South Africa at the Crossroads (IV): A New Workers’ Party

March 28, 2013 2:04 pm

Violence at Lonmins Marikana Platinum Mine, Rustenburg, South Africa - 16 Aug 2012Widespread revulsion met the shootings of striking workers at the Lonmin mines in Marikana, South Africa last August. Police opened fire and killed 34 miners, wounding 178 more.

It proved to be a turning point in the post-Apartheid era, it promised so much for ordinary working class people, after ridding themselves of oppressive minority rule in 1994.

However, the politicians of Nelson Mandela’s, and his successors’, governments have failed to deliver decent living standards for the people they are supposed to represent. The ruling class, encompassed by the ‘Tripartite Alliance’ of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), have failed to meet the needs of millions on so many levels.

In 1994, unemployment was 13%, today seven million are without work, 25% of those of working age. Millions live in the squalor of substandard housing, shanty towns with little or no access to heating, lighting or running water. Education and health standards are poor. Those in work receive low wages – hence the miners’ strikes and the frequent mass walkouts of workers in other industries – steel manufacturing, transport, public service sector. Yet, South Africa has some of the world’s richest resources in gold, silver, aluminium, platinum, uranium, coal – reasons why it used to be one of Britain’s most lucrative colonies in the days of empire.  It was mineral and raw material rich, with its black majority population being one of the most exploited. Thirty million black people provided easily available, cheap labour, for the ruling white minority while being held in dire poverty.  They were legally corralled in their own areas, subjected to the notorious ‘Pass Laws’ that restricted their freedom of movement. Without such ‘passes’, black workers could be deprived of earning a living in the main towns and cities, in industries or the service sectors, or as domestic servants.

Since the early years of colonisation, first by the Dutch, then the British, the indigenous population was subjugated in a piecemeal fashion, often employing the usual ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of the imperialists. They encroached on the lands of the different tribes, provoked bloody wars, where modern weaponry proved superior to the primitive spears and clubs of the tribes who would be herded into reservations. The ‘Apartheid’ system, with its social segregation, lack of provision and brutal racist legislation, took a firm grip on South African society following the Second World War.

Inspired by liberation and workers’ movements elsewhere, the SACP was formed which later formed links with the embryonic ANC. Activists such as Nelson Mandela, came to the fore in the ANC during the 1950s.There was a rival breakaway organisation too, the Pan-African Congress (PAN).

Period of struggle

It was the ‘Pass Laws’ that brought a new level of militancy, and it was a protest against them held by the PAN at Sharpeville, on March 21, 1960 that changed the shape of the struggle. Thousands demonstrated outside a police station. Police opened fire and 69 people were killed. This launched a whole new period of struggle. (See my previous articles in this series: ‘South Africa at the Crossroads’, parts I – III).

It was because of the massacre at Sharpeville, that South Africa became subjected to international sanctions and isolation. It became a pariah state. sharpeville massacreIts ruling class’s response was more oppression against its opponents, imprisonment, torture, death in custody, and more mass shootings.

Yet, not even the most oppressive of regimes can withstand the tide of history forever. As international sanctions increased, and the anti-apartheid movement grew, a growing revolt took hold from the 1970s to the 1980. It worked hand in hand with a developing labour movement as COSATU was established.

By the early 1990s, the white minority government knew the time had come for compromise. De Klerk’s National Party agreed to power share with the ANC/SACP until elections could take place in 1994 where Mandela’s party took power, ending the apartheid era.


So it must be with a bitter irony that the vast majority of the population,  nearly twenty years after the end of the racist apartheid system, has merely been replaced by the modern horrors of the economic apartheid of capitalism.

Mandela’s legacy has meant his vision of , ‘creating an enriched black middle class’ to share power with the big corporations of capital, to make South Africa a haven of the multinationals, who move into the low-wage economies of emerging nations of the developing world, in search of profitable markets, has not happened. Now we have the political elites of the ‘Tripartite Alliance’, the ANC/SACP/COSATU, all vying for a share of the booty,  as they accommodate the powerful capitalist enterprises that have a stranglehold on the country’s economy in the name of ‘globalisation’.

The once revered leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle, climbed into bed with the arch-exploiters as the tops of the South African labour movement delivered a pool of cheap labour.

The wealth gap and layers of privilege between the masses below, and the luxurious lifestyles of those at the top, created fissures between the classes.  Leaders of COSATU allowed workers to strike in order to let off steam before they led them into compromise, tying them up in knots of mediation and negotiation. Former leaders of the ‘struggle for freedom’, such as former miners’ leader Cyril Ramaphosa, filled their pockets with company shares and sat on the boards of directors, as other union leaders act as ‘the soft arm of management’, holding back workers discontent, guiding it into safe channels.

But now, the Marikana massacre has changed all that. The police murders of striking miners sent a hammer blow that has reverberated through South African society. Tens of thousands of other miners went on strike, meaning mining companies were forced to grant pay rises of 22% while still doing their best to intimidate and, in some cases, physically attacking workers and their families.

ANCThe Democratic Socialist Movement, an affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International, assisted the striking miners’ committees and pushed the idea that what was needed was a new, independent workers party. Making sure that it would represent working class people the way that the ANC/SACP represented the interests of the bosses, and, furthermore, would reach out to other workers and generalise the struggle.

This has also served to further aggravate relations inside the governing Tripartie Alliance. There are splits appearing within the ANC, where the President, Jacob Zuma, has closed down the ANC’s Youth League and the regional ANC organisation of the Limpopo area. Seen as a possible stronghold of supporters of his leftwing rival Julius Malema, who is currently on charges of corruption.

COSATU leader, Zwelimzima Vavi, has issued attacks against Herman Mashaba, proprietor of cosmetic giant ‘Black Like Me’ and chair of the ‘Free Market Federation’. Mashaba is calling for the repeal of Section 2 of the 1995 ‘Labour Relations Act’, which offers protection of national pay levels. Mashaba argues that such protection stifles ‘competition’ and protects pay levels over and above what companies are willing to pay. Unions, rightfully, see this as an attack on working conditions.

Ruling class are divided

To crow it all, Jeremy Cronin, deputy general secretary of the SACP, has criticised Irwin Jim, leader of  NUMSA, the metal workers union, who repeatedly accuses police of the Marikana murders while the Inquiry is still taking place.

It seems the ruling class are divided. The wolves are devouring each other. Or, as Trotsky once wrote: ‘The wind of revolution hits the top of the trees first.’

Indeed, Irwin Jim, may well make his accusations of the police, if only to keep his union members on side. But even here, the National Police Commissioner, Riah Phiyega, has been found to have lied to cover up the shootings. Many are therefore, calling into question President Zuma’s lack of judgement in appointing her, a woman with no background in police work.

Zuma himself, on the anniversary of Sharpeville, now re-named ‘National Human Rights Day’, pays lip service for the future he has in mind for South Africa, with reference to his heavily touted ‘National Development Plan (NPD)’ that will come into fruition in 2030 (!) ‘We must draw lessons,’ he says,  ‘to build a better, united future, advancing socio-economic freedom for all…subject to resources being available.’

The NPD is meant to be the tool to ‘eliminate poverty and reduce inequality’, it will ‘unleash the energies of the people, grow an inclusive economy, build capabilities and work together to solve complex problems…’ It sounds ominously like bland, vague corporate speak.

A new political party

However, another occasion offered another view. On the same day, March 21, members of the Democratic Socialist Movement, the miners’ strike committees and more than 500 hundred others, launched a new political party – the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP).

Its five point manifesto consisted of:

  • Kick out the fat cats. Nationalise the banks, the mines, the farms and big business. Nationalised industries to be under the democratic control WASPof workers and working class communities. Democratic planning of production for social need not personal profit.
  • End unemployment. Create socially useful jobs for those seeking work. For a living wage for R12,500 per month.
  • Stop evictions – for massive investment for housing, electricity, water, sanitation, roads, public transport and social services.
  • For publicly funded, free education from the nursery to university.
  • For publicly funded free health care, accessible for all.

All WASP representatives to take the average wage of a skilled worker and be subject to instant recall.

WASP will commence to build, reaching out to workers and workers’ organisations, and aim to recruit up to a million members within the next period.

They have everything to fight for, a new era is coming…



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