South Africa: Union leadership attacks workers

The entire labour movement should be outraged by the draconian actions of the National Office Bearers (NOBs) of the Chemical Paper, Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union.

The suspension of the Wits Regional Office Bearers (ROBs) and National Executive Committee (NEC) delegates over the call by the Wits Regional Shop Stewards Council (RSSC) for a Workers Referendum on the Tripartite Alliance and the 2004 elections, is a serious attack on union democracy. This political suppression — the occupation of the offices and the imposition of what workers rightly call a “Bush” regime on the region, the changing of office locks, the forcible eviction of the regional deputy chairperson from the office, the collaboration with the bosses to intimidate them for marching and suspending their subs, and posting of security at the offices — undermine a cornerstone Cosatu’s foundations: worker control.

The NOBs are saying workers cannot, in fact are not allowed to think for themselves. This could split Ceppawu and will ripple throughout Cosatu, threatening possibly its very existence in the future.

Without even discussing with the Wits Region the Cosatu May Central Executive Committee has worsened the situation by taking a position, repeating the Ceppawu NOBs’ blatant lies that the suspensions were “for failing to respect the decisions of the union arrived at through a democratic process. They argue that “Cosatu is a home for all political and ideological tendencies…”, except apparently, the Anti-Privatisation Porum. The claim that “Ceppawu is coming under attack from the Anti-Privatisation Campaign”(sic) is false and hypocritical. The crisis in Ceppawu has been brewing long before the APF, which correctly answered the call for solidarity action from the workers themselves, was born.

The CEC’s argument that “once a decision is taken in the constitutional structures, all, particularly those elected into positions of leadership, must defend these even though they may not be in agreement.” (Cosatu Weekly 30/05/03) has nothing to do with democratic centralism, which presupposes the participation of the membership in a democratic process, not the imposition of a decision from the top. The CEC made no effort to “hear the other side” – a basic principle of natural justice. This is not democratic but bureaucratic centralism – the leadership determines the ‘line’ and the membership obeys without question.

The Ceppawu NOBs arrogant decision to conduct an investigation into a decision taken by the Wits Region is in reality a political witchhunt against any workers who dare to challenge them. They are refusing to meet the RSSC – the most representative body in the Region– so they can divide workers. The Ceppawu NOBs and Cosatu CEC are in fact saying that the ROBs should have disregarded the mandate of the members that elected them. This is the substitution of worker control with a bureaucratic dictatorship.

The CEC decision will aggravate the Ceppawu, and similar crises simmering below the surface in other affiliates. Already 10 000 Ceppawu Wits Region members have suspended union subscription payments The Ceppawu NOBs, emboldened by the CEC’s backing, have called an emergency NEC for June 12th. The NEC will likely decide on further action probably against comrade John Appolis, the Regional Secretary, making him a scapegoat. They hope this will intimidate workers and break their unity. Comrade Appolis’ sin is that he happens to be the APF chairperson.

The crisis is at root political

The Cosatu leadership is hiding behind principles of organisational discipline to deflect attention from the real issue raised by the Ceppawu workers – the political crisis in the Tripartite Alliance. It is no accident that the October 2002 two-day anti-privatisation general strike brought matters to a head.

Comrades John Appolis and regional deputy chairperson, Vuyani Tayika pointed out during an interview with the DSM, that many Ceppawu workers had refused to participate in the October general strike. Johnson & Johnson workers said they opposed privatisation, but were no longer prepared to blindly follow leaders using them to let off steam because of pressure from below. They felt that the Cosatu leadership, paralysed by loyalty to the ANC – the Alliance leader, had no intention of carrying the fight to the end.

Lessons of the October Nnti-Privatisation General Strike

Unlike the Cosatu leadership, workers have learned the lessons of the October 2002 anti-privatisation general strike.

President Mbeki accused Cosatu of being under “ultra left” influence, of attempting to impose a “socialist agenda” on the ANC and of failing to understand that the ANC was never socialist. In a contemptuous dismissal of the general strike, the working class and Cosatu, the government, added insult to injury by announcing plans for listing Telkom the day after the strike.

Like a bolt of lighting after a thunderstorm, the October 2002 general strike illuminated the political landscape, burning lessons into the consciousness of the working class. Things that had been evident for some time became blindingly clear. Mbeki, as president of the ANC and the country, used the events to make clear once and for all that the ANC:

  • is irreversibly committed to Gear and privatisation
  • is a party of capitalism for which the interests of big business takes precedence over those that voted it into office – the working class
  • as the leader of the Tripartite Alliance it regards anything other than unquestioning obedience from Cosatu as disloyal
  • expects the Cosatu leadership to control workers by preventing strikes not encouraging them

Conscious of the growing alienation of the masses and recognising, with three general strikes in as many years during his presidency, that the awakening of the working class poses the biggest threat to the political authority of his government, Mbeki deliberately raised the temperature around the general strike. In words and deeds, Mbeki drew a line in the sand of class struggle. He dared the Cosatu leadership to step across. Instead of getting off their knees the COSATU leadership are creeping on their bellies.

We are beyond the point where replies such as Madisha’s that workers are “ultra-hungry” will restore confidence in their leadership. For the masses it is action that counts. Unlike Mbeki, the Cosatu leadership did not put deeds behind their words. Whilst sharply denouncing privatisation, Gear and Mbeli’s labeling, they continue to plead pathetically that the Alliance’s end would be a disaster for the working class.

Whereas the 2000 and 2001 general strikes were well supported, last year’s received patchy support. Despite denials by the Cosatu and SACP leaders, workers understood the strike was political and directed against the government as were the two previous general strikes in 2000 and 2001. This is why posters of former Cosatu general secretary and Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa were torn down and burnt. More significantly, workers have begun to draw the conclusion that the Cosatu leadership is part of the problem.

ANC now a conscious party of capitalism

The Cosatu leadership blames mysterious, unidentified forces for the ANC government stance, pledging to continue to fight for its soul. They have abandoned the programme of rolling mass action for meaningless forums such as the one Restructuring of State Assets, the Millennium Labour Council, Ekhuruleni Summit and the Growth and Development Summit. Like a drowning man clutching at straws, the Cosatu leadership complain, as they undoubtedly will after the GDS, that agreements are not respected because the “ANC lacks capacity.”

Yet Mbeki’s statement that the ANC was never a socialist organisation is the bitter truth. The ANC’s policies are consistent with its historic mission: to create a rich black capitalist class. This was always its aim even during its most radical days of the Freedom Charter. Nor does it help to imagine that the differences between Mandela and Mbeki are fundamental. Tata will not rescue the situation. Such differences as there are have much more to do with style than programmatic substance. Gear, was adopted under the Mandela presidency. By declaring privatisation as the ANC’s “fundamental policy”, he effectively buried the Freedom Charter.

As long ago as 1956, Mandela made it clear that the Freedom Charter was not a blueprint for socialism. Instead its implementation would “.. open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class.” (“In Our Lifetime”, published in Liberation, (June 1956). The Mbeki government’s Black Economic Empowerment programme is fulfilling this aim. This has required the preservation of capitalism and therefore the continued oppression and exploitation of the working class. This is why the cautious, even suspicious toenadering between the ANC and Big Business has transformed into mutual admiration. The interests of the working class and the capitalist class are incompatible and irreconcilable. This is the underlying basis for the repeated conflict between Cosatu and the ANC government

Capitalism with a human face an illusion

Instead of accepting this, the Cosatu leadership itself denounces “ultra-leftism” for not recognising the reality of the present “balance of forces”. This mechanical and undialectical reasoning.only leads to capitulation to capitalism and Cosatu’s own involvement in privatisation as Mbeki so scornfully reminded them. The point, however, as Marx said in a different context, is to change the balance of forces by subordinating (not excluding) negotiations to mass actions, exposing the fact that capitalism is incapable of satisfying the basic need of the masses; to raise the consciousness of the working class, and to actively campaign for the socialist transformation of society. The Cosatu leaders tactic of “engagement” creates the illusion that capital can be “disciplined”.. This approach inevitably leads to accepting, as Vavi repeated at the Growth and Development Summit, that workers employed on public works programmes would accept lower wages and conditions. This creates a two-tier labour market undermining decades-old gains.

The SACP’s claim that the ANC is “social democratic” ignores the fact that worker rights in the far more developed social democracies in Europe are under attack unleashing a strike wave of millions. Millions in the Third World – in India, Peru and Zimbabwe — are resisting neo-liberalism. SA capitalism is not of a special type capable of satisfying the needs of the masses

The SACP has no intention of being an alternative to the ANC. Comrade Blade Ndzimande has made the astonishing statement that not only is the ANC not neo-liberal, it could even be converted to socialism! These preposterous positions have split the SACP down the middle at a leadership level. In open defiance of the SACP Central Committee’s decisions to support the general strike, central committee members, Ronnie Kasrils and Jeff Radebe took out full-page newspaper advertisements denouncing the strike. No action has been taken against them because supporting and denouncing party decisions are both in line with official SACP policy! Like in a circus, it all depends on which hat you wear.

The Wits Region of Ceppawu is merely the advance guard of wider layers of workers drawing the same conclusion: that unless Cosatu is taken out of the Alliance, it will not be able to play the role it was created for – to defend and advance the interests of the working class. This is what has driven the Ceppawu Wits Region, to take matters into their own hands.

Cosatu facing implosion

It is perfectly clear that the Ceppawu leadership is prepared to in effect expel 10 000 members and break up the union rather than allow workers to engage in a democratic debate and draw their own conclusions. The Ceppawu NOB’s and Cosatu CEC leadership’s position is that workers are allowed to review the Alliance as much as they like provided they end up supporting the ANC.

Cosatu does not have a God-given right to exist. If the leadership continues to sacrifice the interests of workers on the altar of class collaboration, Cosatu will ultimately disintegrate. This would represent a serious setback for the working class for which the Cosatu leadership will be criminally responsible. The deep divisions in Cosatu are precisely around the Alliance. The Commission of Inquiry into Nehawu concluded that it is split into pro-ANC and pro-SACP factions. An independent audit found that 11 of Cosatu’s 19 affiliates are in such a serious financial crisis that they may not last the next four years.

For a Mass Workers Party on a Socialist Programme

The Ceppawu Wits region’s courageous stance has done the whole movement a service. Placed in an impossible situation by the leadership – either continued political imprisonment in the Alliance or class independence outside the union — they may have no alternative but to break away. It is regrettable that they may have no choice but to accept this. This should be regarded as taking one step back in order to take two steps forward. They must reach out to fellow workers by establishing a campaign for the restoration of worker control, democracy and socialism in Cosatu. The establishment of left opposition committees throughout all affiliates should be initiated. The issues should be taken into working class communities. With the APF, plans to put up independent worker candidates in the 2005 local government elections should be made now.

Breaking away from the Alliance poses the question of an alternative. The DSM believes that the answer lies in the formation of a mass workers party on a socialist programme.

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July 2003