Lessons of the 1950s

11. SACTU in the Congress Alliance

Despite the isolation and consequent defeat of the March-April 1960 Cape Town and Vereeniging strikes, despite the banning of the political organisations looked to by the mass of the workers, the working-class movement had not yet suffered a defeat that was crushing or conclusive.

The trade unions built by SACTU and oriented to Congress, weak as they still were, remained in existence. Indeed, with a growing movement to base them on factory committees, with the beginnings of break-throughs into new crucial sectors, with the establishment of general workers' unions where factory bases were still weak, SACTU was growing rather than declining in strength.

For fear not only of the local reaction of workers, but also of international worker reaction, the NP government was much more cautious in its attitude to African trade unionism than to the ANC and PAC.

The power still able to be mobilised by the working class through SACTU was demonstrated in the stay-at-homes called for three days in May 1961 against the government's declaration of a Republic.

The regime's mobilisation against this action was the most intensive of the decade: nightly police raids in the townships, 10,000 arrests without charges, a twelve-day detention law, road blocks, and the deployment of troops, tanks, armoured cars and helicopters. Nevertheless, as Bunting states, it was "the greatest national political strike ever witnessed in South Africa."[65]

In Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town there was a big response from workers - with coloured workers in the Cape participating on a large scale for the first time. Workers in many smaller towns also participated.

SACTU activists played the major role in mobilising for the action, and the organised workers were in the vanguard. As an assessment of the strike concluded, "wherever workers were organised into trade unions there was a favourable response to the strike call."[66]

The leadership of the strike, however, was not in the hands of organised workers, but lay with a National Action Council, headed by Mandela. (As in 1958, the PAC opposed the stay-at-home.)

The demand raised was for the government, instead of proclaiming a Republic, to call a National Convention with sovereign powers, of elected representatives of all adults on an equal basis irrespective of race, colour, creed or any other limitation.

Should the demand be ignored, the National Action Council called on "all Africans not to cooperate or collaborate in any way with the proposed South African Republic or any other form of government which rests on force to perpetuate the tyranny of a minority, and to organise and unite in town and country to carry out constant actions to oppose oppression and win freedom" - and called on Indians, coloureds and "democratic Europeans" to join this struggle.

This was strong rhetoric indeed, calculated to recover for Congress the ground that had been lost to the PAC "fire-balls". But what were these "constant actions" by which oppression would be opposed and freedom won? What was the method, the strategy by which the mobilisation taking place around the strike could be consolidated into organisation and carried forward? On this, the National Action Council was silent.

In fact Mandela - as the ANC leadership had done in 1958 - called off the strike on the second day. Later, relates Bunting, Mandela "admitted that he had been misled by the initial radio and press reports which falsely claimed the people had ignored the strike call. In a statement issued from the underground offices of the ANC in South Africa and the United Front abroad, Mandela stated: 'In the light of the conditions that prevailed both before and during the three-day strike, the response from our people was magnificent indeed.'"[67]

Once again, the workers had mobilised only to be disappointed.

Through the 1950s, the fundamental driving force in Congress was its working-class support. Increasingly, as Ben Turok recalled later, the activist core of Congress was constituted by working-class militants:

"The Congress movement…became more progressive and more proletarian. As things got more difficult it was those with the least to lose and the least illusions that came to the top. Working-class comrades became more involved and people with class ideology came to the fore because they were more militant and more committed, which is not to say that there were no committed petty-bourgeois."[68]

Overwhelmingly, these worker-militants were SACTU members, building the trade unions, and Congress along with them. Some also joined the CP, expecting there to find the ideas and methods to take forward the struggle for national liberation, democracy and socialism on a class basis.

But the CP leadership used its authority - in SACTU, in the various Congress organisations, and in the Party itself - to prevent the transformation of the movement on proletarian lines. The effect of the "two-stage" policy of Stalinism was to paralyse the best endeavours of the worker militants.

Turok (then a CP local leader, active in Congress) revealed how this policy operated, when he stated later: "In the weight of the thing, the pressure of the proletarian elements were stronger and sometimes one in fact had to be careful that this tendency did not become hegemonic [i.e. dominant - Editor]. Yes, one had to be aware of the fact that the policy was that there should be an alliance and not a single party struggle and a single class struggle. This was always recognised. Care was taken not to frighten off the petty-bourgeois elements."[69]

This was the argument put also in the African Communist (April 1960). In what was intended as a critique of those who felt that the Party was tailing behind the "national movement", it warned against the "error" of trying to "impose exclusively working-class leadership and programmes on the national movement." To do so was described as an error of "sectarianism, which undermines the unity of the various classes and is bound to create internal conflicts thus diverting the attention of the people from their common enemy - imperialism."

To the CP leaders, the "leading role of the working class" was to be confined to ceremonial speeches and paper declarations. In practice, supposedly to avoid "frightening off" the middle class, the workers had to limit their struggle and demands to what was assumed to be "acceptable" to this vacillating stratum.

Actually this policy served merely as a cover for efforts to hold back the workers' struggle within the framework of the compromises which the middle-class leadership was always seeking to reach with the liberal bourgeoisie.

For the CP leaders, hardened in Stalinism, the power of the working-class movement was not the important thing. What was important was "the unity of the various classes" (which classes precisely?) - an incredible position for so-called Marxists to proclaim.

Indeed, any challenge to middle-class dominance over Congress, any assertion of leadership and programme by the organised workers, potentially a force millions strong, was contemptuously denounced as "sectarianism" - as an assertion of a narrow, selfish, sectional interest!


Thus, too, when the SACTU-organised National Workers' Conference threatened to seize the initiative in the organisation and programme for the 1958 stay-at-home, Lutuli lectured the workers that Congress was not "exclusively" a workers' organisation, but had in its ranks businessmen, professionals, housewives, etc. Organisational work for the stay-at-home must not be confined to the factories, but carried out in the townships "where we are strong".[70]

But the overwhelming majority of those in the townships, just as in the factories - or on the farms and in the reserves - were working-class people. They had every interest in pursuing the struggle until all their burdens - of racism and capitalism alike - were lifted. They had most to gain from success in action, and most to lose by its failure.

And, in reality, determined struggle by the working class was in the interests too of the bulk of the black middle class - even though their leaders failed to appreciate the fact. Teachers, nurses, small traders, etc, are themselves oppressed by both racialism and capitalism, but with no power to get rid of either on their own account. They would not have been "frightened off", but attracted to, a Congress movement organised on a programme to win national liberation and democracy, based on workers' power.

This was the task which presented itself for the working class in the 1950s, and which could have been spearheaded by the worker militants who were at the core of building the trade unions and Congress. That is still the task today.

Unfortunately, in the 1950s, such militants had no access to the ideas, methods and perspectives of Marxism which form an indispensable guide - in fact, they were frustrated in the search for genuine Marxism by the misleading influence of the CP.

As a result, although SACTU had promised to pursue an "independent policy in the interests of the workers" in the Congress movement, it in fact became subordinated to the dictates of the middle class.

Because the mass of the working class was looking to Congress for leadership, it was entirely correct for the organised workers to enter - with the force of their unions - into the Congress ranks. But, to uphold an independent policy, it was essential to establish working-class leadership and a working-class programme as predominant over the whole movement. This was not done - and thus there could be not be any "independent policy" on the part of SACTU either.

It is wrong to say, as some do today, that SACTU could not have provided a base for working-class political organisation, and for the transformation of the Congress movement, in the 1950s. The basis was there in workplace organisation, and in the tremendous activity of the working class which made it the overwhelming force in every struggle against the regime.

If the necessary clarity and understanding, the necessary conscious political leadership, had existed in the 1950s, the task could have been undertaken. The subsequent fate of SACTU itself - and indeed of the Congress movement - could have been significantly different.

There are many today who argue, in the light of what happened in the 1950s, that the organised workers should not enter Congress (or the UDF), but instead aim to build a "workers' party" outside the ambit of any middle class-led movement.

What these comrades forget is the enormous weight of historical tradition in the movement of the working class - and the way this affects previously unorganised workers who take to the road of struggle in their hundreds of thousands when a revolutionary period opens up.

The tradition of the Congress movement, established in the 1950s, as the focal point for the political mass movement in the past, will assert itself vigorously again in future.

Initially, it will not be the mistakes or failures of leadership which stand out in the minds of black working-class people, but the finest and most heroic traditions of Congress, which its leaders - imprisoned and exiled - will be seen to embody.

Here what happened in the 1950s is relevant also. While, towards the end of that decade, the activists became angered and embittered by the policies of the leadership, and sections of the masses turned to the PAC, nevertheless even then fresh layers of the working class moving into struggle turned first to the Congress banner.

Even the PAC, with no real alternative to offer, gained the support that it did precisely because its leaders emerged out of Congress.

In future, the re-emergence of the ANC openly in South Africa, with its now exiled or imprisoned leadership, will be an enormous attraction for millions of those as yet unorganised. This force will carry in its flood also the ranks of the trade unions. Even if a separate "workers' party" existed at that time, linked to the unions - something that would be exceptionally difficult, in any event, to create and sustain under present repressive conditions - it would most likely be compelled to turn to Congress or be bypassed by the mass movement.

On the other hand, by orienting clearly towards Congress now, by turning organised workers without delay to the task of building and changing the UDF into a consciously working-class movement, under a workers' leadership and programme, the way can be prepared for the ANC itself to be transformed. Then, for the first time, a real mass workers' party will have come into existence in South Africa, capable of drawing all the oppressed behind it, and mounting a revolutionary challenge for power.

But the foundation for all this must obviously be the systematic extension and strengthening of the independent, democratic trade union organisations of the workers at the point of production.

That task, magnificently carried forward in South Africa since the early 1970s, was the main task identified by worker activists in Congress at the end of the 1950s.

Analysing the 1961 stay-at-home-and what it reflected about the state of organisation of the class - Harry Gwala wrote:

"When it comes to the actual stay away by the workers it must be boldly admitted that the working class did not come up to our expectations. What was the cause? With the only trade union coordinating body - SACTU - enjoying only a membership of 55,000, and no political party of their own in the Congress alliance, we must confess that on the working class front we are still very weak. The basic economy of the country - the mines and agriculture - have not yet been seriously tackled. To achieve the next successful national stoppage of work we shall have to assist SACTU to build up powerful trade unions and treble its present membership." (Fighting Talk, August 1961. Our emphasis.)

But the possibility for building powerful trade unions was again cut across - not simply by intensified state repression, but by the decision of the Congress and CP leaders to turn to futile policies of sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

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[65] Moses Kotane, p. 263.

[66] Report by the National Action Council, quoted in Black Politics in South Africa since 1945, p. 197.

[67] Moses Kotane, p. 263.

[68] 1977 interview.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Organize or Starve!, p. 350.

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