COVID-19 and the working class struggle: Interview with South African anarchist-communist

Warren McGregor of Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) says while the South African state has been praised for its rapid response to coronavirus, its lockdown has hugely unequal effects . Many in the working class , poor majority lack proper access to food, health-care, income and jobs. Some employers are attacking labour. There are inadequate measures to cushion the masses, and unacceptable army /police brutality, while big business and politicians get bailouts.  We accept the science that lockdowns are needed, he insists. But we must also demand justice, building concrete, realistic actions that can win improvements and build working class counter-power and a popular anarchist consciousness.

Black Rose/ Rosa Negra (BR): Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your organisation? [1]

Warren McGregor [WM]: Yeah, thank you. Hi everybody, Warren McGregor from Zabalaza [Anarchist Communist Front/ ZACF], South Africa. I have been with them for plus minus the last 13 years, and I work exclusively in trade union and working class education. Thanks very much for having me.

BR: Let’s begin by having you tell us how things have looked in your country over the last couple of months. How has the state responded to the pandemic? What preventative measures have been put in place?

WM: Well, the South African state has been lauded locally and internationally for apparently responding quite quickly. So we have been on a national shutdown since the 26 March and just a couple of days ago the State President, the billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa has extended that until the end of April. Now, we are not sure if there is going to be a further extension, but that is where we are right now.

However, as many of you will know, South Africa is a relatively wealthy country, but extraordinary unequal in that much of our wealth is centralised in the hands of very, very few monopolistic corporations and the families that generally run those, as well as the power afforded by those who run the state, in particular the national government.

So, the country has been on lockdown which means that people are still allowed out technically, to buy essentials, groceries, etc., but due to the massive inequalities in South Africa, [the national lockdown] has been a one-size-fits all approach which has been felt very differently by the classes in our society. So, whereas the ruling class, and the upper middle classes have been able to respond to the President’s call to stay home and to stay healthy, relatively, the working class and poor majority, the masses of our people, have been unable to and unwilling to a certain extent, to respond to that call.

But before we get into that, I guess many people have now started critiquing the state for inadequately responding, particular before, and in lockdown conditions. But because of our very divided health care system, for example with those who can afford it able to access good private health care, a good majority of our people [rely on run-down, often disastrous state facilities and] are unable to access good health care.

Not just that, but the state has been unable to respond to the very desperate needs of the people that live in our poor, mainly black townships in South Africa. There has been a lack of response from the state as well as the private sector, in providing workers and their families and their communities with the necessary and adequate health care provisions, whether that be equipment, in particular sanitising agents, providing access to water in particular, etc. So the state has been unable and unwilling to respond in that way. Many are furious that such drastic measures have been taken now that more wealthy people are exposed to infection and death, whereas many of the tragedies affecting the majority poor are never addressed adequately [like food shortages and TB], and the underlying reasons for those are never tackled. What the state has done now, over the last couple of weeks or so, is to section off areas, in particular in poorer areas, where essentially what is happening is dumping of homeless people and in particular, those homeless people who have been suspected to have been infected by the virus.

I think what is also important to note is that despite the fact that, although, we are moving from our incubation period into our apparently peak infection period, like in other African countries, the state has been hollowed out [by neo-liberalism] to such an extent that we will never really know the numbers of infected people and thus those affected by those who are struggling with the virus due to the state’s lack of capacity to be able to record these numbers adequately.

The private sector has responded in a haphazard way to a certain extent in that, although the state has provided provision for companies that are providing essential services and the production of goods that are considered to be essential for day-to-day life in South Africa, there are many companies that are still open that are forcing workers to not only continue work, but to work in very unsanitary and thus very unsafe and quite deadly circumstances. These companies are not being held to account by the state.

And, then finally, there has also been quite a number of cases of quite violent police response to people that they have found outside [their homes]. And much like police and state violence in South Africa over the last 25 years it is generally directed at working class and poor people, in particular Black and black African working class people and also in particular at our brothers and sisters from outside South Africa on the African continent. Much like elsewhere police tend to respond in a very strong and one size-fits-all manner, but there may be very drastic and desperate reasons why people are out on the street.

That is the situation generally in South Africa right now. Thanks.

BR: This virus has caused a great upheaval in the daily lives of most people around the world. Many of us are more than a month into lockdown procedures. What activity have organized groups of our class undertaken in your country? Have any specific demands materialized? How has the present moment and its restrictions changed your modes of organizing?

WM: Thanks, I think that what is striking, listening to the [other panellists, the] comrades so far, is that there seems to be quite a lot of similarity in terms of what is taking place in all of our countries, and the contexts, and also in terms of some of the responses. I am sure the comrades after me will say relatively similar things, but obviously contextualise[d for their situations].

I think fundamentally in South Africa, but also globally, organised labour in particular, and the organised left, is the weakest it has been for quite a long time. By that I don’t only mean trade unions, but I also mean left or progressive community organisations in many of our contexts.

So this has meant that many of the responses that are taking place right now, particularly in South Africa, are essentially conditioned by the experiences with a neo-liberal South African state and the private sector which has essentially been unleashed in South Africa over the last 25 years. So, many of the responses by working class communities and their organisations are thus reactionary [i.e. reactive] in a way; not necessarily in the negative sense, but in the sense of reacting to what has been imposed on them, [let’s call it defensive action, rather than offensive action: taking a lead, with a different vision].

So much like in other countries, workers are being forced to continue to work in non-essential services or companies without being provided the necessary and adequate protective equipment, whether these are retail workers or workers in a variety of different kinds of companies. Workers are [often] also being forced to accept “no-work-no-pay” circumstances in a lock-down period that is supposed to be a temporary lay-off. But what is most concerning is that we have, like in other places, we have what is called an Unemployment Insurance Fund [UIF, a state-run insurance scheme for formal workers], where both state and private companies that are registered to this subtract a particular percentage of a worker’s pay package [to pay a portion of the salary for a few months, after a worker loses employment]. The state is now using that Unemployment Insurance Fund to subsidise [private companies that are in trouble].

So what is also quite interesting is that just prior to our lockdown period here, the international ratings agencies demoted South Africa back down to “junk status” [for investors]. Now this still needs to be investigated, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this has been used as a political tool to [shape local economic and fiscal policy] and thus continue to curtail the state’s ability to respond in this particular period [and maintain its brutal neo-liberal path]. This has meant, in part, that the state has not provided any extra-budgetary measures to the departments of Labour and Health to respond [to the immediate needs of the workers and poor in the crisis].

Thus the condition, or circumstance, in which organised labour and the left finds itself – the neo-liberalisation of the South African economy, the individualisation of everyday life as well as the state’s unwillingness to go outside of it’s already existing budgets to be able to provide [better employment insurance, including for informal workers], general testing, [adequate] sanitary and other forms of equipment to, especially, working class communities has meant that not only has the private sector been allowed to regulate itself, but it has been looked to then provide what is needed in many of our working class communities [right now]. This has meant that many of these large private firms can now set their own prices for goods and services: not only goods that are absolutely necessary, like PPE’s [personal protective equipment], but also the price of goods, services, food and other kinds of products. They are going to make a killing and much like other places around the world, lockdown provisions are being forced [onto the population without much consultation] by the ruling class [that run] states and the private sector.

We are being told that there is quite a lot that we are not allowed to do, but there is very little that we are provided as to what we actually can do. So therefore what is taking place with regards to action is company to company, firm to firm, workplace to workplace responses by workers and organised labour in those factories and work sites. However it is not coordinated on a provincial, or regional or national basis [curtailing the effect of the workers’ responses].

Thus in our working class communities the responses have been good and progressive on one hand, but they have also been quite uncoordinated on the other. And as usual, over the last 20 years, in periods of massive capitalist and social crisis, we are unable to see our class generally push forward in more progressive fashion [let’s call this offensive action], and our actions are generally quite haphazard, are localised and there is very little coordination on a broader level to be able to use whatever crisis moment we are in to push for a more progressive society, to push for [greater mobilisation and] organisation.

On the other hand, there are people trying to use social media as much as possible to coordinate localised action. But these responses are [often] fundamentally charitable acts that are being organised by more middle class people who have a bit more of a liberal mindset. These are [well-intentioned] initiatives [undertaken by] sympathetic activists and NGOs that [attempt to provide basic goods to meet] people’s day-to-day survival needs to a large extent [rather than a push for structural change].

Traditional organised labour in South Africa has been very, very quiet. Much like organised labour elsewhere in the world, the responses and movements of the organised working class and more traditional trade unions are very much institutionalised [in that the resolution of workplace conflict is generally channelled by the state apparatus]. The organised working class here in South Africa and more traditional unions have allowed for the state and the private sector, the ruling class, to not only dictate the terms of the lockdown, but the benefits that are going to be accrued from this particular lockdown.

Much like Andrew said [as to what is taking place] in Ireland, the more progressive responses and forms that are being organised, are taking place at the margins of organised labour and the working class, [particularly amongst more precarious workers in organisations outside the big federations] in South Africa, and from communities who are now being set upon by the state and the private sector. As I mentioned earlier, homeless and poor people who are infected are being dumped into quarantine sites. These quarantine sites are generally on the outskirts of poor and working class areas, and some of these communities are trying to respond in organized ways. There is a lot more to talk about, but I will leave it at that.

BR: As anarchist-communists and internationalists, how do we name this moment? What does it mean to act in concert with each other in this time of crisis?

WM: (Laughs) That is a huge question! I don’t think our ideas and responses are solely conditioned by the Covid19 situation, as well as the lockdown and other responses states have enacted.

I think what this period has shown [to be] ridiculous is the argument that states in the neo-liberal era are powerless, that they are inept. No! Neo-liberalism has fundamentally meant that those who have controlled state power have made a political and ideological decision to hollow out the capacity of the state[s] – and their capacity [or rather, willingness] to be able to influence and control markets. And again, what this current moment has shown is that [the neo-liberal argument of the capacity and role of the state] is a dogmatic argument, an ideological argument, and [that it ignores ongoing evidence that states intervene all the time — but for the ruling classes!] […]

But again, I think it is not really a completely new moment. I think, you know this is the first time [in human history] that states have responded in this way on such a global level [on a health issue]. However, what the responses and the conditions in our different countries have shown is that class inequality still does fundamentally matter [as regards who feels the most impact, and the various responses that have been organised] and so therefore [globally] we need to get back to a [radical] class-based politics.

I think in Africa where we are doubly f*cked not just on the economic level but [also on the ideological level. As regards battling CoVid19 spread], we need very clear messaging; [messaging that] is quite clear with regards to people’s health and maintaining healthy and sanitary, hygienic conditions. Good information is not coming adequately or fast enough from the state, and so on a very immediate level we need clear messaging coming from those groups and individuals and organisations that are looking to contribute in a positive way, so that our working class and poor don’t suffer much more than what they are going to and need to in this period and beyond.

At the same time we should not allow or continue to allow the ruling class to set the agenda. Much of what has come from the state and the private sector is that lockdown is necessary so as to save “the nation” [while inadequate measures for the working class and poor show that the deaths in our class are secondary concerns]. In fact more people in Africa die of pneumonia and TB on a regular basis, as well as malnutrition, than who are going to die from the impact of the Corona virus. So I think we also need a much more sophisticated argument for conditions here on the African continent in particular with regards to the living and working conditions of our working class and poor majority.

But on a more general level, and I think this goes around the world, I think the opportunity that this allows us again is, number one, to undermine the arguments of the ruling class, in particular which have been foisted on us for the last 20/30 or so years. [At the same time] what we need and what we have always needed is to rebuild working class counter-power. We need community and workplace-level organising as well as initiatives that link struggles.

We need to move away from an individualistic mode of struggling – a “doing-stuffism” [of just being active, without reflection, chasing struggles without building any lasting structures, or sustained counter-power, jumping out once the next issue comes along] – to realise that building working class power and building working class militancy takes into account the very, very hard day-to-day struggle required to build these organisations. So we must move away from individualised forms of struggle [many of which are based on forms of identity and thus struggles defined and controlled by more educated and resourced middle class activists] to building a collective working class counter-power [of workers, the unemployed, in the formal and informal zones of the economy, their families and communities].

Now, building class counter-power also takes into account the necessity of building worker education and progressive militancy – a radical working class counter-culture. This can also be based on the current need we have to develop clear health messaging, as I mentioned earlier.

This is where anarchism – its modes of organising and education rooted in direct democracy and action – becomes vitally important in that it offers, in particular, an analysis of why states and capitalism have been fundamentally unable to develop equal and prosperous societies based on equitable distributions of wealth and power, [which is where we differ from the Keynesian and other reformists who believe the state is essentially benign, if only it has nicer policies and friendlier politicians]. Anarchist analysis also shows that states and capitalism have been fundamentally unable to not only respond to the crisis that we are seeing around the world, but use crisis conditions for their own ruling class benefit – to restructure work and daily life and to concentrate even more power in their hands.

We [anarchists and the working class and poor in general] need to develop the capacity in the medium to long term to take advantage of the post-lockdown world that we are going to exist in. We need a medium- to long-term vision; we need to build working class counter-power – [radical,] militant democratic trade unions as well as community organisations – which also takes into account the forms of oppression and inequality outside of the workplace in general society and outside of economic condition[s]. But this can only be developed by the day-to-day struggle of building organisation, building working class counter-power [and politically radical counter-culture] that has this vision.

It is absolutely clear that we have sunk deeper into the crisis of capitalism where states around the world are buying up massive amounts of toxic assets [on the books of giant private corporations]. In the USA, the $2 trillion dollar stimulus package [is a bailout for business, as most of it is] going straight into the pockets of the [firms that generated ongoing economic crises over the last decade: the virus has an economic impact, but the deep economic problems it revealed started years ago].

Like I said before, the South African state right now is subsidising the private sector using workers’ money, to continue to bail out giant private sector corporations [despite the fact that] there is a lockdown. The state has spent billions and billions subsidising banks and multinational corporations [corrupt state corporations, calling into question the neo-liberal agenda that praises free markets but loves bail-outs and subsidies; neo-liberalism does not remove the state from the economy, only changes its form].

But it is quite clear that we are unable right now to take advantage of the current situation by pushing for more progressive social change. The reason why we can’t do this is because we don’t have the power, we don’t have the organisational and ideological capacity to be able to do so. This means is that right now we must build this capacity on both the structural [organisational] and ideological fronts. For those of you interested there are examples around. An example right now is the revolution in Rojava in the Middle East that has used the oppression of Kurdish people in parts of the Middle East to push for not only Kurdish national self-determination, but a complete revolution of their society – economically, socially and politically. We can use this as an example [of how to build and sustain a revolution without and in opposition to the institutions of the ruling class – the states and corporations].

I think what this crisis has shown us, and the crises of the last 12 years or so, is that we need to get back to not only reacting to the impositions of the ruling class [on] life, but for the working class and poor to then use their organisations, including the organisations of precarious and informal workers around the world, as platforms to then develop a more broad working class counter-power. These should be united across borders through collective, direct and offensive action. For me that is where it starts.

BR: Final thoughts?
WM: Ja, I think this goes with my input about clear messaging [and clear politics].

I think we need to be careful when we throw around a variety of terms including the [notion of] “fascism”. I mean, fascism means something very specific and it is a very particular political and economic order. Just because we have the rise of particular, [populist] right-wing organisations, and even maybe one or two of them getting into positions of state power, does not necessarily mean the fascism of the 1920s and 1930s particularly in Europe [Asia and Latin America is back, and that the focus must now be anti-fascism].

Even if you look at the United States, as corporately controlled as the United States political system is, it is very difficult for a real fascist power to exist. I mean, you see this with Donald Trump. A lot of what he wants to do is be curtailed by a variety of different sectors of power in the ‘States [including within the state, the capitalist media and opposition parties]. I mean: first of all we have to be careful when we throw around particular terms, because many of those terms do have quite a lot of history [and meaning] attached to them. [Modern day usages of terms like “fascism”] can be quite emotive; and sometimes throwing terms around actually shuts down debate, debate about now,[which cannot be read off slogans, or] only what those terms are, but [understood from] …the actual conditions that the majority of our people are facing.

[Modern populist movements are certainly dangerous, but we need to understand these without imagining this is the 1930s, or imminent fascist rule, and this needs to inform action, and so] I think, in response to these, it takes us back to the necessity of developing an anarchist political counter-culture within the working class.

As regards anarchist activism today, as important as anarchist organisations are, I think the primary role is to insert anarchism into working class movements and thus using those ideas in the building of working class organisations and its power. I think the primary goal, or at least the primary activity of anarchists, particularly here is through political education, and an anarchist political education that develops anarchists that come from and work in [especially, black] community, working class and poor communities and organisations: a project of working class social insertion, not to hijack those struggle but to build and anarchist consciousness, an anarchist counter-culture of radical militancy. It is more important to have an anarchist consciousness within a working class struggle than it is to have a plethora of anarchists outside those struggles, and [isolated] anarchist organisations. Obviously those are necessary, I am not artificially separating the two, but I think that has to be a primary goal.

We are really concerned about the lockdown situation here and on our continent. [We should be quite clear that by accepting lockdowns as a vital method to slow the virus,] that we are not submitting to the power of the state, or submitting to the idea that we need centralised, authoritarian rule in this particular period. We are placing our trust in medical experts [not politicians, and we demand decent treatment and less repression]. As Bakunin famously indicated, on the issue of shoemaking, he trusts the shoemaker. There are also lots of opinions [and conspiracy theories] flying around in society. For example, here in Africa, some people believe that CoVid19, or the Coronavirus, only infects white people [or is a Chinese or American plot]. These need to be combated with clear messaging based on expert analysis, and [that is] not only necessarily that which comes from the state, and those in power.

I like the idea that was raised earlier of linking struggles and helping to develop struggles across borders by having similar slogans [to communicate ideas clearly]. I like that idea, but I think what is also important is that we should be moving away from [empty] sloganeering [meaning slogans based on empty, grandiose claims] as the primary force of activism [on the radical left]. For example, you know lots of people have been talking about, that leftist activists should be organising for general strikes. I mean that can be a ludicrous demand when you have no working class organisational capacity to back that, and other major calls, up.

Also without a medium- or longer-term strategy, these calls not only fail to indicate how we will organise this, but also what would be using the [general] strike for, and what would happen after[wards]. Also it may fail to take into account different organising contexts, e.g. is a general strike in African conditions something that is possible [now], when most people are at home anyway, and when such large parts of our economy are informal and are based on individualised workplaces, and when you have large portions of our population that are unemployed? [The issue is what tactics are feasible, and linking this to a concrete strategy for change — I am not arguing against general strikes, but against calls for actions that are not grounded in real conditions, carefully mapped].

So therefore, we should be thinking about actions that, again, are not solely calls to action, but that seek to build working class counter-power by raising the anarchist consciousness of the working class, or developing an anarchist consciousness in the working class [that go beyond the day of the protest]. These should be contextualised, but without losing its broader class-based form. We must continue to organise protest[s], but [regularly ask ourselves] what are we protesting for; what is the end goal here? [We should be clear] not just what are we protesting against, but what we will do after the protest and what are we using the protest for – that is important.

So thank you very much comrades for having me on [the panel]. Greetings to comrades around the world! Hopefully, this is just the start of the conversation. Thank you to everyone who is listening.

And I think, my final thoughts: well first of all, we really need to change the world; things cannot remain as they are. But changing the world cannot be done by removing yourself from it. Sometimes a politics of isolation divorces the very good ideas that we may have from the general population, the general working class who are living in desperate, desperate conditions. We have a responsibility, those of us who choose the responsibility, to infuse our ideas into working class struggle to create a better world. We should move away from politics that focuses solely on representation [and amelioration] to a politics that fundamentally – politically, socially and economically – deals with issues of oppression, whether between races, between genders, etc. to, most importantly, develop collective, global working class counter-power and counter-culture to change this world.

So thank you very much again for having me.

Defend the Rojava Revolution!
Power to workers around the world!
Free Palestine!

Hopefully we will be in touch soon!


[1] This is a lightly edited transcript of Warren McGregor’s inputs to the live international panel discussion on 11 April by anarchist-communist groups worldwide hosted by the Black Rose / Rose Negra Anarchist Federation (U.S.) in the USA. The aim was to understand this moment, and contribute to building an internationalist, working class response.  A video of the event is here: The transcript uses material at 09:12-14:40/ 44:03-52:34/ 01:27:25-01:36:54/ 02:09:08-02:15:13 in the Youtube video.Other panelists were from  Acción Socialista Libertaria (Argentina), Solidaridad (Chile), Union Communiste Libertaire (France) and Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland).