Launch Of The South African Federation Of Trade Unions

Vol 23 No 2


The launch of the South African Federation of Trade Unions marks a renewed beginning in the political landscape of South Africa.

The truth of this assertion lies in the long view of history where one will find that history had cast the politics of the liberation movements on the path or route of non-collaboration with the bourgeois class or collaboration with that class.  This is true since the late 1930s in the former route taken in the political evolution of the All African Convention (“AAC”) and the formation of the Non-European Unity Movement (“NEUM”) in 1943.  On the other hand, the revival of the African National Congress (ANC) in between that period, under the clutches of the Communist Party of South Africa (“CPSA”), chose the collaborationist route.  Based on these irreconcilable parallels, the full spectrum of the politics of the liberation movement evolved up to this day.

However, in the 1960s liberation movements in South Africa i.e. the  Non European Unity Movement (NEUM), the Pan Africanist Congress (“PAC”), the ANC and the then South African Communist Party (“SACP”) suffered  severe political blows when, in various  ways, they were effectively banned from operating within South Africa.  The collaborationist ANC/SACP axis, assisted by the international liberal bourgeoisie and Stalinists was able to recover from this blow outside of South Africa while the non-collaborationist route of the Unity Movement suffered the most as it could not receive the necessary assistance from the bourgeois and Stalinist world.  This translated itself into the effacing of the non-collaboration political route inside the country by the collaborationist one, which found its effective political expression in the 1994 elections, the year the ANC assumed  guardianship of the bourgeois state.

With the entry of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (“COSATU”) into the Tri-Partite Alliance with bourgeois collaborators, we have witnessed for some years the widening political gap and increasing political conflict within and amongst COSATU affiliates, between those who questioned the collaborationist Tri-Partite Alliance, calling for its break and those who were firm believers of the Alliance and what it stood for.  The seriousness of this widening gap found  expression in the split within Chemical, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union (“CEPPWAWU”), an affiliate of COSATU, in 2003 when the majority in its biggest branch  –  the Wits Branch, together with some in the Kwa Zulu-Natal branch,  left and joined the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (“GIWUSA”). In years to follow there were  similar splits in other COSATU affiliates and most dramatically, the split of NUMSA from COSATU, with the expulsion of the latter’s General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

The launch of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (“SAFTU”) on the 21st to the 23rd of April 2017. with 1400 delegates representing 24 unions (The Daily Maverick, Analysis of the third kind, 16 May 2017), signifies a split of a section of the working class from the tutelage of the collaborationist Tri-Partite Alliance.  It can however be argued that some of the splits were informed by alleged corruption practices and not outright political differences.  The underlying factor is the general political orientation of COSATU after 1994, whose leadership swallowed bourgeois ideas hook, line and sinker. This became particularly clear in the creation of investment companies which effectively became vehicles for the self- enrichment of  SACP/ANC  leadership figures.  In essence the Tri-Partite Alliance had become a conveyer belt for bourgeois ideas into the trade union movement.

Greg Nicholson of the Daily Maverick quotes Vavi during the inaugural congress as stating, “Cosatu’s relationship with the ANC and business has destroyed its ability to lead workers.  Its unions ‘will die naturally, one by one’”.  He is further quoted as stating that “Cosatu is part of the ruling elites in our society.  It is benefitting from the patronage network that is dispensed by the various factions of the ANC.”

Those who attended the launch of the new federation found an atmosphere quite different from the times these unions were in COSATU; an unmistakable sense of independence from the political tutelage of the petit bourgeois ANC and SACP;  tolerance to radical ideas carried by various left wing organisations and individuals.  This sense of receptiveness was further expressed by one worker delegate who when receiving a copy of the APDUSAN newsletter, which was widely circulated at the launch, remarked loudly, “by its title only!”.  He was visibly impressed and amused by the title of one of the articles of volume 23, No 1 of April 2017: “Radical Economic Transformation: Another Bourgeois Swindle”.

According to Greg Nicolson, “Saftu defines itself as Marxist-Leninist and Pan-African in outlook, independent from political parties but not apolitical”.  While Greg Nicolson observes that “the federation has promised to be  worker-centred while also tapping into the informal sector and the unemployed in its campaigns” he quotes a congress resolution as saying “Our struggle is to end class exploitation, and to dismantle colonial and apartheid capitalism and land dispossession, through a programme to reclaim land and for a socialist-orientated society”.

The new federation is clearly confronted with many challenges.  The NUMSA dominance; the questions of  the scope of individual affiliates; registration for some and others not yet registered; the establishment of the federation’s structures; the affiliates’ unequal weight and influence in the Bargaining Councils; its receptiveness to socialist  ideas and talk of the united front with the thorny question of the Freedom Charter, with some even harbouring illusions of a prospect of it being adopted as the political programme. This idea will definitely face a lot of resistance given the emptiness and hollowness of the Charter to be a guide for the working class towards socialist democracy. Already, the Daily Maverick quotes the newly-elected SAFTU President, Mac Chavalala, as saying: “There’s no way that capitalism and neo-liberalism can be replaced under the ANC government.”

Whatever are the future difficulties and  prospects, the formation of the new federation has enabled the left-wing intelligentsia, which has previously been isolated from the main stream politics and has for some time since 1994  remained on the fringes of the political spectrum, to begin to reorganise itself within a substantial section of the working class.  As such the SAFTU ushers in brighter prospects for the revival of the non-collaborationist political trajectory within the working class and it should be welcomed.