Little has changed in 30 years of militancy
The French novelist Alphonse Karr once noted that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This seems, in many ways, to apply to South Africa today.
Much has changed in the past few decades, yet so much remains the same.
On the political front, divisions within the historically militant anti-apartheid labour movement seem to parallel those of 30 and more years ago.
Externally, there was the ANC in alliance with the SA Communist Party (SACP) and the selfexiled and largely SACP-controlled SA Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu).
Internally, there was the main grouping of militant unions – generally dubbed “workerist” – that went on to form Cosatu.
The exiled alliance initially opposed the internal unions, claiming that Sactu was “the only true representative of the working class of South Africa”. But when it became obvious that the internal organisations were genuine representatives of workers, Sactu was closed down and Cosatu was wooed, joining the ANCled alliance in 1990.
The “workerists” in the unions, prime among them members of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) saw this as a temporary measure to defeat apartheid.
Once the ANC was in government within a capitalist system, the unions would again stand independently to press for greater worker control, usually proclaimed as socialism.
But the majority in Cosatu, encouraged by the SACP, argued that the road to this ill-defined socialism was through the ANC and via Parliament.
So, Cosatu and SACP members, “wearing ANC hats”, entered Parliament, where everything remained the same, despite this change.
Cosatu and SACP members even became ministers responsible for policies that were diametrically opposed to those of the federation and the SACP.
Such contradictions, and the tensions they caused, may have been dulled by patronage and the trappings of power, but they existed – and grew.
The alliance partners remained wedded to the idea that a governing ANC-led alliance was the way forward: it was just the leadership of the ANC that needed to be changed.
This led to the “Zuma tsunami”, headed by then SACP member and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, that toppled former president Thabo Mbeki, a change that brought about more of the same – only worse.
So now we have Cosatu – claiming to be the true representative of the workers of South Africa – opposing President Jacob Zuma and supporting Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a leading capitalist, to lead the alliance.
Cosatu also acknowledges the SACP as the workers’ party, which, contrary to many reports, has not made a decision to stand independently in the 2019 elections.
Taking the position that South Africa needs a “real workers’ party” is the SA Federation of Trade Unions, which is headed by Vavi and where the mainstay is Numsa.
This is precisely the position taken by the “workerists” 30 years ago when they opposed what they called the “bourgeois” ANC and the “Stalinist” SACP.
Then, as today, there were a multitude of ideological factions and interests at play that threatened to tear apart the unity achieved. All in all, it’s back to square one.
A clear case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.