COSATU strike sharpens the contradictions in the South African class struggle

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FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003

Was the national general strike against privatisation on 1 and 2 October, organised by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a success or a failure? This was a major question in the war of words between the African National Congress (ANC) government and COSATU leaders that followed the strike. TREVOR NGWANE reports.

The strike revealed deep cracks in the ANC-SACP-COSATU Tripartite Alliance. The Alliance represents the hegemony of the ruling party over the working class: it delivers the votes and is the chief political mechanism to ensure social stability in neo-liberal post-apartheid South Africa (SA). After the strike the government quoted figures to prove that many workers did not strike, while COSATU provided its own figures proving the contrary. In fact, the strike was smaller than the previous one in 2001 but it was not a flop.

Before and after the strike, senior ANC government ministers came out vehemently against it in the media. President Thabo Mbeki was particularly vicious, calling COSATU leaders ‘ultra-leftists’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’ betraying the people’s ‘national democratic revolution’ and whose agenda had a lot in common with that of the (white) ‘right-wing’. In response, the embattled COSATU leaders justified their strike on socio-economic grounds: the failure of the government to implement agreements made with labour around privatisation. They claimed that, as union leaders, they were not malicious or anti-ANC, but were carrying out the mandate of their members.

The strike, despite the COSATU leaders’ denials, was a political strike against the policies of the ANC government. Many people here are wondering how the Alliance can continue given the contradictions inside it. Mbeki’s accusations of ultra-leftism did not spare the South African Communist Party (SACP). The latter had resolved at its national congress, held earlier, to support the general strike. Jeremy Cronin, the prominent Deputy General Secretary of the SACP and member of the ANC national leadership, was forced by Mbeki, at about the same time, to publicly recant his criticisms of the ANC in a well-publicised and politically humiliating drama that saw the media compare Mbeki’s methods of imposing party discipline with those of Stalin. This incident followed the publication of snippets from an obscure old interview where Cronin worried about the ‘Zanufication’ of the ANC. He meant that internal party democracy was being seriously eroded, as happened with Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party in Zimbabwe.
Despite the wishful thinking of many in the left in South Africa, the Alliance is not about to split. This is apparent in the conciliatory statements issued by SACP and COSATU leaders in the wake of Mbeki’s attacks. Both parties’ rebuttals quote Mbeki against himself in a speech he gave in 1988 to the COSATU Central Committee. Then Mbeki warned against the use of political labels such as ‘ultra-left’ and ‘right-wing’ among Alliance partners because these were ‘swear’ words: ‘And all of us know that to swear at somebody is to look for a fight and not a discussion, even among those who might call one another comrades.’ However, both SACP and COSATU leaders continue to proclaim their undying loyalty to the Alliance. The SACP took this a step further stating that: ‘such labelling without identifying this ultra-left, in the wake of protest action by allies, actually serves to strengthen and elevate this tiny and marginal ultra-left to be a force that it is not. It also weakens our very struggles to defeat ultra-leftism within our ranks.’

The SACP and COSATU leaders’ tactic is to deflect Mbeki’s attacks onto the emerging social movements in South Africa. Cronin recently wrote that the ultra-left was to be found in the leadership of the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) and other new social movements. The APF is a united front of working class community organisations co-ordinating the struggle against water and electricity cut-offs, evictions and other effects of privatisation on working class communities. The APF, in alliance with the Landless Peoples Movement, was central in the anti-capitalist march on 31 August from Alexandra to Sandton during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (see report FRFI 169). The march indicated the birth of a new phase of struggle in SA this time against the ANC’s neo-liberal policies. The march also heralded the existence of a small South African-based anti-ANC left potentially capable of leading the masses in struggle in the future.

Mbeki publicly attacked COSATU for ‘harbouring’ the APF in its headquarters. He was referring to the fact that the APF rents office space at COSATU House, a building owned by the union federation. Mbeki’s tirade is calculated to frighten SACP and COSATU leaders to fall into line and thus isolate the anti-ANC left and the struggles this group supports and leads. He needs to contain present and future mass opposition to his neo-liberal policies and a compliant SACP and COSATU leadership is indispensable for this.

Tremendous pressure including dirty tricks was put on the union leaders to call off the general strike. A few weeks before the strike sensational reports of corruption and financial mismanagement in a few key trade unions affiliated to COSATU filled the local headlines. Some of COSATU’s investments were shown to be in privatised entities, proving COSATU leaders hypocrites. The attacks were based on ‘leaked’ documents which COSATU leaders publicly blamed on spying and the infiltration of its affiliates by the National Intelligence Agency, Mbeki’s new political police.

Why didn’t the COSATU leaders call off the strike? Why did the SACP leadership support the strike? Privatisation is biting in South Africa. Food prices increased steeply in 2002 while food chain stores made record profits. Research indicates that the number of people living in poverty rose from 41% to 49% of the population in the last five years. Workers’ share of national income has declined: secure quality jobs are destroyed and replaced by casual and informal employment; the policy of ‘cost recovery’ linked to privatisation is leading to service cut-offs. In short, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.

Because of the Alliance, COSATU and the SACP have failed to lead an organised resistance to these economic attacks on the working class. Militant COSATU affiliates such as the South African Municipal Workers’ Union have been left to struggle alone against privatisation. The South African National Civics Organisation (SANCO), the community wing of the Alliance, has lost its relevance and most of its branches in working class townships have collapsed. Tellingly, SANCO leaders denounced the COSATU strike. The Alliance’s failure to lead the emerging social struggles in SA has left a vacuum that is being filled by the new social movements such as the APF. There is a fear that the Alliance is being outflanked from the left. Pressure from the union rank and file and the battle to occupy this left space is the reason why the general strike could not be called off despite Mbeki’s unhappiness.

The Alliance and its politics are a dead weight on the struggle of the working class in SA. Historically the SACP plays the part of drawing the working class behind the bourgeois leadership of the ANC. The SACP’s bourgeois two-stage theory of revolution allows it to justify the subordination of working class interests to those of other classes: first, establish a bourgeois democratic state and only later can you fight for socialism. Mbeki himself is a former Central Committee member of the SACP who let his party membership lapse when the ANC was unbanned. This influence continues today with more than a third of Mbeki’s cabinet being members of the SACP. The more the ANC government embraces neo-liberalism the bigger the cracks grow inside the Alliance. The rise of the new social movements highlights this process and exposes the SACP’s role.

The challenge for COSATU is to adopt an independent working class position and break with the ANC’s anti-worker politics. But this will not be easy given the hold the SACP has over COSATU, the narrow perspectives of this trade union leadership, the ANC’s control of state power and the weak position of labour.

COSATU was formed in 1985, the year of a country-wide uprising against apartheid, on the foundation of a trade union practice of strong shop-floor organisation, one industry one union policy, strict mandates, rank and file control and a powerful shop steward movement. This tradition was painstakingly built by a group of left intellectuals in the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), the precursor to COSATU. This trade union left jealously guarded its trade unions from the ‘populist’ influence of the ANC-SACP-aligned general unions and the township-based mass organisations. This left was concerned to preserve working class independence and workers’ control, and was critical of the SACP’s two-stage theory, lack of respect for workers’ democracy and the implications for the struggle for socialism. A vicious struggle for political hegemony inside the trade unions ensued, mostly directed from the SACP’s headquarters.

Its internal weaknesses and history worked against the trade union left. Unlike the SACP it was not a party but a loose network of left individuals. It failed to elaborate its political project beyond the workplace, it left undeveloped its call for the formation of a mass workers’ party and, like many activists, it was utterly disorganised and disoriented when apartheid state repression was suddenly followed by the unbanning of the ANC in 1990. The independent trade union left capitulated and many of its leaders joined the SACP and abandoned the independent socialist project which they had dreamed was to be based on the trade unions. Many of them were absorbed, like hundreds of SACP-ANC trade union militants, into the echelons of the post-apartheid bourgeois state and into managerial positions in the private sector.

The bosses’ daring plan to modernise South African capitalism by allowing black majority rule worked. Central to the plan was the ANC and its ability to control and contain COSATU and other mass organisations. An essential part of the plan was the violence that was unleashed on the working class by the apartheid regime from 1990 to 1994, the period of the negotiations. Many innocent people died at the hands of the death squads including leading activists such as Chris Hani. So-called black on black violence was fomented. The aim was to terrorise the working class and to frighten the ANC leadership into lowering its political ambitions.

It was also a period of systematic co-option as numerous trade union and community leaders were locked into negotiations with the bosses and their minions in various forums. Grassroots organisation was neglected and many structures left to die. Talk of an independent working class project disappeared as the SACP-ANC leadership and the bosses espoused ‘co-determination’ between labour and capital in the struggle to ‘reconstruct’ the South African ‘rainbow’ nation after the demise of apartheid.

The October strike exposed COSATU’s historic weaknesses. There is little worker participation, let alone workers’ control. However, with two million paid-up members and a proud place in the history of struggle, COSATU remains a force the ANC bosses must reckon with. At present the majority of COSATU’s membership is in the public sector. This pits workers directly against the ANC government as an employer and sharpens the contradictions in the Alliance. Unemployment, casualisation and informal jobs are also eroding COSATU’s traditional organising base. The increasing importance of community-based social struggles against the effects of privatisation on basic services such as water, electricity, health-care and education poses new challenges and provides new opportunities for COSATU.

COSATU must recover its proud history as a ‘social movement’ union federation leading the struggles of workers at the workplace and in the community. COSATU has to link up with the new social movements such as the APF if it is to defend its members from the ANC government’s neo-liberal attacks and be true to its socialist principles. This will not be possible as long as its leadership is tied to the Alliance and its politics of class collaboration.

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