National Sections of the L5I:

Workers challenge alliance with the ANC

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The three-way coalition between the African National Congress (ANC), the trade union federation (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) has ruled South Africa since the fall of apartheid. The ANC itself has deep roots within the masses and extensive patronage has allowed it to retain support. The flawed policy of the Cosatu leadership and the pro-bourgeois policy of the majority leadership of the SACP have allowed the partnership to continue.

These factors have meant that the Alliance has survived in power since the ANC won its first election. The mass of the working class has stayed loyal, expecting improvements, receiving a few and hoping for more. This helped the ANC receive nearly 70 per cent of the popular vote in last year's elections

But the coalition has been rocked by grassroots anti-privatisation campaigns, extensive strikes in the past few months including a general strike, and the row over the dismissal of ANC deputy Jacob Zuma.

Underlying this instability are economic difficulties. Under globalisation, South Africa faces competition for its manufactured goods, for example in textiles. Gold can no longer cushion the economy, and other mining interests face a profit squeeze. De Beers has just announced the closure of its historic Kimberley diamond mine.

Growth has been running at 3-4 per cent a year - far short of what is needed to tackle the endemic unemployment. The official figures reveal that the racial divide is still strong, with 31 per cent of black Africans unemployed as against 5 per cent of whites - unofficially, unemployment among black Africans runs at 40 per cent. In many cases, where workers have lost jobs in manufacturing, they have joined the growing band of those reliant on casualised labour.

To attract investment, South Africa has followed the neoliberal demands of the International Monetary Fund. Yes, there can be housing, water, electricity and so forth, but it will only be done by involving the private sector and levying hefty charges. The same firms, which have been raking in profits from PFI and PPP schemes in Britain and France, have been eagerly signing up for the schemes in South Africa. In the townships, the delivery of utilities has been accompanied by massive charges.

In fact the gap between rich and poor has widened in South Africa. SACP leader Blade Nzimande acknowledged this to the party's special conference: “Economic stabilisation and modest growth over the past decade has brought untold wealth to a privileged few, while the wage gap increases". One estimate suggests that, in 1994, workers' wages accounted for 50 per cent of total income while profits accounted for 27 per cent. Now the figures are: 44 per cent to workers and 33 per cent to profits.

All these problems have fuelled the anger and militant protests of the past few years.

Grassroots organisations have grown up in townships in all the major cities and towns, with many gathered together in the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF). In some areas local ANC councillors have sided with protestors and, like APF activist Trevor Ngwane, ended up outside the ANC. In other cases the ANC is able to maintain loyalty, often with promises of career advances.

This year in Durban, residents, furious that a promise of new housing had been abandoned, blockaded roads and then marched to get those arrested released. Residents from another part of the city attempted to deliver a memorandum to President Thabo Mbeki when he was delivering a speech on Freedom Day - only to be confronted by police and arrested!

"We must stop this business of people going into the street to demonstrate about lack of delivery” complained Mbeki “These are the things the youth used to do in the struggle against apartheid.” Quite.

This year's strikes have included gold miners, public sector and retail workers, as well as a one-day general strike against privatisation and poverty called by Cosatu. The miners crippled gold production. They won an increased wage hike, but will have to campaign further for proper accommodation.

Workers on strike also had to tackle repression. Security guards with tear gas attacked chrome miners. Local government workers faced stun grenades and rubber bullets on a protest in Cape Town, where they had protested for better pay for dirty jobs by dumping rubbish in the streets. When a scab was killed during one of the clashes, the state came down on the strikers like a ton of bricks. Now hundreds of strikers face charges and possibly long sentences, while the police, who escalated the violence with their unprovoked - and extremely violent - intervention into the dispute, get off scot-free.

Cosatu leaders feared that action would spiral out of control and lead to a break from the ANC government. They refused to follow up the hugely successful one-day general strike. The NUM leadership settled quickly for far less than they could have won in the mines, thus leaving the detested Apartheid era hostel system in tact. The Samwa local government strikes were suspended following the police attacks and the death of the strike breaker.

Although the federation has not officially called off the “rolling mass action” for jobs and against poverty it has postponed strike action due for September. At its August meeting, the Central Committee did not even discuss the strike wave.

Some working class militants have focused their anger on the dismissal of deputy president Jacob Zuma, caught up in a corruption scandal. Cosatu and SACP activists are angry that someone, believed to be pro-worker, has been dumped. Protests grew after anti-corruption agents stormed Zuma's house. There are suspicions that he has been stitched up and will not receive a fair trial. The SACP, previously a backer of Zuma, finds itself embarrassed by his actions but compelled to “salute the role he has played within our movement and in government".

Yet the evidence against Zuma is compelling - he is charged with receiving bribes in exchange for government contracts. It is not in the interests of worker militants to line up behind ANC leaders who have been lining their pockets - especially someone who was a full supporter of the ANC’s shift to neoliberalism.

Workers need independent trade unions and crucially their own political party, separate from the bourgeois ANC.

In the past, those for a new working class party have been a tiny minority. But recently there has been much more discussion - for instance there has been pressure inside the SACP for it to stand candidates independently of the ANC. Activists around the Anti-Privatisation Forum, who called for a boycott of the last election, are discussing standing candidates in the forthcoming local government elections.

A new coalition against poverty is the latest sign of the times. Calling the past decade a “disaster for the poor", Tony Ehrenreich, the Western Cape secretary of Cosatu, launched the coalition against poverty. The Cape Town rally cheered him when he said: “We never fought to make a few black people wealthy, we fought to enrich all of our people.” The coalition involves Cosatu, various grassroots organisations, churches and NGOs.

The coalition has some ANC leaders rattled. President Mbeki used his address to the last Cosatu conference to stress the ties of the ANC to organised labour. This is in tune with most of the Cosatu leadership’s view that the unions are best placed to influence the ANC by maintaining the Alliance.

The SACP have been invited to join but its leader Nzimande responded to the coalition by saying he “assumed it would not become a party” - the SACP sees itself as the workers party, despite its ties to the ANC.

This new development can build and strengthen social forums or act as the midwife of a new workers party. But the Cosatu leaders involved seem determined that it will act as a respectable channel for anger and a pressure group on the ANC.

"This coalition would strengthen both the government and the ANC's hand to drive a more radical transformation agenda,” argues Cosatu's Ehrenreich. “It is infinitely more desirable to have the political confrontation in the boardroom than in the streets."

These are the politics of the popular front: the subordination of working class goals and methods of struggle to those of the bourgeois and petit bourgeois parties. The popular front has been attempted by - or, more often, foisted on - the working class many times, from France in 1936 onwards. It lay at the centre of the SACP's strategy of creating the ANC as an alliance which ruled out a proletarian revolution and a workers state in South Africa. Instead it held out the prospect of a “socialised” or “popular” capitalism that would abolish the economic and social legacy of apartheid. But what it has delivered is the same neo-liberal model as everywhere else with only such reforms as are compatible with this. Of course the black business and professional classes have done a lot better but the workers and the unemployed in the townships have been left out.

Some activists have enthusiastically talked about the new alliance being modelled on the United Democratic Front. What they remember is the huge mass forces which assembled under its banner in the 1980s- the forces which frightened the apartheid regime into opening up negotiations. But they should also remember that its leaders pulled the rug from under the feet of a series of militant strike waves, by negotiating a pact with so-called anti-apartheid bosses like Anglo American’s Gavin Relly. The result was the demobilising of the working class at the crucial moment, and the negotiation of sunset clauses and the retention of big bourgeois property rights after the fall of apartheid.

It is precisely this situation - neoliberal privatisations, township poverty, apartheid era hostel living conditions - that South African workers are rising up against today. The last thing they need is a return to the popular front that robbed them of the fruits of their heroic struggle 20 years ago.

What they do need is the spread of a new working class-led alliance (not tied to the respectability of the churches and NGOs) to reignite the militant strike action of the past few months and link it to community and trade union campaigns. It could, in particular, unite the power of the Cosatu unions, under the leadership of the rank and file, with the social movements of the townships. Socialists should fight to get the new alliance to take this direction by actively intervening in it, especially at the local committee level, and combining political discussion and education with proposals for “confrontational” struggles not negotiations with government ministers.

If the formation of the new alliance encourages a new round of strikes, co-ordinated with rebellion in the townships, then an indefinite general strike against the government's whole neoliberal could clearly become a possibility in the next few months. This is the goal that South African socialists and militants should strive for.