May Day In South Africa

Vol 23 No 2

Category: ,

South Africa is in the grip of a protracted political and economic crisis that is intrinsic to capitalism, with devastating consequences for the working class. The rate of exploitation of the labour force, with ever increasing unemployment continues unabated, with a growing number of companies closing down and economic growth foundering. Amidst these structural impediments workers’ day was celebrated in South Africa. May or Workers’ Day is an important event in the calendar of the international working class movement. Traditionally it is an occasion to show international working class solidarity, mapping an anti capitalist future and the ensuing class struggles.

The main workers’ day rally of the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU), held in Botshabelo, was marred by the federation’s bureaucracy unilateral decision to abruptly cancel the event. This came about when workers heckled and prevented president Jacob Zuma from addressing them. This is indicative of the ongoing crisis of labour politics and implosion of a once fighting labour movement. For many commentators this highlights the fractures in the tripartite alliance. What it  fundamentally  demonstrates  is that   workers  are once again called upon to resolve the decadent ANC petty bourgeois factional battles.

President Zuma, once the darling of the federation has now been shunned by COSATU in favour of arch capitalist Cyril Ramaphosa, who played a key role in the Marikana massacre.  Billionaire Deputy President Ramaphosa recently made a half-hearted apology for the butchering of the workers at Marikana simply to woo the working class, because of his aspirations to become president of the ANC and South Africa. Workers in COSATU continue to be in the vice grip of reformist petty bourgeois politics of the trade union bureaucracy, tying workers to the programme of the bourgeoisie.

In contrast the May Day rally of the newly launched South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU, arguably marked a important turning point in radical labour politics in South Africa. During its Workers’ Day rally, held in Durban and starting off with a protest march, the federation proclaimed itself to be a fighting organisation for the working class and a critical social force in the anti capitalist struggle. At its founding congress SAFTU unequivocally declared that it is  “building a fundamentally different type of workers’ organisation – independent of political parties and employers but not apolitical – democratic, worker-controlled, militant, socialist-orientated, internationalist, Pan-Africanist from a Marxist perspective and inspired by the principles of Marxism-Leninism” (Declaration of the launching congress of SAFTU, 21 -23 April 2017). The importance of fighting for political power for the working class to end class exploitation, was further echoed at its Workers’ Day rally. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the biggest affiliate of SAFTU, in its May day statement, amongst other things, declared: “The only way out of the crisis is through a mass movement of the working-class based on a program guided by the principles of Marxism-Leninism for the nationalisation of the mineral and manufacturing monopolies, the banks and the land, in line with the aspiration expressed in the Freedom Charter” (NUMSA May Day Statement 2017).

In essence NUMSA, like SAFTU in its founding declaration, is calling for the ‘radical implementation of the Freedom Charter’. What the radical implementation of the Freedom Charter entails is still unclear. SAFTU it appears is still caught between a past political tradition that it has not fully transcended and a new reality that is emerging in front of them. It is still partially beholden to the petty bourgeois programme of the ANC, SACP, COSATU tripartite alliance that have chained workers to the dubious and empty promises of the Freedom Charter. Nevertheless the  political and organisational break and the radical socialist orientation of the new trade union federation represents a positive step to reinvigorate the South African working class as a whole.

To make a fundamental break it is necessary for workers both inside and outside of SAFTU to carefully examine and uncover the rich history of the revolutionary left tradition in South Africa in its entirety. In examining this tradition  of which the Unity Movement of South Africa (UMSA) and APDUSA is an integral part ,workers can test, contest and compare its political programme against other tendencies. In the current milieu of an ever-expanding surplus population, where neoliberal capitalism is rendering workers redundant to the needs of capital, it is of vital importance that trade union federations like SAFTU cement their links between the employed and the mass of surplus population through their trade unions.

The call by APDUSA for the fostering of independent leadership among the working class, the promotion of ‘self-organisation and united independent struggle of the labouring masses is of paramount importance. The struggle can only advance decisively via the greatest ideological and organisational unity between the workers in the urban centres and landless peasants in the rural areas under the leadership of the working class.