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Southern Africa: Towards A Mass Workers’ Party

By Shaun Whittaker

14 February, 2014

Paper presented at a meeting on ‘South Africa today: A turning point in the struggle,’ organised by Socialist Action, Connecticut, 8 February 2014.

The conference of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), held in December 2013, was indisputably a momentous occasion in the struggle in South Africa. It epitomizes an extraordinary separation not only from the African National Congress (ANC), the oldest organisation of conservative ‘black’ nationalism, but also from the South African Communist Party (SACP), one of the last so-called communist parties from the Soviet era. The political pronouncement by the largest trade union in South Africa - that it would depart from the tri-partite alliance - generates political space for more independent political formations to emerge and signifies the intensification of the working class politics that was initiated by the Marikana massacre in August 2012.


The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is in an acute predicament. The Numsa conference document states this quite starkly: ‘The federation is currently in a complete state of paralysis and about to implode if no serious measures are undertaken to save it, unify it, rebuild it and reclaim it from forces who want to destroy or liquidate it’. Hence, if a left-wing project is going to be able to progress, it is obligatory to have a critical interchange about the historical circumstances within which the Numsa conference took place and the political motives of the leadership. In a nutshell, the question should be posed: given the crunch in Cosatu, were the Numsa leaders pushed or did they jump? The suspension of Cosatu Secretary-General, Zwelinzima Vavi, meant that the political faction that he represented was losing the intense internal strife in the trade union federation. So, in the spirit of democratic discourse, it might be pondered if this exposed the Numsa leaders to a skirmish with the conservative Dlamini faction for not towing the political line and if it was likely that they too could have been marginalized or even expelled.

The Marikana uprising led to the abrupt splintering of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the leading union of Cosatu since its inception, which absolutely set the alarm bells off in the entire trade union federation. An estimated 100,000 workers deserted the union. If such a swift rupturing could happen to the NUM, then surely it could be conceivable for any other Cosatu union. The Numsa leadership, of course, fathomed the far-reaching implications of the splitting of the once mighty mineworkers’ union. The Numsa summit text admitted that ‘…we are not immune from the mass desertion by members of a traditional union to a new union.’

Historically, Numsa portrayed itself as the most militant trade union, but was clearly outdone by the radical mineworkers of Marikana and the farmworkers of the Western Cape. The uncompromising stance of the Marikana workers, for instance, led to the notable expansion of a rival union in the mining industry, that is, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) – which, incidentally, is currently engaged in strike action in the platinum sector for a minimum wage of 12,500 rand - the same amount demanded by the Marikana workers in 2012. The radicalising dynamic of the Marikana workers reverberated throughout the trade union movement, but it took Numsa many months to embrace those workers. At the same time, Numsa opted to widen its scope of operations by, for example, focusing on the mining and smelting of base and precious metal, building and construction, glass production, refining of petrol, driving, security, cleaning, etc. Evidently, this was an attempt to place the union on a solid foundation by enlarging its semi-skilled base, but this obviously comes with impediments.

The Numsa congress text asserts that ‘Technological changes, changes in production and restructuring of sectors and the impact of value chains necessitate new organisational strategies’. Elsewhere, on the same theme, the document affirms that ‘This fragmentation of the workforce makes it difficult for outsourced workers to join the union because employers threaten them and tell them that they will terminate their contracts if they join.’

In order to fully comprehend the state of the trade union movement, it is useful to grapple with the contemporary global conditions within which the working class find themselves. Andre Gorz (1989:68) refers to the world-wide situation as ‘...the most serious crisis in the history of the trade union movement’. The global context is that the technological revolution weakened unions enormously. Gorz (1989:68-9) contends that:

If… trade-union organization derives its strength from its roots in the ranks of the skilled workers, the threat exists that it will rapidly degenerate into neo-corporatism… If… trade unionism is particularly strong among semi-skilled workers… then the unions find themselves in the dangerous position of having strong support among a declining category of workers and weak backing from the two categories which are in rapid expansion: the mass of temporary workers, which is expanding but difficult to organize, the unemployed and ‘odd jobbers’…

Trade unions are in a crunch given the technological breakthroughs that allow capitalism to function with 25 percent or less of the working class in secure employment, an average of 50 percent unemployed workers, with the remaining 25 percent or more of the working class finding themselves perilously in casual, contract or part-time employment. This creates countless obstacles for the trade union movement today.


The Numsa conference paper suggests that the Freedom Charter, the political program of the ANC, should be the basis of building a socialist movement. It states that ‘We need to capture the masses through the Freedom Charter and its implementation…’

Yet, to pose the Freedom Charter as the minimum political platform is highly contentious and runs the real risk of being interpreted as sectarian and divisive. This emphasis excludes a significant section of the working class that supports different political streams which would be indispensable to the success of a socialist project, that is, the Azanian tendency, the Unity Movement tendency, the many small left-wing groups in the country, the National Council of Trade Unions, other mass organisations, etc. The Socialist Party of Azania (SOPA), as a case in point, confirmed that it would be willing to participate in a non-sectarian workers’ party, while the New Unity Movement extended revolutionary greetings to the Numsa conference. Likewise, this focus on the Charter assumes that this political programme enjoys support amongst the unorganised working class, that is, those people without a job or a house, who are vital sectors for a socialist project. If the relatively low voter turn-out in South Africa is considered, then it cannot simply be assumed that the working class support the Freedom Charter. And, actually, our view is that a new socialist project ought to involve left-wing groups in the entire sub-region. Hence a sectarian approach would undoubtedly fail to lay solid groundwork for a socialist movement.

The Left have got to encourage a far more critical attitude to the Freedom Charter as that document’s non-racial and non-sexist credentials might be disputed; the content, for instance, promotes national or ethnic groups and engages in sexist language. Furthermore, the Charter is not only completely reticent about the class struggle, but does not address numerous current and decisive topics such as the ecological crisis, gender equality, the right to work and secularism. A socialist document also ought to be upfront about the quashing of private property or at the very least about a form of nationalisation managed by the working class. Instead of the Freedom Charter, what is surely a prerequisite is a new political program that had better be non-sectarian, non-racial, non-sexist and unequivocally socialist in content. And this is supposed to be horizontally debated amongst all participants in a socialist movement as the only way to ensure cohesion in a new project of this magnitude.

It is disingenuous of Numsa to only criticize the National Development Plan (NDP) as a neo-liberal project, while the trade unions were gratified to stay in the Alliance despite the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR), on which the unions were not consulted, or the economic agreements of the 1994 negotiations that included the privatization of the Central Bank and the destruction of countless jobs in the clothing industry. These far-reaching economic pronouncements were all firmly rooted in neo-liberalism. Even when Nelson Mandela, after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, single-handedly resolved to abandon the nationalisation clause in the Freedom Charter, there was a deafening silence in the entire Alliance. Accordingly, in a spirit of constructive exchange, imperative matters ought to be raised: How come the trade union movement could not uphold the key clause in the Charter against the cult of personality? And what would persuade them to engage in a different kind of politics now after so many years?

If anything, the Charterist Movement is in the midst of an existential crisis. Its fundamental concepts - such as the ‘national democratic revolution’, which are wedged in the discredited two-stage paradigm of liberation - have now been fully revealed as being inadequate - as the struggle has always been a perpetual fight-back of the working class. So, in the final analysis, a refashioned or Marxist political vocabulary is a prerequisite for comprehending this juncture and for ideologically preparing or conscientizing layers of political activists for the anti-capitalist struggle.


The summit document propagates a new united front ‘similar to the United Democratic Front (UDF)’. This, nonetheless, is an immense contradiction as the UDF was a popular front and, incidentally, of course, laid the basis for the other popular front, the so-called political alliance, among Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP. If truth be told, the UDF was ultimately not only effortlessly swayed into pursuing the reformist politics of the ANC, but its leadership was instrumental in dispensing the bitter medicine of neo-liberalism to the working class. Former UDF leaders are today in the forefront of the National Development Plan that Numsa is so strongly contesting. It is also worth recalling that the UDF received huge amounts of resources from outside governments and was heavily endorsed by the liberal mass media, but both these factors are unlikely to materialize with a socialist movement.

In actual fact, what transpired with the UDF is consistent with the duplicitous history of popular fronts as borne out by the events of the Spanish Civil War and the Chilean coup d’état. For a socialist or united front to preserve its surge towards a post-capitalist society, all the participating formations should retain their programmatic autonomy. If anything, a socialist project ought to do the contrary of what the UDF leadership did. And, for the historical record, it might be underscored that all the entryist currents inside the ANC have simply been unable to sway its political direction. The so-called ‘French turn’ was certainly futile in South Africa. What is rather necessary today is an independent, non-sectarian and principled (working class) politics that transcend the Charterist Movement.


On the matter of the socialist movement, the conference paper announced: ‘Side by side with the establishment of the new United Front, Numsa will explore the establishment of a Movement for Socialism as the working class needs a political organisation committed in its policies and actions to the establishment of a socialist South Africa.’ This introduces countless issues. Who will spearhead this initiative? What form will this undertaking towards socialism take? What kind of political organisation should be established? What political teachings can we absorb from elsewhere?

In his ground-breaking book, Ecology as politics (1980:144-5), Andre Gorz declared that:

...the transformation of the union into a mass political movement can only take place during a period of general confrontation and sharp crisis, when the union’s methods are made obsolete by the methods of insurgent masses, and extra-union forces take over the initiative and leadership of the struggle… This brings us to the ambiguousness and the limitations of the idea that the union as it is can go beyond unionism. This, as we have seen, can only be true in an at least potentially revolutionary situation. Otherwise, when the union makes itself the champion of this kind of self-transformation while continuing to practice a policy of negotiated settlements, the contradiction between its proclaimed ideology and its practice can mean one of two things: (1) It is trying, by verbal radicalism, to neutralize the influence of radicals on its rank and file; or (2) Conscious of the limited effectiveness of union action and logic, it does not oppose a revolutionary outcome of the struggles, but prepares its militants for this, and opens itself up to something beyond unionism and beyond the capitalist state (emphasis in original).

The Numsa leadership were immersed in social-democratic politics for two decades. The conference document proclaims that ‘Numsa has a proud record of support for the ANC and SACP over the last 20 years that it has been in government and for long before that during the struggle.’ The reservation naturally arises whether or not the Numsa leadership would be able to articulate an uncompromising paradigm now and to transform themselves into socialist leaders. A socialist project certainly had better bestow ample political recognition on the mineworkers of Marikana and the farmworkers of the Western Cape - and involve them in the leadership structures if the project is going to have credibility. In addition, such a far-reaching left-wing project is supposed to find several ways of linking up with the mass of unemployed and homeless. And, also, where would left-wing formations fit into all of this?

Leonard Gentle (2013), of the International Research and Information Group (ILRIG) in Cape Town, points out the predominant theme:

The political break that activists have made with the ANC and its Alliance partners needs a new movement which is beyond what any political party can offer at this stage. Any future political party will have to struggle for hegemony within such a movement. Currently the seeds of this new movement lie in the community-based struggles, the strike committees and the new self-organised workers struggles post Marikana – including the mineworkers and the farmworkers. Preparing for the political debates in 2014 can help to speed up this development of a movement but provided we strengthen and deepen our struggles and not trade them off against short-term electoral politics.

For sure, Numsa is the largest trade union in South Africa and could initially provide a mass base to a socialist movement. Nonetheless, this mass base would neither inevitably transform into an advanced cadre of a mass workers’ party, nor would it ensure that a mass workers’ party becomes a revolutionary socialist party. It ought to be worthwhile to bear in mind that mass workers’ parties like the German SPD and the Brazilian PT were thwarted as far as the struggle for socialism is concerned.

Consequently, the Left might have to contemplate whether it wants to build a social-democratic mass workers’ party that will squander another 20 years or, on the other hand, a revolutionary mass workers’ party that will engage in mass action. It is vital to deliberate on the political disposition of such a mass workers’ party.

Daniel Bensaid (1987:4), in his seminal essay entitled ‘Revolutionary strategy today’, proclaimed that:

Indeed, without the belief that the working class can take power and the determination to work patiently towards that end, backsliding towards building something else is inevitable. In the best of cases, this something else will be a resistance organisation useful for day-to-day problems… If our perspective is not qualitatively different, if we have nothing more or better to propose in this respect, we should aim to build a single organisation with a democratic internal regime allowing the remaining differences to be discussed and overcome in the light of common experience. The decisive criterion is agreement on how to conquer political power… the most fundamental reason is that proletarian revolution represents a radical departure from bourgeois revolution in that the class struggling for emancipation is a class that is dominated in every field (emphasis added).

Any socialist movement had better be mindful of the most imperative historical lessons of the last 100 years, i.e. that the social democratic project leads to the deceiving of the working class and that socialism cannot be constructed through a liberal-democratic parliament or through liberal-democratic elections. This is another way of saying that the political activists of the mass workers’ party ought to concede that direct action is the primary road to socialism. Moreover, that the victory of a mass workers' party will depend on many other issues: its capacity to be non-sectarian, its willingness to include the right to political tendencies and its determination to keep the political leadership accountable. Consequently, it is essential to discuss these crucial questions in some detail.

With regards to keeping the political leadership accountable, as a point of illustration, it might be obligatory to revisit the old deliberations about preventing the leaders from wearing two political hats. In other words, political leadership is supposed to be at the forefront of only one organisation at a time. Nonetheless, although leadership would not be shared, the rank-and-file workers’ party members ought to be encouraged to join any mass organisation (trade unions, civics, youth, and so forth). This would make it probable for grassroots disputes to be constantly canvassed within the workers’ party. Simultaneously, all the mass organisations have got to remain organisationally independent from the workers’ party. A trade union, to illustrate, cannot join a mass workers’ party as an organisation, but their union members might join as individuals. It was clearly a huge blunder on the part of the trade unions to give up the political autonomy of the working class by entering the Alliance, and, for that matter, the so-called social partnership with big business, that merely espoused ruling ideology. Besides, the political lesson is that militant workers have a duty to maintain their radical networks in the unions or in the communities irrespective of which political party is in power – including a socialist party.

It goes without saying that a mass workers’ party had better allow maximum internal democratic debates. Different political tendencies have got to be permitted to distribute their literature or hold meetings in-house in order to canvass positions on any contentious subject such as religion, reproductive rights, etc. This would ensure that a democratic culture prevails inside the mass workers’ party. Indeed, the very foundations of a mass workers’ party ought to be democratic in that the forthcoming socialist conference has got to be, in principle, an open and non-sectarian gathering. The organising committee of such a summit is supposed to consist of representatives from the entire spectrum of left-wing formations in southern Africa. Perhaps the Left could immediately start to form mass workers’ party committees throughout the sub-region. Despite the smaller numbers of left-wing formations, they could provide invaluable political experience, ideological direction and skills to a socialist movement.

And perhaps the Left have got to also present a necessary and critical perspective on the trade union movement itself as their investment companies, for example, contradict the zeitgeist of an anti-capitalist struggle. For, the unions have not made a decisive break from the logic of capitalism and display a particular economistic focus. Would the establishment of co-operatives – instead of investment companies - not have been a better option for the trade unions? The limitations of a trade union highlight the exigency of forming a mass workers’ party. Such a mass workers’ party has got to be able to move beyond the specific interests of the organised working class in order to raise concerns of the entire social class. Although the trade unions represent the most organised section of the working class, the success of a socialist movement or a mass workers’ party would depend on drawing in the unorganised workers and the unemployed. This is another way of saying that the organised working class had better enter in particular into an alliance with the community organisations – especially those from the informal settlements. That alliance has got to be the real foundation of the mass workers’ party. The unemployed, the homeless - and certainly many mineworkers and farmworkers - reside in large numbers in the informal settlements and their interests are supposed to be powerfully represented in a mass workers’ party. The ongoing protests against neo-liberalism in the informal settlements and townships revolve first and foremost around the disastrous privatization of water. Hence, in the context of mobilizing the working class, a mass workers’ party could campaign for 50 litres of water and 1 kilowatt hour of electricity to be provided free per person on a daily basis or for an Unconditional Basic Income that would make a decent life for all possible. Such a broad working class focus also raises the matter of whether or not the community organisations or committees ought not to be of far greater import than the social movements or non-governmental organisations in terms of socialist politics. (See, for example: Bensaid, 2009).

Regarding other left-wing experiments, the Numsa document agrees to ‘look at countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Greece. We will examine their programmes with the aim of identifying elements of what may constitute a revolutionary programme for the working class.’ There are definitely many valuable historical lessons to be gained from these countries. While Brazil confirms the futility of a social-democratic workers’ party, for example, Venezuela and Bolivia demonstrate the pitfalls of endeavouring to erect socialism from above. In Greece, the political programme of Syriza, that embraces the expansion of the public sector and the socialization of the banks, could only be commended. The real difficulty, however, as Bensaid prompted the left-wing, is the standpoint of a mass workers’ party on how to attain political power. Syriza would be unable to accomplish such political goals through the parliamentary path – whether in Greece or the European Union, but only through mass action throughout Europe – particularly in the leading economies of that continent. There will not be a socialist Greece without a socialist Germany or a socialist France. In other words, Syriza would only be capable of reaching those political aims if a revolutionary Mass Workers’ Party of Europe existed. And this brings us back to the significance of establishing a mass workers’ party throughout southern Africa. A socialist Namibia or socialist Zimbabwe will not emerge without a socialist South Africa/Azania. A movement towards socialism has got to go beyond national boundaries to include, as a point of departure, the rest of a sub-region. This would instantly bring together all the small left-wing elements in a region to craft a solid core that could steer a socialist agenda. The pivotal political missive of socialists should be: socialism cannot be constructed in one country only! The Left are duty-bound to give organisational expression to this vital notion.


The Numsa text refers to the ‘crisis of deindustrialisation and unemployment’. It states that ‘It is not in the interests of mining and finance capital to invest in manufacturing industry… That is why South Africa has such high levels of unemployment.’ Thus, how might the socialist movement address this crisis? In responding to the Numsa conference, Jane Duncan (2014) of Rhodes University fittingly pointed out:

Needless to say, socialism has conceptual weaknesses. The classical Marxist definition fails to take account of the new twin realities of structural unemployment and reduced workforces: realities that make over-reliance on the factory as the epicentre of organising inappropriate. These weaknesses are not insurmountable, but they do require ideological rethinking and renewal.

This picture, without a doubt, is even further convoluted by the ecological disaster. This catastrophe has grim repercussions, in the near future, for the low-laying areas of the globe like the Maldives, Bangladesh, the Nile River Delta and the Namibian city of Walvisbay. Therefore, in the context of the all-too-real imploding of the beautiful blue planet, a pressing need exists for the production of only that which is absolutely necessary – in order to safeguard a considerable decrease in industrialization – with the latter admittedly mainly taking place in the Global North. Any left-wing movement anywhere in the world, nevertheless, is supposed to take the moral high ground and popularize a radical stance on all the decisive political issues of the day. So, against that background, the solution to unemployment all over the globe is not an expansion in jobs, but rather the sharing of existing jobs. Job sharing - for instance - would necessitate a work week of 20 hours or less – without a reduction in decent income for anyone. It is worth reminding the Left that the principal dispute with regards to jobs is not industrialization – as the technological revolution already makes it feasible to produce what is necessary for all - but that the fundamental question remains the redistribution of resources. Hence, job sharing ought to make the right to work a prospect for every person and this is what the Left have got to persuade a mass workers’ party of southern Africa to take up as a campaign. After all, this is the magnificent vision of Andre Gorz, which not only surpasses the ‘conceptual weaknesses’ of classical Marxism, but could also contribute meaningfully to restoring the credibility of the socialist project in the aftermath of the Stalinist disaster.

Gorz (2012) insists in his writing on ‘Redefining socialism’ that so-called ‘real socialism’ was founded on the imperatives of the industrial apparatus, which was a major casual factor of the primitive form of socialism that existed in the Soviet Union. Yet, an advanced project of socialism is conceivable if the Left could acknowledge ‘ecology as politics’ and could cultivate democracy from below. The alternative to socialism is what Gorz denotes as the South Africanization of society, namely, the excessive segregation of rich and poor that leads to social degeneration and barbarism.

The author was a member of the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action (South Africa) and is now with the Marxist Study Group (Namibia). The MSG can be contacted at socialistnamibia@gmail.com or on Facebook at ‘Jan Brand’ or ‘Marxist Study Group’.


Bensaid, Daniel. 1987. Revolutionary Strategy Today. Amsterdam: International Institute for Research and Education.

Bensaid, Daniel. 2009. Strategies of Resistance – Who are the Trotskyists? Amsterdam: International Institute for Research and Education. Referring to the social movements, Bensaid was of the opinion that ‘the most politically aware among them must make the leap from ideological condemnation of neo-liberalism to political anti-capitalism. Failing this, they are doomed to embrace the illusory realpolitik of participation in neoliberal governments such as the ones led by Lula in Brazil…’ (p. 99).

Duncan, Jane. 2014. The enduring appeal of socialist ideas. South African Civil Society Information Service, 13 January.

Gentle, Leonard. 2013. Lessons of 2013. Workers World News, Issue 80, December.

Gorz, Andre. 1980. Ecology as Politics. Pluto Press.

Gorz, Andre. 1989. Critique of Economic Reason. Verso.

Gorz, Andre. 2012. Redefining Socialism. In: Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology. Verso.



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