Unions and Politics in South Africa

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by Gerard Di Trolio

Twenty years after the the first democratic elections in South Africa, the country stands at a crossroads. Racial based apartheid has been replaced by economic apartheid.

The Tripartite Alliance of the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP), and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), have not only been unable to solve economic inequality, but have deepened it. The Alliance once subscribed to the 1955 Freedom Charter. The Charter’s goals of racial equality and linguistic recognition have been accomplished.

However, the Freedom Charter’s promise of land redistribution and the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy have not. In fact, the ANC has embarked upon a neoliberal development policy that have left many South Africans behind. In 2012, South African President Jacob Zuma explicitly stated that nationalizing the country’s vast mineral wealth was not part of the government’s agenda.

The official poverty rate remains around 25 per cent but may in fact be higher, while more than half of its children live in poverty.Despite the poverty, South Africa’s GDP has grown, further enriching whites and a new strata of African capitalists – many who were involved in the ANC and other liberation movements. This has lead to many contradictions.

South Africa is now known as the “protest capital of the world.” Over 2 million South Africans take part in protests every year. These protests attracted international attention in 2012 with the Marikana Mine Massacre. On August 16, 2012, 34 miners were shot and killed by South African security forces while striking for better wages at their mine.The use of violence and the unwillingness of the government to radically redistribute wealth has had an impact on the South African left.

In 2014, the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) declared its independence from the Tripartite Alliance. NUMSA General-Secretary Irvin Jim explained why to a packed audience at the Steelworkers’ in Toronto on March 6, 2014.

Jim began by explaining the economic situation in South Africa and how the ANC embarked on a neoliberal programme known as GEAR in 1996. Capital flows were liberalized leading to factory closures and South African businesses were listed on stock exchanges in the UK and Australia, even while the primary shareholders remained in South Africa.Jim mentioned that Nelson Mandela became a proponent of a market economy for South Africa after a visit to the United States not long after his release from prison.

The ANC has boasted about its record of economic growth and investments to infrastructure, but this has not trickled down to the working class or the unemployed living in shantytowns. Jim noted that the ANC keeps moving the goalposts. The ANC’s development goals called Vision 2014 was eventually revised upwards to Vision 2030.

For Jim, the solution to these problems is building a united front with the working class at its core. NUMSA isn’t rushing to build a political party for its own sake. It is not endorsing a party for the May 2014 elections and has told its members to vote for whatever party they choose.

“We realize that now is the time that the working class must organize itself as a class for itself. At NUMSA, we call on all workers to set aside their prejudices to unite,” Jim said.

Jim believes that NUMSA, in addition to is regular duties as a trade union must educate its members.

“For us it is important that the working class must have a very clear working class perspective. It must know who they are as workers,” said Jim.

“Those who are in leadership, they must know that they are privileged to be in leadership,” Jim said.

“We don’t issue adverts to look for shop stewards. Shop stewards must there where workers are exploited. They must be facing the concrete conditions of workers. As Karl Marx teaches us, it’s not the consciousness of man that determines their being, but the environment,” said Jim.

“Well anybody with no politics is dangerous,” Jim joked. “We teach workers to understand that the union belongs to them, which is why they must have their own general meeting to democratically elect leaders of their own choice, and they must do that consciously.”

Jim recounted how neoliberalism has broken down the once strong bonds of the South African labour movement.

“The neoliberal agenda is very good at demobilizing. They will co-opt workers in the union,” Jim said.

“In the 80s and early 90s, if management were to dismiss a worker, this used to be an injury to one is an injury to all. Dismiss one, dismiss us all. There would be a stoppage in the plant. Workers were organized and defending themselves,” said Jim.

NUMSA solution to this is to eventually build a new workers’ party in South Africa, but before this can happen it seeks to build a united front.

“There is no concluded view on the nature and content of the united front. There’s a framework. We are consulting on the local level, on the provincial level. There will be provincial conferences, there will be a national launch of the united front. We are not seeking to give people positions, we are not in the business of giving people positions. We are in the process of mobilizing the working class to organize around its own concrete problems,” Jim said.

I think the nature and form is its own dynamic process,” Jim continued. “We have taken the decision to consult a wide variety of organs of peoples’ power.”

“Everybody is welcome in the united front that we will launch,” Jim said.

Jim also took aim at unions that only concerned themselves with their own members instead of the working class as a whole.

“We can’t only focus on workers who pay dues. The working class is the working class,” Jim said. “How do we close the gap between the unemployed and those that work?

Jim believes in a type of vanguardism. “I mean a committed advanced detachment of the working class, that act in the interest of the working class, on a consistent basis. ”

York University professor and long time labour activist Sam Gindin commented on the difference between a militant like Jim and the sate of Canada’s labour movement.

“What fascinates me is that you see somebody from a union, who operates in a union, but had a certain kind of education through the struggle in South Africa, which allows him to play this kind of role where you can confidently challenge politics and not just be limited as union, but also see his own limits. The main point is that things are so different because in South Africa, you can talk about bringing in the movements and Marxist workers together because through the struggle against apartheid, this is what has developed. They have mass movements. We don’t. They have a left. We don’t. They have workers who have a left analysis, and we don’t. So the main lesson is how much we need to build and develop a left that can be engaged in workers’ struggles and workers’ education,” Gindin said.

Regardless of the challenges facing the labour movement in Canada, it’s safe to say that after Irvin Jim’s detailed and fiery talk, that the struggle in South Africa will be intensifying and one workers all over the world will learn from.

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