Historic Conference for Socialism in Post-Apartheid South Africa

By Ashley Fataar

An historic two-day conference for socialism took place in post-apartheid South Africa on 16 and 17 April, 2015. It drew 150 delegates from ten socialist organisations, two anti-capitalist organisations and eight trade unions from across the country.

The conference was organised by Numsa (National Union of Metal Workers) as part of the declaration at its December 2013 special congress that decided to break from the African National Congress – South African Communist Party (ANC/SACP) alliance and to form a workers organisation to the left of the SACP (see here and here)

In context, the reason that Numsa decided to break from the ANC/SACP alliance is part of the re-alignment of working class and left forces in South Africa as a result of the rising post-apartheid struggles since 1999, the global economic crisis that began in 2008 and the Marikana massacre of 2012. These events also resulted in the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the expulsion of Numsa from the Cosatu (Confederation of SA Trade Unions) trade union federation. But it was the Marikana massacre that was the main trigger that set in conscious motion Numsa’s decision to break away from the ANC/SACP alliance. For many, Marikana marked a break from the politics of national liberation.

Prior to this conference, debates had been taking place amongst socialists who argued that a workers party needed to be formed. The main reason Numsa itself called the conference was to see if such an idea would be workable and how it would be received. It became clear from the debates that the overwhelming consensus was for the creation of a workers party. Numsa needed this consensus to present it to its Central Committee, which agreed with the idea. (see here)

Day One

Day one of the Conference began with Numsa President, Andrew Chirwa, outlining the views of Numsa’s leadership on why it had called the conference and what policies Numsa would be arguing for. Chirwa argued that South Africa needs a socialist transformation. Other attempts that are not socialist will end up in failure.

Numsa’s position is that the working class must form its own vanguard party as this is the working class’s only guarantee to a better future. Numsa is open to having discussions around socialism and that it accepts a plurality of socialist ideas and organisations. Part of this project involved re-positioning the United Front. The United Front is for the implementation of the (nationalist) Freedom Charter and is not anti-neo-liberal. It is not a workers’ party or a socialist formation.

The influence of the SACP’s ideology could be seen in Numsa’s version of getting to socialism. They (Numsa) stated that the immediate task is to get the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) back on track with the Freedom Charter as a basic and also a socialist path. [The NDR is part of the two stage theory which basically argues that the nationalist economy of South Africa has to be developed first before workers are in a position to seize power. At the moment workers are neither sufficiently ideologically clear nor sufficiently organised to achieve socialism.] Numsa further argues that the SACP is no longer socialist or communist; that the Freedom Charter is part of the National Democratic Revolution that must be led by the working class and whose logical conclusion will be socialism.

Delegates from other organisation then gave brief inputs as to what their organisations envision and expect from the process of trying to build a workers party. Below are the inputs from organisations:

  • Bolshevik Study Circle – We need to also agree on a programme of action. We need unity in action and not only theory.
  • International Socialist Movement – Stalin aborted socialism in Russia. We need to build a vanguard with theoretical advancement that mobilises the working class. Only an organisation based on Leninism and the Bolshevik approach can smash capitalism. We salute Numsa for this debate and the battle for ideas that are needed. We need to form a working class party with clear socialist ideology and workers must be given the theory. Socialism must come from below, from workers schooled in the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. We can only participate in elections in an upturn in the struggle.
  • Pan Africanist Congress – Without land we can’t talk of freedom. We need to correct the theft of our land.
  • Azania People’s Organisation – The struggle has labels and we forget the struggles on the ground. The struggle to liberate did not happen with 1994. It is the same with Zimbabwe. We want to engage but not get married to the Movement for Socialism.
  • Socialist Party of Azania – We need to build a United Front. The IMF and World Bank have caused misery and poverty for the working class. We must be independent of the state and global institutions.
  • Revolutionary Marxist Group – We have been passing through a pre-revolutionary period for a number of years. Capitalism is rotting. The working class needs the United Front which must emerge and not be launched. People will come into struggle because of poverty and not who calls them. We need campaigns for service delivery. Socialism is not common to everyone.
  • Keep Left – We need to build our strengths again. Xenophobia is racism. We must recognise that it is not afrophobia as Pakistanis are also attacked. We must not be opportunist in our response to xenophobia like the Economic Freedom Fighters. Xenophobia is the legacy of nationalism. Changing the world is complex. Numsa is walking away from Stalinism and that is historic in South Africa. This embryonic movement needs to break the Stalinist legacy. We are far left not ultra-left. Egypt shows the danger of not building the alternative.
  • Socialist Group – We have clashed before and we will continue to clash in the future. We need a movement that allows that. We agree with lots that has been said. That is why we are here. Working class struggle unbanned the SACP, but now the SACP attacks workers struggle. We support the transitional programme but not the two stage theory as we are at stage forty-eight. There is ideological uncertainty in the working class. The working class cannot move forward until it takes the struggle into its own hands. We must have a workers charter. We need to get rid of the Labour Relations Act that ties the hands of workers. Our constitution says that those who stole and continue to steal the wealth can keep it. We must break those laws. If workers everywhere did what the Marikana workers did, there would be revolution. The ANC was never a party of socialism. Many union (leaderships), like the National Union of Mineworkers, stand with the bosses. The ANC tries to use labour to prop up capital. We must not separate the vanguard from the rest of the class. Unless a mass revolutionary working class party arises to take the lead then the struggle of the working class will fold to the fascists and xenophobia. We have a problem with the NDR and the Freedom Charter. The struggle to free the working class and for socialism are linked. We need a workers party with a socialist programme.
  • Workers and Socialist Party – Theoretical debates are not trivial. The ANC was never a party of socialism. Many union leaders stand with the bosses. The ANC uses labour to prop up capital. We must not separate the vanguard from the rest of the working class. Unless a mass workers party arises to take the lead then the struggle of the working class will fold to fascists and xenophobia. We have a problem with the NDR and the Freedom Charter. The struggle to free the working class and society are linked. We need a mass workers party with a socialist programme.

Speakers from the floor were then asked to speak. The points that were touched on include:

  • There are those from Stalinist backgrounds and those from Trotskyist backgrounds. We won’t all find a common ideology. But theory and practise go hand-in-hand. Theory only is useless. Practise only is blind. The final judge is history and the working class. We must go past being sects into a movement of the masses for socialism.
  • There is an urgency regarding this project as there is a desperation for a clear political organisation and expression. In the absence of an alternative then frustration will erupt. We must actively orientate to struggles. What kind of support has the UF given to various struggles? What kind of party will we have if we are not organically linked to the working class struggles?
  • Numsa was kicked out of Cosatu. Numsa set up a UF and is now setting up a workers party. This is enough to break anyone’s back. In future the working class must be the agent of change. It must be central and lead with its organisations.
  • We must not rush this process. Numsa and the other unions must take this process to their members or else we will have a shell. We must bring theory to the workers. This process will take time.

Day 2

On day two, delegates broke up into three separate groups. The purpose was to look at the situation in South Africa and to compare it to situations outside South Africa. One group focused on the character of the South African situation, another focused on the African situation and the last focused on the global situation. The last two did so in relation to South Africa. The debates that were raised are as follows:

There is a bankruptcy of capitalism which is the cause of the problems of the working class. The ANC’s neo-liberal policies are facilitating the crisis of the working class. Xenophobia has to be understood in class terms. It is a direct product of capitalism.

Capitalism is anarchical. They want to impoverish workers and see how far they can go before there is a backlash. Ordinary workers must put themselves in the struggle. Authoritarian examples of Gaddafi, Mugabe, etc. are not good examples for socialism. We must be internationalist and build on an African internationalism. Capitalism is the enemy and this is what must unite us. What opened up South Africa to neo-liberalism? Capitalism gives rise to patriarchy and tribalism.

We need a revolutionary socialist programme to unite the working class. We need pluralism on the basis of democratic centralism. At the end of the day the people will answer and decide on the mass workers party. Fighting your own ruling class at home is the internationalist aspect of struggles. Many national liberation liberation movements painted themselves red. They never went to stage two. The Bolsheviks are the only party that immediately “handed” the land over to the peasants. Socialist organisations must gather socialists and push socialist ideology. People won’t fight over demands that we give them but they will decide on what to fight for.

International socialism can contribute immensely to local struggles through learning from experiences elsewhere. If we don’t learn then we face failure. The mass workers party is not mutually exclusive to the vanguard party. Theory is important. Views must be tested in practise. We need advanced cadres in the party. We must come out with a transitional programme. Ultimately workers must seize power but not from nothing. The transitional programme and the revolutionary programme are formulaic and dogmatic. It has never worked. We need to develop a programme around wages, land, houses, water, etc. We can do accepting the primacy of struggles on the ground. We must draw up this programme urgently.

Neo-liberal finance and monopoly capital have had negative effects: there are increased and aggressive geo-political and military alliances with imperialism; the BRICS block (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have a sub-imperialist role and stand for the advancement of capital interests; climate change will intensify the transmission of ecological crisis.

There is a need for a working class formation by the class and in the class – an organ of the class. Should it be a vanguard party or a workers’ party? What should be the program – internationalism needs to be central and not an added extra. Countries outside South Africa provided assistance to South African comrades.

Are our class forces ready? Is this the correct time? What are the stumbling blocks to build a strong working class organ? The key is social distance. Within left forces we need to recognise that most in the middle class distinguish themselves from the working class. This undermines one’s own socialism. What are the implications of the divide between formal and informal, men and women, rural and urban. Trade Unions are too bureaucratic and need to open up. Dominance of imperialist and capitalist consciousness – ruling class and its consciousness remain dominant in the continent. There have not been clear and radical programmes to advance socialism. Social and working class forces have been substituted by the state and consciousness has been pushed back.

We need to come up with our own institutions to replace the current state. We have to take over political power to implement a socialist project. We need to build a front of worker and socialist formations with a minimum political program that mobilises the working class. This will need a leadership and constitute what may be called a Socialist Revolutionary Council that will co-ordinate left initiatives.

There is no real movement in SA that has a sustained impact especially against capitalism. We must build a movement to have a sustained impact. Transitional demands are the only way to change people’s consciousness. What are these tasks? Programmes by themselves don’t become material things unless we can relate to the ordinary person. We need to have a sense of where the working class is today. Numsa has missed a number of fights within Cosatu. The next period (18 months) needs to be a period of preparation.

The blunder of the SACP was to go Stalinist. The organ of the working class should draw various views of the working class. There is a great fear of the vanguard as it means a particular elite will run the party. You can have a party of professional revolutionaries based in the working class that is accountable and imposes its hegemony. Its agenda and programme must be the overthrow of capitalism. We are not fixated on one position but we are united.

Struggles of youth and women are not marginal. Patriarchy has remained throughout the various struggles in Africa. We have ignored the role of religion. Foreign debt trap has opened up Africa to foreign-imposed programs. African governments have been too responsive to the demands of the international community at the expense of local needs. We need to nationalise in order to socialise the means of production. We need to promote production and trade that provides for the needs of the working class.

After two days of sometimes tense debate, it is clear that the debate as to the precise kind of workers organisation, what it stands for, how it relates to other forces, and the vision of socialism itself, is far from over. These debates will need to be continued.

But socialists must be cautious. Not everyone in the labour movement, organised or not, employed or not, is familiar with the arguments raised here. In order to make sense to the ordinary mass of rank-and-file workers means socialists will need to begin patiently making these arguments with workers.

Ashley Fataar is a leading member of the Democratic Left Front in Cape Town and he writes for websites and newspapers around the world.


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