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June 2001 • Vol 1, No. 2 •

Reform or Revolution:
Cosatu Facing Moment of Truth!

By Art LeClair

South Africa’s largest trade union federation, Cosatu, has stated that it will organize a two-day national strike of its affiliated unions in protest against the government’s multibillion rand privatization program.

Speaking at a Workers Day event in Durban, Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, reaffirmed the federation’s role as part of the tripartite alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

However, he warned that the labor federation would not be “blackmailed” into silence. Vavi confirmed that Cosatu was indeed calling for a two-day national strike before the end of August to show its displeasure with the government’s decision to go ahead with its privatization scheme.

One Million South African Workers Have Lost Their Jobs

According to Cosatu statistics, approximately one million people have lost their jobs since the privatization drive began in 1997 and more jobs will be lost if the process is allowed to continue.

“Privatization is a threat to our jobs, quality of services to the poor and the ability of the state to play a developmental role,” Cosatu spokesman Siphiwe Mgcina said. “It has occurred in the absence of a policy and legislative framework negotiated with all key stakeholders.”

Of course, at the center of this negotiated framework stands the capitalist class of South Africa, backed up by its international partners, led by US imperialism.

How effective the protest will be remains to be seen. While no one underestimates the desire of South Africa’s Black majority to liberate themselves after generations of oppression, what is in question is the willingness of the leadership of Cosatu to do what is necessary to see that vision realized.

In the early 1990s Cosatu, along with the African National Congress, was able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of South Africans to take to the streets in direct confrontation with the apartheid regime.

Clearly this mass action approach to the horrendous conditions in the country was a major factor in apartheid’s collapse, and while much has changed since, the day to day living conditions of South Africa’s working class remains much as it was before.

According to Dale T. McKinley, former chairperson of the Greater Johannesburg District of the South African Communist Party; “It didn’t take long for the labor movement to (re)learn the lesson that the overthrow of a political and social system (apartheid), is not the same as the overthrow of an economic system (capitalism).”

Eventually McKinley was expelled from the SACP for writing articles critical of the ANC government’s anti-worker policies and the role of SACP cabinet members implementing them. His greatest “crime” was an unwavering criticism of the detente between the leadership of both the ANC and SACP and South Africa’s ruling class. Cosatu wasn’t spared by McKinley, either.

“What has happened to the calls by Cosatu for the abolition of the value-added tax, the socialization of basic services, the socialization of the mining and financial sectors, the cancellation of the apartheid debt, the provision for free education, health care and other basic social services?” asks McKinley.

Capitalist Class Still Calling the Shots

Simply put, they have been shelved in deference to the national bourgeoisie who are still calling the shots in South Africa. Like the apartheid regime before them, the ANC/SACP government dances to the tune of its capitalist sponsors.

As a result of the government’s “reconciliation” with South Africa’s capitalist class, Cosatu now finds itself at a political crossroads. Much like trade unions in the United States, it must decide whether its primary function is to lead and defend the hundreds of thousands of dues paying workers it represents, or collaborate with the ANC/SACP coalition and maintain “labor peace” on behalf of its class enemy.

In response to the threatened strike, South Africa’s Public Enterprises Minister, Jeff Radebe, says that the government has been and will continue to consult with the unions on the question of the restructuring of state-owned assets. However, he also stated that while the commitment to the labor movement is “genuine,” the government “at the end of the day has to make a decision.”

Among the major enterprises scheduled to be restructured are the telecommunications giant Telkom, a defense industry contractor the Denel Group, as well as Transet Ltd., the largest single transport company in Southern Africa.

South Africa’s unions have also demanded that the government “withdraw or modify” proposed legislation converting Eskom, the state-owned electric power utility, clearing the way for its sale.

Cosatu’s Vavi told legislators that the sale of the company would only result in an immediate increase in electricity prices. “Cosatu believes that it is imperative that electricity remains publicly owned and controlled,” Vavi said.

The Threat of strikes

This development represents the latest in a series of publicly aired differences between the ANC and Cosatu over economic policy. The ANC relies heavily on the trade union federation to mobilize its members to vote the party line. It would appear that the threat of strikes is intended to persuade the government to moderate its policies out of fear of the loss of political support.

Some ANC leaders are concerned about electoral inroads made in recent months by the Democratic Alliance. The DA, as it is called, is the result of a merger between the New National Party (NNP) and the Democratic Party (DP).These are the same parties that directed apartheid when the then National Party (now NNP) was the ruling racist party and the United Party (now DP) played the role of “the opposition.”

Also threatening the unity among the members of the tripartite alliance is the developing rift between Cosatu and the ANC about the naming of three senior ANC members as alleged conspirators in a plot to oust South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Minister of Safety and Security Steve Tshwete charged that Cyril Ramphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa were involved in the plot. Tshwete made the charges on television claiming that the three men were part of a “disinformation campaign” intended to “undermine” Mbeki.

Included in the campaign, according to Tshwete, were allegations that South Africa’s president had been involved in the 1993 murder of Chris Hani, who had served as ANC national secretary and leader of its military wing.

A War of Words

At the time of his death, Hani was Mbeki’s chief rival to become deputy president under Nelson Mandela following the country’s first nonracial elections the following year. The allegations initiated a war of words between the ANC and the trade union federation.

Cosatu general Secretary Vavi said that state security agencies “should not be deployed to sort out internal squabbles in political parties.” Vavi cautioned that the handling of the allegations risks turning the country into “a banana republic.”

Meanwhile, in London, Nelson Mandela quickly moved to defend the alleged conspirators. “Until there is concrete and credible evidence to the contrary, I will continue to hold Cyril Ramphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa in high esteem,” he said.

While voicing support for his successor, Mbeki, Mandela gave a vote of confidence to Ramphosa saying he, “would be one of the right people to lead South Africa,” should he someday decide to run for the presidency.

Ramphosa is a former ANC general-secretary and held the same position in the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). He remains a member of the ANC National Executive Committee and is one of the country’s richest and most respected Black businessmen.

The plot to oust Mbeki was allegedly discovered by a secret intelligence unit based at Luthuli House, the national headquarters of the African National Congress in Johannesburg. According to various South African media outlets, the unit, which reports directly to Mbeki, as ANC president, was created in 1998 as part of an investigation of Mathews Phosa.

“Negotiated Exploitation”

So long as the leadership of Cosatu, or the ANC for that matter, think they can achieve some form of economic peace in the context of a capitalist South Africa, they are destined to fail. Until such time as they begin to tackle the fundamental contradictions inherent in capitalism, there can be no real progress, only a “negotiated exploitation,” if you will.

Following the lead of the Communist Party, South Africa’s labor movement has lost its compass. Since the Stalinists are counterrevolutionary to the marrow of their bones, they consider the development of a militant working class a threat to their grand lifestyle.

The SACP preaches the “two stage theory of revolution.” According to this schema, the first stage, the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution would win national liberation as well as democratic rights for the working masses, within the context of the capitalist economy.

Part and parcel of this Stalinist theory is the necessity of the working class movement forming a long-lasting bloc with pro-capitalist forces deemed “democratic” or “anti-imperialist.” Only in the distant future would there be a struggle that would result in the taking of power by the working class and the establishment of a socialist economy.

A key understanding of Marxism is that the state apparatus can only serve the interests of the class holding economic power. Following the two-stage theory, the capitalist class would maintain control of society. Therefore, the class struggle would be put on the back burner while workers and their organizations beg the ruling class for crumbs.

Exploitation is the Product of Capitalism

The exploitation and oppression of Blacks in South Africa will continue as long as capitalism exists. While the lifting of the apartheid yoke provided huge momentum to the struggle for liberation in the country, the treachery of the SACP and betrayal of the ANC have resulted in the smothering of the revolutionary instincts of the masses.

In 1938, Leon Trotsky presented his “Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution.” In contrast to the Stalinists, Trotsky’s program emphasized a campaign of “democratic slogans and transitional demands.” Furthermore he believed that, “the problems of the socialist revolution are not divided into separate historical epochs in the struggle, but stem directly from each other.”

From this logic flows the theory of permanent revolution, in which the dynamic of the national liberation and democratic struggles come together and become the struggle for socialist revolution.

An example of this would be the Soweto uprising which began as a protest in the junior high schools around the attempted imposition of the Afrikaans language. The students organized a strike which resulted in a tremendous support rally attended by over 10,000 people, and was attacked by the police.

The resulting explosion saw thousands of workers and students rise up in open rebellion against the racist apartheid regime. A week-long confrontation ensued in which the masses battled the police and South African security forces over control of the streets.

The rebellion spilled over into Black townships and school campuses all over the country. White students marched shoulder to shoulder with Black workers down the streets of Johannesburg in a show of solidarity with the people of Soweto.

The government finally agreed that African students did not have to learn and use Afrikaans in the schools. Fearing that another “Soweto” would lead to a struggle for power by the Black masses themselves, further concessions were made in order to buy time for the apartheid system.

Today’s South African government is the end result of the compromise made by the ANC and SACP to halt the revolution against apartheid before it spilled over and attacked the pillar of inequality itself—capitalism. The two-stage theory (of the CP) played the revolution right into this pro-capitalist plan.

Once the capitalists realized that the anti-apartheid leadership had no intention of carrying out even the economic demands of the Freedom Charter of the nationalist ANC, (which, for example, called for nationalizations of major industries such as mining), they knew they could safely give up on apartheid while at the same time retaining their wealth.

The Capitalist Class Remains the Same

As a result, the same capitalist class that ruled South Africa when the ANC was founded in 1912 remains in place. The tripartite alliance plays the role of mediator between the capitalists and the masses of South Africa’s working class.

James Motlasi, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, stated as he addressed that organization’s national conference in 1987, “Under capitalism, we will never find a solution to our problems. It is only with a democratic socialist South Africa that the working class and all the oppressed people will have the wealth which they produce under their control.”

Truer words have never been spoken. The leadership of Cosatu will have ample opportunity to help steer their country in that direction. We look forward to the day they accept the challenge.





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