Economic Policy from Below: an Anarchist Critique of the COSATU Unions’ “Radical Reform” Project

Centred on the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and within it, key unions like the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the unions developed an ideological and strategic orientation described by scholars (e.g. Eddie Webster and Glenn Adler, 2000) as “radical reform” or “structural reform.” The thinking of the main unions in South Africa remains, to this day, profoundly shaped by the “radical reform” (RR) model.

The aim of this input is to examine the RR model, which was an attempt to build on the many key progressive gains won by workers and their organisations through struggle in the 1980s, and push through to a deeper transformation in the 1990s. This input defines the key components of RR, and then examines why this innovative response to the parliamentary transition and to capitalist globalisation was not successful. This requires looking at issues of neoliberal capitalist and state domination, the impact of RR on the unions, and the effects of the institutionalisation of trade union activity and dispute processes that have taken place. It raises deeper questions about the unions’ politics as well.

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Grave diggers: the grim tale of states, capitalism and COVID-19

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it often seems as if we are stuck in a dystopian movie. In this movie death is stalking us, hospitals overflow with the sick and dying, and the grave diggers are at work. We know more victims will soon die as the folly of millions of workers being forced by circumstances to return into cramped mines, banks, factories and warehouses is so evident. Those that are no longer needed by the billionaires who own the companies are marshalled daily by the police and military dishing out violence and on occasion, humiliation, to underline their power and the power of their bosses.

The trauma of it all has led many people to seek solace in fiction or conspiracy theories. It can be morbidly comforting to believe in fantasy in times of strife. We, however, fall into such fantasies at our own peril. When we try and deny reality and escape from it – even if we are traumatised – we are left powerless. We miss that all of this has to do with the workings and power relations that define our everyday lives – the very workings and power relations of capitalism and state systems.

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Democratic Confederalism and Movement Building in South Africa

The ongoing capitalist crisis, and the impacts of COVID19, have made it clear that the capitalist and state system we live under is neither efficient nor just. Inequality has hit record levels and a small elite has more wealth than ever, while the very basics – such as a decent healthcare, water, housing, sanitation, food and electricity – cannot be effectively financed, run nor delivered. Politicians in every state abuse their power too and corruption is rife, only its severity varies. Parliamentary democracy is largely hollow with a majority of people having no real political power. The oppression of women and people of colour continues unabated and imperialism deepens everyday. Due to the ever-expanding nature of capitalism the ecology is on the verge of collapse. It is clear a movement for change and an alternative to capitalism and the state system is needed.

One alternative that is proving to be viable in large parts of the Kurdish majority areas of the Middle East is Democratic Confederalism. In South Africa there is much we can learn, adopt and adapt from Democratic Confederalism for local movement building.
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What is authoritarian populism and why should it be combated?

The rise of an authoritarian populist politics, which presents itself as against the “Establishment,”” for the “common” people and “anti-globalisation,” is happening worldwide — and there are dangerous signs in South Africa. The populist upsurge sees voters reject big, established parties that embraced neo-liberalism after the economic crisis of 2007, in the context of a retreating working class and left.  The author argues that the solution is to build from below for a new society beyond the state, class rule and capitalism based on self-management and production for need.
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Modes of politics at a distance from the state: A critical assessment

Graphic: Lucien van der Walt, 2018, “What are we Fighting For? Possibilities for Decent Work, Unions and Rights in Africa“The crisis of the statist politics that dominated working-class politics — social democracy, Marxism-Leninism, and anti-imperialist nationalism — and the rise of neoliberalism, has aided the rediscovery of society-centred, anti-capitalist forms of bottom-up change “at a distance” from the state.

This article critically assess the three main modes of “at a distance” politics: “outside-but-with” the state, which combines using the state with popular movements;  “outside-and-despite” the state, aiming at disintegrating the system by building alternatives in its cracks; and “outside-and-against” the state, associated with anarchism/ syndicalism, rejects the state for building autonomous working class counter-power that can resist, then defeat, state and capital. While each mode has limits, the anarchist/ syndicalist approach is arguably the most convincing, and its implications are serious. And it directs militants to work within the mass movements of the popular classes.

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The relevance of the ICU of Africa for modern day unions and liberation movements

ICU meeting July 1929, South Africa

The history of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU), formed in South Africa in 1919, is replete with lessons for today’s movements. The ICU, which also spread into neighbouring colonies like Basutoland (now Lesotho), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Southwest Africa (now Namibia) was by far the largest protest movement and organisation of black African and Coloured people of its time. Influenced by a range of ideas, including revolutionary syndicalism, the ICU had both amazing strengths and spectacular failings. This piece explains.

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Education for revolution: Anarcho-syndicalist pedagogy for South Africa

The roots and principles of anarchosyndicalism are worth revisiting for the practice of worker education in movements inspired by these principles and traditions. Emphasising the democratic practice, working class rooted, organic and critical nature of the pedagogy, the practice seeks to intersect employed and unemployed women and men. Practically, the education provides a platform for post-revolutionary practice of direct democracy at the point of production and, thus, naturally included practical skills such as trades, accounting and sciences.

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Moving from crisis in South Africa’s municipalities to building counter-power

Across South Africa, municipalities are in crisis. They are under-funded, anti-working class, anti-poor and anti-township, and riddled with corruption by elites. The working class is oppressed by the state – as well as the private bosses – and we say “Enough is Enough!”

We need to build an alternative: organs of counter-power, which can demand changes and lay the foundations for a deep redistribution of wealth and power to the mass of the people: the working class and poor.

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After the election dust settles: Class struggle, the Left and power

Twenty-five years into democracy the black working class majority in South Africa has not experienced any meaningful improvements in its conditions. The apartheid legacy of unequal education, healthcare and housing and the super-exploitation of black workers continues under the ANC and is perpetuated by the neoliberal policies it has imposed.

The only force capable of changing this situation is the working class locally and internationally. Yet to do so, struggles need to come together, new forms of organisation appropriate to the context are needed; and they need both to be infused with a revolutionary progressive politics and to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Outside the ANC alliance, there have indeed been many efforts to unite struggles – but these have largely failed to resonate with the working class in struggle and form the basis of a new movement. Nowhere is this more evident than with the newly-formed Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) – which got less than 25 000 votes in the national elections, despite the fact that the union that conceived it, Numsa, claims nearly 400 000 members.

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Rebuilding the workers’ movement for counter-power, justice and self-management: A contribution to the debate

We need a serious discussion on how to reform the unions – still the largest, formal, class-based organisations – and what role they can play in a radical redistribution of wealth and power to the popular classes. These are profoundly political questions. This article argues against reliance upon the state and parties, and for re-building unions (and other workers’ movements) to maximise direct action, autonomy, and education, laying the basis for direct workers’ control over production and the economy. This requires a serious, organised, non-sectarian project of democratic reform and political discussion that spans the unions, including a rank-and-file movement, disconnecting from the state in favour of working class counter-power and patient work to construct a counter-hegemonic apparatus.

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