South Africa: what about the working class?

Issue 

By Dirk Hartford

JOHANNESBURG — It was reminiscent of the heady mass struggles of the '80s. For four hours on January 28, several hundred trade unionists listened to fiery speeches from workers and trade union leaders denouncing the government and its policy of national reconciliation as a "national disaster" between songs praising socialism as the only road to liberation.

The place — a community hall in Tembisa. The occasion — a memorial service for NUMSA [National Union of Metalworkers] organiser Heather Hills, a "trade unionist, revolutionary and socialist" and full-time organiser who died in a car accident. Whether it was Hills' unambiguous identification with a faction in the trade union movement who believe communist revolution is the only solution to capitalism, or whether ordinary workers are indeed increasingly angry at a government which is perceived as having sold out their interests, the mood of the meeting was one of militant socialist opposition to the new dispensation.

Speaker after speaker railed against the government and the COSATU leadership (who did not pitch up for the service, although they were on the program to speak) for allowing "the bosses' agenda to determine the future development of South Africa". National trade union leaders were lambasted for ignoring trade union resolutions and worker mandates.

"When we ask them to go and talk about nationalisation, they talk privatisation. When we ask them to talk about the right to strike, they bring workplace forums. When we ask them to organise a conference of the left to unite socialists, they organise a discussion amongst the right wing of the left and nothing happens", a NUMSA leader from Gauteng said.

Others said the Reconstruction and Development Program had been hijacked by big business, who were seeing it as an opportunity to make profits while the needs of the poor were not being addressed.

John Appollis, branch secretary for the Chemical Workers Industrial Union on the East Rand, said the new South Africa was a paradise for employers, who could now exploit workers at will. He rejected the new Labour Relations Act as a victory for employers because workers still did not enjoy the unconditional right to strike.

The president of NUMSA — arguably COSATU's most well-organised and militant affiliate — Mercedes Benz worker Mthutuzeli Tom, said he had built Mercedes Benz cars for 13 years but he could never entertain the notion of owning one in his lifetime. "But it took our comrades who went to government only two months before they were driving Mercedes Benzes and living in the suburbs."

Tom said democracy meant much more than the vote "because you can't eat votes, you can't live in votes". It was time for socialists to stop fighting among themselves and to unite around a program which could mobilise the mass of ordinary workers to call a halt to the policies and programs of government which favoured the rich. He bemoaned the fact that there were people in government — put there by the votes of the working class — who seemed to have forgotten where they came from and did not want to be called "comrade" any more.

A number of speakers referred to a "left" and "right" wing in COSATU, and national COSATU leaders were castigated for pursuing right-wing policies which ignored workers' interests. "If the stumbling block on the road to socialism is our own comrades, let us make sure we take them out and move forward", a speaker said to cries of "Viva!".'

Hills was, according to a pamphlet handed out at the memorial service, hostile to the "Stalinist adaptation to reformism" of the South African Communist Party and believed a new revolutionary workers party was necessary in South Africa. The SACP was a "fetter on the working class in its struggle for emancipation" and was "responsible for many of the compromises during the negotiations", the pamphlet said. Hills associated herself with a political program which her detractors call "ultra-leftist and Trotskyite".

South African Trotskyists have existed since Trotsky broke with Stalin and the Third International in the 1930s, but they have always been small in numbers and divided among themselves. There are currently a number of South African groupings who broadly identify themselves with Trotsky's idea of permanent revolution — the most prominent of which is Neville Alexander's Workers Party, which contested the 1994 election.

Most of them are active in mass organisations, including trade unions, civics and the African National Congress. The message they preach — which was echoed by numerous local shop steward leaders at Hills' service — is that the working class has nothing to lose and everything to gain by following the path of socialism.

With the gap between the rich and poor widening every day in South Africa, and with unemployment, homelessness and hopelessness on the increase among ordinary South Africans — despite the miracle of the new South Africa — it's a message that is increasingly unlikely to fall on deaf ears if Hills' memorial service is anything to go by.
[This article first appeared in the South African Weekly Mail and Guardian.]