The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) is in the process of gathering the views of its members in preparation for the union’s extraordinary national congress to be held in December. The congress of NUMSA will be held in Ekhurhuleni and will give the union a mandate on how to deal with the ruptures inside the trade union federation COSATU, as well as giving the leadership directions on the way forward. The NUMSA congress will be held ahead of the COSATU extraordinary congress to be held at a later date. Earlier the president of COSATU, S’dumo Dlamini, reluctantly wrote to the affiliates confirming that the congress will be held.
A Democratic Process
The process of garnering the views of members kicked off this past week with shop-floor meetings to discuss the issues on the agenda for the congress. These meetings were then followed up with meetings of shop-stewards in 52 local councils across the country over this past weekend (19 October). After the meetings of the local councils, the shop-stewards will report the results to regional executive meetings on the weekend of 26-27 October. The nine regions of NUMSA will then hold regional congresses next month where the mandates for the national congress will be given to delegates.
This democratic process is in stark contrast to the underhanded methods used by the representatives of the right wing faction of the Tripartite Alliance that is present inside COSATU. A clear example of this was the removal of COSATU’s General Secretary, Vavi, by the Central Executive Committee after a long campaign by these elements, using dirty methods in the process. They finally got their chance when he was placed on “special leave” after he admitted to an extramarital affair with a junior colleague.
The affair that Vavi had had with the colleague was like a godsend for the right wing faction who proceeded to removed him behind the backs of the workers who had elected him in the first place. These bureaucratic methods are at variance with COSATU’s own principles that the federation should be “worker-led and worker-controlled.”The undemocratic nature of his removal is further established by the fact that since Vavi’s removal more than two months ago, he has still not been subjected to a disciplinary process nor has he been charged with anything.
When NUMSA gave an update on the process that is now underway, its Deputy General Secretary, Karl Cloete, stressed the need for a democratic process when he said:
“When the union leaders and spokespersons speak, it is often implied or concluded that what these union representatives say are their own views. What we have here is a bottom-up approach, where we are asking what they (the workers) think about the political and socioeconomic developments around them.”
The next scheduled congress of NUMSA was for 2016 but political developments since its last congress have necessitated the central committee calling an extraordinary congress.
The December congress will discuss:
(1) the divisions within COSATU;
(2) the state of the Tripartite Alliance (between the ANC, SACP and COSATU);
(3) a planned socioeconomic strike for early 2014;
(4) NUMSA’s approach to the elections of 2014.
A lot has happened since the last congress of the union in June 2012. Besides the divisions within COSATU, which is now so paralyzed and hamstrung with divisions that it fails to take forward the issues facing the working class, there were also other developments such as the massacre of workers by the police in Marikana in August 2012, the adoption by the ANC government of anti-worker policies such as the Employment Tax Incentive Bill and the National Development Plan and the signing into law of the deeply unpopular e-toll system despite mass resistance.
The Employment Tax Incentive Bill, also known as the Youth Wage subsidy, is officially an attempt to “urge” companies to create jobs for young people by giving employers tax incentives. But the very logic of capitalism does not allow for this. The bourgeoisie is not in business to create jobs, but to make profits. They can only do so by keeping down costs, including labour costs, and using labour saving devices such as machines so that they can most effectively compete against each other in order to maximize profits.
The problem is that capitalism has run into all its contradictions and cannot develop the productive forces to the extent that it did in the past. It cannot solve the phenomenon of mass organic unemployment which it causes in the first place. All that the tax scheme will do is hand over large sums of money to big business who will then simply replace older workers with younger ones.
The e-tolling project, on the other hand, is nothing more than the massive privatisation of public roads. All that the workers will do is to pay again for roads for which they are being taxed for in the first place.
All these developments have necessitated NUMSA calling for the extraordinary congress. Commenting on this, Cloete said that the union had “never imagined that a liberation movement like the ANC would adopt a neo-liberal document like the National Development Plan,” nor has it anticipated “a massacre of workers like at Marikana”.
Why has NUMSA grown so spectacularly?
Over the last couple of years NUMSA has grown to be the largest affiliate of COSATU. In fact, it now has 330 000 members, the biggest any union has ever been in the history of the South African labour movement and by some estimates the union will be 400 000 strong by 2016.
The reason for this rapid growth is not hard to find. Membership grew from 318 000 to 329 000 between May and September 2013. At that time the union embarked on a recruitment drive. But this coincided with the fierce battles within COSATU over the suspension of Vavi.
But there is a more fundamental reason. The mass public discontent over stagnant or declining living standards has led to divisions within the mass organisations of the working class. These divisions present themselves in distorted ways often around personality issues. But at bottom they reflect the fact that the masses are seeking a way out of their circumstances and as the more militant elements of the mass organisations are being removed (the ruining of the Young Communist League Mahikeng (Mafikeng) congress in 2010, the disbanding of the ANC Youth League NEC, the removal of Vavi,etc.), so the masses gravitate to other more militant organisations. The more militant approach of NUMSA is the real reason for its rapid growth. This is the final answer to those who try to water down their programme, and who cut out words such as “socialism”, ”communism” and so on. The workers want a militant and fighting organisation.
Fight for Socialism
Essentially the divisions inside COSATU are the culmination of all the contradictions that have plagued South African society since the formal end of Apartheid. The negotiated settlement between the Apartheid state and the national liberation movements meant that although significant concessions were wrestled away from the bourgeoisie by the masses, the fundamental economic base of society was kept in place.
The real question was never whether white people or black people own the economy. The real issue was always that the economy was (and still is) in the private hands of the capitalist class and that the capitalist system cannot provide the masses of workers even a semi-civilized existence. Experience of this over the past two decades have clearly demonstrated this where a small group of black people have joined the bourgeois class, owning shares and sitting in the boardrooms of companies who are ultimately responsible for workers being massacred when they demand better living standards.
What matters is that capitalist society is a form of class society, like the ancient slave-based societies or the feudal-based societies. It is a society where a small minority hold in their hands the means of production, whereas the majority of society, the working class who actually produces the wealth, owns barely enough to lead a semi-civilized life. It is fundamentally a system base on exploitation. The personal disposition of the capitalist does not enter the equation. The exploitation consists of the fact that the capitalist buys the labour power of the worker as a commodity, but this commodity creates more wealth than the worker receives back in wages. The surplus value is then appropriated by the capitalist. In this process it does not matter who the capitalist is. If he is a capitalist, he derives his wealth through exploitation.
This state of things has given rise to mass seething discontent within South African society with anger pouring out onto the streets of townships, mines and factories. This public anger has opened schisms in all the organisations of the masses - ANC, ANC YL, YCL, COSATU and so on. We have seen how the Mahikeng congress of the Young Communist League was ruined with physical infighting and how the democratically elected structures of the ANC Youth League were disbanded and its leadership purged. Before these developments we saw the bitter struggles that were waged when the rank and file revolted in the famous 2005 National General Council of the ANC which led to the defeat of Mbeki at the historic 2007 Polikwane Conference.
These struggles were not only about the personalities that were involved. At bottom it is a crisis of reformism, of the left and right varieties. Both the right-wing and left-wing reformers are fundamentally basing themselves on the capitalist system where the former bases itself on private sector initiatives, foreign direct investment and so on, and the latter bases itself on state initiatives where a supposedly “developmental” state drives socioeconomic development.
Both varieties of reformism are being pushed forward precisely at a time when capitalism cannot give any reforms. Not only can the system not give any reforms, but it can no longer afford to maintain the concessions that the workers have fought for and gained in the past.
This can clearly be seen on a global scale. Even in the most developed economies of Europe and the USA, counter-reforms are being introduced too with cuts in social spending and an increase in mass unemployment with the resultant fall in living standards. In European countries such as Greece and Spain the results have been disastrous for the working class. As in South Africa, schools are without books, hospitals are without medicine and people are being evicted from their homes because they cannot pay their mortgages. The bourgeoisie are not doing this for any ideological reasons, but because their system is in crisis and beyond repair.
If the bourgeoisie can no longer provide people with decent living standards in the advanced capitalist countries, then how can it do so in a small capitalist country like South Africa which is at the margins of the world economy? The task of the working class organisations is not to keep alive a system that is past its sell-by date, a system that can offer the masses nothing but unemployment, homelessness, hunger and misery.
The solution to the problems that South African workers face is to remove the capitalist system and branch. Marxists are in favour of state-led development, but then the state must be in the hands of the working class. At the moment we live in a bourgeois society where the state serves the interests of the bourgeoisie. This can clearly be seen where the state was used to massacre workers or when the e-toll system was forced through even though the masses of working people opposed it. In all these cases the interests of the bourgeois class are being catered for.
It is not possible to plan the capitalist system. The plans of the National Planning Commission with its National Development Plan will fail with disastrous results for the working people. You cannot plan what you do not control and you cannot control what you don’t own. Therefore, the only solution is to fight for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under the democratic control and management of the working class. Only on this basis will it be possible to plan the economy in a rational way. Only a workers’ state will then be able to serve the interests of the working class.
*See also:www.marxist.com/south-africa-cosatu-to-hold-special-national- congress.htm