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.
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.
The labour movement has been unable to de-link itself from its archenemy: capital. As its structures bureaucratise, as its leaders become career unionists, as it opens investment companies and pays staff increasingly inequitable salaries, it increasingly mirrors the very thing it is fighting. If the South African Federation of Trade Unions is to meet its promise, it must be fundamentally different from the organisation it was born out of.
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.
In these grim times, both globally and locally, it is important to reaffirm the centrality of workers’ education, and the need for a strong working-class movement. Ordinary people have immense potential to change the world, and steer it in a more progressive direction than that promised by capitalists, populists and the political establishment, writes Lucien van der Walt.
The trade unions are the combat organisations of the working class. They were built to defend and advance workers’ interests against the bosses.
BUT the unions can be MUCH more. The unions have the potential not only to fight the bosses in the here and now. They can ALSO organise the workers for a REVOLUTIONARY GENERAL STRIKE. This means that the workers take the land, mines and factories from the bosses and politicians. It means we run them in the interests of the workers and the poor.
Real democratic socialism and real working class freedom and power will never come through getting new political parties into parliament. This is an illusion. Parliament is the graveyard of struggles. It is the place where the radicals of yesterday become the crooked politicians of today.
Socialism, freedom and power can only come through class struggle. This means organising in communities AND building strong worker organisations.