Lit­tle has changed in 30 years of mil­i­tancy

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@city­press.co.za

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.

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