The question of state government elections and running a workers or socialist political party continues to be raised in the working-class movement and the Left globally. As we may know, there was excitement about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party in Britain, about the successes of left political parties in certain parts of Europe and Latin America and, more recently, certain shifts to more centrist positions in the United States amongst a section of the Democratic Party calling themselves “Democratic Socialists.” In South Africa, many workers and some activists seem cautiously optimistic about NUMSA’s formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party that participated in the 2019 general elections, but did not manage to get a seat in Parliament.
With this in mind, we need to look at issues of social transformation within the framework of what we want to achieve and the relationship between the means and ends of struggle in pursuit of these aims. The historic and ultimate socialist end is a society characterised by collective democratic control of the political and economic systems and one without class divisions and oppression of any kind – in real terms, a society without the state and capitalism in particular.
If this is so, is this revolutionary transformation possible by means of state power and political parties that aim to capture this form of power?
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In examining the possibilities for politics within and at a distance from the state, it is important to revisit the democratic traditions of the working class, which are often learned through struggles and strikes – and which were exemplified by the new unions of the 1970s and 1980s. Not much of this alternative tradition of democracy outside the state has been captured in official histories, which present the attainment of democracy in terms of the formation of a parliamentary government in 1994.
There is a larger problem here of how the working-class heritage – the intellectual and organisational and political traditions of labour and the left – has been side-lined in media, textbooks, monuments and narratives; this also involves a narrowing of our political imagination, with our view of “democracy” itself narrowed dramatically. There has been a focus on elections and political parties and electoral politics. This reflects and reinforces a view that assumes a separation of the political – basically left to the state and the parties – and the economic – issues like wage negotiations are left to unions, and union involvement in politics is increasingly reduced to lobbying political parties.
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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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Over the past 18 months Zabalaza Books has published over two dozen new publications or new editions of previous publications, all of which can be read online or downloaded in PDF format from the Zabalaza Books
Read the full list of titles and overviews of their contents, with links to the full texts, below.
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. Continue reading
This is a lightly edited transcription of a talk given by Prof. Lucien van der Walt on a panel on the eve of the 2019 national elections in South Africa: the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG)/ Workers World Media Productions (WWMP) Public Forum, Isivivana Centre, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa 25 April.
Lekhetho Mtetwa, ZACF
Lekhetho Mtetwa, a member of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) discusses his role in the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), formed in South Africa in 2001. While the LPM was affiliated to Via Campesina, and linked to the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra: MST), its activities centred on urban squatter communities, rather than farm occupations or organising alternative agrarian systems. Then-living in a squatter camp in Protea South, Soweto, Mtetwa served as the local secretary; by 2013, this was the key LPM branch. Several attempts were made by political parties to capture Protea South LPM, using patronage and promises, leading to the eventual implosion of the branch. Mtetwa provides an essential analysis of the rise and fall of the LPM, and the role that anarchists can play in such social movements.
The talk that I’m going to present today is based on a research project that I carried out with my colleague Vladislav Kruchinsky in South Africa in 2011-2013. The aim of our research was to analyse and explore the methods and practices of self-organisation from below that existed in the crucial 1980s period of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The vast majority of the material that’s written about that period of struggle is devoted to the role of the large, institutionalised anti-apartheid forces, such as the United Democratic Front, an umbrella body for the community-based anti-apartheid organisations including church and sports groups, which was formed in 1983. A large part of it also focuses on the African National Congress, which is presented in the dominant narrative of the ANC as the leader of the anti-apartheid struggle.
My aim, with Vlad, was to look beyond these big organisations, and to focus on communities’ struggles, viewed through ordinary people’s stories. When we started our research, we understood that we wanted first-hand information, from the participants in the struggles. This is social history, meaning that it looks at the view from below, with the people interviewed themselves active participants in the stories they tell. We conducted extensive interviews with active members of the communities, township residents, from those days. We hope to finish this project with a book, which will be a compilation of the interviews.
When we talk about people’s power we are not thinking about putting our leaders into the very same structures. We do not want Nelson Mandela to be the state President in the same kind of parliament as Botha. We do not want Walter Sisulu to be Chairperson of a Capitalist Anglo-American corporation.
So said a United Democratic Front pamphlet called “Building People’s Power” that was produced in the 1980s. It continued, “We are struggling for a different system where power is no longer in the hands of the rich and powerful. We are struggling for a government that we will all vote for.” The UDF, formed in 1983, was a coalition of anti-apartheid community, church, worker, youth, sports and other groups. Along with forces like the “workerist” Federation of South African Trade Unions it played a key role in resistance.
What the UDF wanted sounds like almost the exact opposite of what actually happened: more than 20 years later, it is not Sisulu who is chairperson of Anglo-American Corporation, but the ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa, the Butcher of Marikana, who is a shareholder on the capitalist Lonmin Corporation. Even though people have the right to vote now, fewer and fewer people are actually voting because they don’t get what they vote for; and power and wealth are still in the hands of the rich and powerful.
What went wrong, and what lessons we can draw? What are some of the similarities between the 1980s and today? What is the way forward?