Sunday, 29 November 2015
Author: Felix Kwabena Donkor
Marching With the Planet One Step At A Time – Johannesburg Climate Justice March
Demonstrations have been a common feature at international climate meetings since at least 1990. However, “sympathy” or solidarity marches in places far removed from the climate talks – have equally become popular over the years. This weekend, thousands of people in cities across the globe took to the streets to protest against governments' inaction on climate change, hoping the Paris climate summit that follows immediately after will be a turning point.
Similarly people took the streets with different motivations. Some sentiments expressed by some people in the march include:
Vishwas Satgar an activist and lecturer in international relations at the University of the Witwaterstrand: There is the need for a global solidarity against a corporate controlled climate negotiations. Human solidarity against failing governments which are not putting forward climate justice solutions. This is an avenue for grassroots solutions such as food sovereignty, socially owned renewable energy, climate jobs, solidarity economy, universal income grant, public transport all to achieve a just transition where the poor landless workers do not pay the price for us suffering the climate crisis.
Penny-Jane Cooke, climate and energy coordinator for Greenpeace Africa: Greenpeace Africa wants South Africa to take action. Make commitments to achieving 100% renewable energy, divest from coal and the fossil fuels. We want to hold government accountable to do what they say they will do internationally.
Jane and Thomas of the Wits Food Sovereignty Campaign and Climate Justice echoed the sentiments of other groups: It is important to raise awareness and mobilise effort. So we came to show solidarity and support and in doing so create awareness and support for climate change as we need climate justice so by being here. We promote this in our own small way. Annika whose placard (I have been a good girl, I don’t want coal for Christmas!) caught the attention of many protesters was there with Chris, Felix, Vish, Attish, Rowan and some other friend of the Inala Forum.
A lone protester said he came because: I am concerned about what humans are doing to the planet; it is time to look after the planet.
Kido from Sasolburg: People are affected in Saslburg like other communities with TB, Asthma and other terrible diseases due to the degradation of their environment.
A representative of Mine Affected Communities (MACUA): Mines for coal supply big stations which emit harmful smoke into the atmosphere and affects the poor people the most. They are not employed by the mines, they are relocated, they are sick, their land is degraded and they cannot farm the land. This is further complicated by the complicity of government with mining firms.
A vegan advocate: People need to be educated that climate change is real, and human caused.The number one problem is animal agriculture 51%. So we can change what we eat and do something.
Moeketsi of the Vaal Environmental Group: The problem of climate change is a problem of all of us. We have to come together and show decision makers their decisions are affecting all of us.
A representative of 350 Africa.org : COP 21 meeting tomorrow in Paris France. As an international organisation we came to demonstrate in solidarity with others concerned about climate justice an on behalf of those who cannot demonstrate in Paris due to current circumstances. Our main concern is divestment. # Fossil fuel must fall!
Sammy Morgan of the Africa Climate Reality Project and Food and Tents: We believe climate change poses an existential threat to all humanity. Climate change affects the poor and here in Africa we came to voice our message to COP 21 to conclude an agreement that deals effectively to society and act.
The Johannesburg march was organised by Earthlife Africa Jhb in collaboration with a number of grassroots and international organisations such as Avaaz, Greenpeace, 350.org. Ultimately, this march is led by and overwhelmingly constituted by community activists Sisonke Women's Club, Inner City Resource Centre, Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee, Youth Agricultural Ambassadors, DIVINE GREEN Co-op, Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, Go Green Tembisa Environmental Forum, MASAKHANE Civic Association, Riverside Community, Displaced Rates Payers Association, Kwa-Thema Working Group, Treatment Action Campaign, Poritjie, Thabeng Tsa Mogale, Evaton West Faith Based Organisation, Sphamandla Community Based Organisation).
The colourful march which was interspersed with drumming and dancing ended on the precincts of Eskom which is blamed for using low grade coal in its stations across south Africa hence a ‘climate criminal’ denying people of their right to breathe and live healthy. People then listened to solidarity messages from the participating civil society groups showing diversity of support for the issue.
It was the firm prayer of protesters that as they trumpet their concerns on the streets, it will simultaneous echo with other marches across the globe to heard in the corridors of power and come to play at the Paris COP 21 Climate negotiations.
Inala members then continued to the neighbourhood food market to interact with some food vendors and proceeded to the Wits Food Garden where they weeded, watered and tilled the garden. They then had some chilled time with nature as they treated themselves with salad, wine, braai, bread and some other awesome stuff. Finally the day ended with some soccer.
The mood could best be desrbed in the words of Oliver Twist of Charles Dickens Fame, “..we want more!”
Saturday, 28 November 2015
Drive Time Radio Interview with Dr. Vishwas Satgar, co-editor of COSATU in Crisis.
Podcast of the interview - http://iono.fm/e/230841
Tuesday, 24 November 2015
An ecological transformation is required as part of a ‘new liberation struggle’ in South Africa. This involves a ‘just transition’ from the present fossil fuel regime that is moving us towards ecological collapse and catastrophe. The article suggests that the impetus to this ecological transformation is coming strongly from two aspects of the ecological crisis: the acceleration of climate change and the spread of toxic pollution of water, air, land and food that is experienced as ‘environmental racism’. The implication is that what Von Holdt and Webster (2005) have conceptualised as a triple transition to democracy (economic liberalisation, political democracy and post-colonial transformation) requires a fourth dimension: an ecological transition to a society marked by a very different relation with nature, a relation combining social justice with ecological sustainability.
This comprehensive and transformative change could contain the embryo of a post-capitalist, eco-socialist society. Such a vision is finding concrete expression in alternative social forms, new alliances and forms of power which are promoting counter narratives of solidarity through environmental justice, energy democracy, transformative feminism and food sovereignty. These could involve features such as the collective, democratic control of production for social needs, rather than profit; the mass roll out of socially owned renewable energy, suggesting decentralized energy sources with much greater potential for community control; the localisation of food production in the shift from carbon-intensive industrial agriculture to food sovereignty; new relations between men and women and the sharing of resources in more collective social forms. Support for such alternatives is related to the increasing recognition that the fundamental cause of the deepening ecological crisis, which is having devastating impacts on the working class, is the expansionist logic of capitalism. Quite simply, there is a growing sense that the deepening climate crisis arises precisely from the imposition just such a perverse “logic,” one that is producing ” a crisis arising from and perpetuated by the rule of capital, and hence incapable of resolution within the capitalist framework’ (Wallis, 2010:32) . Moreover, such recognition is promoting new coalitions and forms of co- operation between both labour and environmental activists - this new solidarity, in turn, bearing the promise of a new kind of socialism that is, at once, ethical, ecological and democratic.
The ecological crisis
South Africa is a microcosm of how the ecological crisis is deepening globally. Despite 21 years of international negotiations there is no binding global agreement on the reduction of carbon emissions. On the contrary, carbon emissions are rising (61% since 1990) which means climate change is intensifying and having a range of serious impacts – particularly in Africa - in the form of rising food prices, water shortages, crop failures, and dislocation by ever more extreme weather events. This is largely because the political systems of the most powerful countries are dominated by the interests of fossil fuel corporations and committed to the pursuit of economic growth at all costs (Klein, 2014). Capital’s response to the climate crisis is that the system can continue to expand by creating a new ‘sustainable’ or ‘green capitalism’, bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and its reproduction. The two pillars on which green capitalism rests are technological innovation and expanding markets while keeping the existing institutions of capitalism intact. Underlying all these strategies is the broad process of commodification: the transformation of nature and all social relations into economic relations, subordinated to the logic of the market and to the imperatives of profit (Cock, 2014; Satgar, 2014 ). This pattern is replicated in contemporary South Africa, a country that is ostensibly committed to a ‘green economy.’ Yet it is one of the most energy and carbon intensive countries in the world, relying on coal as the primary energy source and with a policy of supplying cheap energy to industry. The privatised oil company Sasol’s plant at Secunda is converting coal and gas into liquid petroleum and in the process creating the single greatest point-source site of CO2 emissions on the planet (Bond, 2015:6). Overall South Africa’s commitments to reducing carbon emissions are vague and insubstantial. At present over 500 tonnes of carbon a year are emitted, two new coal-fired power stations (among the largest in the world) are being built and forty new coal mines are planned, most of them in Mpumalanga and sited on some of the most fertile land in the country. Communities living close to the operative coal-fired power stations and open-pit mines (both working and abandoned) are dealing with mass removals and dispossession, loss of livelihoods, threats to food security, health problems associated with water and air pollution, corruption in the awarding of mining licences, and inadequate consultation.
In addition to coal mining, the externalisation of the costs of industrial production in the form of pollution of the air and groundwater in many communities means that a large number of South Africans are exposed to what Nixon (2011) has called ‘the slow violence’ of toxic pollution from a process that is insidious and largely invisible. Moreover, it is mostly Black South Africans who continue to live on the most damaged land and in the most polluted neighbourhoods (often adjoining working or abandoned mines, coal fired power stations, steel mills, incinerators and waste sites or polluting industries, and without adequate services of refuse removal, water, electricity and sanitation). In the province of Gauteng alone, for example, there are some 1.6 million African people living on mine dumps that are contaminated with uranium and toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, aluminium, manganese and mercury. Such a pattern manifests an expression, quite clearly, of ‘environmental racism.’ At the same time it is estimated that 83% of rivers are damaged from sewage pollution, deforestation is increasing and the threats to biodiversity include the loss of 5,000 rhinos from poaching since 2008.
This pattern of ecological damage is likely to increase with ‘Operation Phakisa (meaning ‘speed up’) which involves R60 billion worth of deep sea oil and gas exploration. Government recently granted prospecting licenses for marine phosphate mining which involves extensive dredging of the seabed. Yet the fact is that “if South Africa permits seabed mining, we will become the only country in the world to allow such a destructive practice” (Roux, 2015:7)! Simply put, we are moving in this and other ways towards ecological catastrophe because government remains wedded to the dominant interests of the mineral- energy complex. More positively, however, this is also the precise context in which new, potentially transformative social formations are emerging in contemporary South Africa.
Confronting the ecological crisis: new alliances, forms of power and organisations
The ecological crisis – as is also the case with the social crises of deepening poverty and unemployment, upheavals within the labour movement, new political groupings and growing grassroots dissatisfaction with the conventional political structures - is driving new initiatives. What is distinctive about these latter initiatives, however, is that they focus on building popular power, on developing new forms of solidarity including formal and informal alliances and coalitions and a regional focus, by using their great symbolic power and a strong normative charge in order specifically to dramatise both the causes and the consequences of the present very severe ecological crisis. Organised around concrete issues in the everyday experience of working people, especially rising food and energy prices, they are producing a ‘politics of everyday life [as] the crucible where revolutionary energies might well develop.’ (Harvey, 2014) For there is a growing emphasis on moving beyond denunciation to formulate alternative narratives of food sovereignty, energy democracy, transformative feminism and environmental justice, all of which could be building blocks for an eco-socialist order. For example, several organisations are not only mobilising opposition to fracking but also are “exploring alternatives which will foster energy sovereignty and transformative development while protecting the natural resources and people of the Karoo” (campaign statement by Black Thursday Southern Cape Land 13.7.2015). Meanwhile, other organisations are promoting concrete post-carbon alternatives such as the Earthlife’s Sustainable Energy and Livelihoods Project and combining water harvesting, food sovereignty and clean energy, through installing, maintaining and training women on the use of biogas digesters and PVC solar power units.
Note, too, that some of these new alliances or coalitions are between formerly antagonistic groupings, such as those concerned with conservation of threatened plants, animals and wilderness areas on the one hand and those concerned with social and human needs on the other. An example is the struggle against the proposed open cast Fuleni Coal mine slated to stretch over 3550 hectares close to Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, one of Africa’s oldest game reserves and central to rhino conservation. There local women have mobilised with the support of conservation organizations, forming the iMfolozi Community and Wilderness Alliance. (There are also powerful counter-forces involved in this struggle of course, with interests in the coal mine including “Glencore and BHB Billiton, the world’s largest commodity trader and mining house respectively” [Bond, 2015:9]). Another example of disparate groupings uniting is the Save Mapungubwe Coalition which was formed to safeguard the Mapungubwe National Park, a World Heritage Site, from an Australian–based mining company, Coal of Africa. The diverse coalition included environmental NGOs such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) as well as local people. Thus the new alliances are beginning to close the historic gap that had tended in the past to split the movement for effective environment-related initiatives along a fault line between two (sometimes antagonistic) streams: those organised around the discourse of conservation and those organised around the discourse of environmental justice; fortunately this divide is no longer as evident as it once was.
Many of these new social formations are against different forms of extractivism. For example the women struggling against threatened removals linked to the establishment of the Fulani coal mine are being assisted by WoMin (Women in Mining) which is a new regional alliance of organisations which emphasizes solidarity among women. Recently it convened a gathering of activists from some 24 different organisations in the region and called for building ‘popular alliances against Big Coal” and a new form of development “that recognises and supports the work of care and reproduction”. (WoMin Declaration 24.1.2015). A women’s wing of the new organisation Mining Affected Communities in Action (MACUA) has also been established. Such organisations are responding to the way in which black, working class women have become the ‘shock absorbers’ of the climate crisis, experiencing most intensely the devastating impacts of rising food prices, water pollution and energy poverty. And they are attempting to build ‘counter power’ that could develop into of a new form of transformative feminism.
Conservation and community
Other coalitions that link conservation and community groups are focusing on strategic litigation in ways that are also empowering. For example a coalition of eight civil society and community organisations represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER,) have instituted legal action against the Minister of Mineral Resources following his granting of a coal mining right to Atha-Africa Ventures inside the sensitive Mabola Protected Environment. CER and the older organisations such as the Legal Resources Centre and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies are thus building the capacity of communities in their demanding of their rights (and the enforcing of mining companies’ obligations) in terms of the Constitution, NEMA, the National Water Act, new mining requirements, and other applicable laws” - as well as other “avenues of recourse for violations of environmental rights” (CALS, 2014:30).
Furthermore, new alliances between labour and environmental activists are emerging. Many trade unionists emphasize the links between the climate crisis and neo-liberal capitalism, for example, something that found organisational expression in two COSATU committees established in 2010 and comprised of representatives from all affiliates and from key environmental organisations. These structures have survived the turmoil in COSATU and succeeded in promoting shared research into coal mining, chemicals and poultry farming between NUM, CEPPWAWU and FAWU. Indeed, following discussions at a workshop in Durban in July 2011 on climate change, the Central Executive Committee of COSATU at a meeting on 22 – 24 August 2011 attended by national office bearers, representatives of the 20 affiliated unions and 9 provincial structures, adopted a Climate Change Policy Framework which stated its commitment to a ‘just transition’ and stressed that capitalist accumulation has been the underlying cause of excessive greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore of global warming and climate change (COSATU, 2012). Two broad approaches to such a notion as ‘a just transition’ exist. There is a minimalist position, one that emphasizes shallow, reformist change laced with talk of green jobs, social protection, retraining and consultation. The emphasis here is defensive and shows a preoccupation with protecting the interests of vulnerable workers. An alternative notion views the climate crisis as a catalyzing force for massive transformative change towards socialism. Now expelled from COSATU, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) supports this latter vision by arguing for a socially owned renewable energy sector and other forms of community energy enterprises where the full rights for workers are also respected. This social ownership approach means energy being claimed as a public or common good that can take a mix of different forms such as public utilities, cooperatives or municipally-owned entities!
Currently NUMSA is strongly promoting the notion of energy democracy as being, precisely, a building block towards socialism. ‘An energy transition can only occur if there is a decisive shift in power towards workers, communities and the public – energy democracy. A transfer of resources, capital and infrastructure from private hands to a democratically controlled public sector will need to occur in order to ensure that a truly sustainable energy system is developed…Energy democracy offers perhaps the only feasible route to a new energy system that can protect workers’ rights and generate decent and stable jobs, make just transition real and be responsive to the needs of communities.’ (Sweeney, 2012:3). An understanding of a ‘just transition’ simply limited to the goal of ‘a low carbon economy’ could contain the embryo of a very different order, of course. But it could also mean the expansion of the present privatized renewable energy programme in which electricity becomes totally unaffordable for the mass of South Africans. As a NUMSA official pointed out, “Renewable energy at the service of capital accumulation could result in even harsher patterns of displacement and appropriation of land than those brought about by other forms of energy” (Abramsky, 2012:349). In the South African context a more expansive and progressive notion is spreading, however, one that is understood to involve resisting the agenda of the fossil fuels corporations and reclaiming the energy sector as part of ‘the commons’, of public resources that are outside the market, and of real democrat control. In this new context different experimental forms of social ownership of energy are beginning to emerge all over the country. Another example of unions and environmental organisations collaborating is the Climate Jobs Campaign which has collected 100,000 signatures in support of creating jobs to address both poverty and climate change. Based on meticulous research, it has demonstrated that by challenging capitalist ownership in favour of community owned projects a target goal of three million such jobs is a possible one.
In fact, the hybridized and travelling discourse of environmental justice originated in the US in opposition to practices termed there to represent ‘environmental racism.’ It has been further radicalised in South Africa through a rather messy, haphazard process of translation that has linked the core principles of social justice, equity, heath, human rights, democratic participation, accountability and ecological sustainability. Environmental justice struggles thus involve a range of mobilising issues although the most common demands and claims relate to ‘rights’ and health - a demand related to the constitutional framing of the human right in the post-apartheid constitution proclaiming the right of all ‘to live in an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing’ (Section 24 of the Bill of Rights). Of course, much popular mobilisation is related to access to services such as water and energy and are localised, episodic, discontinuous and are not initially clearly framed as ‘environmental ‘struggles. Nonetheless, the effort to so address them could provide an ideological basis for further unified collective action. The possibility of a unified environmental movement
At present there “is no clearly identifiable, relatively unified and broadly popular environmental movement in the country”. (Death, 2014:1216). However this might be changing and here, as elsewhere, a unified environmental movement could, “in alliance with others, pose a serious threat to the reproduction of capital”. (Harvey, 2014:252). Clearly coal, as the main driver of the ecological crisis in the form of climate change, constitutes a particularly powerful ground for unified action. Formal alliances in opposition to coal began in 2013 in a partnership between groundWork, Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights to challenge Eskom and these are growing. The issues of land dispossession, health impacts through water and air pollution, loss of livelihoods, corruption in the granting of mining licenses, and inadequate consultation with frontline communities are some of the grounds for unity. The expansion of coal mining on some of the most fertile land in the country also raises the issue of increasing food insecurity.
Thus, while coal is a cause, food insecurity is acknowledged to be one of the most serious consequences of climate change. Popular mobilisation against the present food regime in South Africa is expanding. It is increasingly acknowledged that the co-existence of hunger (53% of the population officially classified as experiencing hunger either regularly or intermittently) alongside food waste (a third of all food produced!) and ecologically unstable land use (because of the continuing dependence on fossil fuels) is profoundly unjust. One of the growing initiatives resisting this current food regime is the Food Sovereignity Campaign, dedicated to mobilising grassroot communities, and engaging in activist schools and study groups, in establishing food gardens and in developing innovative strategies such as bringing together grassroots experiences and ‘expert’ evidence, as in the case of the 2015 People’s Tribunal on Hunger, Food Prices and Landlessness. Indeed, in the South African context food sovereignty is “an anti- capitalist emancipatory practice” (Satgar, 2011:1). The foundational concept of food sovereignty includes agro- ecology and ‘the putting of the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.’ (Angus, 2009:53). It involves a comprehensive attack on corporate industrialised agriculture and its social and ecological consequences since the attempt to regain social control, power and democracy in the food system is a direct challenge to capitalist relations. It could also involve a challenge to patriarchal relations by the black working class women who, as we have seen, have heretofore been consigned to the status of ‘shock absorbers’ of the food crisis.
Indeed, there is congruence between the struggle for ‘food sovereignty’ on the one hand and the logic of eco-feminism on the other: both emphasize working with rather than against nature. Furthermore the necessary challenge to corporate power also links easily to a socialist-feminism which recognises that to free women means deep, transformative change. And embryonic forms of a transformative feminism incorporating these elements and giving them representation are indeed emerging. This implies the role of women acting in solidarity for collective empowerment rather than for individual advancement as part of a challenge to both corporate and patriarchal power…while also serving “as part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms” (Hooks, 2015:22).
Collectively, then all these initiatives that confront the ecological crisis are demonstrating an alternative paradigm, a different relationship both between human beings and also between human beings and nature: what Hilary Wainwright (2014) terms “power as transformative capacity.” In fact, the ecological transformation that is essential in South Africa involves linking the principles of justice and sustainability and implies that the socialist emphases on class solidarity and collective ownership with democratic control must be connected to two other imperatives: gender justice and the creation of a new narrative of the relation between nature and society. The conceptual building blocks of eco-socialism: food sovereignty, energy democracy, transformational feminism and environmental justice are gaining momentum. New social forms emerging around these ideas embody fragments of the necessary vision of an alternative post-capitalist future.
Jacklyn Cock is an Honorary Research Professor in the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) and Professor Emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and a long standing environmental activist. Her best known publications are, Maids and Madams: a Study in the politics of exploitation (1980) and The War Against Ourselves. Nature, Justice and Power (2007).
Abrahamsky, K. (2012), ‘Energy and social reproduction,’ The Commoner, issue no 15, pp. 337 et passim .
Bond, P. (2015), ‘Climate, water and the potential for South Africa’s ecological restoration,’ unpublished paper.
Centre for Applied Legal Studies-CALS (2014), ‘Changing corporate behaviour: the Mapungubwe case study.
Cock, J. (2014), ‘The green economy: a just and sustainable development path or a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”?,’ Global Labour Journal vol. 5.1.
Death, C. (2014), ‘Environmental Movements, Climate Change, and Consumption in South Africa,’ Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol. 40 no 6, pp1215 – 1234.
Harvey, D. (2014), Seventeen Contradictions and the end of capitalism (New York: Oxford).
Hooks, B. (2015), Talking Back. Thinking feminist, thinking black. (New York: Routledge).
Klein, N. (2014), This Changes Everything (New York: Simon and Shuster.
Kovel, J. (2001), The Enemy of Nature. The end of capitalism or the end of the world. London: Zed Books.
Nixon, R. (2012), Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).
Panitch L. and Leys, C. (2006), Coming to Terms with Nature , Socialist Register (Toronto: Palgrave.)
Roux, S. (2015), ‘Now they’re coming for the seabed,’ Mail and Guardian 31.8.p.7
Satgar, V. (2011, Editorial in Solidarity Economy Newsletter no 12
Satgar, V. 2014, ‘South Africa’s Emergent Green Developmental State?” pp 126 -153 in Williams, M. (ed), The End of the Developmental State (Pietermaritzburg: UKZN Press).
Sweeney, S. (2011), Resist, Reclaim, Restructure: Unions and the Struggle for Energy Democracy (New York: Cornell University).
Wainwright, H. (2014), State of Power (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute).
Wallis, V. (2010), ‘Beyond green capitalism,’ Monthly Review 8, pp 32 – 47.
Webster, E. and Von Holdt, K. (eds.) (2005), Beyond the apartheid workplace (Scottsville: UKZN Press).
|The Numsa moment: Fresh trade union openings.|
The Marikana massacre of 16th August 2012 triggered a wave of strikes across South Africa, culminating in an unprecedented uprising in the rural areas of the Western Cape. It also began a process of political realignment. The dramatic entry of the Economic Freedom Front (EEF) into parliament was to become the most spectacular. But could the historic decision of NUMSA in December 2013 to withdraw its logistical support for the ANC and its mandate to the union’s leadership to form a United Front and Movement for Socialism, be of more long term significance? It certainly was the popular view on the left at the time. (Satgar, 2014) The “Numsa moment”, one support group boldly proclaimed, “constitutes the beginning of the end for the ANC and its ambivalence towards neo-liberalism.” (Democracy from Below, December 2013)
The expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu in November 2014, followed by the expulsion of Zwelinzima Vavi in March 2015, the long-standing general-secretary, did not initially slow down enthusiasm for the Numsa moment. But the outcome of the Cosatu Special Congress in July, where Cosatu President Sidumo Dlamini seemed to win support from the carefully chosen delegates, has led to a more reflective mood. The launch of a rival pro-ANC metal union, the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa, Limusa, further complicates the narrative. The postponement of the national launch of the United Front and on-going differences in strategy, is leading to a more sober assessment of the Numsa moment.
On Turning Points
Is Marikana and the “Numsa moment” a turning point, the beginning of the ‘next liberation struggle’ or does it mark the disintegration of a once powerful labour movement? We begin our answer to this question by revisiting South Africa’s turbulent labour history and the contested nature of Numsa’s politics.
|"Is Marikana and the “Numsa moment” a turning point, the beginning of the ‘next liberation struggle’ or does it mark the disintegration of a once powerful labour movement? "|
In the history of South Africa, mass strikes, “trials of strength”, have crucially impacted on the relationship between political parties and social classes, leading to a realignment of politics. Three strikes can be identified as turning points. Firstly, the 1922 white mine workers strike went on for three months and brought South Africa to the brink of civil war. The outcome of the strike was a class alliance between the emerging Afrikaner nationalist movement and white labour that was to lay the foundations for modern South Africa’s apartheid labour regime.
Thirdly, the mass strikes of black workers in Durban in 1973 marked another turning point. It took place during the high point of apartheid, at a time when it was widely believed that strike action was not possible in South Africa. The strikes were to lay the foundations for the modern labour movement, as trade unions were established in all the major metropolitan areas of South Africa.
If the 1973 strikes led to the reconfiguration of the industrial relations system and the emergence of an independent workers movement for the first time in South Africa, it was the massacre of 34 striking mine workers on 16 August 2012 at Marikana that was to call into question the sustainability of the new post-apartheid labour and political order.
A Working Class Politics?
In the eighties a powerful shop steward movement had emerged amongst South Africa’s metal workers rooted in the idea of worker control. (Webster, 1985:231-260) They had begun, in 1981/2, to go beyond the factory floor to wider issues related to the reproduction of the workforce. These actions ranged from resistance to the demolition of shacks in Katlehong to demands for worker control over pension funds. This was to culminate in the November 1984 mass stay-away in Gauteng led by unions, students and township residents. Unions were reaching out to those sectors outside the formal proletariat and developing forms of social movement unionism. Importantly, they were turning to political answers for their members’ problems and were searching for national level political responses. But this did not entail subordination of labour organisations to the nationalist movement. “The contradictions generated by capitalist development,“ I concluded, “had given birth to a working class politics. The central issue now confronting the organised working class is the form and content of this politics” (Ibid, 280)
|" The contradictions generated by capitalist development, had given birth to a working class politics. The central issue now confronting the organised working class is the form and content of this politics."|
But this was not to be. The debate on working-class politics was overtaken in the mid-1980s by the national liberation struggle and the transition to democracy led by the African National Congress (ANC). Indeed in 1984 the South African Communist Party (SACP) shifted its hostile position towards the democratic labour movement and decided to recruit trade unionists. (Forrest, 2011:459)
In December 1985 Cosatu was launched as a ‘historic compromise’ between the two dominant political traditions, the national democratic tradition, mobilizing around the Freedom Charter, and the workerist tradition of Fosatu with its emphasis on building strong shop floor structures. This merging of the two political traditions led to a furious debate inside Cosatu. Those opposed to alliance politics charged that this new political direction was “misdirected,” and that this “rush” to espouse “alliance politics” will result in a situation where years of painstaking organisational work will be swept aside and workers will again be without democratic unions. (Lambert and Webster, 1988:33)
Alliance politics, and the victory of the ANC led Alliance in South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994, was to shift the focus of COSATU from workplace issues to a growing concentration on economic and industrial policy. Numsa leadership embraced what some have called strategic unionism, an engagement in tripartite structures such as Nedlac, a peak-level social dialogue forum, and the concept of “progressive competitiveness.” This involved labour adapting to global competition by developing new skills and a more strategic engagement with capital and the state. But, as Karl von Holdt demonstrated in his ethnographic study of Highveld Steel, “replacing ‘the culture of resistance’ with a ‘culture of productivity’ created an ‘organisational crisis’ in Numsa.” (Von Holdt, 2003:198) The strategy failed for a number of reasons: the process through which it was adopted, its complexity and lack of union capacity, doubts about its internal coherence, and the possibility that it could increase members’ workload and lead to job losses (Ibid, 196-202).
Numsa’s new strategy had an essentially corporatist agenda for labour. It aimed at a ‘reconstruction accord’ with the new government and participation in workplace and tripartite structures. But the idea of a separate party of workers had not died. At its fourth congress in July 1993, Numsa re-asserted the need for independence from the new government and called for the working class to develop an independent programme on how to advance to socialism. This, the congress declared, could take the form of a working class party. (Forrest, 2011: 475)
The ANC’s “non-negotiable” embrace of neo-liberal economic policies in 1996 through the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, led to a direct confrontation with COSATU and sections of the SACP. This began a process of increasing marginalization of the left from the ANC and growing tensions , articulated most strongly by the COSATU General Secretary, Zwelizima Vavi, accusing the ANC leadership of being a “predatory elite”. Growing disillusionment with the ANC led to the re-emergence inside NUMSA of the idea of a workers party.
To assess the extent of support for a workers party in the broader population, we conducted a survey of a large nationally representative sample of adults between February and March 2014. (Webster and Orkin, 2014) Surprisingly, a third of South African adults definitely thought that “a new political party,” a workers’ or labour party, “will assist with current problems facing SA” (the proportion answering ‘probably not’ or ‘definitely not’ were 15% and 13%).
In 2012, a sample of Cosatu shop stewards was asked a more specific question: “If Cosatu were to form a labour party and contest national elections, would you vote for such a party?” 65% said they would. In the 2014 survey, among the fully employed 69% agreed with the question (30% said “definitely” and 39% said “maybe”).
A Workers’ Party?
Numsa has approached the question of a workers’ party with caution. Following independence, trade unions in post-colonial Africa have tended initially to submit to the ruling party that drove the liberation struggle. But growing marginalization led unions in countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe into opposition and the formation of a separate political party, which, in the case of Zambia’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy, won state power in elections.
|"The existence of a relatively large industrial working class, strong civil society organizations and an independent trade union movement with a political culture of shop-floor democracy makes the survival of a workers’ party more likely."|
However, there has generally been a low level of political tolerance of political opposition in post-colonial Africa. Unlike established democracies, these new governments are engaged in the complex task of nation building. The result is a culture of “us” versus “them,” and union-backed oppositional parties have often been quickly labeled “counter-revolutionary” and “imperialist.” The union-backed Movement for Democratic Change soon became the focus of organized violence inflicted by the Zimbabwean state.
Could South Africa be a special case in post-colonial Africa? The existence of a relatively large industrial working class, strong civil society organizations and an independent trade union movement with a political culture of shop-floor democracy makes the survival of a workers’ party more likely.
What would the social base of such a party be? In the 2014, nationwide adult sample, 30% of the full-time or part-time employed would definitely support a workers’ party, rising to 40% of the unemployed. The highest expression of ‘definite’ support for the idea of a workers’ party was among the black working poor; among those with household incomes of less then R8000 a month; of primary/secondary education; and in the main working age of 18-49. By contrast, the lowest expressed ‘definite’ support for a workers’ party was among whites, Indian and coloureds alike; with household incomes of more than R8000 a month; of tertiary education; among the oldest.
This survey question indicated the size of the potential support base, and broadly identified its likely class features. But what will the form and content of a working class politics be in SA ? Is it to involve a broad workers’ party, along the lines of Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores, with links to working-class communities , academics and small farmers. Or is to be a more traditional labour party along the lines of the UK Labour Party, with close ties with organized labour? Is it to be a revitalized Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, a mirror image of the SACP; or will something distinctive emerge out of the initiative to establish a United Front (UF).
Designed to link unions to struggles in the community, a National Working Committee of the United Front was established in December 2014. Although it still remains to be formally launched nationally it has an estimated two hundred and fifty loosely affiliated social justice and environmental justice affiliates. Of particular concern are climate change and the demand for eco-socialism. However, its political direction remains uncertain: should it be openly socialist, or a broad front similar to the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the eighties; is it a step towards a worker’s party or is it an autonomous body connecting a range of community based organizations; should it engage in electoral politics or should it remain at arms-length from party politics?
Importantly, the multiple expressions of local-level militancy that emerged over the past decade is a fragmented militancy, different from the social movement unionism of the early to mid eighties. The link between the current township protests and NUMSA is tenous. Indeed the high levels of unemployment in these communities – sometimes as high as 80% - has led to conflicts – and intensified violence – between the employed who are trying to maintain collective solidarity in a strike and those who want to go to work. This emerged most dramatically in the strikes on the platinum mines in Rustenburg. The coercive tactics used to maintain solidarity, described by Chinguno as a form of “violent solidarity,“ runs counter to the democratic traditions of labour. (Chinguno, 2015a and 2015b: 178)
|"...the multiple expressions of local-level militancy that emerged over the past decade is a fragmented militancy, different from the social movement unionism of the early to mid eighties."|
It is important to emphasize that the new initiatives, organisational forms and sources of power are emerging on the periphery of organised labour. The strikes at Marikana were not led by a union but were the product of the self-activity of labour, as Sinwell and Mbatha (2013: 32) argue:
The agency of workers, and more specifically the independent worker’s committee, is arguably the key feature surrounding the event of the Marikana Massacre…The committee at Marikana is important in understanding the strike wave along the Rustenburg Platinum Belt where these independent organisations emerged. Industrial sociology more generally has been dominated by investigations into formalised unions...
Labour’s dilemma in post-colonial countries is how to express its distinct working class politics in such a way that it does have a confrontation with the state or alienate itself from those who continue to support the dominant national narrative. Interestingly, the Ghana Trade Union Congress (TUC), has chosen the path of non-alignment with any specific political party. It prefers to develop its own political demands, lobby for these demands and advise its members to vote for the party that supports the GTUC’s programme. A similar approach has been adopted amongst informal worker organisations in India (Agarwala, 2013:98) Informal worker movements, Agarwala demonstrates, are most successful when operating within electoral contexts where parties compete for mass votes from the poor. She calls this competitive populism. These informal worker organisations are not attached to a particular party nor do they espouse a specific political or economic ideology. In this way they have successfully organised informal workers. As one organiser observed:
" The informal sector is entering into the previously formal sector, and the formal sector is being cut in size…. We cannot differentiate between formal and informal workers, because politicians only care about getting most votes." (Cited in Agarwala, 2013: 98)
We are entering a new kind of politics, what some have come to call the “politics of precarity” where precariousness at work creates a crisis not just of job-quality but also of social reproduction (Lee and Kofman, 2012) There is, as Jennifer Chun argues, a “growing interest in a new political subject of labour...women, immigrants, people of color, low-paid service workers, precarious workers, groups that have been historically excluded from the moral and material boundaries of union membership.” (Chun, 2012:40)
|"We are entering a new kind of politics, what some have come to call the “politics of precarity” where precariousness at work creates a crisis not just of job-quality but also of social reproduction..."|
Whether the left activists of the labour movement have the political imagination and energy to take advantage of this new terrain remains to be seen. What is clear is that the old labour order is no longer sustainable and building an alternative is going to require patient and long-term organisational work.
Edward Webster is Professor Emeritus, Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at University of Witwatersrand. He is the outgoing director of the Chris Hani Institute, an independent left think tank in Cosatu House.
Agarwala, Rina. 2013, Informal Labour, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India (New York: Cambridge University Press).
Chinguno, C (2012), Marikana and the post-apartheid workplace order,” Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP), Working Paper No.1 (April) (Johannesburg,University of the Witwatersrand).
Chinguno, C. (2015b), The shifting dynamics of the relations between institutionalisation and strike violence; a case study of Impala Platinum, Rustenburg (1982-2012), Doctoral Dissertation (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand).
Chun, J. J. (2012), “The Power of the Powerless: New Schemes and resources for organising workers in neoliberal times,” in Suzuki, K. (Ed) Cross National Comparisons of Social Movement Unionism (Berlin: Peter Lang).
Democracy from Below (2013), “The ‘NUMSA moment’ is OUR moment,” University of KwaZulu-Natal (30th November-Ist December).
Forrest, K. (2011), Metal that will not bend: National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa 1980-1995 (Johannesburg; Wits University Press).
Lambert, R and E. Webster (1988), The re-emergence of political unionism in Contemporary South Africa, William Cobbett and Robin Cohen (ed) (London: James Currey).
Lee, C K, and Y. Kofman (2012), “The Politics of Precarity : Views Beyond the United States,” Work and Occupations, 39 (4): 388–408.
Satgar, V (2014), “The ‘Numsa moment’ leads left renewal,“ Mail & Guardian, August 22 to 28, p. 25.
Von Holdt, K. (2003), Transition from Below: Forging Trade Unionism and workplace Change in South Africa (Scottsville; University of Natal Press).
Webster, E. (1985), Cast in a racial mould: labour process and trade unionism in the foundries (Johannesburg; Ravan Press).
Webster, E and M. Orkin (2014), “Many believe workers’ party could help solve SA’s issues,” Business Day, July 15.