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.
Comrade Mandla Khoza (or “MK,” as his friends and comrades knew him) passed away on Friday 26 July in his home town of Siphofaneni, Swaziland (Eswatini). He had long suffered from sugar diabetes. He leaves behind four children. One of the pioneering members of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF) founded in South Africa on May Day 2003, MK was committed to a social revolution that would place power and wealth in the hands of the working class, the peasants and the poor. As he would often say: “It doesn’t matter if you change who sits on the throne: you have to get rid of the throne itself.” This obituary commemorates his life as a militant.
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.
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.
The anarchist tradition – including syndicalism,anarchist trade unionism – provides a coherent approach to issues of strategy, tactics and principle. It is a rich set of resources of the working class today, not least the black working class in South Africa, which remains, in important ways, not just subject to capitalist exploitation and state repression, but also racial/national oppression.
But to have a discussion about anarchism’s relevance to black working class strategy in the face of ongoing capitalist restructuring, we need to dispel myths about anarchism and syndicalism, to reclaim the revolutionary core of the anarchist tradition.
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.