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From glparramatta@greenleft.org.au Wed May 31 08:58:32 2000
Date: Thu, 18 May 2000 23:29:29 -0500 (CDT)
From: Green Left Parramatta <glparramatta@greenleft.org.au>
Subject: GLW: COSATU's strategy weakens worker's Movement
Article: 96463
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
X-UIDL: 6e9184d923df33da4549d7a7cdd0a076

The following article appeared in the latest issue of Green Left Weekly (http://www.greenleft.org.au), Australia's radical newspaper.

Misdirected strategy weakens workers' movement

By Dale McKinley,
Chairperson of the SACP Johannesburg Central branch,
Green Left Weekly (Australia), May 2000

JOHANNESBURG -- The broad left (both in South Africa and internationally) has taken a cautious approach to critically analysing the program and activities of South Africa's largest and most progressive trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), since 1994. However, the time has come to acknowledge that COSATU is rapidly losing its political direction.

A large portion of the leadership of COSATU (and its affiliates) are well on their way to becoming bona fide members of the "capitalism with a human face" club, and in the process are laying the groundwork for a fragmented and dispirited workers' movement.

This ideological shift lies in the leadership's acceptance of two related assumptions:

(i) that capitalism's new round of global accumulation (through more sophisticated forms of imperial domination) means that the core role and character of unions has changed. It is becoming commonplace to hear COSATU leaders argue that, due to the "hegemony of capitalism" and "new global realities", trade unions must fundamentally alter their strategic vision in order to remain "relevant". In other words: "If you can't beat them, join them"; and

(ii) that the April 1994 democratic breakthrough signalled that the days of unions placing the active political struggle for socialism at the top of the agenda are over, or at the very least, must take deep cover in the bowels of an ongoing "national democratic revolution".


Tied to this are political tactics adopted by the COSATU leadership to win concessions from its "partner" in the tripartite alliance, the governing African National Congress (the tripartite alliance brings together COSATU, the ANC and the SACP -- the South African Communist Party), that consistently water down the demands being made.

Ostensibly, this approach is designed to ensure an acceptable degree of ideological and organisational continuity with the ANC leadership, so as to maintain the "national democratic alliance" that is seen as the only viable political/organisational vehicle that can meet the needs of the workers and poor.

These tactics, while bringing some moderate relief for the majority, are more a means of preserving and advancing the personal careers and political futures of leaders across the alliance spectrum.

While it makes radical-sounding statements on worker-related and political economy issues and conducts limited mass actions designed to extract concessions and remind capital of the power of workers, the COSATU leadership has been unwilling to draw the organisational and class lessons from being in an alliance dominated by a ruling party pursuing a capitalist path.

These tactics have been sold to the workers' movement with the constant argument that "unity" within the alliance must be maintained. This is counter-posed to the dangers that could arise if an independent, socialist workers' movement and political organisation should break this "unity", and thus weaken the "liberation movement".

Again, the reality is far different. The unity that the ANC leadership has fashioned (and which the leadership of COSATU and the SACP have bought into) revolves around a mass of radical-sounding rhetoric about "transformation", "a progressive national democratic revolution", "a developmental state" and the "national interest".

The ANC-led government is using the space created by this rhetoric to further entrench capitalist relations of production and distribution. At the same time, those questioning the substance behind the rhetoric -- or taking action to oppose the ANC government's political direction -- are politically attacked and isolated. The result is that organised workers are left in a state of political and organisational confusion as to where their class interests lie.

The leadership of COSATU places all the blame for the social and economic ills being suffered by workers on the finance and industrial capitalists -- without also admitting that the class agenda being pushed by the ANC government is wholly consistent with, and facilitates, the capitalists' attacks on workers.

COSATU leaders are unwilling to see the South African state for what it is -- an instrument of capitalist class rule administered by the ANC -- and instead have become enmeshed by the ANC's appeals for a "patriotic" multi-class front that will take forward the ill defined tasks of the national democratic alliance.

Focus on process

A good example of the practical effect of this strategic and tactical confusion is the character of COSATU's (and the SACP's) opposition to the ANC's neo-liberal economic policy, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution program (GEAR). Despite all its criticisms of GEAR, COSATU's opposition has been fragmented and selective. It has failed to tackle GEAR on the political terrain that provides its raison d'etre.

COSATU has instead focussed on the "non-inclusive" process that formulated GEAR and has appealed for this or that component of GEAR to be retooled in the hope that a more progressive outcome will result. It is a hopelessly economistic approach that seeks to pick and choose different aspects of an overall macro-economic framework without tackling the class politics that provides the foundation for GEAR.

Arising from this self-induced conundrum, an even more disturbing notion has arisen among COSATU and SACP leaders -- that the present situation demands a "creative management of contradictions". Translated, this means that the political and economic framework formulated and driven by the ANC leadership has to be accepted and that the role of organised workers is to squeeze as much from this "contradictory process" as possible.

This leaves the mass of workers on the political sidelines, waiting to be lined up to resolve this or that particular "contradiction" being "fought out" amongst the various layers of leadership inside and outside government. This seriously weakens the basic class weapon of workers -- the withholding of their labour power -- by converting it from a political weapon to force the ANC government and the capitalists to back down, and to create real space for increased workers' power, democracy and the struggle for socialism, to something to be turned on or off.

COSATU-aligned investment companies have also revealed the serious and unmanageable contradictions that have arisen as a result of COSATU's understanding of the tasks facing the working class. These companies have adopted a position that sees the private accumulation of capital as a genuine means to empower workers through capitalist ownership and influence in the economy. The political contradictions that have subsequently arisen are obvious. Again, COSATU leaders argue that the best that can be done is to "manage" such contradictions.

Another recent example was COSATU's response to the mass firing of 3000 miners employed at Canadian-owned mining company, Placer Dome. COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers made loud noises about the immorality of capitalism and the greed of the bosses. Soon after, the NUM struck a deal with the company to re-employ 200 workers (with a promise of a few hundred more to be rehired over the next year or so) who will have to work continuous or full calendar shifts.

Incredibly, this was hailed as a victory for the working class. NUM general secretary Gwede Mantashe was quoted as saying that "we need to work together to be successful" and that "this agreement demonstrates what can be achieved when a company and a union engage one another in a robust, open and constructive manner (that) holds promise of expanding job opportunities".

Rhetorical demands

COSATU's current nationwide mass action campaign against job losses reveals the serious weaknesses inherent in the strategy of the COSATU leadership. A series of marches and one-day work stoppages -- culminating in a national stoppage on May 10 (see article on page 10) -- have been aimed at cajoling the capitalists and the ANC government into a change of heart but have done little to fundamentally contest the macro-economic framework underlying the attack on jobs.

COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has said, "COSATU demands that business create quality jobs and brings an end to casualisation and outsourcing". Vavi has "urged" the government to honour its commitments in the National Framework Agreement (an agreement that requires negotiations before state assets are "restructured", i.e., readied for privatisation).

The COSATU leadership has been quoted as saying that "unless government and business meet our demands, we will go ahead with the national strike [on May 10]". And yet, there is little indication that rank-and-file workers (or the leadership for that matter) have a clear understanding of the practical means required to achieve COSATU's rhetorical "demands", or of what the COSATU leadership intends to do beyond organising a managed show of workers' power on the streets that can be easily ridden out by the state and capital.

Unless COSATU is willing to lead its members in a politically informed class battle to change fundamental policies and restore its organisational accountability (by ending its subservience to the ANC leadership), its "demands" will remain pleas with no force.

In South Africa, just as in the rest of the capitalist world, the reality of the content (if not the form) of class oppression and ownership has not changed in a substantive way. The underlying political and economic assumptions and the strategy and tactics chosen by the COSATU leadership are a great deal more "unrealistic" than alternative socialist strategies and tactics grounded in an overt political trade unionism, linked to the realities and necessities of the working class struggle.

While aspects of the "objective conditions" under which the South African workers' movement now finds itself have changed, the fundamental political and economic challenges have not. As long as private ownership of the means of production (capitalism) creates the necessity for workers' collective organisation (i.e., to end the exploitative relationship between wage labour and capital), so too will it be necessary for the working class to struggle to take economic and political power. Some of us still call it socialism.

[Dale McKinley is chairperson of the South African Communist Party's Johannesburg Central branch. This article reflects his personal opinion.]

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