A Real Socialist Party for South Africa?

'We must go back to the basics of the Eighties, when we had a united front against white corporate rule.'

By Glen Ford · 19 Jan 2015

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Picture: Numsa
Picture: Numsa's Irvin Jim speaking to an audience in Washington D.C on January 8 during a speaking tour in the U.S. Picture courtesy Institute for Policy Studies

He strode to the microphone with a sash around his neck, a gap in his front teeth, and a socialist vision for South Africa’s future on his lips.

“All over the world, the vast majority continue to languish in poverty,” because of a class of people that “do not produce value, but take for themselves the surplus value that the working class produces,” said Irvin Jim, the 45 year-old general secretary of his nation’s largest union, NUMSA, the National Union of Metal Workers of South African. The audience of labor and social activists had gathered, at short notice, in the meeting hall of 1199/SEIU United Health Care Workers East, off Times Square, in Manhattan, to learn how Jim and his comrades plan to challenge the ruling ANC, the African National Congress.

The transition to a Black majority government under Nelson Mandela’s ANC, 21 years ago, was but one stage in the ongoing struggle. “The South African revolution must continue,” said Jim. “Frankly, we characterize the 1994 victory against the Boers as nothing else but a political breakthrough. But political power without economic power is an empty shell.” The ANC and the two other components of the “tripartite alliance” that defeated apartheid – the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – “failed to take ownership and control of the national wealth” at that crucial moment in the mid-Nineties, said Jim, who was a 26 year-old NUMSA Eastern Cape regional chairperson and central committeeman at the time.

“Corporations secured a very nice deal for themselves,” maintaining their hold on economic power and further enriching themselves with the new Black government’s embrace of neoliberalism. In 1996, the ANC unveiled its New Macro Economic Framework, mislabeled GEAR, for growth, employment and redistribution. “It championed liberalization of trade,” said Jim, “which has led to massive destruction of jobs.”

According to the International Labor Organization, 24 percent of South Africa’s workers are jobless; 50 percent, among the youth. Unions now represent only 29 percent of the nation’s workforce – and falling.

“The ANC failed to take ownership and control of the national wealth.”

“Red” Ronnie Kasrils, the ANC and Communist Party veteran who served as defense minister in the Nineties, called the ANC’s deal with capital a “Faustian Pact.”

“From 1991 to 1996 the battle for the ANC's soul got under way, and was eventually lost to corporate power: we were entrapped by the neoliberal economy – or, as some today cry out, we ‘sold our people down the river,’" wrote Kasrils, in his autobiography, Armed and Dangerous.

The ANC’s rightward lurch was not unnoticed or unopposed at the time. NUMSA, Irvin Jim’s union, initially balked at supporting the ANC after the 1994 elections, calling for “the formation of a working class party and for COSATU to convene a conference on socialism,” according to contemporary newspaper accounts. The union confederation rejected the proposal but, a generation later, NUMSA is pressing ahead with a conference on creating a united front and, possibly, a political party to build socialism in South Africa.

NUMSA made the historic break with the ANC and the South African Communist Party at a conference in December, 2013. COSATU, the union confederation, whose executive is dominated by ANC and SACP operatives, was immediately plunged into crisis. With the support of eight other member unions, NUMSA might succeed in transforming COSATU into an independent workers’ force, dismantling the “tripartite alliance” of collaboration with multinational capital. That’s why NUMSA was expelled from COSATU, last November.

This coming March, NUMSA holds a conference to press forward with its strategy to create a united front for socialism and, possibly, a new political party.

“We must go back to the basics of the Eighties, when we had a united front against white corporate rule,” Jim told the Manhattan crowd. “We [NUMSA] are not a political party, but we will be a catalyst for a united front.”

Meanwhile, NUMSA will continue to fight for reinstatement in COSATU, which it wants to transform, not destroy. “Our first prize is to get back into COSATU,” said Dinga Sikwebu, NUMSA’s key man on the united front and the movement for socialism. “The question of whether we establish the party – what form it should take, who will it involve – all of that will be discussed at NUMSA’s central committee in March,” Sikwebu told reporters in South Africa.

“The Freedom Charter has been made into a dead letter by the ANC government.”

In New York, Irvin Jim made it clear that, only after all alternatives are exhausted would NUMSA “consider forming a new confederation” of workers. But, the fight to wrest control of COSATU from the ANC-SACP is by no means over.

The two, intimately entwined organizations have a lot to answer for. The Freedom Charter has been made into a dead letter by the ANC government, which has failed to transfer “the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry” to the people as a whole, or to re-divide “all the land...amongst those who work it.” Although it can be argued whether the Freedom Charter is a blueprint for socialism or not, its creation at a 1955 Congress of the People was the result of a “collective decision on the kind of South Africa that the people wanted,” said Jim, and still resonates among the masses.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, a party formed by Julius Malema, the former leader of the ANC Youth League, won 25 seats in parliament and 6.35 percent of the vote in its first electoral foray under the banner of the Freedom Charter. Malema, a flamboyant figure who sports a red beret and calls key party committees “commands,” may not be an ideal working match with trade unionists steeped in democratic procedures. But his movement is certainly part of the mix from which a “united front” will, hopefully, emerge.

According to the South African Communist Party, NUMSA is engaged in “counter-revolutionary” activity, seeking to divide COSATU as part of an “imperialist strategy.” Irvin Jim replies: “The SACP spoke a lot of English without science,” and “has decided to be a defender of the state” – mostly shamefully, in defending the massacre of 34 miners by police at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana, in August, 2012. Marikana is the symbol and substance of ANC-SACP complicity in corporate savagery.

The pact with the devil that the ANC sealed in the Nineties also set in motion the creation of a corporate-affiliated Black capitalist class, through the Black Economic Empowerment program. Top ANC members have been among the biggest beneficiaries – most conspicuously, Cyril Ramaphosa, the lawyer who helped found the National Union of Mineworkers and is now deputy president of the nation and one of Africa’s richest men, with a net worth, according to Forbes, of $700 million. Ramaphosa serves at both the highest levels of the ANC and on the board of Lonmin, the UK-based corporation on whose behalf the police killed the miners at Marikana.

“Marikana is the symbol and substance of ANC-SACP complicity in corporate savagery.”

“Marikana can be repeated, again,” Jim warned. “The state is nothing but an organ of oppression.” No doubt he is correct. With capitalists like Ramaphosa at the very pinnacle of the ANC, the lines of struggle are quite clear.

In response to questions from the audience, Irvin Jim described the ANC as a “multi-class” organization that includes “communists, capitalists, Christians, rastas... The working class put the ANC in power. But, when the ANC makes policy, it does not make policy that favors the working class.”

The ANC is far from unique in disregarding the interests of its working class base. “This is true all over the world,” said Jim, speaking in the hall of a union that can be counted on to support Democrats even when they answer mainly to bankers. The rupture with the ANC “should not be a surprise, which is why NUMSA says, now is the time for the working class to organize for itself, as the working class” – the familiar refrain.

Asked if Marxism should be considered a “western theory,” Jim responded: “Karl Marx did not come from the moon. But he was clear that capitalism as a system has no solutions for humanity. The reason why racism continues in South Africa is because we have not addressed the class question.”

The 20-year reprieve for the capitalists in the ANC and the counterfeit communists of the SACP, appears to be ending. South Africa may be the world’s most fertile ground for socialist discourse – a place where the socialist-inspired Freedom Charter is the most cherished national document, where masses of people support revolution, and capitalist tycoons claim to be reds. (Cyril Ramaphosa still calls himself a “socialist”). The possibilities for Africa and the world are immense.

© Black Agenda Report

** Listen to Irvin Jim deliver the speech reported on in this article to SEIU/1199 United Healthcare Workers East in New York City on January, 11, 2015 during his recent speaking tour to the United States of America. Watch Irvin Jim explain the historical context of Numsa's United Front to an audience at Busboys & Poets in Washington D.C. on  January 8, 2015.

Ford is the executive editor of Black Agenda Report. He can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first published by Black Agenda Report is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/2250.

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