- Published: Wednesday, 19 June 2019 10:47
- Written by Jonathan Payn
Twenty-five years into democracy the black working class majority in South Africa has not experienced any meaningful improvements in its conditions. The apartheid legacy of unequal education, healthcare and housing and the super-exploitation of black workers continues under the ANC and is perpetuated by the neoliberal policies it has imposed.
These troubles are part of the world’s troubles; this neoliberalism is part of global neoliberalism. As the global economic crisis deepens, the global ruling class is making the working class pay, transferring the costs to workers and the poor, leading to increased poverty, unemployment, inequality and insecurity. And so in South Africa neoliberal oppression is piled on top of national oppression.
The only force capable of changing this situation is the working class locally and internationally. Yet to do so, struggles need to come together, new forms of organisation appropriate to the context are needed; and they need both to be infused with a revolutionary progressive politics and to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Some such struggles have occurred over recent years, including the historic platinum mineworkers’ strike and farmworkers’ strike in 2012; but the many struggles have not yet pulled together into a new movement.
Outside the ANC alliance, there have indeed been many efforts to unite struggles – but these have largely failed to resonate with the working class in struggle and form the basis of a new movement.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the newly-formed Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) – which got less than 25 000 votes in the national elections, despite the fact that the union that conceived it, Numsa, claims nearly 400 000 members.
This series, of which this article is the first, argues that part of the reason why these initiatives have and will continue to fail is because of the theoretical conceptions of class and power that are prevalent on much of the left, and their strategic implications for movement building towards socialism.
When the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) announced its resolutions, following its historic 2013 Special National Congress, to break with the ANC and SACP and to form a “United Front against neoliberalism”, many on the left were hopeful that this would give working class movements the new ideological and organisational direction they need.
The United Front, Numsa said, was not about building a new organisation, party or labour federation but “a way to join other organisations in action, in the trenches”, gaining community support for Numsa campaigns and building “concrete support for other struggles of the working class and the poor wherever and whenever they take place”.
It looked as if there hopes were not misplaced when, for example, unemployed youth and community activists across the country responded positively to Numsa's call by supporting the 19 March 2014 actions against the Youth Wage Subsidy. Branches were set up and, despite initial scepticism, community activists joined.
By August 2017, however, the Johannesburg branch of the United Front had declared that, “After the initial enthusiasm, there is now a feeling the UF has largely collapsed, with only a couple of local structures still active.” Numsa had shifted its focus and resources to establishing a “Movement for Socialism” because “the working-class needs a political organisation committed in its policies and actions to the establishment of a socialist South Africa”.
Having gained some community support for its campaigns, including the United Front itself, the success of the United Front in building working class unity going forward depended on whether Numsa would reciprocate by putting its resources and capacity at the service of building “concrete support for other struggles of the working class and the poor wherever and whenever they take place”.
Instead, Numsa put its energies into calling for a new workers’ party, while presenting itself as the vanguard of the whole working class, and in so doing missed its moment.
THE SRWP WON’T SET YOU FREE
Numsa undertook to “conduct a thoroughgoing discussion on previous attempts to build socialism as well as current experiments to build socialism” and “commission an international study on the historical formation of working-class parties, including exploring different type of parties – from mass workers' parties to vanguard parties”. But it already knew what it was aiming for. It had said that a new political party was on the cards – to replace the SACP, which had become corrupted by the neoliberal state, as the political vanguard of the working class.
The potential of the United Front approach for building working class unity is precisely because it accommodates ideological differences in order to build the unity of working class formations in struggle. But Numsa still looks to the legacy of Communist Parties. And these parties have historically used united fronts to create unity in action in struggles against capitalist attacks, but also with the aim of winning over the majority in these struggles to their programme – in this case the formation of a new party, that they would lead – under their Party leadership and no one else’s.
While Numsa has broken with Cosatu and the SACP organisationally, it has not broken with them ideologically. The Numsa bureaucrats’ belief that they are the vanguard of the working class and their insistence on building a party to contest state power are founded on the same ideological certainties and theoretical understandings of class, power and the nature of the state as the SACP – with the same strategic implications that, invariably, will have the same disappointing outcomes.
If we really want to build a movement for socialism, and to avoid merely replacing one set of rulers for another, the authoritarian left needs to rethink its understandings class, power and the nature of the state in light of the imperial evidence and learn from the mistakes of the past, instead of repeating them and expecting a different outcome.
This series aims to contribute to that discussion.