South African Federation of Trade Unions second congress: Ideological, organisational re-armament of the working class must begin

The note of optimism and determination of the declaration issued at the end of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) Second Congress in May will be greeted with a sense both of relief and encouragement by Saftu members, and the working class, as a whole. Its commitment to “stand shoulder to shoulder with the working class in their battles and promote a socialist alternative to the capitalist crisis” will be particularly welcome. It will re-inflame the hopes both of Saftu members and the wider working class that, after a period of paralysis and factional struggles, the original aims with which the new federation was established in 2017 can now recommence in earnest. Provided the lessons of its first five years are properly digested, Saftu may now be poised for the revival of the traditions of workers’ control, workers’ democracy and socialism.


Correct as the Saftu declaration is in pointing out that the doomsayers’ predictions of the collapse of the Congress, and the federation itself, had been defied, it did not draw out the character of the underlying class forces at play and the implications of its outcome. Consequently, the vicious factional struggle within the leadership in the recent period (see here) is simplistically presented. It is as if the outcome of the congress was the result of a ‘kumbaya’ consensus amongst delegates who had come to their senses. In reality, the Congress was an indirect expression of the conflict between the irreconcilable aspirations of the working class and the capitalists. It was not simply a personal conflict and/or power struggle between individuals.

The Saftu congress was rescued by the courage and determination, particularly of the militants amongst the delegates of the metalworkers’ union, Numsa. In open defiance of the dictatorship of the grouping led by Numsa General Secretary, Irvin Jim, which we have characterised as the SA Communist Party 2.0-grouping (SACP 2.0). These comrades registered themselves as “Numsa-2” and asserted the right of the rank-and-file to be heard. It is to Numsa-2 that Saftu owes the chance to go into battle once again.

It would be difficult to find a comparable reign of Stalinist terror in any union than the one created by the SACP 2.0-grouping in Numsa. Even before the congress the battle lines had been drawn, in an attempt to ensure a pre-determined outcome for the Saftu congress – a coup against its leadership and the ousting particularly of Comrade Vavi – the SACP 2.0 attempted to cripple regions and locals to strangle their democratic right to elect delegates of their choice. The composition of the congress delegation, shop steward councils and regional congresses was manipulated by purges.

“Troublesome” locals and regions were invaded and collapsed by thugs masquerading as members, who were even bailed out with union funds after being arrested. Shop stewards, chairpersons and secretaries were suspended on trumped-up charges and barred from attending the congress. At least one region was placed under administration – its democratically elected structures were suspended by bureaucratic fiat.

The aim? To produce a herd of either terrified or loyal sycophants – the SACP 2.0-grouping’s voting fodder. The Eastern Cape Region’s chairperson reported on social media that he had uncovered a plot to assassinate him and even a date for his funeral. The Second Deputy-President, Comrade Ruth Ntlokose, went into hiding after receiving death threats. At least one shop steward is reported to have been killed following his discharge from hospital after surviving the first assassination attempt. At the Saftu congress itself, they faced further attempts to purge delegates. Administrators were ordered, under threat of victimisation, to write letters to the employer to cancel delegates’ leave. Despite this the Numsa-2 comrades remained resolute.

Subversion Thwarted

The SACP 2.0-grouping had come to the Saftu congress prepared to collapse it if their attempt to extend their dictatorship in Numsa was not extended to the federation itself. Their strategy was to place Comrade Vavi’s head on a tray to intimidate delegates with a ‘shock and awe’ strategy at Numsa’s own congress, scheduled for the end of July, to ensure Comrade Jim’s re-election (his prospects for re-election having been significantly undermined by revelations of eye-watering corruption at a subsidiary of Numsa’s Investment Company). This was aggravated by revelations of donations to a number of political parties standing in open opposition to the “revolutionary socialism” of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, of which Jim is a president of, including the ANC.

At the Congress, the SACP 2.0-grouping fired the first shot – demanding a vote to overturn the suspensions of the four National Office Bearers (NOBs) loyal to the SACP 2.0. These NOBs had attempted to unconstitutionally suspend Comrade Vavi ahead of Congress.  Despite the fact that this was clearly a cynically calculated attempt to nullify the suspensions, Congress denied Comrade Jim the opportunity to carry out his threat to withdraw Numsa from the congress, by conceding to a vote. The motion to reinstate the suspended NOBs was defeated; the suspensions are now reaffirmed by the federation’s highest decision-making body – Congress itself.

Refusing to accept the defeat, Comrade Jim outrageously then demanded that the suspended NOBs be allowed to contest elections for the new leadership. With the SACP 2.0 again threatening to withdraw Numsa, delegates once again conceded to avoid a collapse of Congress. Despite the election of two from the SACP 2.0 slate, the result was a resounding defeat for them. It is thanks to the Numsa-2 comrades in the main that Saftu has been able to repel a coup against Comrade Vavi and to prevent the reinstatement of the most prominent of Comrade Jim’s cronies.

Re-Discover Working Class Politics

Whilst we must celebrate the outcome of the Saftu Congress, we need to temper our celebrations with sobriety.  We must be clear that what has been achieved is but the taking of the first step. Saftu must now rearm itself organisationally, ideologically and politically to become the leading formation of the working class both in the workplace and on the political plane.

As we pointed out in our previous statement (see here), Saftu must urgently address its considerable weaknesses by a brutally frank and honest reappraisal of its serious shortcomings. The spelling-out of some of these in painful but frank detail in the NEC report is to be welcomed.  These include the failure to unite workers in the same sector, the poaching of each other’s members, leaders’ infatuation with secretary-general and presidential titles, and the subordination of the workers’ collective interests to the personal ambitions of leaders. All of these have diminished the unions’ capacity to defend workers’ basic rights, wages and conditions in the workplace.

An absolutely necessary starting point should be union investment funds. Investment companies are the most effective instruments for the subversion of the unions. Through providing the leadership with a ladder to climb out of the social ranks of the members they represent, they enable the outlook of the bourgeoisie to reshape that of the trade union leadership. They become the conscious “labour lieutenants of capital” committed to weakening the trade unions.

The Saftu NEC’s report to congress on this question is unfortunately ambiguous. This suggests that a full grasp of their dire implications continues to elude the leadership despite its impact on the pre-Congress developments. Saftu must take a clear and unambiguous position on investment companies. They must be repurposed as strike funds. The bourgeois convention that they operate under a board staffed by paid employees on extravagant salaries at arm’s length from the union must be abolished. They must come under the direct control of the unions accountable to the democratically elected structures with the same reporting obligations, the same transparency, and the same workers’ oversight as any other structure.

Conflict of Class Interests, Not a Personal Power Struggle

Unfortunately, the Congress declaration glosses over the real roots of the crisis in Saftu. Comrade Vavi’s subsequent peace overtures to Comrade Jim, referring to their personal family ties, unfortunately, reinforces the confusion. The ambitions of individual leaders in the trade unions or on the political plane cannot be explained simply by their personal failings. It would, of course, be absurd to suggest that their conduct is explained by any of the corrupt leaders taking their orders directly from the government or big business. They do, however, in the final analysis, regardless of the different degrees of consciousness of their personal roles and whatever personal ties they may have to the ANC leadership and even the bosses themselves, serve the interests of one or the other of the two main classes in society – the working class or the capitalists. The battle for the control of Numsa and Saftu is an expression of the class struggle. It is only in the capitalist class’ interests that the working class should be wracked by division and paralysed. It is only in the working class’ own interests that they be organisationally, ideologically and politically united.

In that sense, the question that Comrade Vavi asked in the lengthy document he wrote to affiliates last year after the SACP 2.0 offensive against him had been re-ignited in earnest, “which class interests do they [the SACP 2.0 grouping) represent?” is correct. But it is not enough to merely pose the question, it is necessary to answer it.

We welcome the congress declaration’s affirmation of Saftu as a Marxist federation. This means it stands for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. There can be no reconciliation between the two fundamentally contradictory aims of the pro-capitalist SACP 2.0, who require the suppression of workers’ control and trade union democracy as a prerequisite for the unrivalled influence of the aspirant black bourgeoisie over the workers’ movement, and Numsa-2 supported by the Saftu majority, who stand for the defence of these traditions.

A personal reconciliation that reduces to a mere conflict of personalities that are, in fact, the influence of fundamentally different class forces is unprincipled. It confuses both the Numsa and Saftu members fresh from a bruising war in which they had successfully defended Saftu. However, to consolidate this victory it is necessary to elevate what can otherwise appear as ‘narrow’ differences over organisational methods and cultures – ‘business unionism’ vs. worker’s control – onto the political plane of which organisational questions are, in the final analysis, a reflection.

Saftu’s first five years have also tested the pre-Congress leadership, especially Comrade Vavi’s, “independent [from political parties] but not apolitical” policy. Implicit in this was scepticism over whether it was in fact necessary for the working class to have its own party, or, put another way, a suggestion that trade union organisation alone was sufficient to safeguard the political independence of the working class. This is the dead-end of syndicalism that is in fact not a new phenomenon in the history of the working class movement internationally. The federation’s ‘near-death experience’ under the blows of the aspirant black bourgeoisie has again proved this policy inadequate.

Saftu’s ‘near-death experience’ and the degeneration of sections of its’s and its affiliates’ leaderships is also a warning. The hostile class pressures acting on the federation have not ended with the setbacks for the SACP 2.0 grouping. Ultimately, the only defence against the influence of hostile class forces on the workers’ movement is an explicitly working class political agenda. This requires a programme that can only be based on the ideas of socialism and Marxism. The Numsa-2 opposition should organise itself as a conscious Marxist tendency to arm itself to resist the pressure that led to the bureaucratisation and degeneration of the SACP 2.0-grouping. But this programme requires an explicitly political vehicle too which can only take the form of a workers’ party. It is urgent that what is implicit in the rank-and-file rebellion of Numsa-2 and the Saftu majority in defence of workers’ control and trade union democracy is made explicit in the conscious struggle for a red-blooded socialist and Marxist programme and the creation of a workers’ party.

Step onto the Political Plane

But, so far, Saftu has failed to fulfil workers’ political expectations by leading the formation of a mass political socialist alternative. This has left workers politically disoriented, registering their rejection of the capitalist political establishment through a mass stay away from the polls.

Saftu took a potentially historic step forward when it convened the Working Class Summit in 2018. Over a thousand delegates representing 147 community, youth and trade union formations adopted a declaration to establish a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. Following a period of paralysis to which the SACP 2.0-grouping in Numsa was central, the WCS is to be reconvened. The new Saftu NOBs must reassert the authority of the organised working class in Saftu which initiated the WCS process. Unfortunately, the Saftu congress declaration makes no reference to it despite a provisional date for it having been set. Instead, it makes a commitment to convening a “Socialist Conference”, with no timeframes and most important off no clear purpose.

The vacillation over the workers’ party that has unfortunately marked the position, particularly of Comrade Vavi, cannot continue. This manifests itself in statements denouncing capitalism, on the one hand, and calling upon the government to address the economic crisis through the very measures developed by the central banks and the IMF, on the other hand. A choice has to be made between sowing illusions in capitalism and condemning it. This vacillation causes confusion, disorients the working class, and disarms it ideologically and politically.

The first order of business for Saftu in the class struggle in the workplace is a public sector general strike against the attacks on pay. Working-class communities must be united behind the public sector workers against their common enemy.  With further hikes in fuel, electricity and food prices looming, a public sector general strike must be used as a platform to build toward the three-day general strike Saftu has announced. This would serve as an effective form of action to bring together in action organised workers, working class communities in solidarity and united struggle against their common enemy.

The reconvened WCS must set a date for the launch of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. Setting the date for the launch on May Day, 2023, will provide time for the structures to be built, for the preparations for the launch itself to act as a common unifying point of reference for struggles in the workplace, in communities in educational institutions and on the political plane. The preparatory committees for a general strike, democratically elected and accountable, could be retained as pre-party formations. They will ensure that the leadership of the workers’ party is composed of leaders democratically elected by members of the different structures. The ideological and political re-armament of the workers’ movement is now within Saftu’s grasp. Rearmed, Saftu can act as a catalyst to set into motion the process of the extension of the reach of the working class towards the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.

This is an edited version of an article available here on the Marxist Workers Party’s website.

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June 2022