South African Federation of Trade Unions reconvene ‘working class summit’ to discuss political representation

On 12th and 13th June 2021, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) will reconvene the Working Class Summit (WCS). The WCS was first convened in 2018, in line with a resolution adopted at the South African Federation of Trade Unions’ 2017 founding congress. One thousand delegates representing 147 communities, youth and trade unions, adopted the resolution which stated: “A clear majority agreed on a need to build an independent, democratic and revolutionary working-class political party, which will be strong enough to conquer social, economic and political power, abolish the capitalist system and replace it with socialism.”

The WCS Steering Committee has made it abundantly clear that the purpose of the summit is not to debate if but how to build a workers’ party. Provincial structures are being set up in provinces across the country.

The idea of forming a workers’ party was repeatedly posed throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s in the struggle against apartheid. Alarmed, the South African Communist Party (SACP) –African National Congress (ANC) alliance was desperate to ensure the trade union movement was under its political control. In the trade union unity process of the early 1980s, within which Fosatu (Federation of South African Trade Unions) was the most organised force, the new federation which was to emerge out of the process was to be renamed the Congress of South African Trade Unions, to solidify its link with and political subordination to the ANC.

Even so, this did not suppress the debate about the organised working class’s political future. Fosatu secretary general, Joe Foster, at its 1982 annual conference, had warned against workers surrendering their independence to the new “post-colonial elite” of which the ANC leadership could easily become a part of, something which is still remembered.

In their mouthpiece, the ‘African Communist’ journal, the South African Communist Party leadership condemned Foster as a “syndicalist” for suggesting that the South African working class did not have its own “vanguard” party already, namely the SACP. Until then, the SACP had been indifferent, even politically hostile, to the emerging trade union movement in South Africa, which it had had no role in building. It condemned the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC’s (Marxist Workers Party’s predecessors) campaign for support for the emerging trade unions. Under the headline, “Direct Links Stink”, in the publication ‘Workers Unity’ – organ of the exiled SACP-controlled SA Trade Union Congress — it argued that any union that was allowed to exist by the then apartheid regime was by definition ‘yellow’ and not a real trade union. But the reality was different; the 1980s saw the beginning of the emergence of genuine, militant trade unions in South Africa as a pre-revolutionary situation began to develop.

The SACP leadership was, however, alarmed by the growing socialist consciousness and independence of the growing workers’ movement which cut across all federations. Examples of this were the views expressed at a May Day rally organised by 21 trade unions in Johannesburg in 1985. Sipho Radebe from the Council of Unions of South Africa stated: “Our solidarity and unity will leave the oppressors trembling with fear. No other class can set us free from our bondage but we ourselves in the working class.” Comrade Radebe was followed by Fosatu’s comrade, Ntsamai, who brought the audience to its feet declaring: “Capitalism, capitalism is our enemy.”

To cut across a movement that threatened to torpedo its Stalinist “two-stage theory” – (capitalist) democracy first and socialism in the indefinite future – the SACP changed strategy from indifference and hostility to the emergent trade unions within South Africa to capturing them politically. The Fosatu leadership was summoned to the ANC’s exiled headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia and given their political marching orders. To assert the ANC’s authority over the federation, the word “Federation” in Fosatu’s name was replaced with “Congress” to emphasis the link with and political subordination to the ANC. To complete the process of political capture, the SACP drove Cosatu into the Tripartite Alliance led by the pro-capitalist ANC. But this alliance was undermined as the pro-capitalist, and self-enrichment, strategy of the ANC leadership brought about a polarisation between the incompatible class forces it attempted to hold together. As early as 1998, during the ANC’s first term of office, Cosatu’s survey of shop steward political attitudes found that 30%, a significant minority, that wanted Cosatu to form a workers’ party to challenge the ANC.


In an ironic twist of history, this bid to prevent an independent workers’ political voice emerging is today being attempted again by the current National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) leadership whose predecessors had unsuccessfully tabled the resolution at Cosatu’s 1993 Special Congress calling for the formation of an “Independent Workers’ Party” that would contest the ANC in the historic first democratic elections the following year. In 2018 the Numsa leadership, now dominated by a Stalinist faction, launched the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) in December 2018. This was in defiance of both the Saftu’s 2017 founding congress resolution that Numsa, its biggest affiliate, had supported, to establish a workers’ party.

Widespread rage against the ANC government over the Marikana massacre forced the question of a workers’ party back onto the agenda in Numsa. It was against this background that WASP (the Workers and Socialist Party) was formed in 2012 and successfully registered to stand in elections. Under pressure of its rank-and-file, the Numsa leadership called a special national congress in 2013, ahead of the 2014 general elections. However, the dominant Stalinist faction in the Numsa leadership ensured that the special national congress took no decision, not even to provide guidance to members who to vote for in 2014. WASP’s appeals to the Numsa leadership for support, even proposing to Numsa “to take its place in it in accordance with its numbers and political weight in society”, that is, take over the party and build it, were ignored.

The 2017 Saftu founding congress in effect took the initiative for the establishment of a workers’ party out of the Numsa leadership’s hands with the full and enthusiastic support of Numsa delegates who recognised their leadership’s failure. It is against this background that Saftu’s founding congress adopted a resolution to form a workers’ party and subsequently the Working Class Summit was convened in July 2018.

Recognising the setback, the Stalinist Numsa faction went behind its own members’ and Saftu’s backs to form the SRWP in secret. Even before its launch in December 2018, it had secured funding from a billionaire and prefabricated a leadership and programme. But first it had to try to prevent the implementation of Saftu’s resolution which would result in the formation of a workers’ party completely outside its control.

Thus, in full SRWP party regalia, the Numsa contingent bullied delegates to the 2018 Working Class Summit, denouncing attempts to “reinvent the workers’ party wheel”, demanding to be the chair, scribes and raporteurs of WCS commissions. When outraged delegates denounced this behaviour, Numsa general secretary, Irvin Jim, threatened to walk out, which would have collapsed the summit. However, they heeded Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s warning that history would judge Numsa harshly should they do so. In staying, Numsa thus bound itself to the WCS resolution.

Thus the Numsa leadership’s launch of the SRWP, just five months later in December 2018, was an act of political strike-breaking against both Saftu and the WCS. The SRWP launch itself was marked by controversy, as a leadership was imposed with the argument that there is no need for elections within socialist parties.

The billionaire-supported SRWP’s humiliating failure in the 2019 elections, getting just 24,439 votes, was an emphatic rejection by Numsa’s 340,000 members. Their support alone could have guaranteed it at least ten parliamentary seats in South Africa’s proportional representation system. With the possible mobilisation of their families and those of other members of Saftu affiliates, there was the potential to be SA’s biggest opposition party, but this was squandered. This illustrated the failure of the Numsa leadership’s undemocratic Stalinist methods. Fearing the democratic, socialist traditions of its own members, it did not dare mobilise them for fear of losing control of the party it had formed.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, led by expelled former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, took full advantage of the opportunity created by the mass anger over the Marikana massacre to occupy the vacuum to the ANC’s left. Posturing radically, spouting socialist rhetoric, Malema launched the Economic Freedom Fighters in 2013, with demands such as expropriation of land without compensation and the promise for “economic freedom in our lifetime” in a cynical political exploitation of the masses.

The EFF’s one million plus votes barely ten months after it was formed was a negative confirmation of the political potential that existed for a genuine left, working class and socialist political alternative to the ANC. The Stalinist Numsa cabal must take responsibility not only for prolonging the vacuum on the left of the political spectrum but clearing the way for the EFF to exploit it and complicating the terrain.

The SRWP, as Numsa’s May Day, 2021, statement shows, does not stand for socialist revolution as its names suggests. “We must fight to overhaul the entire class system. We must be unapologetic about demanding genuine radical economic transformation for the masses. This is why in 2013, the resolutions which catalyzed the formation of the SRWP were critical to laying the foundation for building the resistance against the brutal capitalist system in South Africa. We have in SAFTU an independent federation, which does not subordinate itself to the naked greed of the corrupt ambitions of the ANC government. And in the SRWP we have a genuine socialist party whose agenda is rooted in advancing the interests of the working class and empowering it to transform the economy for the benefit of us all, and not just a wealthy minority.”

Not a word about socialism! The radical-sounding “overhaul (of) the entire class system”, is in reality the bitterly frustrated cry of the impotent black capitalist class over their failure to dislodge what they refer to as “white monopoly capital” from the summits of the economy. Twenty seven years since the end of apartheid shares of black-owned companies are valued at less than 29% on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, according to economist Duma Gqubule. The slogan “radical economic transformation” is the name by which the corrupt Zuma-inspired ANC faction goes.

The secretive, top-down Stalinist approach was thus a reflection of the political, ideological and programmatic character of the party. Its leadership is SACP-trained and spent many years in leading positions being miseducated in its “Marxist-Leninist” school for the falsification of the ideas of both Marx and Lenin. The SRWP’s 2019 elections presidential candidate, Numsa general secretary, Irvin Jim, regularly makes comments sympathetic towards Zuma and critical of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into state corruption.

The Stalinist Numsa cabal broke with the SACP over its position on the 2012 mineworkers’ uprising that led to the Marikana massacre. Then SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin denounced the strike in the language befitting of the apartheid regime, as the work of a “Pondoland vigilante mafia.” But it has not broken with the SACP ideologically and programmatically. The SRWP stands for the ‘National Democratic Revolution’ and the bankrupt two-stage theory for the continuation of working class slavery in perpetuity.

It is a divisive sectarian obstruction to the building of a workers’ political opposition to the pro-capitalist and corrupt ANC leadership. Members have been misled by the claim that the SRWP is the realisation of Numsa’s 2013 SNC resolution. They should recognise that its leadership has forfeited the historic responsibility for the creation of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. This task has now been inherited by Saftu’s WCS process. SRWP members should fully support uniting the working class anchored around the new federation, Saftu, of which Numsa spearheaded the establishment of.

SRWP leaders have in the meantime continued to play a damaging role. It has caused a crisis in Saftu by opposing Saftu’s support for Cosatu’s October 2020 general strike. It followed this by initially opposing Saftu’s own February 2021 general strike. That the Western Cape SRWP had written an open letter condemning the party’s inaction under the pandemic (lockdown was imposed in March 2020) and demanding a special national congress to remove the national leadership, revealed that the SRWP was experiencing a crisis. This crisis was reinforced by the defiance by Numsa Ekurhuleni’s region, the most powerful in the country, of Numsa Secretary General, Irvin Jim’s withdrawal of support for the October general strike called by Cosatu, which Saftu supported. The Numsa Ekurhuleni workers trampled on the SRWP flag at the rally in the centre of Johannesburg.

Jim is now attempting to collapse Saftu by issuing a written threat, in the name of the Numsa Central Committee, to Saftu secretary general, Zwelinzima Vavi, to recall him. Vavi’s counter-offensive has taken the form of activating the 2018 Working Class Summit resolution to form a workers’ party. The reconvening of the WCS is thus a reflection of a change in the balance of power in Saftu against Jim and his ‘SACP 2.0’ collaborators in its leadership. The MWP’s approach is that whatever the political motivation for the reconvening of the WCS, it nonetheless breaks the post-2018 paralysis and has reopened the path to the formation of a workers’ party.

The MWP’s historical role vindicated

Recognising that the neo-liberal Growth Employment and Redistribution strategy the ANC adopted in 1996 would accelerate class polarisation and therefore disillusionment in it, the MWP’s predecessor, the then Marxist Workers Tendency, abandoned its orientation towards the ANC, re-established itself as the Democratic Socialist Movement, and campaigned for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

This perspective was confirmed by successive political attitude surveys Cosatu conducted amongst shop stewards. By 2012, in a survey completed before the Marikana massacre, support for the formation of a workers’ party had risen to 67% of Cosatu members.

The DSM’s intervention in the 2012 mineworkers strike provided the opportunity to establish such a party in collaboration with the mineworkers national independent strike committee. Established as a broad inclusive federal party, with the DSM as an affiliate, the Workers and Socialist Party was demonised by the leadership of the non-aligned Association of Mineworkers Construction Union, which thousands of mineworkers had joined after abandoning Cosatu’s National Union of Mineworkers.

WASP was opposed by the entire left, as well as the Numsa leadership it had invited to take over the party before its 2013 special national congress. It was squeezed by the vastly better financially resourced populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), established to cynically exploit mass anger over Marikana. Many of those who voted EFF did so not out of support for its policies but because it seemed the most viable whip to punish the ANC with. Even without winning a seat, WASP had planted the flag of revolutionary socialism on the electoral plane for the first time in the democratic era. Following an internal crisis and our split from WASP, the Marxist Workers Party has played an important role in anchoring the workers’ party around the Saftu.

Political crisis

The ANC’s debilitating war between the Ramaphosa “reformers” and the so-called Radical Economic Transformation factions, threatens to tear it apart. Its vote could fall below 50% in 2024. The main bulwark to the ANC’s right, the Democratic Alliance, is under serious strains as racial tensions rise in a white-led capitalist party struggling to find support in the black electorate. It is consequently unable to capitalise on the ANC’s crisis. On the ANC’s left, the EFF’s momentum has stalled. Its racist anti-white and anti-Indian rhetoric is losing it support. Its leadership’s opportunism, after propping up the DA in three of SA’s most important metros entering into coalitions, after the 2016 local government elections, with a party it ritually denounces as a “racist party of white monopoly capital” has significantly undermined its credibility. The possibility of prosecutions for corruption of its chairperson, Floyd Shivambu, and Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, will be enormously damaging and could provide an outlet for rank-and-file discontent.

Having been in the forefront of calling for the reconvening of the WCS, the MWP is now calling for a date to be set, May Day 2022, for the workers’ party launch, to adopt a clear socialist programme and to use the period after the June summit to mobilise and unite the working class, currently fighting separately from each other in the workplace and communities, around a common purpose. The MWP will argue that those who oppose setting a date are in effect repudiating the WCS 2018 declaration. It amounts to a call for the indefinite postponement of the launch. This could potentially strip the credibility of the WCS’s commitment to launching a workers’ party. All proposals should be debated by the WCS delegates. The WCS Steering Committee should not usurp their right to do so.

The MWP has already begun affiliating the Extended Public Works Programme workers forums, fighting for permanent jobs and a R12,500 minimum wage formed in four provinces, so far, to the provincial structures — in reality, potential pre-party formations — in the provinces. The WCS Steering Committee, currently overwhelmingly petty bourgeois and dominated by academics and NGOs, must be restructured to reflect the proletarian base of the structures, including trade unions and worker campaigns and community campaigning formations.

An historic opportunity beckons to retie the knot of history between today’s generation and that of early 1980s and 1990s, clearing the way for the emergence of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.


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May 2021