‘The Workers’ Struggle’: Fosatu’s warning

Martin Plaut

Introduction: growing disquiet

The current divisions within South Africa’s main trade union movement – Cosatu – must be deep indeed for that the Secretary General of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, to feel that he must become involved in its internal affairs. Yet that is just what he has done. Mantashe has declared that pursuing Cosatu’s suspended General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, for his sexual exploits and other alleged misdemeanors may be too damaging for the movement.

“You can pursue Vavi if you want to but if the price you pay for pursuing Vavi is to split Cosatu, it’s not worth the price, try something else,” Mr Mantashe told the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) central executive committee on Wednesday.

Yet in the end it is the relationship between the unions and the ANC that is at the heart of the problem. To put it simply, many in the union movement believe they have become too close to the ANC and are now little more than cannon fodder, used to mobilise the public during elections. At other times the unions are ignored by government and the much vaunted Tripartite Alliance with the ANC, Cosatu and the Communist Party exist only on paper.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s (Numsa) warned that it will not campaign for the ANC in next year’s election if the ruling party uses the controversial National Development Plan in its election manifesto.  Numsa, the largest affiliate of the trade union federation Cosatu, criticised the way an Alliance summit held in August addressed economic issues. “We will not adopt the alliance position if the fundamental issues are not addressed,” the Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim told the Mail & Guardian. “The alliance summit was used as a vehicle purely for elections.”

An historic warning

Concern about the relations between the unions and the ANC stretches back over many years. Since the 1950’s there have been voices warning that the party would use the worker’s organisations as a battering ram to fight its political battles. But perhaps the most coherent statement of this position came in the early 1980’s as the non-racial trade unions were just being re-formed.

In April 1982 workers from across South Africa met in a congress held by Cosatu’s predecessor, the Federation of South African Trade Unions,  Fosatu. The federation was just three years old, but in that time it had grown five fold, from around 20,000 workers to over 100,000 (Baskin, 1991:25, 29). What they heard was a speech that must rank as one of the most important statements of principle ever delivered to a South African labour movement. Although the Fosatu general secretary, Joe Foster read it, the speech reflected the work of many people. Its authors have never been revealed, but the hand of Alec Erwin – Fosatu’s first general secretary, and currently South Africa’s minister of Trade and Industry – was almost certainly among them.

The speech, entitled ‘The Workers’ Struggle – where does Fosatu stand’ went beyond charting a political course for the movement. It attempted to define how workers, as a class, should situate themselves in the struggles that lay ahead. In so doing it looked beyond the end of apartheid to the form of society that would emerge a decade later, once the African National Congress took power. These were the most ambitious of goals. For that reason alone it deserves to be remembered. But its significance goes well beyond that, and can best be judged by the response that it evoked.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the liberation movement, in the form of the ANC and South African Communist Party, panicked. They realised that they were being outflanked on the left, and that they would have to re-assert their assumed role as the natural leadership of South Africa’s oppressed. Exactly how this was done has never been revealed in detail and no academic has investigated exactly what took place.

Having said that, it is not hard to see why their reaction was so severe. The speech – which was then adopted as Fosatu policy – challenged the most cherished beliefs of the ANC and SACP. It provided a brief tour of South African history in which it asserted that there had never been a working class movement in South Africa (a direct repudiation of the Communist Party’s position): that the ANC engaged in ‘populist’ and ‘opportunistic’ politics to bolster its position in exile and had failed to support the international labour struggle (such as Solidarity in Poland) because of its links with the Soviet Union. Finally, and most tellingly, there was the prediction that because the ANC was a populist mass movement, it would in the end go the way of all other anti-colonial movements in Africa and turn on its own supporters in the working class. The speech concluded that:

“It is, therefore, essential that workers must strive to build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are part of the wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to protect worker interests and to ensure that the popular movement is not hijacked by elements who will in the end have no option but to turn against their worker supporters.”

While not repudiating the ANC, the Fosatu statement spelled out the movement’s limitations, and demanded action to ensure the protection of workers’ interests. As one leader put it: ‘Of course we want Mandela to be Prime Minister, but we must make sure that when he is, workers control him’ (Freedman, 1987:434). The critique was devastating. It also held out the implicit threat that Fosatu would be the launch pad from which a workers party would be formed – possibly on the lines of the Workers Party in Brazil.

The reply was provided by the ‘African Communist’, which was then much more than just the theoretical journal of the South African Communist Party (SACP). It was the mouthpiece of the Congress Alliance. Fosatu was labelled as ‘syndicalist’ and the union federation was accused of attempting to substitute itself for the Communist Party as the party of the working class. (African Communist, 1983.)

The Costatu takeover

The ANC did more than issue angry denunciations. It mobilised to ensure that it not only won the unions to its cause, but to its political perspective. Within four years it had managed to exert enough political muscle to persuade the South African union movement to reform itself as the Congress of South African Trade Unions – Cosatu – adopting the Congress label as an indication that its loyalties lay with the Congress Alliance. They had also managed to arrange a meeting with the new Cosatu leadership in Zambia, at which the Cosatu general secretary endorsed the exiled movement as the leading element in the liberation struggle (Southall, 1995:295) Those opposed to this development could do little more than complain that Naidoo had acted without mandate in taking this position and ‘should not have agreed to Cosatu struggling under the leadership of the ANC’ (Baskin, 1991:100) These were, in reality, quibbles after the event. The ‘workerists’ (as they were labelled) had been outmanoeuvred by the ANC and its ‘populist’ supporters within the union movement.

The speech, and the stir that it caused, could be seen as little more than an historical footnote, was it not for the continued problem posed by workers and their place in South African society. For a start there is the burning question of the policies pursued by the ANC since it achieved power. Patrick Bond has documented the gradual drift away from any socialist principles, as the former liberation movement came under intense pressure from capital to change its policies (Bond, 2000). On an individual level, many of the trade union leaders of yesterday became the cabinet ministers of today. And those that have not climbed the greasy poll of politics have ascended the ladder of capitalism:

“The group that benefits most from the post-apartheid order is a fledgling black middle class. It consists of a growing number of independent entrepreneurs, a managerial aristocracy in high demand and a new political bourgeoisie eager to join in the consumerism of their former oppressors” (Adam, Slabbert & Moodley. 1997:174).

Today’s troubles

This issue still remains at the heart of the trouble between the ANC and its union allies. As Vavi put it on 25th of November, when speaking to Numsa:

“The real bases of the crisis in COSATU are its complex and contradictory class relationships which it finds itself having to deal with, on a daily basis, in the multiclass and unstructured ANC led Alliance, to which it belongs.”

The call for the unions to re-assert their independence, first hinted at so many years ago, still haunts the Congress Alliance. That is why Joe Foster’s speech remains as relevant today as it was when he first delivered it.

The following is a shortened text of the keynote address given by the Fosatu general secretary, Joe Foster, at the Fosatu Congress, April 1982, and endorsed as Fosatu policy. The practical policies which relate to proposals to change the Congress that relate to the situation that prevailed at the time, which were at the end of the speech, have been omitted.

Fosatu Congress, April 1982

Joe Foster

Three years ago – almost to the day – we met in this very same place to form Fosatu. Today we have set as our theme – the Workers’ Struggle – in an attempt to further clarify where we as worker representatives see Fosatu stand in this great struggle . As these unions grow then the question is what role do they play in the wider political arena. There has been a great upsurge in political activities over the last few years and many different political groups are looking to the union movement to state its position. We must be sure our organisation and our leadership can confidently state its position and continue to organise in the way that will strengthen and not weaken that position. The purpose of this paper is to set out the issues we should debate if we are to meet the challenges.

Working Class Movement

As a trade union federation we are clearly concerned with workers and their aspirations. If we were to think in terms of our members only, we would have a very limited political role. If, however, we are thinking more widely of the working class then we have to examine very much more carefully what our political role is. In particular we need to look at this role in the South African context.

If we look at the advanced industrial countries then we see what can be called working class movements. These are a number of different organisations – trade unions, co-operatives, political parties and newspapers – that see themselves as linked to the working class and furthering its interests. These working class movements are, therefore, powerful social forces in those societies.

In the capitalists economies these working class movements have power and organisation yet politically the working class is still subject to policies and practices that are clearly against their interests as the activities of Thatcher and Reagan show. This is increasingly leading to intense political and organisational activity to give the working class and the union movement a clearer direction so as to gather together the working class movement into a force that will more definitely put workers in control of their own destiny.

In the Socialist countries similar battles are being fought. Whilst social, political and economic relations in these countries have been greatly altered and there have been great achievements to the benefit of workers, there is still a need for workers themselves to control their own destiny. So Solidarity was not struggling to restore capitalism in Poland, its struggle was to establish more democratic worker control over their socialist society.

Now my purpose in briefly looking at the working class movement in the advanced industrial countries was twofold:

Firstly, so that we can be clear that worker activities such as strikes and protests do not in themselves mean that a working class movement or working class politics exist. These latter are more than that – they are large-scale organisations with a clear social and political identity as the working class. Secondly, I wish to show that the pure size of working class organisation is itself no guarantee that workers will control their won destiny. In fact as the struggle of Solidarity shows, even the fact that a country is said to be socialist does not guarantee that workers control their own destiny. In short it could be said that workers must build a powerful and effective movement if they are to succeed in advancing their interests against some very hostile forces, but they must also ensure that this movement is able to take a clear political direction.

The experience of the great working class movement in the advanced industrial countries is a very important guide and lesson to us. However, it cannot provide all our answers. Firstly, in South Africa we cannot talk of a working class movement as we have defined it above. Secondly, whilst there is undoubtedly a large and growing working class its power is only a potential power since as yet it has no definite social identity of itself as working class.

The questions we should, therefore, address ourselves to, are:

Why has no working class movement emerged?

What are the prospects for such a movement emerging?

What role can Fosatu play in such a process?

Political History and Workers

It is not possible in a paper such as this to deal fully with all the developments in South Africa’s history that have led to the non-existence of a workers’ movement in South Africa. South Africa’s history has been characterised by great repression and the major political and ideological instrument for this repression has been racism. Yet the major effect of this repression has been to very rapidly establish a large capitalist economy.

Racism, and the violence and injustices associated with it, is a very stark and clear form of repression. Alongside this only about 5-10 per cent of population has ever had the franchise. Clearly, therefore, there is a very identifiable oppressive force and the major political task of the oppressed people has always been to attack that oppressive and racist regime.

So what has developed in South Africa is a very powerful tradition of popular or populist politics. The role of the great political movements such as the ANC and the Congress Alliance has been to mobilise the masses against the repressive minority regime. In such a situation mass mobilisation is essential so as to challenge the legitimacy of the state both internally and internationally.

Where virtually all the population is voteless and oppressed by a racial minority then a great alliance of all classes is both necessary and a clear political strategy. Furthermore, building such an alliance was a great task. The ANC had to overcome racial division so as to rise above the divisive racism of the oppressors. They had to deal with the opportunistic tribal leadership, to organise thousands upon thousands of people and they had to do all this in the face of harsh repression by the state. In achieving this there is little wonder that they ANC rose to be one of the great liberation movements in Africa.

In this context it is also easier to see and understand why the trade union movement acted in a particular way. The racial divisions in the working class, linked as they were to other objective factors, made it possible for capital to quite quickly suppress any serious challenge to their supremacy. It was possible to create the conditions that led to a politically tame union movement and thereby forced more militant and progressive unions to bear the brunt of state action, which in turn affected the politics of these unions.

Furthermore, at all times there were occasions when workers resisted by strike action, protest and organisation. Yet this by itself cannot constitute a working class movement. Whilst the unions were prominent they were always small and weakly organised both nationally and in the factories. They could not provide an organisational base for a working class movement as we have defined it above.

Progressive and militant unions were continually the subject of state harassment, but, never managed to seriously challenge capital nationally or on a sustained basis. As a result the effective political role of progressive unions and of worker activity was to provide a crucial part of any popular struggle and that was to give it its ‘Worker Voice’. No mass popular movement can be effective or be seen to be effective if it does not have some worker involvement or representation. By the 1950s with the growth of South Africa’s industry and the size of the working class the need to include workers became essential and as a result SACTU became an important element of the Congress Alliance.

In these circumstances the progressive trade unions became part of the popular struggle against oppression. They did not and probably could not have provided the base for working class organisation. There is of course no doubt that their activities have been very, very important in creating the conditions that led to the emergence in the last 10 to 15 years of the present progressive trade unions. However, these unions are operating in a different environment.

Workers and their struggle became very much part of the wider popular struggle. An important effect of this development was that capital could hide behind the curtains of apartheid and racism. The political energies of the oppressed masses and of international critics were focused on the apartheid regime and its abhorrent racism. The government and Afrikanerdom became the focus of the attack. In fact the position was such that learned liberal academics saw in capital the great hope for change despite the fact that capital and its lackeys were undoubtedly the major beneficiaries of apartheid.

Capital did its very best to keep in the political background and as a result this helped prevent the creation of capital’s logical political opposite which is a working class political movement. However, of crucial significance was that capital was growing rapidly and changing its very nature into a more monopolistic, technologically advanced and concentrated form. Its links internationally were growing, as was its importance for international capital.

We find, therefore, that behind the scenes of the great battle between the apartheid regime and its popular opponents that the capitalist economy has flourished and capital emerges now as a powerful and different force. It

is highly concentrated in truly gigantic corporations;

has access to international information on how to deal with working class challenges;

has access to the state’s security information;

is able to rapidly share and assess information;

is able to use the objective circumstances in its favour such as unemployment and influx control to weaken worker organisations;

is now an important part of international capital and cannot therefore, be lightly discarded by international capital;

is able to hide behind politics and as a result can hide its sophisticated attacks on labour because no-one is paying any attention.

Yet as the upsurge of popular political activity emerged again in the 1970’s some of its new forms such as Black Consciousness also place little emphasis on capital. So there is a growing gap between popular politics and the power of capital and as a result the potential power of workers. It is in this context we should look at the likelihood of a working class politics emerging.

Need for a Working Class Movement

The growing size of the economy and the dramatic changes taking place in capital, have created important new conditions in the economy. We also have to take into account the speed and manner in which the economy has developed. In discussing the working class movements in the advanced industrial economies, we have to bear in mind that in most cases they took about 100 years or more to fully develop. Industry started first by building larger and larger factories and bringing people together in these factories.

The new capitalist had to struggle politically with the older ruling classes over labour, land, taxation policy, tariff protection, political rights and political power. The mechanisation became more important and there was a definite change in production processes. As this happened the skilled workers who had usually given leadership to the craft unions found themselves in a very difficult position. As a result leadership problems in the organisation of trade unions and the political environment, developed in a complex and relatively slow way.

In South Africa this has been condensed into 60-70 years and from the outset large scale capitalist enterprises dominated. The birth of capitalism here was brutal and quick. The industrial proletariat was ripped from its land in the space of a few decades. At present capitalist production massively dominates all other production. There are no great landlords on their agricultural estates and there is no significant peasantry or collective agriculture. Virtually everyone depends for all or part of their income on industry or capitalist agriculture.

The working class has experienced a birth of fire in South Africa and they constitute the major objective political force opposed to the state and capital. There is no significant petty bourgeoisie or landed class that will assist in the organisation of workers:

the great concentration of capital has also meant a greater concentration of workers. These workers generally have a higher level of basic education and skills than before and their links with the past are all but broken so that more and more a worker identity is emerging;

this is reinforced by the sophisticated strategies that are designed to ‘deracialise’ industry and some other areas of society. The effect of this is to divide off certain privileged members of Black society leaving workers at the bottom of the privilege pile;

the concentration of workers in industry has also concentrated them in great urban townships;

the particular structure of the South African economy with its high degree of state involvement, price controls and heavy dependence on international markets has made it a very sensitive economy. As a consequence attempts to ‘buy off’ the major part of the working class will fail. It is more likely that as some readjustments of privilege are attempted that it will have to be workers that suffer through inflation and the lack of basic commodities;

the above factors and South Africa’s international economic importance are likely to force capital into the political open and as a consequence develop a worker response;

although capital can at present hide behind apartheid it is also the case that if workers organise widely enough they can get great support from the international labour movement. Also international public opinion has to be carefully watched by capital because both international and South African capital are dependent on their links with the rest of the world.

These then are some of the important factors that are favourable to the development of a working class movement in South Africa. However, this does not mean that this will automatically happen. To understand this, we need to look at the present political environment more carefully to see both the present political tendencies and to establish why some active leadership role should be played by the unions and Fosatu in particular.

Workers need their own organisation to counter the growing power of capital and to further protect their own interests in the wider society. However, it is only workers who can build this organisation and in doing this they have to be clear on what they are doing.

As the numbers and importance of workers grows then all political movements have to try and win the loyalty of workers because they are such an important part of society. However, in relation to the particular requirements of worker organisation, mass parties and popular political organisations have definite limitations which have to be clearly understood by us.

We should distinguish between the international position and internal political activity. Internationally, it is clear that the ANC is the major force with sufficient presence and stature to be a serious challenge to the South African state and to secure the international condemnation of the present regime. To carry out this struggle is a difficult task because South Africa has many friends who are anxious to ensure that they can continue to benefit from her wealth. The fact that the ANC is also widely accepted internally also strengthens its credibility internationally.

However, this international presence of the ANC which is essential to an popular challenge to the present regime places certain strategic limitations on the ANC, namely:

to reinforce its international position it has to claim credit for all forms of resistance, no matter what the political nature of such resistance. There is, therefore, a tendency to encourage undirected opportunistic political activity;

it has to locate itself between the major international interests. To the major Western powers it has to appear as anti-racist but not as anti-capitalist. For the socialist East it has to be at least neutral in the superpower struggle and certainly it could not appear to offer a serious socialist alternative to that of those countries as the response to Solidarity illustrates. These factors must serious affect its relationship to workers;

accordingly, the ANC retains its tradition of the 1950’s and 1960’s when because there was no serious alternative political path it rose to be a great populist liberation movement. To retain its very important international position it has to retain its political position as a popular mass movement. This clearly has implications for its important military activities.

Internally we also have to carefully examine what is happening politically. As a result of the states’ complete inability to effect reform and the collapse of their Bantustan policy, they are again resorting to open repression. Since 1976 in particular this has given new life to popular resistance and once again the drive for unity against a repressive state has reaffirmed the political tradition of populism in South Africa. Various political and economic interests gather together in the popular front in the tradition of the ANC and the Congress Alliance.

In the present context all political activity, provided it is anti-state, is of equal status. In the overall resistance to the regime, this is not necessarily incorrect. In fact without such unity and widespread resistance it would not be possible by means of popular mass movements to seriously challenge the legitimacy of the present regime.

However, the really essential question is how worker organisation relates to this wider political struggle. I have argued above that the objective political and economic conditions facing workers is now markedly different from that of 20 years ago. Yet there does not seem to be clarity on this within the present union movement. There are good reasons for this lack of clarity.

As a result of repression most worker leadership is relatively inexperienced and this is made worse by the fact that their unions are weak and unstable organisationally. The union struggles fought against capital have mostly been against isolated companies so that the wider struggles against capital at an industry or national level have not been experienced. This also means that workers and their leadership have not experienced the strength of large-scale worker organisation nor the amount of effort required to build and democratise such large-scale organisation. Again state repression and the wider political activity reinforce previous experience where the major function of workers was to reinforce and contribute to the popular struggle.

Politically, therefore, most unions and their leadership lack confidence as a worker leadership. They see their role as part of wider struggle but are unclear on what is required for the worker struggle. Generally, the question of building an effective worker organisation is not dealt with and political energy is spent in establishing unity across a wide front. However, such a position is a great strategic error that will weaken if not destroy worker organisation both now and in the future. All the great and successful popular movements have had as their aim the overthrow of oppressive – most often colonial – regimes. But these movements cannot and have not in themselves been able to deal with the particular and fundamental problems of workers. Their task is to remove regimes that are regarded as illegitimate and unacceptable by the majority.

It is, therefore, essential that workers must strive to build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are part of the wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to protect and further worker interests and to ensure that the popular movement is not hijacked by elements who will in the end have no option but to turn against their worker supporters.

Broad and complicated matters have been covered and it is difficult to summarise them even further, However, I shall attempt to do so in order for us to try and examine the role that Fosatu can play in this struggle.

That worker resistance such as strike action helps build worker organisation but by itself it does not mean that there is a working class movement.

There has not been and is not a working class movement in South Africa.

The dominant political tradition in South Africa is that of the popular struggle against an oppressive, racist minority regime.

That this tradition is reasserting itself in the present upsurge of political activity.

However, the nature of economic development in South Africa has brutally and rapidly created a large industrial proletariat.

That the size and development of this working class is only matched by its mirror image which is the dramatic growth and transformation of industrial capital.

That before it is too late workers must strive to form their own powerful and effective organisation within the wider popular struggle.


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