|Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the 1973 Durban Strikes|
Address by SACP general secretary to the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union Political School
“To eventually win the majority of our people for a socialist South Africa, we must spread socialist awareness and socialist consciousness now, mainly among the workers but also among the rural poor and the middle strata. We must also ensure that the working class emerges as the politically-dominant social class in the post-apartheid state. This can only be achieved if the working class wins a place now as the leading social force in the inter-class liberation alliance” (Joe Slovo, 1988).
I want to focus on three critical issues today. First, on the role of the working class in the national democratic revolution as captured by the SACP`s programme adopted at our 13th Congress at Ngoye. Secondly, I will spend more time on addressing the challenges facing the progressive trade union movement today, given some of the current problems facing Cosatu in particular. We believe these challenges are essentially a reflection of deeper structural realities within which unions operate today. Lastly, I will touch on the role of public sector unions in the national democratic revolution.
1. The South African Road to Socialism
The SACP`s programme defines the principal task of our revolution now into the medium term as being that of building working class hegemony in all key sites of power and in all fronts of struggle. To this end the SACP has prioritized seven key sites of power (and struggle), which I touch upon very briefly below:
- The Workplace – This ia crucial site of power and struggle, in which the organized trade union movement is located. It is a site of struggle that has been radically restructured by neo-liberal capitalism, such that it is posing very complicated problems for working class organization in the workplace. I will however come back to this matter later.
- The Economy – The principal task in this regard is that of radically transforming the current semi-colonial growth path of our economy in order to tackle the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty. The working class has to play its vanguard role in this regard. Despite the challenges, we have made some important policy breakthroughs and strides on this front, breakthroughs upon which we can build the kind of economy we need. For instance we now have in place an industrial strategy – a long standing demand of the SACP and the working class – as well as a presidentially driven infrastructure development programme worth several trillion rands over the next five years or so.
- The State – The state is a critical site of struggle, as it is the point of highest concentration of political power. We must resist the liberal idea that the state is inherently bad and evil, and all that is good is to be found in so-called ‘civil society`. Our approach must be that we need to combine both our state and mass power in order to drive the goals of the national democratic revolution. Whilst government is not the same as the state, but this is our own government which is an important tool in the hands of our people to deepen and advance the NDR.
- The Community – We need to intensify the struggle to build people`s power in our communities where we live, again combining people`s power in the local sphere with local government power. This is a very important sphere of organization and mobilization, in which we should consciously seek to deploy shop stewards to also play a broader role in their communities. It is also important that we continuously mobilise on this front, not only when it is election time!
- The Battle of Ideas – Ideological struggles are an integral component of the struggle of the working class against capitalism and to transform the immediate conditions of the workers and the poor. Political schools, like the one you are holding are critical in building the ideological capacity and confidence of workers and the working class as a whole. An important component of the battle of ideas is that of contesting the media space. It is always important to remember that the dominant ideas in society are those of those who control the means of production and reproduction of their ideas in society. We generally have a very hostile commercial media, including pockets of the public broadcaster, which often associates itself with the views and perspectives of the opposition parties, principally the DA. However there are some potentially new, game changing developments on the media front that we need to exploit to advance progressive ideas in society. The emergence of new 24 hour TV news channels provide space to contest the negative 24 news coverage by the eNCA. The changing ownership of the Independent Group opens up new avenues for diversified media and view, and to dislodge the capture of this group by the DA. As the SACP and COSATU we must also unashamedly campaign for government to shift its advertising spend away from hostile media, to more impartial media and community media.
- The environment – The SACP is strongly of the view that the working class must seek to take a lead in the protection of our physical environment. We must protect the destruction of our planet by capitalist corporate greed. Capitalism does not care about our planet and the environment, but is only focused on reaping our natural resources for profits, irrespective of the damaged caused. It is absolutely essential that the progressive trade union movement takes up the struggle for a green economy in all of our workplaces.
- International Working Class Solidarity – The international sphere and proletarian internal solidarity still remains as important in the struggle against capitalism and for a socialist alternative. For example we need to closely engage on the BRICS front, as another potential front for south-south solidarity. It must not just be BRICS business that comes together, but BRICS trade unions and communist parties must also engage as part of advancing BRICS as an alternative platform to imperialism.
The Ngoye Congress also urged the working class to be in all fronts of struggle, including women`s and youth struggles, as well as in the arts and culture spheres, amongst other things. These are very important terrains of struggle in which the power of the working class needs not only to be felt, but for the working class to lead.
The Ngoye Congress also issued an injunction to the SACP and the working class as a whole to take direct responsibility for the national democratic revolution. This is a very profound call. It means that for the working class to act as the leading motive force of the NDR, it must, acting together with its allies, take responsibility for the revolution. This means taking responsibility for both the advances and setbacks, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the revolution. The working class cannot cherry-pick by only claiming and taking responsibility for the advances and victories, and when it comes to setbacks and weaknesses it acts as an outside and oppositionist force. This is not leadership but dangerous opportunism! The working class can`t opportunistically regard itself as part of the NDR when its suits it, but on difficulties it takes itself to be part of some independent ‘civil society. Cde Joe Slovo, again in 1988, captured the tasks of the working class in this regard so aptly:
“The working class cannot play the key role by merely leading itself and sloganizing about its historic mission. It must win popular acceptance on the ground as the most effective champion of the democratic aspirations of all the racially oppressed groupings. It must work with, and provide leadership to, our youth, women, intellectuals, small traders, peasants, the rural poor, and -yes – even the racially dominated black bourgeoisie, all of whom are a necessary part of the front of our liberation struggle”
Much as it is important to safeguard the independence of the working class and its organisations at all times, this must not mean treating our own government as an enemy government. By all means let workers criticize government where it deems necessary, but the most revolutionary challenge is for the working class not to be professional critics and permanent lamentors, but to define its role in overcoming whatever challenges our government and the revolution faces. We must dismiss this notion that to be outside government is to be clean and revolutionary, and to be in government is inherently problematic. We must dismiss these kinds of liberal, often US-sponsored views, as their only intention is to drive a wedge between the trade union movement and the national liberation movement.
Let us now turn to a matter that we believe is at the hear of the working class struggles in the national democratic revolution:
2. Challenges facing the progressive trade union movement, and what is to be done
The challenges and difficulties facing the progressive trade union movement in general, and COSATU in particular, must be understood from the standpoint of the structural foundations of these challenges. No matter how tempting, analyses of these must not be reduced to personalities, names and conspiracies. We need to subject them to a thorough and critical analysis, that is neither anectodal nor opportunistic.
Over the last decade or so the SACP has been concerned about some of the weaknesses and challenges facing the progressive trade union movement in general, and COSATU in particular, our ally. The structural foundations of the challenges facing the trade union movement are the massive restructuring of both the workplace and the working class in that workplace. This is also having a huge impact on the unity of the trade union movement. The casualization, labour-brokering and retrenchment of the working class, even prior to the current global capitalist crisis, was beginning to weaken workers and the unions in a number of sectors in South Africa. The impact of this restructuring is having a devastating effect in particular sectors, especially the services and hospitality and in the vulnerable areas like agriculture and domestic services.
In the light of the above new ways must be found of organizing especially the more vulnerable workers, like farm and domestic workers, including now workers in the services and hospitality sectors. We must go back to the basics of organizing, but at the same time new methods are required to organize the rapidly changing capitalist workplaces. The radical changes and casualization of the private workplaces, and the relative stability of the public sector has led to the increasing growth of the numbers of the trade union movement in the public sector. For example, the majority of members of COSATU are now in the public sector unions.
Part of the restructuring of South Africa`s working class has also been the increasing ‘regionalisation` of the working class in certain sectors of our economy, particularly in agriculture, hospitality and domestic services. Regionalisation means the increasing employment of workers from the SADC region.
Over the past year the SACP has been reflecting intensely on the Marikana incident and the broader problems in the Rustenburg area in particular, and the mining industry in general. The SACP is strongly of the view that the mining bosses are using a scorched earth policy of destabilizing not just the NUM but throwing out the entire collective bargaining system in the mining industry, with the hope that this will allow them to fire and retrench as many workers as possible in the light of the commodity boom being over. This is an extremely short-sighted and dangerous strategy. The SACP therefore rejects the notion that at the heart of the problems in the mining industry is merely a contestation between two unions, nor a matter of the failure of government to act decisively, as some claim. The blame on Marikana must squarely rest with Lonmin in particular, and the mining bosses in general.
However, the SACP is also concerned about what we see as relatively new and strange kinds of contestations in some of the congresses of our unions. Nowadays, we see business interests backing one or the other grouping in the electoral contests. This phenomenon has been particularly acute in the NUM where its leadership has increasingly been challenged by moneyed interests in an attempt at corporate capture of that union.
Honest, frank and open analyses are absolutely necessary in order to confront whatever challenges facing our unions and our movement. Such is also necessary if we are to remain focused on building and strengthening the progressive trade union movement in our country. It is for this reason that the SACP appreciates the frankness of the NUM in acknowledging its own weaknesses and the distance that might have been created between its leading shop steward and official cadre from the rank and file of the union. Acknowledgement of such weaknesses is important in rebuilding the NUM as the leading and reliable force representing the majority of mineworkers of our country.
3. A united, independent and militant COSATU an indispensable part of second phase of our transition
It is important that we remain focused on the unity of COSATU and our Alliance. In fact it is during such challenging times that we must ensure maximum unity. At no stage should any debate or disagreement within the federation be allowed to undermine its unity. None of you comrades must threaten or even contemplate walking out or splitting the federation just because there are differences. You must stand strong because the unity of COSATU as a federation is not up for sale, nor can it be recklessly gambled with to satisfy short-term and opportunistic objectives. Any threats to split the federation must be exposed for what it is; as an enemy plot to defeat organized workers and our revolution!
As the SACP we want to use this occasion to go on record on a number of issues in relation to what is going on inside COSATU currently. First, we want to dismiss with the contempt it deserves any claims or insinuations that the SACP is or wants to divide COSATU. The SACP has a long and proud history of building the progressive trade union movement over the 92 years of our existence. In fact no political party has contributed to the building of the trade union movement more than what the SACP has done! We are also proud that communists played a profoundly important role in the building and foundation of COSATU prior to, and in, 1985.
The SACP is firmly of the view that our revolution needs a strong and independent COSATU that is neither a conveyor belt for government and the ANC, nor that of the SACP. We do not want a COSATU that is an extension of our Party, but we want a robust and militant COSATU that is able to take up the struggles of the workers consistently. But there is no contradiction between such a COSATU and a COSATU that is part of our revolutionary Alliance. Our enemies have always tried to say there is a contradiction between the two. There is no such contradiction.
As the SACP we have been watching closely the internal COSATU processes that have been trying to deal with internal challenges currently facing COSATU. Although we are worried about the media leaks, that are seemingly deliberate, on the unfolding internal process, we had hoped that this process will help COSATU to, amongst other things, clarify a lot of issues relating to the strategy and tactics, political posture and other challenges facing the federation. In a way we also thought that such a process would also have been expanded later to involve discussions in the alliance as a whole, including a common appreciation and understanding of the offensive directed at our movement and alliance.
It is for this reason that the SACP is of the view that the surfacing of what is now known as the ‘sex scandal` involving cde Vavi, is a rather unfortunate development, as it has the potential to derail the federation from its own self-reflection and for enemies of COSATU to exploit this to weaken the federation. We however hope that, no matter how COSATU decides to deal with the sex scandal, it is important that the political process be concluded as soon as possible.
The SACP respects all these processes as internal COSATU processes and we shall not interfere in them. Our approach rather is that there are fundamental structural realities that face our revolution as a whole and not least COSATU itself that should form a larger part of our discussions, both internally within COSATU as well as in the Alliance as a whole.
However we call upon all COSATU affiliates to desist from dealing with its internal matters through the media. Instead all media pronouncements must be through central structures in order to avoid exploitation of these issues by the enemies of the working class. Bourgeois media has never been friends of the working class!
4. Confronting the challenges facing the progressive trade union movement
The trade union movement, by its very nature, is a contested terrain that is not immune to the many challenges facing our revolution. Trade unions bring together workers often from various ideological and political backgrounds, and unite them to fight for their rights in the workplace as their primary role. It would be incorrect for trade unions to organize workers based on their ideological or political orientation, as this would weaken the trade union movement.
But at the same time workers are not disinterested in broader political issues, especially if they are now organized into a trade union. In pursuance of its organizational objectives, unions actually do take certain political positions and even form alliances or part of broader political movements. This has especially been of absolute necessity in national liberation struggles, where workers themselves have been part of the oppressed masses, and therefore being part of the forces for national liberation. Even after liberation trade unions have also taken particular political positions in advancement of their interests.
It would also be naïve to think that unions are not faced with the many threats that face political movements and governments. Trade unions can be corrupted just like governments can. It is therefore wrong to think that by being a trade union leader one is immune from being corrupted, and that it is only governments or those serving in government that are corruptible. Some trade union leaders have also been co-opted by business and other perverse interests. Trade unions are not immune from the ills of society. Just like governments suffer from ‘sins of incumbency`, trade union leaders also suffer the same!
Trade unions and the current global capitalist crisis
The current global capitalist crisis has been characterized by a deepening radical restructuring of the working class and the capitalist workplace. When there was an economic boom prior to 2008, especially the commodities boom in the mining industry with increased demand from China and India, the bosses were eating on their own. They never raised workers` wages in any significant way, in spite of the massive profits they were making. In fact what we are not being told is that since 1994 workers` productivity and the bosses` profits in South Africa have increased dramatically than and that of comparable countries. This is the International Monetary Fund (IMF) saying so, not the SACP!
For our country now, with China`s economic growth slowing down and less demand for our commodities like iron ore, we are now over the commodities boom. Coupled with the global capitalist crisis, the mining bosses are now turning into retrenching workers and also seeking to weaken the NUM in particular. The bosses` support for breakaway unions and to smash the NUM is part of weakening the trade unions so that they can retrench and casualise. Already Amplats has decided to retrench about 7 000 mainly black workers from its operations. This is proof that the offensive against the NUM is aimed at getting rid of as many workers as possible so as to maintain the profits of the bosses.
In fact the current global capitalist crisis has witnessed a more aggressive offensive by the capitalist class, especially in the mining sector, to roll back the gains of the working class. This has taken a number of forms and a combination of strategies. The capitalist class has, where it deems appropriate and opportune, sought to smash and destabilize the labour movement, like it is doing now with the NUM in the platinum belt. We must not see this as just a mining sector phenomenon, but a dangerous experiment whose success can be extended to other sectors of our economy.
The other strategy by capital to weaken the progressive trade union movement has been through attempts to render the progressive pieces of labour legislation like the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act ineffective. These labour market reforms were important gains by the working class after the 1994 democratic breakthrough. Through the use of labour brokers, casualization and retrenchments, these progressive labour market reforms have become less and less helpful to workers. For instance, in many workplaces in South Africa today it is common to find different labour regimes in one workplace – workers who are permanent, those hired from one or two or even three different labour brokers in the same work-place, and temporary or casual workers. This has had the effect of eroding trade union organization in the workplace and further undermined the unity of the workers.
Another phenomenon is that of the replacement of South African by workers from the SADC region, since many workers from outside South Africa often have many vulnerabilities and can be easily fired. This has sometimes caused conflicts and friction between South African workers and those from the region both inside and outside the workplace, including in places where the working class tries to eke a living, like the spaza shops. Indeed it is the view of the SACP that rather than responding in a xenophobic manner, it is crucial that we unite the working class irrespective of country of origin, as it is only the bosses who gain from a working class fighting within itself.
The bosses have also used the strategy of corrupting or co-option of some of the worker leaders through a phenomenon we have characterized as ‘business unionism` – use of one`s leadership in the union to enrich one`s self! To workers, unions are the shield against employers, but to private capital trade unions are business propositions, as today unions have control and influence over billions of rands in their investment companies, as well as through workers` provident funds and stop orders in the insurance industry.
The SACP is firmly of the view that some of the tensions within our unions are about access to these resources, as well as the corrupting influence of capital controlling these funds. In fact these funds are often used by ‘middle-men`, with workers having very little say of where and how they should be invested. In fact these funds can be invested in many progressive ways that can be of benefit to the workers and their families; and that is where we must take working class struggles.
After a long time, there now are smaller, splinter unions that are beginning to pose a serious threat to some of the more established unions, especially in COSATU. However a closer analysis of these splinter unions tend to reveal that they are often a breakaway from some of the existing COSATU unions, and in many instances being breakaways that are supported by the bosses. Of late many splinter unions are becoming an alternative organizational platform for an ill-disciplined element within some of the unions, as well as for those who have lost elections in Congresses. However, at the same time it is important we do not act in a manner that promotes such splintering within our own unions. In a number of instances such splinter unions emerge out of fights over control of union resources. We also should urgently counter the phenomenon of those seeking power and influence by any means by working to back these splinter unions for their own personal agendas.
An imperialist offensive
Whilst it is important that as an Alliance we must discuss this matter even deeper now that we are approaching 20 years of our democracy, there are very serious signs of an imperialist offensive against our movement as a whole. The trade union movement is also a target of this offensive.
Imperialism is generally unhappy about liberation movements being in power and/or lasting too long in power. The ANC, together with its allies, is one such movement. In the entire history of the national liberation struggles and movements, imperialism has always sought to divide the movement, both before and after independence. The principal target has always been that of separating and/or driving a wedge between the national liberation movement and the trade union movement, where the latter exists in any significant form.
In our own region, through the umbrella of ‘civil society`, imperialism has sought to encourage the trade union movement to increasingly define itself as part of a ‘civil society` that is naturally in opposition to the movement and its government. In this context organizational ‘independence` increasingly must mean being anti the national liberation movement or the government it leads. This is for instance the whole posture that has been adopted by the media in our country.
A matter that we have not as yet adequately reflected upon which may be an important part of the challenges facing, and tensions inside, the trade union movement and COSATU in particular is that of its intended affiliation into the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). COSATU`s affilation into this body is something that is of very serious concern to imperialism and some of its trade union allies. Given the continued strategic importance of South Africa in relation to imperialist ambitions in the African continent (as the next economic growth point), coupled with South Africa joining BRICS, the implications of a COSATU in WFTU are a bit too much for the imperialist agenda in our continent.
Internal threats to the trade union movement
Whilst one may not neatly distinguish internal from external threats, as these are often deeply interlinked, it is important to seek to identify other threats to the unity and stability of the progressive trade union movement in our country today.
Perhaps all progressive federations in our country have been sitting for too long in their own comfort zones, together with their affiliates. As a result, important ongoing organizational work has been neglected. The first glaring weakness is that COSATU in particular has not developed central capacity to assist and work with weak unions and those who are organizing vulnerable workers. The fact that some unions are being assisted by other unions to pay their affiliation fees is both a sign of solidarity but also a weakness in addressing the specific challenges facing weaker unions. In particular, with few exceptions, there has been a declining effort in training organisers and shop stewards, both in basic union organization as well as ideologically.
There is also a dangerous but growing phenomenon of unions organizing in other unions` industries. It seems as if that the threat of being weakened is translating into unhealthy competition rather than solidarity. In the case of COSATU this is at the heart of unity of the federation – ‘One industry, one union` – and if it is not addressed it poses a serious challenge for the unity of the federation.
Trade unions are historically and by their very nature also liable to a whole range of problematic tendencies. Given the vulnerability of workers, sometimes the importance of strengthening organization is substituted by hero-worshipping of populist leaders who often promise quick rewards or present themselves as messiah in the light of difficulties facing workers. This can easily slide into the entrenchment of the cult of personality, that of placing worker leaders above the organization. Trade unions are also always liable to the emergence of narrow workerist and syndicalist (even anarchistic) tendencies, that seek to build the trade union as an alternative to the political party of the working class. That is why workerist tendencies are often as anti-communist as the bourgeoisie!
Perhaps a weakness that is almost built into the nature of the trade union movement is its inability to relate to and support other non-wage labour activities in society, for example, co-operatives, micro enterprises, informal sector and other activities aimed at providing other means of sustainable livelihoods for the working class. Sometimes this includes failure to pay attention to skills development for youth as a way of improving youth employability in society in general.
However, the above weaknesses in the labour movement often mirror the weaknesses in our own Alliance. The absence of sustained mass mobilization in our communities and co-ordinated alliance campaigns, except during the elections, weakens the movement as a whole. In fact the re-emergence of workerist tendencies as well as ‘service delivery` protests are two sides of the same coin – the lack of co-ordinated Alliance programmes and campaigns both in our communities working together with worker activists. Such tendencies are a reflection of lack of co-ordinated activities in using both our combined mass and state power as a movement! In fact some of the important lessons from our struggles in the 1980s is that we defeated workerist tendencies through combined mass campaigns and struggles by both the trade unions and mass organisations. Similarly we defeated populism through a disciplined alliance between trade unions and community organisations!
Trade unions and electoral contests
Trade unions are very important in electoral democracies as they are an organized constituency. It is a fact that the unity of COSATU as part of our alliance has been a huge factor in the electoral machinery of the ANC. COSATU for instance was in the forefront in turning the electoral fortunes of the ANC in KwaZulu Natal through, inter alia, winning over politically those of its members who were IFP at the same time. That is why opposition parties always salivate if they see tensions in the Alliance, including tensions within the trade union movement. In the platinum belt some of the political parties have been actively fuelling tensions amongst workers, hoping to get an electoral dividend out of such a strategy. It is therefore also important to understand this reality in the challenges facing the trade union movement itself.
5. What is to be done?
- It is absolutely essential that we properly debate and define the kind of trade union movement we need in the current period. What kind of organizational tactics and strategies do we need in the context of a radically changing capitalist workplace?
- What kinds of appropriate organizational vehicles do we need to mobilise the non-wage labour sections of the working class and the poor? The SACP had correctly sought to characterize this task under the rubric of building sustainable livelihoods with and for workers and the poor
- However, it is also important that we preserve and build upon some of the best trade union traditions of South Africa`s organized workers: worker leadership; the Congress traditions of alliances; and the building of red unions that work closely with the South African Communist Party and understands the struggle of the workers within the overall context of the struggle for socialism
- Red unionism as defined above must also mean that communists must continue to seek to be the leading core in the broader trade union movement. This must be done in a more dynamic than bureaucratic manner imposed from above
- It is absolutely important to preserve but also revitalize our revolutionary alliance, especially to strengthen and deepen the close relationship between the progressive trade union movement and the South African Communist Party
- The training and retraining of organisers and shop-stewards especially in the following areas:
- Understanding of the economic sectors within which they operate
- Basic progressive economics
- Skills development issues in their respective economic or industrial sectors
- Basic labour market policies and legislation
- Ideological education
- Organising skills
- Focus on building a progressive shop stewards movement is central in the rebuilding of a progressive trade union movement
- Union Presidents to immediately launch and lead an organizational renewal process and struggle in each of the unions, with a particular focus on renewing service to members and the strengthening of the weaker components of the union movement
- The absolute necessity of developing and adhering to transparent codes and protocols on union investment companies and rules governing the relationship between such companies and the trade union leadership
6. The role of public sector unions
I would like to conclude our input today as the SACP by briefly highlighting the role of the public sector unions in the national democratic revolution.
It is time now that we ask and seek to answer the question of whether public sector unions, as opposed to private sector ones, might be having different and additional responsibilities in relation to the agenda of consolidating and deepening the NDR.
Let`s say for instance that all our unions, both in the private and public sector, have a role to play in building a developmental state. For the private sector unions this means intensifying the struggle to roll back the corrupting influence of private capital, but for public sector unions it must be about building the capacity of government and the state to deliver services to the needs of the population, especially working class communities.
In addition public sector unions cannot simply regard themselves as part of only ‘civil society`, as some would like to make you believe. Public sector unions are part of the state, and the struggle directly within the state institutions. In a way they are immediately both outside and inside the state. That is why they should especially be guided by the necessity to combine both our state and mass power to drive the national democratic revolution.
It is time to elaborate the strategy and tactics of playing this role, without sacrificing the independence of public sector unions, whilst at the same time not adopting a posture as if the democratic government is an enemy government. It is in these fora that we must nuance our approach as the workplace is not homogenous. How do we for instance exploit the fact that we have an government whose ruling party we are in alliance with?
In other words, public sector unions must take responsibility for the national democratic revolution within the context the above realities. Therefore I challenge POPCRU to come out with a realistic programme in this regard, that is premised on excellent service to the overwhelming majority of our people. At the same time we must ensure that the needs and the well-being of the workers who give that excellent service are adequately taken care of.