South Africa unionists break with ANC

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After 20 years of squandered post-apartheid rule by the African National Congress (ANC), South African unionists are making historic decisions toward their liberation. On October 27, 2014 the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (the country’s largest union, representing auto, steel, and electronics workers), announced its split from the pro-business ANC. With this break NUMSA is launching a united front coalition on Dec. 13-16, 2014, and after further study and debate, also plans to form a new party with a socialist program.

This continuation of the unfinished anti-apartheid movement reflects the needs of millions of still-impoverished South Africans, who organized more strikes and grassroots protests in the last 10 years than anywhere in the world, including the explosive strike for higher pay of one million teachers and public hospital workers in 2010.

If current hopes and plans can go beyond populist rhetoric for nationalizing industry to include worker and community control of resources and no capitulation to capitalism, genuine equality could unfold. With the right leadership, it could spread far beyond South Africa.

ANC betrayals. Shop stewards from NUMSA and leftists from around the globe met in Johannesburg in August 2014. Their agenda was to discuss 1) organizing a worker-led united front to connect labor with activists fighting for services, water, housing and electricity; and 2) building a new left political party to oppose the ANC in the 2016 elections. Three young NUMSA shop stewards organizing for the August meeting were shot down by forces clearly threatened by NUMSA’s ideas.

Much is at stake for the discredited ANC, which controls South Africa in a Tripartite Alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), South Africa’s largest labor federation. The ANC took power in 1994 with Nelson Mandela as the first president. The Stalinist CP provided left veneer for ANC’s bourgeois nationalist program. The Central Executive Committee of COSATU, dominated by a right-wing clique, just expelled NUMSA from the federation with no vote of the membership.

ANC promised to take over the racist apartheid economy and fulfill the 1955 Freedom Charter. The charter included land reforms and democratic rights for Blacks, expanded to include women and gays, but still keeping intact the capitalist economy and private property. South Africa’s working class has been dealing with the consequences ever since.

The ANC embraced neoliberal policies, deregulation, and IMF “market solutions” favoring multinational corporations and bankers at the expense of the 80 percent Black majority. Party leaders flaunted cronyism and sexist mores while grossly enriching themselves. Black industrialists joined white capitalists and outsourced jobs, resulting in 45 percent unemployment. Over 20 million people live in poverty without adequate food, healthcare or education. Women and children in shantytowns suffer the greatest.

Increasingly, the government relies on state repression as vicious as the apartheid regime. The ANC colluded in a horrifying massacre of 34 striking AMCU platinum workers at the Marikana mines in 2012. It stokes anti-immigrant bigotry, enacted anti-woman tribal policies and laws undermining youth wages, while condoning police brutality, homophobia and rape. Though winning the May 2014 elections, the ANC’s share was 35 percent — a record low. Up to 90 percent in some townships favor forming a new party to fight for the poor.

Building from the bottom up. In the wake of treachery by the ANC, resistance by workers, youth and the poor has exploded. Battles for living wages and jobs are spreading. New forces are emerging. An independent women-led farm workers’ union, Sikhula Sonke, epitomizes the resiliency of and challenges facing Black women workers.

The massacre of strikers in Marikana was followed by a record-breaking year of strikes — over half wildcat actions. In 2014 alone, a five-month strike by AMCU platinum miners and a month-long strike by 200,000 NUMSA workers won minimum wage concessions. NUMSA’s bold call for a new workers’ party and its demand that COSATU also break with the ANC comes from this backdrop of pressure from below.

The union is pursuing radical resolutions from its December 2013 Special National Congress. Embryonic united fronts are being formed in different parts of the country. NUMSA National Treasurer Mphumzi Maqungo spoke in Oakland during a 2014 California May Day tour which FSP endorsed. He emphasized drawing lessons on how to prevent class collaboration and deal with imperialist agendas before launching a new workers party. The union has embarked on a serious, ongoing study of mass labor and Marxist parties and politics.

NUMSA’s historic proposal, however, could be derailed. The organization calls for reinstalling the Freedom Charter, which vaguely favors giving South Africa’s resources to the people, but does not oppose capitalism. NUMSA also declined to support socialists in the May elections, which could indicate that its leaders are reluctant to go beyond a separation from ANC.

Two other groups have left ANC — the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP). EFF was founded in 2013 by ex-members of ANC’s Youth League, including former head Julius Malema. EFF has a left-populist program, but it too leaves the profit system intact. EFF won an impressive 30 parliamentary seats in May, and now faces the dead-end of administering a capitalist government with ANC.

WASP is clearly socialist. Affiliated with Socialist Alternative, it was founded in 2012 out of a Marxist tendency working within the ANC. Their program includes the needs of specially oppressed groups and anti-capitalist demands. WASP got just 8,000 votes in the May national elections.

An unfinished revolt. Twenty years ago, an international movement featuring student divestment campaigns and port shut-downs by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union helped bring down apartheid. But racism, sexism and poverty remain, because capitalism remains. Unions, feminists, left parties, and progressives worldwide can show solidarity by sending greetings to NUMSA’s February 2015 Conference on Socialism.

Globally, working people are all waging the same struggles — to break with misleaders, build revolutionary parties, and win genuine freedom. South Africa’s giant steps to these ends will rouse others to do the same. Amandla Ngawethu — Power to the People!

Toni Mendicino is a member of Teamsters 2010 at UC Berkeley. Email:

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