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?
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.
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.
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 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, 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 by NUMSA’s formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party that will seek to participate in the 2019 general elections.
Before there was the Congress of South African Trade Unions, today’s COSATU, there was FOSATU. FOSATU was set up in 1979. There had been strikes and struggles in the 1970s, starting with a big strike wave in Namibia from 1971-1972, which was then a South African colony, then a big strike wave starting in Durban 1973, which spread around the country. Although we remember 1976 for the bravery of the youth and students, we must remember that the 1976 uprising also involved general strikes by the black working class, mass stay-aways.
And as the working class started to flex its muscles, and to organise new, independent unions, the need for unity was felt. In 1979, at Hammanskraal, FOSATU was set up. The flag of FOSATU was red, black and gold, with a hammer, a spanner and a spade. FOSATU grew quickly, despite repression by the apartheid state. Leaders and activists in FOSATU were banned, jailed; some, like Andries Raditsela, were murdered by police. There was continual intimidation, and employers would fire workers for going on strike or “agitating” at work. Unemployment is not just about money: unemployment is a weapon of the bosses, and this weapon was used many times against FOSATU.
A sharp increase in fuel prices on Wednesday 6 September will hit the working class and poor hardest. The official reasons for the price hike are rising crude oil costs and the weak Rand. Government tax is also rising. Energy Minister Mamoloko Kubayi claims 4.6 cents a litre will go towards salary increases for petrol station workers.
The reality is rising prices get passed directly onto ordinary people by, for example, increases in taxi fares and food prices.
South African unions are large but fragmented, substantial but politically weak. They represent different political traditions and all are marked by serious organisational problems. They have little impact on the official public sphere. The unions need to work towards realizing a stateless, classless, self-managed society without hierarchy, based on political pluralism and freedom.
The hope that the end of apartheid would herald a better life for the oppressed in South Africa has evaporated. Their conditions today are materially as bad as under apartheid – and even worse in some cases. But the upper classes are having the time of their lives. Working class struggles should be intensified and linked, based on self-organising and direct democracy to bring about real change.
Talk by Lucien van der Walt at 24 Sept 2012, Heritage Day event, Joza Township, Grahamstown
NOTE: Heritage Day is a post-apartheid South African national holiday; unlike most, it has no clear link to major struggles in the past, although there are efforts to position it as a more “political” day. The talk below was given by Lucien van der Walt at an event organised by Sakhaluntu Cultural Group in Grahamstown, for black youth.
Thank you all for coming. Thank you, chair, for the invitation. Thank you, organisers, for the event today. Today looks like a great day, a great day to look forward.
But before we look forward, we must look back as well. Unless you know where you come from, you will never know where you can go.