22 May 2019 — Terry Bell Writes
(Inside Labour column – first published in City Press, May 19)
One interesting result of South Africa’s May 8 national and provincial poll was the effective demolition of an enduring myth, beloved of many bosses and union-bashing free marketeers: that union bosses call the shots and members blindly follow. This is a claim trotted out at the time of almost every major strike.
It has also been used throughout the post apartheid political dispensation, especially when Cosatu presented a united façade as the largest labour federation in the land. But while it was certainly true that organised workers, historically, played important roles in ANC election victories, they did so because they supported the party as individuals and saw no alternative.
This was especially true when the SA Communist Party (SACP), wedded to the ANC, was accepted by an overwhelming majority vote of Cosatu unionists in 1996 as “the workers’ party”, apparently in waiting. A minority argued that the SACP tactic of deracialising both the political and economic sectors as a stage toward “socialism” was mistaken; that this would merely strengthen capitalism. However, the benefit of doubt was given and the democratic decision prevailed.
When it became obvious that the orientation of ANC economic policy remained strongly neo-liberal, Cosatu and the SACP became the major drivers behind the electoral coup that unseated President Thabo Mbeki and ushered in Jacob Zuma. It was claimed that Zuma, in exile a loyal SACP member, would steer the ANC and government into a “pro-worker” direction.
Cosatu’s then general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, now admits this backing of Zuma was a “bad mistake”. It was, in fact, much worse, but it showed to many — if not most — workers in Cosatu affiliated unions, that it had been an error to remain in alliance with the ANC, an error the SACP was continuing to make.
Numsa then led the major departure from Cosatu that was by then already losing members. But the departure, via expulsion, also signalled the start of discussions about a new — “real” — workers’ party.
These discussions continued as the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) came into being in April 2017, with Vavi at the helm. The position adopted by Saftu and subsequently endorsed by conference decision, was that a “workers’ party” should be established, but that it should be built “from the bottom up”; that trade unions should remain independent in a party political sense.
Numsa general secretary, Irvin Jim, initially agreed that, since trade unions could not be equated with political parties, Numsa would act as “a catalyst” for the formation of such a party. But then Jim and Numsa leadership went ahead and launched the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) on the back of the country’s largest union, with perhaps 330 000 members.
Various fragments of the anti-authoritarian “revolutionary” Left, along with some radical academics, rallied to the cause, despite their reservations about the “Stalinist nature” of the SRWP. To them this indicated the arrival of a “real socialist voice” to be heard in parliament.
But wider worker support was nowhere in evidence and, as the election results showed, the votes never materialised. Workers, already used to stale promises garnished with dollops of vague revolutionary rhetoric were not about to swallow another dose delivered up by the SRWP.
So where did their votes go? In many cases, probably nowhere. Because perhaps more than half the potential electorate either did not register to vote, registered and did not vote or, in several cases, spoilt ballot papers in protest.
Perhaps, the hoped for political vehicle demanded over the years by workers will grow collectively, from among the disaffected. Obviously, it has not yet arrived.