete political independence from bourgeois nationalism — both the ANC’s liberal brand and more populist variants like the EFF’s. This requires a sharp break with the nationalist class collaboration of Jim, Vavi and Co.
Since 2013, Jim and the NUMSA tops have endlessly preached that workers need to “get the NDR back on track” by campaigning for the “radical implementation of the Freedom Charter”. It is the same Stalinist schema of “revolution by stages” which the SACP has used for decades to politically chain the working class to the ANC, except now it’s offered to workers who are already gatvol [fed up] with three decades of ANC-administered neo-apartheid. The ANC has utterly betrayed the aspirations for national liberation, including ditching the vague promises of the bourgeois-populist Freedom Charter to nationalise the mines, land, etc. The NUMSA leaders tell workers that the answer to this betrayal is to desperately cling to that populist programme. They pay lip service to “socialist transformation” as the “most consistent and thorough-going” way to uproot national domination and colonial dispossession, but the whole point of “getting the NDR on track” is to (continue to) postpone “socialism” to an indefinite future. Thus, Irvin Jim and Co tell the working class that it must limit its struggle to a bourgeois programme, the Freedom Charter, before it can “reach the phase of socialist transformation”.
The near-complete overlap of race and class in South Africa gives black nationalism a strong hold on proletarian consciousness, growing out of black workers’ just hatred of the racist system of superexploitation. The NUMSA tops and other labour traitors exploit this nationalism — the mistaken notion that all black people share a common interest standing higher than class divisions — in order to subordinate the proletariat to finance capital. They tell them that the programme of the Freedom Charter offers the way to pry the land, mines, and other wealth of the country out of the hands of the white masters because it represents “all the class forces that suffer under the yoke of colonial dispossession and imperialist domination” (NUMSA 11th National Congress, Secretariat Report).
This is a swindle. Behind appeals for unity of “all the class forces” oppressed by white-minority rule, populist nationalism rallies the black toilers behind the class aims of the aspiring black capitalist layers, which nationalist parties like the ANC, EFF, PAC [Pan Africanist Congress] and AZAPO [Azanian People’s Organization] all represent. Above all, these parties are committed to maintaining capitalist class rule. As a result, they are utterly incapable of ending racial/national oppression, imperialist subjugation, or resolving any of the other basic national-democratic tasks created by colonialism and white-minority rule. On the contrary, in power they inevitably serve as black frontmen for the white big bourgeoisie and the imperialist overlords, employing nationalism to cover for this and attack the working class.
The only thing that reviving the NDR can achieve is continued subordination of the proletariat to finance capital, i.e. continued betrayal of both the struggle for socialism and national liberation. This is clearly shown by looking at what NUMSA leaders did during the period from the late 1980s until 2013, when they acted as “left” critics to keep left-wing workers trapped in the Tripartite Alliance class-collaborationist straitjacket. For example, in 1989 then NUMSA general secretary (and SACP leader) Moses Mayekiso told NUMSA workers that negotiations with the white rulers were the only way as the “socialist stage” had not yet arrived:
The following year, Mayekiso and SACP leader Joe Slovo were brought in by the bosses of Mercedes-Benz SA to put a stop to a “sleep-in” strike by thousands of NUMSA members at the company’s East London factory. A few months later, Slovo was in the US reassuring Wall Street and the White House that imperialist finance capital and its controlling stakes in the mines would not be touched by the government that came out of the negotiations: “We know that they aren’t charities and they need security, they need the feeling that what they’ve got they’re going to keep.” Strike-breaking and policing the working class on behalf of the white rulers and the imperialists — this is what keeping the proletariat “on track” for the “first stage” of the NDR meant in reality.
Even NUMSA’s leaders were forced to admit that their decades of loyal support to the ANC had “merely resulted in delivering more working class victims, like lambs to the slaughter by the ANC’s bourgeois leadership” (NUMSA Special National Congress Declaration, 2013). This in itself is a damning indictment, but to top it all off Irvin Jim and Co brazenly insist that this is something to be “proud” of and for the workers to repeat! In a 2015 speech, Jim explained that “swelling the ranks” of the ANC with workers had all been part of the plan for “a working class led NDR”, which constitutes “the shortest route to a socialist South Africa. We still hold that view.”
By pushing to “get the NDR back on track”, the NUMSA tops are preparing the way for a re-furbished nationalist popular front, and their most probable bourgeois-nationalist coalition partner is currently the EFF. It is an illusion to think that a capitalist government with the EFF would be any less subordinate to the white rulers and Anglo-American imperialists than the ANC government today. No different from the ANC in the 1980s, the EFF populists raise calls like land expropriation and nationalisation in order to deceive the black masses, appealing to their anger in order to pressure the white rulers and convince them that they need the populists to keep a lid on things. For example, EFF leader Julius Malema held out an olive branch to the (mainly white) SA Property Owners Association, concerned by the EFF’s calls to nationalise the land: “If you are going to invest in property today, it is also going to be wise to invest in the EFF.... There is no future without the EFF.”
Irvin Jim has called for a return to “the SACP of Joe Slovo”, and this is the model on which he seeks to build the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP): a new “vanguard party” to lead the working class on a programme of “radical implementation of the Freedom Charter”. This means continuing to betray the aspirations of the black masses for freedom by telling them to leave the resolution of the land question, the nationalisation of the mines, etc, in the hands of the bourgeois nationalists and the capitalist state — a guarantee that the domination of the Randlords and imperialists will remain intact.
Against this treachery, it is necessary to rally the masses behind the social power of the black proletariat in a struggle to overthrow the bourgeoisie and its black-nationalist frontmen. To uproot colonial dispossession and end imperialist domination, a revolutionary internationalist programme is necessary. This is underlined by the fact that the mountains of finance capital accumulated over 150 years of superexploitation in the country’s mines is parked, for the most part, in Wall Street and the City of London. The Tripartite Alliance government has loyally paid down the debt from the apartheid butchers — a clear index of the nationalists’ utter subordination to imperialist finance capital. Down with the imperialist-imposed debt!
What would happen in the unlikely event of a bourgeois government adopting a populist course, taking measures like repudiating the debt or nationalising land? First of all, the big bourgeoisie would use massive capital flight, imperialist sanctions and other forms of economic sabotage to retaliate. History shows that there are a few avenues open under capitalism, but none of them lead to the liberation of the oppressed masses. The new government could get a few temporary concessions and use them to cut a deal, becoming the new frontmen for the Randlords and imperialists. Alternatively, the regime could end up like Iran or Zimbabwe, isolated and crippled by decades of imperialist strangulation. There could also be a reactionary and bloody backlash fomented by the bourgeoisie, with a section of the army and police commanders attempting to oust the new government by force and crush the proletariat — like what happened to the Allende popular front government in Chile in 1973.
What all of these possibilities show is that a programme based on maintaining capitalism necessarily leads to a dead end. While defending the bourgeois-populist measures as blows against imperialism and national oppression, the proletariat must maintain strict political independence from the capitalist government carrying them out, pursuing the struggle for proletarian revolution and its international extension as the only way to break the chains of imperialist subjugation. What’s needed is a revolutionary, class-struggle response to economic strangulation: Expropriate the banks! For a state monopoly on foreign trade! This is urgently needed to counter the numerous deceptions the bourgeoisie uses to hide its profits and spirit them out of the country, by uncovering and carefully controlling all the accounts and financial transactions of the exploiters. Introduction of centralised control of production and economic planning; expropriation without compensation of the mines, banks, industry, and the white-owned commercial farms — all of these necessary measures require workers state power.
Of course, a black-centred workers government would also face the threat of economic strangulation by the imperialists, and would still be integrated into a world capitalist economy dominated by the imperialists. The solution is not to withdraw from the world economy — which is utopian and reactionary in any case — but to fight like hell to spread the revolution internationally, especially to the proletariat of the advanced imperialist countries. For this, an international Leninist vanguard party must be constructed through the reforging of the Fourth International.