Saturday 23 August 2014

NUMSA Moment Leads Left Renewal

This article was published as a Mail and Guardian opinion/comment piece. See:

NUMSA and the Struggle for the Future of South Africa

The post-colonial left in Africa was savagely defeated over the past few decades. Southern Africa, in particular, was a Cold War battleground with proxy wars and destabilisation. However, the Cold War did not end on the battlefields of Angola nor with the signing of Nkomati Accord, but with the assassination of Chris Hani, General Secretary of the SACP, on April 10th, 1993. Hani’s assassination drew to a close a dangerous era of global geopolitics and was meant to mark the defeat of South Africa’s left and working class.  Two decades of ANC-led neoliberalisation, which has surrendered democracy, development and state formation to capital, consolidated the strategic defeat of the left and working class in South Africa. The NUMSA moment and process, led by South Africa’s largest (with over 330 000 members) and most militant trade union, is all about confronting this strategic defeat. It is about a battle to determine the future of South Africa and reclaim the strategic initiative for South Africa’s working class.

The stakes are high with intensifying attempts to destabilise NUMSA. This includes disciplining it in COSATU, squeezing it through the Department of Labour,  the formation of a rival metal workers union by forces aligned to the ANC-SACP and the assassination of three NUMSA shop stewards in Kwazulu-Natal, on the eve of an NUMSA convened symposium with Left Parties and Movements, amongst other pressures. The assassination of the NUMSA shop stewards is similar to the violence unleashed against workers on August 16th, 2012, in Marikana. Such violence  attempts to end democratic politics and crushes dissent. The undermining of the NUMSA initiative, by dominant political forces, will determine whether we are becoming an authoritarian post-colonial African country, like Zimbabwe, or whether we have a future as a vibrant, plural and transformative democracy.

We are at a turning point in our democracy: either the common ruin of all or  maturation of our democracy.  With Marikana the economic and political consensus of the post-apartheid order, favouring capital, has been unhinged.  Madiba is gone and the phase of ‘national reconciliation’ is past us, but we have achieved  a commitment to a constitutional democracy grounded in egalitarian values, non-racialism, non-sexism and a broad conception of democracy. At the same time, as the ANC unravels  and loses its grip on power, it has to appreciate it will be held to account in the future for what it does in the present. The Arab Spring and the rise of a democratic left in Latin America have been part of the challenge to authoritarian neoliberal capitalism and are instructive in this regard. The maturation of South Africa’s democracy requires open, democratic and fair contestation at all levels. Ideological contestation from the democratic left and right is authorised by South Africa’s constitution. In this context, the emergence of a left initiative from NUMSA has a legitimate and democratic right to exist.

NUMSA’s right to pursue its decisions to break with the ANC-led Alliance, withdraw electoral support for the ANC, build a united front and explore the formation of a workers party or movement for socialism derives from its appreciation of history and the role workers have played in the making of South Africa.  When NUMSA looks into the past it appreciates three historical developments as the basis for its political decisions: (i) The Freedom Charter, which was the programmatic cornerstone of the ANC-led liberation movement, was embraced by workers and has not been realised. NUMSA believes in the national liberation commitments made in the Freedom Charter to build peoples power, bring the state into transformation, including nationalisation, and the centrality of the principles of non-racialism and non-sexism. It refuses to accept apologia from the ANC about apartheid being determining of the present. Instead, NUMSA appreciates contingency in history as expressed through the choices made by the ANC to abandon the Freedom Charter while embracing global capitalist restructuring and BEE over the past two decades. In this context NUMSA is fully aware of the costs to workers and the African majority. (ii) NUMSA is aware of the militant role and tradition of shopfloor politics in the fight against apartheid. It is alive to the struggles of the vibrant shop-stewards movement, which it was part of, that confronted racism in the workplace, reached out to communities and built modern industrial unionism. The independence of the labour movement, its unifying role and the struggles it led where necessary conditions that contributed to the end of apartheid. This is why NUMSA is defending an independent labour politics in COSATU and the need to ensure labour as a democratising force is not compromised. (iii) COSATU is one of the few labour movements in the world to develop a capacity for strategic politics. In the 1990s this expressed itself as a social democratic agenda for labour: the RDP, the ANC-led Alliance and class struggle driven neo-corporatist bargaining through NEDLAC. NUMSA knows that this strategy has been defeated and hence the need for a new initiative from the socialist labour left.

It is in this context NUMSA hosted a Symposium of Left Parties and Movements to learn about the meaning of left politics in the world today and inform its political decision-making about a strategic way forward. It hosted the leading left forces in the world, either in power, in opposition or in resistance. The symposium included themes on: left understandings of capitalism’s crises and limits, strategies of transformative resistance and the nature of political forms.  Consistent with its tradition of worker control these deliberations where a moment of intense political education for NUMSA, the United Front it is building and left forces.

The crises of capitalism theme was  articulated by NUMSA itself in describing South Africa’s post-apartheid political economy. This was not unique, given that the dispossessions, inequality, ecological destruction, hollowing out of democracy and general crisis of contemporary capitalism was brought to the fore in the various presentations made by international participants.  Essentially, the new left in the world is struggling against a neoliberal capitalism that is increasingly becoming authoritarian and driven by a logic  that will destroy all planetary life forms. It is in this context that the new global left is the most resolute and progressive force in defending democracy against corporate capture and ensuring it is utilised for transformation. This perspective stood out from the  Latin American contributions, given that it is the first region in the world to go furthest in breaking with neoliberal capitalism.  

The jaded left debate in South Africa of ‘reform versus revolution’ was challenged when various strategies of ‘transformative resistance’ were shared in the deliberations. This ranged from mass driven participatory democracy (such as neighbourhood councils)  to re-embed the state and  secure national sovereignty like Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador; advancing the solidarity economy and networks in Brazil, Venezuela and Greece; food sovereignty to ensure countries can feed themselves like Bolivia, Ecuador and through the land struggles of the Landless Workers Movement from Brazil; rights of nature discourses (Bolivia and Ecuador); nationalisation of key sectors of the economy; new forms of regionalisation including a new vision of Europe articulated by Syrizia, the leading opposition party in Greece;  strengthening trade union independence and solidarity across borders through Left Forums (Sao Paulo Forum and Asian Left Conference), movement to movement links and regional Left Parties like the European Left party. All of this adding up to alternatives to the left of 20th century social democracy.

Over the past three decades various labour movements have spawned workers parties such as in South Korea, Zimbabwe, Zambia. The NUMSA symposium scrutinised these experiences to understand the limits and lessons that could be learned. However, most striking in the deliberations was a recognition that communist vanguard parties have been eclipsed by new left political forms: electoral parties (Germany), party movements (Brazil), left fronts (Greece, Uruguay) and movements for socialism. In Bolivia the Movement for Socialism confronts the class structure of its society by anchoring itself in community, workplace and social movements. It has a mass character and rootedness which gives it capacities to advance different forms of democratic power, from above and below.

The NUMSA symposium is one of many crucial steps to unite South Africa’s rather dogmatic and fragmented Left. It is imagining a new socialism, with different premises, various historical reference points, new conceptions of strategy and a serious rethink on political forms. It is leading a cutting edge process of left renewal. Not only was it inspired by its international guests, but it also certainly inspired them. NUMSA is not building its process around individuals, like a Chavez, but around worker control, power and capacity. NUMSA is at the forefront of thinking about a new future for South Africa, in which workers play a central role, democracy is strengthened and transformation happens.

Author: Dr. Vishwas Satgar attended the NUMSA symposium as a friend of NUMSA and as an expelled member of the South African Communist Party. He is the editor of a Democratic Marxism book series.