COSATU Labor Federation in Turmoil
Forge a Leninist-Trotskyist Party to Fight for a Black-Centered Workers Government!
We reprint below excerpts of an article from Spartacist South Africa No. 9 (Winter 2013), newspaper of the South African section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). Subsequent to its publication, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was suspended from his post on August 14 on the grounds of having sex with another employee of the union federation at its Johannesburg headquarters. In September, Vavi’s supporters in the leadership of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) challenged this suspension in the Johannesburg High Court, and Vavi himself has joined this legal challenge. As the article below explains, Marxists do not support either faction of the bureaucracy in the current struggle within COSATU. We also oppose, as a matter of principle, using the bourgeois courts to resolve disputes in the unions and other workers organizations.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is faced with the worst crisis since its inception about three decades ago. At the centre of the tensions is the attempt by supporters of [South African president] Jacob Zuma to purge Zwelinzima Vavi. This has pitted various top bureaucrats from different affiliates, as well as within some affiliates, against each other in pro- and anti-Vavi factions. The two biggest COSATU affiliates, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and NUMSA, are on opposing sides. The NUM leaders are anti-Vavi, while NUMSA is leading those defending him. In some of the affiliates like the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), top bureaucrats are divided between those supporting and those against Vavi. The base of the unions is generally more supportive of Vavi than most of their leaders.
Supporters of Vavi think he is being victimised for being a vocal critic of the government, while his opponents complain about his “oppositionist” stance. In fact, all wings of the bureaucracy prop up the bourgeois government via the ANC/SACP [South African Communist Party]/COSATU Tripartite Alliance—a nationalist popular front chaining the workers to the capitalist exploiters. In the lead-up to the 27 May meeting of COSATU’s National Executive Committee (NEC), top African National Congress (ANC) honchos intervened to prevent what looked like a split in the making. The ANC bourgeois nationalists heavily rely on COSATU to deliver the working class as voting cows and would not tolerate any COSATU split on the eve of the 2014 general elections.
Nationalist Popular Front Unravelling
The current squabbles among the top Tripartite Alliance bureaucrats are only symptoms of the deepening class contradictions in society. Among the oppressed majority, the anger against the ravages of the post-1994 neo-apartheid capitalist system is reaching an explosive level, leading to differences among the Alliance tops over the best way to respond. That 560 protests in Gauteng Province [which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria] alone were recorded between 1 April and 10 May is but one example of how deep the impatience of the poor masses has become.
The Tripartite Alliance is a South African variant of the popular front, a coalition of reformist-led workers organisations (the Stalinist-derived SACP as well as the COSATU union federation) with bourgeois parties (the ANC) for the purpose of administering capitalist rule. The popular front is commonly employed by the bourgeoisie to deal with a restive and militant working class by co-opting the pro-capitalist leaders of the workers organisations into the government coalition, giving them the task of implementing and defending capitalist attacks on their members. The popular front is a betrayal of the proletariat. Such coalitions never serve to transform the capitalist government into serving the interests of the workers—as the reformist misleaders claim—but rather have always meant increased attacks on the workers, paving the way for open reaction.
The Zuma regime has reacted to opposition and anger from the base of society by using more repressive measures. At the same time, last year’s wave of wildcat strikes and the dramatic collapse of the NUM in the platinum belt, in particular, have led influential sections of the bourgeoisie to seriously question the ability of the COSATU bureaucracy to keep the workers under control. The decision by the Chamber of Mines to terminate the “special arrangement” whereby it pays the salaries of top union officials, mainly from the NUM, is one indicator of this.
The response by COSATU bureaucrats like Vavi and [NUMSA leader Irvin] Jim has been more hypocritical rhetoric about the need to overcome the “social distance” between the union leadership and membership, and other posturing to demonstrate their “independence.” There have also been growing tensions between the COSATU and SACP tops, with Irvin Jim in particular criticising SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande for accepting a ministerial post in Zuma’s government and calling on him to return to fulltime work for the SACP. The SACP has basically told COSATU to mind its own business. There are even speculations that Nzimande and Gwede Mantashe (ANC secretary general and former SACP chairman) are behind the attempts to kick Vavi out of COSATU.
There is no question about the reactionary pro-capitalist politics of the pro-Zuma faction in the COSATU bureaucracy, but Vavi and his supporters share the same class-collaborationist programme. The posture of “independence” by Vavi, Jim and Co. is nothing but a hypocritical sham. The pro-capitalist demagogue Nzimande (one of Zuma’s biggest fans and loudest apologists) for once said something truthful when he countered their criticisms by saying: “Those who say they do so [attack the ANC] because they are independent are wrong. There is no independence in the alliance” (Mail & Guardian online, 17 May, our emphasis). This is precisely the point about how the Tripartite Alliance nationalist popular front serves the rule of the capitalist exploiters!
Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), does not support either faction of the COSATU bureaucracy, both of which are fundamentally committed to upholding the nationalist popular front. While the two wings of the pro-capitalist bureaucracy trade accusations and counter-accusations of corruption, we contend that the greatest corruption perpetrated by both factions is the political crime of selling out the independent interests of the proletariat to the racist capitalist rulers through the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance. We are for breaking the Tripartite Alliance along class lines. This means setting the working-class base of COSATU and the SACP against the pro-capitalist tops and fighting for the class independence of the proletariat—organisational independence from and opposition to all wings of the bourgeoisie, bourgeois parties and the capitalist state.
The growing immiseration of the black majority along with the coloured [mixed-race, partly Malay-derived] and Indian toilers on the one hand, and the increased repression by the Tripartite Alliance government on the other, mean that there is a real possibility of an acute crisis developing soon. Explosive class struggle has the potential to blow the ANC/SACP/COSATU Alliance and the whole country apart. But the outcome of such a crisis will depend crucially on whether a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class can emerge—a party steeled in struggle and based on an internationalist programme of working-class rule to replace decaying capitalist imperialism.
The forging of a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party is also crucial for the fight to replace the pro-capitalist misleaders of the trade unions (not only those affiliated to COSATU) with a class-struggle leadership. The urgent tasks facing the workers in their immediate struggles cannot be solved on the basis of a “shop floor” perspective, but require a revolutionary framework to struggle against the whole system of neo-apartheid capitalism. As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky explained in his work “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940): “In the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can be really independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in addition, the organs of proletarian revolution.”
Vavi’s Betrayals in the “New South Africa”
Now that he is under attack from the pro-Zuma bureaucrats in COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi is trying to portray himself as a champion of working-class interests against the capitalists and the government. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the longest serving head of COSATU [since 1999], Vavi has been centrally responsible for keeping the most powerful unions in the country under the thumb of the capitalist government, assisting his comrades in the government as they carried out vicious neo-liberal attacks against the working class. These include the implementation of IMF- and World Bank-dictated structural adjustment programmes demanding reduced government spending and cost-recovery. These measures saw mainly black, coloured and poor Indian townships being targeted for cutting off of basic services like water and electricity. Through privatisation, more than a million jobs were lost and many hospitals and clinics serving the poor were closed down. An estimated 330,000 people died between 2000 and 2005 as a result of the Mbeki government’s “AIDS denialism” and the failure to provide life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs.
Despite all these crimes against the poor by this capitalist government, Vavi continued his unwavering support. His modus operandi has always been selective left rhetoric against some government policies, sometimes leading to one or two protests or work stay-aways, designed to blow off steam and deflect pressure from the base of the unions. When election time came, Vavi would, without fail, not only call for the workers to give political support to their class enemies, but vigorously campaign for the electoral victory of his capitalist allies. Slogans like “COSATU—the workers’ voice. ANC—the workers’ choice” are the hallmarks of his misleadership of COSATU.
Under Vavi, COSATU has also continued to provide foot soldiers to carry out anti-working-class attacks as ministers in the capitalist government. Contrary to the tired lie that promoting COSATU bureaucrats to leading positions in the government and ANC will help make them “pro-working class,” many of these turncoats have gained reputations as the most hostile and pronounced enemies of the working class and the poor.
At the same time, Vavi has proven himself time and again to be a trustworthy strikebreaker on behalf of the bourgeoisie and his friends in government. To mention just a few recent examples, in 2010 Vavi sold out the public workers strike after initially falsely promising to call solidarity strikes by more strategic mining, industrial and commercial workers [see “South Africa: Capitalist Government Shaken by Public Workers Strike,” WV No. 964, 10 September 2010]. Early last year he strangled a strike by SADTU members in the Eastern Cape and unsuccessfully tried to break a number of the 2012 wildcat strikes in the mines.
When the government committed one of the most gruesome massacres against organised labour in Marikana last August, Vavi closed ranks with other Alliance tops against the workers who were killed for fighting against slave working conditions, many of whom remained NUM members. In fact, Vavi thanked Zuma for showing strong leadership, and several months later joined the rest of the COSATU bureaucracy in backing Zuma against Kgalema Motlanthe in the elections for president at the ANC’s Mangaung conference in December 2012. We of Spartacist/South Africa opposed any support to either faction of this party of the class enemy, just as in 2007 we opposed both sides when Zuma faced off against then-ANC president Thabo Mbeki.
NUMSA Leadership: Talk Left, Walk Right
The picture of class-collaborationist betrayals is fundamentally no different if you look at Vavi’s most outspoken supporters, Irvin Jim and the NUMSA leadership. The NUMSA leaders have become known as the most left-talking among COSATU affiliates. For example, after the Marikana massacre the NUMSA Central Committee was one of the only leading bodies in COSATU to issue a clear-cut denunciation of the police. Their press statement of 2 September 2012 even noted, quite correctly, that with the Marikana massacre, “the police have violently reminded us once again what Marx and Lenin taught us about the state: that it is always an organ of class rule and class oppression and that bourgeois democracy is nothing but the best political shell behind which the bourgeoisie hides its dictatorship.”
But the NUMSA bureaucrats’ occasional use of revolutionary rhetoric only serves to give a “Marxist-Leninist” veneer to their pursuit of class-collaborationist politics. Thus the very same NUMSA CC statement applauded the response by “Comrade Jacob Zuma” to the massacre! Just like Vavi and the rest of the COSATU tops, Jim and the other NUMSA leaders are wholly committed to the alliance with the bourgeois-nationalist ANC and the Tripartite Alliance government. They too have a long history of betrayals of workers’ struggles in the “new South Africa.”
This history goes back to even before the 1994 elections that brought the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance to power. When a militant sit-down strike by workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in East London threatened to create problems for the Alliance tops’ pursuit of negotiations with the apartheid rulers in 1990, they moved in to reassure the white minority regime that they would police the black proletariat. It was NUMSA leader Moses Mayekiso who, along with SACP leader Joe Slovo, went to East London to strangle the strike.
Following the 1994 elections, the ANC-led government of Nelson Mandela set as a top priority creating an investor-friendly environment as part of establishing its credentials as dependable overseers in the eyes of the Randlords and their imperialist senior partners.
The NUMSA leadership played a leading role in advancing these class-collaborationist schemes. This included a number of watershed agreements between the NUMSA bureaucracy and Volkswagen South Africa (VWSA) in the mid-late 1990s, whose net effect was binding the union in taking responsibility for the profitability of the bosses’ enterprise. This included increased labour “flexibility” through the hated casualisation schemes that are currently dominated by the use of bloodsucking labour brokers. Other deals included agreeing to speed-ups on the production line, cuts in December holiday leave and other concessions. In all this, the NUMSA leaders worked closely with the bureaucracy of the German metalworkers union IG Metall, who were well-versed at selling treacherous “social partnership” deals to increase profits for the German imperialists.
The NUMSA leaders were ruthless in their suppression of oppositionists within the union who sought to challenge their sell-out deals. One such opposition group emerged in the late 1990s among some shop stewards and workers in the VWSA Uitenhage plant, initially calling itself a “Concerned Group” and later “Indlu ye ngwevu” [the House of Senators]. These were mainly older workers who had participated in the militant struggles against apartheid of the 1980s and correctly saw the new “social partnership” as undermining the hard-won gains of class struggle.
The NUMSA bureaucracy’s purge of these union militants—using suspensions, expulsions and even the bourgeois courts—was completed during the dismissal in February 2000 of almost 1,400 workers following a wildcat strike at VWSA in Uitenhage. Treacherously, the SACP and COSATU leaders took the side of the VWSA management in supporting these dismissals. Just two days before the mass dismissals, a leaflet was issued by the provincial leadership of NUMSA advertising a strikebreaking meeting addressed by the general secretary of COSATU, one Zwelinzima Vavi: “Vavi will urge all NUMSA members to go back to work and distance themselves from agent provocateurs [sic] bent on disturbing production at the plant.” The contact person listed on this leaflet? One Irvin Jim, who was then provincial leader of NUMSA in the Eastern Cape.
COSATU Tops Ride the “Gravy Train”
The material basis for these betrayals is provided by the perks and privileges which the COSATU bureaucrats have gained under neo-apartheid, resulting in a standard of living and outlook which puts them much closer to the bosses than to their working-class base.
After 1994, the leaders of COSATU and its affiliate unions set up union investment companies behind the backs of their members. While they sought to justify this as a measure to supposedly break the stranglehold of white capital on the economy and to extend participation in the economic activities of the country to the “previously” disadvantaged communities, the facts prove that only the union tops have benefitted. Many of them leave union posts as multimillionaires, and some former union leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa have become part of the handful of black capitalists in the still predominantly white capitalist ruling class. The union bureaucrats’ investment companies are frequently involved in the most scandalous low-wage companies and sometimes in projects which the union tops are at the same time cynically mobilising COSATU members to protest against. Meanwhile, workers do not even get strike funds to help sustain themselves during the usually bitter struggles against the bosses.
The Daily Maverick recently exposed one of the most scandalous cases of the union tops receiving pay-offs from the bosses. That paper uncovered how NUM leaders, from local shop stewards through top regional and national leaders, have literally been on the payrolls of mining capitalists, getting paid high salaries by the bosses they are supposed to protect their members from. The response by NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka was effectively to say that this kind of class treason is the norm in COSATU.
Vavi tries to profile himself as an anti-corruption fighter. This has clearly angered his opponents in the COSATU bureaucracy, especially when he raises a stink about their dirty dealings or those of Zuma. But this corruption is inherent to the workings of the class-collaborationist Tripartite Alliance (and to capitalism in general), which is based on the workers’ misleaders delivering “stability” to the capitalist exploiters and which Vavi has been so central to maintaining.
Moreover, Vavi’s cries against inequality are simply empty hypocrisy. In 2009 Vavi doubled his salary from R250,000 [$25,000] to R500,000 a year, a salary that dwarfs those of the COSATU membership (and of COSATU’s administrators and researchers). Vavi also gets compensated as a director in different bourgeois institutions including the Industrial Development Corporation. This state-owned entity is tasked with providing money to new industrial capitalists. He has also not differed from his opponents in using political connections to open up business deals for family members.
Lessons of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle
The SACP and COSATU led millions of workers who struggled militantly against apartheid, and many of them wanted to replace it with socialism. But the leadership opposed proletarian revolution and instead promoted an alliance with the petty-bourgeois nationalist ANC with the aim of a so-called democratic (i.e., capitalist), “non-racist, non-sexist” South Africa. In this way, the militancy of the working class was steered in the direction of the treacherous negotiated settlement with the apartheid butchers.
All this was not a “mistake” on the part of the SACP leaders, but flowed from the SACP’s Menshevik-Stalinist programme of “two-stage revolution.” This is the programme of supporting the “progressive” bourgeoisie in the first stage, which supposedly will later evolve into the second stage of socialism in the indefinite future. Experience of the two-stage “theory” in reality has always shown that in the first stage, Communists mobilise the working class to help the bourgeois nationalists come to power, and in the second stage, the nationalists butcher the working class.
Another crucial lesson from the anti-apartheid struggle is that black workers cannot defend or further their interests simply through trade-union struggle, however militant. This can be seen most clearly in the fate of the so-called “workerists,” who were at one time a dominant force in the leadership of the black trade-union movement that emerged in the 1970s. The “workerist” tendency, represented by the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), was generally distrustful of the ANC, believing it would ride roughshod over the working class once in power as other post-independence nationalist regimes in Africa had done. But their answer to this fear (which proved quite correct) was to limit the tasks of the trade unions to shop-floor issues and try to “ignore” politics, leaving the struggle for national liberation of the black masses from apartheid to the leadership of the ANC.
The “workerists” had no programme or perspective for leading the struggle against national oppression, something which would have meant challenging the ANC and other nationalist organisations politically. But when the township revolt of the 1980s broke out, the FOSATU unions could not stand passively outside the mass upheaval against apartheid, so the result was that they participated in the struggle by accepting the dominant ANC leadership. COSATU was formed in 1985 from the merger of the NUM, FOSATU and pro-ANC unions. The COSATU unions soon emerged as the main organisations of mass, militant black struggle, for example mobilising 340,000 mineworkers at the height of the 1987 gold strike. However, the growing social and political power of COSATU was paralleled by its increasing subordination to the ANC.
Irvin Jim and some other supporters of Vavi have been branded “workerists” by some of their opponents within the COSATU bureaucracy. But this is an invention of the Zuma loyalists in COSATU, who want to silence any criticism of the ANC and government. Jim and the current NUMSA leaders are quite clear and open in their political support for the ANC, including endorsing Zuma’s second term and recently declaring their willingness to support the ANC in the 2014 elections.
The leaders of the Association for Mining and Construction Union (AMCU) have made a big show of declaring themselves to be “non-political.” But despite their refusal to formally endorse any political parties, the AMCU leaders do have politics and these politics are class-collaborationist. AMCU is affiliated to the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU). NACTU is politically aligned to the Pan Africanist Congress and Black Consciousness Movement, which are fundamentally no different from the ANC in their bourgeois-nationalist politics. Meanwhile, AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa has on many instances expressed his dislike of “illegal and unprocedural” strikes. He recently clashed with the workers committees at Anglo American Platinum and other mines in the Rustenburg area, denouncing their strike actions and working to send the mineworkers back to the shafts.
Before and after the wildcat strikes last year, there has been a massive wave of resignations from the NUM across the platinum belt, with most of those mineworkers joining AMCU, which is now the majority union at the big platinum mines. Revolutionaries generally favour organising all workers of an industry in one union to maximise their strength, but we do not condemn all splits within the trade-union movement out of hand; these need to be judged on a case-by-case basis. It is the NUM tops’ betrayals that are fundamentally responsible for undermining workers’ unity in the mining industry, and if the majority of workers want to join AMCU it is their right. But as the class collaboration of Mathunjwa and other AMCU leaders underline, new unions are not in and of themselves enough to resist the bosses’ attacks. What’s needed is a political fight for a class-struggle leadership to replace the pro-capitalist sell-outs both within COSATU and in other federations like NACTU. This is a crucial part of the struggle to build a revolutionary party that champions the interests of all the exploited and oppressed.
For a Black-Centered Workers Government!
During last year’s wildcat strike wave, we called for and supported the formation of joint strike committees based on elected local mine committees [see “Miners Struggle Shakes Neo-Apartheid Capitalist Order,” WV No. 1011, 26 October 2012]. Such committees would organise and unify the miners’ struggles irrespective of union affiliation. They would fight to ensure equal pay for equal work, striving to drive out the parasitic labour brokers. They would coordinate workers defence guards to stop scabs and organise defence against cop thugs, as well as promoting demands in the interests of the surrounding poor black communities and mobilising to defend immigrants against the police and mob attacks. Elected strike committees would more democratically reflect the will of the workers than existing union bodies, and they would embrace broader sections of the working masses. An effective strike committee would, in periods of prolonged and intense struggle, take over many of the functions of running society like coordinating provisioning of food and medical care. This would provide an invaluable experience for the workers and instill the consciousness of their own ability to organise society on the basis of proletarian state power.
But this depends on a revolutionary leadership emerging, one which is firmly rooted in the working class and has a clear programme to fight for a black-centred workers government to end neo-apartheid capitalist slavery. At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle there was a development of spontaneous working-class organisations much broader than the official trade unions. These covered many factories and plants in a particular locality and involved the unemployed, community organisations and the youth. The task of these area committees was to coordinate and promote solidarity of workers’ struggles within a particular local and between different locals, and they included other worker formations outside of COSATU, like NACTU.
But while these area committees had great potential because of the working masses they encompassed and the struggles they coordinated, the leadership was committed to maintaining capitalism and the alliance with the ANC. No criticism of the participating organisations was tolerated. In this way, the political hegemony of the ANC was protected and the black proletariat was used to haul the ideological cart of nationalism. We are for workers democracy within the working-class organisations. This includes open debate and criticism of political programmes, which are required for the workers to hold their leaders accountable and learn to reject reformist dead-ends.
One such dead-end can be found in the reformist politics pushed by the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), whose activity around the workers committees in the Rustenburg area was highly publicised in the media. The DSM used the prominence it gained during the wildcat strikes to launch a new “mass workers party,” the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP), on the basis of a reformist, trade-union economist programme. In fact, up until 1996 the DSM’s predecessors were buried inside a mass bourgeois party, the ANC, and opposed the call for a workers party. For example, in 1994 the current leader of the Committee for a Workers’ International to which the DSM is affiliated, Peter Taaffe, said: “The slogan of a workers party was an incorrect slogan in the period prior to the elections in South Africa. We wanted the biggest possible ANC majority.” Their deep-seated reformism is further confirmed by their grotesque position that cops are “workers in uniform.” Even the brutal murder of the Marikana workers has not convinced these reformists about the suicidal nature of this position.
The national oppression of the non-white majority is too deep, multifaceted and structural to ever be addressed through trade-union struggle alone or any other reformist solution. The proletariat must place itself at the head of the struggle for the national liberation of the black African people as well as the coloureds and Indians, a struggle culminating in a black-centred workers government. The success of a socialist revolution in South Africa requires its international extension. What we wrote in “South Africa Powder Keg” (Black History and the Class Struggle No. 12, February 1995) retains its force today:
“For the moment South Africa is a weakened link in the chain of the world capitalist system binding the neocolonies of the Third World to the imperialist states of North America, West Europe and Japan. It is necessary to mobilize the forces of the proletariat to break that chain at its weakest links, and then fight like hell to take the battle to the imperialist centers, seeking allies against the vicious enemy of all the oppressed—international capital.”
That requires a revolutionary internationalist vanguard party, which is what we are fighting to build.