Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New Issue of Black History and the Class Struggle


Workers Vanguard No. 1019
8 March 2013

New Issue of Black History and the Class Struggle

The following article was written by our comrades of Spartacist/South Africa, Section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) as the Introduction to the new issue of Black History and the Class Struggle (No. 23, February 2013). We have not included references to articles contained in the pamphlet.

28 JANUARY—The 16 August 2012 massacre of 34 striking Lonmin platinum miners at Marikana was the worst instance of lethal police violence in response to struggle since the end of white-supremacist apartheid rule in 1994. Carried out under the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance government led by the African National Congress (ANC), this massacre was meant to be a bloody warning to those amongst the oppressed who dare to stand up against their miserable conditions of existence. But the plan backfired as the police slaughter fuelled a wave of wildcat strikes across the industry and beyond, shaking the fragile foundations of neo-apartheid capitalism. The miners, who had been making as little as 4,000 rand per month (US$440), demanded a R12,500 minimum wage. After they won most of that amount for the majority of Lonmin workers, that demand became the battle cry for many other workers who are sick and tired of waiting for the promised better life for all.

The massacre and the strike wave it spurred ripped a huge tear in the fabric of this society. There is wide and deep discontent at the pace of change over the nearly 20 years of rule by the Tripartite Alliance—the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) misleaders, along with the COSATU bureaucracy as a whole, acted as strikebreakers at Lonmin and at other “illegal” strikes, helping spur the growth of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The ferment and political volatility in the mines have not dissipated, as the causes of last year’s strikes centring on starvation wages and terrible conditions of employment remain unresolved. This is likely to be a lightning rod for more struggles ahead.

Like atrocities in the last days of the apartheid era, the Lonmin massacre failed to break the fighting spirit of the striking workers. But militancy on the trade-union level is not capable in and of itself of breaking the overwhelmingly black working class from bourgeois consciousness, which in South Africa is mainly expressed through the politics of nationalism. The rise of powerful trade unions of black workers in the 1980s was a factor in bringing an end to the apartheid regime, but the leadership of the SACP and the emerging COSATU union federation derailed any fight for workers rule by selling the lie that the ANC and its partners are the leaders in the fight for national liberation. A revolutionary leadership is required to break the hold of such deadly illusions among the combative proletariat.

So long as capitalism remains in power, a decent life for the masses can never be won and any gains secured by class struggle remain highly reversible. Nor is there any genuine solution to the masses’ entrenched poverty within the confines of South Africa. Mainly owned by British and U.S. capital, this country’s mining industry—the core of the economy—is subject to the ebbs and flows of the imperialist-dominated world market. Indeed, the economic position of the platinum miners has been undermined by the narrowing of the market for this metal, whose main use is in auto production, due to the ongoing world capitalist contraction. Such facts underscore that the struggle of the working class against capital must be an international struggle reaching into the imperialist centres, which are themselves class-divided and multiracial societies.

Mine capitalists have started this year with a backlash, threatening to lay off tens of thousands of workers. In Carletonville, west of Johannesburg, Harmony Gold locked out its 6,000 mostly migrant workers returning from the holidays, closing hostels and forcing workers to sleep out in the open. Owners are demanding prior assurances that it would be “profitable and safe” to reopen the mine, in other words, workers should commit never to strike again. At Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), miners responded with strike action to the company’s announcement that it would close down four shafts, threatening 14,000 jobs mainly in the Rustenburg area, centre of the platinum industry. The employer was forced to back off from its decision and agree to negotiate with workers’ leaders. This confirms again that class struggle is the only reliable weapon in the hands of the working class. Later it was announced that management decided to delay the implementation of its plan.

The coldblooded murder of workers at Lonmin was the most horrific moment of the 2012 mining wildcat strike movement, which began in late January at Impala Platinum. The massacre showed, in blood, the absurdity of reformist arguments that the ANC/Alliance government is “class contested terrain.” Those like the SACP misleaders and apologists who portray the Alliance as a “people’s government” on the “peaceful road to socialism” are practicing deceit. It is a bourgeois government pledged to maintaining capitalist private property.

This is further shown by the regime’s apartheid-style demolition of houses occupied mainly by black people in predominantly Indian Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, and by the ruthless attacks on recent strikes by farm workers in the Western Cape. Three of those workers have been killed by police and private security guards, and scores of others injured or arrested. Workers have reported police raids in the wee hours of the morning accompanied by beatings and random shootings, injuring women and children in their homes. The “new,” “democratic” South African state is a direct continuity of the old apartheid.

The farm workers ignored authorities’ attempts to play divide-and-rule among coloured [mixed-race, partly Malay-derived], black and immigrant workers. The workers maintained their unity and class integrity in struggle against their common class enemy to ameliorate their slave-like labour conditions. But instead of organising the powerful harbour, transport and other workers in solidarity with the farm workers, COSATU leaders have done everything in their power to stop the strikes. COSATU has historically neglected organising efforts among these isolated and miserably exploited workers, who make as little as R69 per day. To this day, only a small minority belong to unions. The R150-a-day minimum wage the workers have demanded is still far below what they need to survive.

Underlying the farm workers strikes is the burning issue of the land, a question which is at the centre of the dispossession of the non-white majority in this country. The white minority, which forms less than 10 percent of the population, owns more than 70 percent of urban and arable rural land. Most farming is done by large, mechanised and capital-intensive agribusiness employing agricultural proletarians. We are for the expropriation of the large, white-owned farms and for their transformation into collective and state farms under workers rule. Farm workers are going to be central in achieving this goal, which is indissolubly bound up with the socialist revolution to be led by the mainly urban proletariat.

Amid Rising Mass Anger, State Repression Intensifies

The explosive anger at the base of society has triggered an increase in the state’s violent suppression of protest, further helping to peel away the democratic facade of the post-apartheid capitalist state. In January, police minister Nathi Mthethwa announced that 704 people were arrested for “public violence” in December alone. Militants who take part in strikes or township protests demanding electricity, water and other basic services are viciously attacked by police, sometimes with live ammunition, and arrested. We demand the dropping of all charges and the immediate, unconditional freedom of those jailed for protesting against this racist, neo-apartheid capitalist hellhole. An injury to one is an injury to all!

The organised working class must wield its social power on behalf of all the oppressed, particularly the desperate unemployed in the townships. In doing so, it must fight against anti-immigrant attacks, which are often fuelled by petty-bourgeois elements in the townships who see shopkeepers from Somalia, Pakistan or elsewhere as competitors. From the Rustenburg platinum mines to the Western Cape vineyards and orchards, recent strikes have shown a high degree of unity in struggle by South African and immigrant workers. Spartacist/South Africa and the ICL demand: Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

Recent proposed legislation attacking democratic rights includes the Protection of State Information Bill, which requires prior approval for the publication of material deemed sensitive by the state, and the Traditional Courts Bill. The latter gives traditional leaders, headed by tribal chiefs, unchallenged legal power over 17 million rural black inhabitants, who are balkanised according to tribal background. Chiefs would get enhanced legal authority for making laws, deciding cases and handing down punishment. The burden would be disproportionately felt by women, who are viciously oppressed by backward practices like lobola (bride price) and marriage-by-capture, a form of kidnapping. Under the bill, women would not be allowed to represent themselves but must be represented by their husbands or other male family members. The bill is a rehash of British colonial and later apartheid laws that, in relegating blacks to the bottom of society, designed a separate legal system enshrining the power of traditional leaders.

ANC at Mangaung: The Business of Running Capitalism

At the ANC’s recent Mangaung national elective conference, Jacob Zuma convincingly defeated supporters of his deputy Kgalema Mothlante to retain the ANC presidency. The conference also confirmed the expulsion of the hypocrite populist and former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who is himself a small-time capitalist. Spartacist/South Africa opposes all factions of this party of the class enemy. For the exploited and oppressed masses, whether Zuma or Mothlante won would have changed nothing.

For the first time, prominent COSATU leaders were included in the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC), its highest decision-making body between conferences, where they will have to take direct responsibility for the policies of the capitalist government. This is what the COSATU and SACP leaders’ perpetual call to “swell the ranks of the ANC” means. Since becoming president, Zuma has been careful to integrate SACP leaders into his government, in the process succeeding in silencing even their most superficial criticisms. Now he looks set to do the same with COSATU. Zwelinzima Vavi and Irvin Jim, leaders of COSATU and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) respectively, who both declined nomination to the NEC, use the appearance of distance from the ANC hierarchy to occasionally mouth some criticisms of the government while in practice adhering to the entire programme of class collaboration.

The Mangaung conference also elected trade unionist-turned-billionaire-capitalist Cyril Ramaphosa as Zuma’s second-in-command. While leading the NUM in the 1980s, Ramaphosa became the protégé of the head of the Oppenheimer family, the dominant owner of Anglo American, the country’s leading mining company. He soon became the chief architect of the sellout deal that set the stage for the replacement of the apartheid government by the ANC-led Alliance. Today, among his many business concerns, Ramaphosa is a prominent shareholder at Lonmin. Just 24 hours before the killing of workers at Marikana, he sent e-mails to Lonmin management and police minister Mthethwa describing strike activities as being “plainly dastardly criminal” and calling for “concomitant action” to be taken.

Spartacist/South Africa and the ICL have been unique among leftists internationally for our consistent, principled political opposition to the ANC/SACP/COSATU nationalist popular front. This is in stark contrast to reformists like the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), which not only supported the ANC in the 1994 elections but joined this bourgeois party as a so-called Marxist Tendency.

Such fake-left organisations as the DSM, Keep Left! (supporters of the late Tony Cliff) and the Workers International Vanguard Party (formerly League) support the membership of cops and security guards in trade unions. COSATU includes the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) as well as cops organised by the SAMWU municipal workers and other unions, and the SACP recruits police into its own organisation. We oppose the inclusion of cops or security guards—the armed protectors of bourgeois rule and profits—in the unions and the broader working-class movement. After witnessing the wanton butchering of his comrades, and himself suffering torture in police custody, one Marikana striker said of the cops that “they are like dogs to me now.... I do not trust them anymore, they are like enemies” (Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer, 2012). The single experience of these workers has taught them more than the reformists have been capable of learning throughout their whole miserable history.

Talk about “democratic control of the police,” “winning over the police” or “raising the consciousness of the police” has nothing to do with revolutionary Marxism and everything to do with reformism. As Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky argued repeatedly, there is no such thing as a class-neutral “democracy”: the capitalist state is an apparatus of repression based on armed bodies of men—principally the army and the police—that protects the interests and property forms of the ruling class. The working class cannot simply lay hold of this state machinery and wield it for its own purposes. The capitalist state must be smashed through socialist revolution and replaced by a workers state.

The DSM intervened in the Rustenburg strikes to channel working-class militancy into bourgeois parliamentary reformist schemes. In December, the DSM announced the launch of the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP). The projected programme of this party is thoroughly reformist. The press release announcing it consists solely of bread-and-butter economic demands with not even a reference to women’s oppression, much less any call for socialist revolution. Instead, they peddle reformist schemes of cleaning up capitalist municipal governments by leading “a campaign for the recall of all incompetent and corrupt councillors to replace them with WASP representatives” (, 20 December 2012). This programme is not that of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, which led the October Revolution of 1917, the only successful workers revolution in history, but of social-democratic gradualism in the spirit of the classic British Labour Party. Thus the DSM’s British comrades claim that “socialism” will be introduced by nationalising industry through the mechanism of an “enabling bill” passed by the bourgeois Parliament.

A recent survey reporting on the deepening rift between the COSATU leaders and the rank and file states that a significant number of shop stewards want COSATU to leave the ANC and form a workers party, also expressing no confidence in the SACP. We encourage and welcome workers’ desire for independence from the bourgeois ANC as the beginning of wisdom. But the key question is what programme such a workers party would be based on. Reformists push a “workers party” as a con game, seeking merely a vehicle to better pressure the capitalist rulers, or even administer the state on their behalf. We strive to forge a party that stands for proletarian class independence from, and opposition to, the bourgeois state and all its political parties and fights for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Class and Race in South Africa

Some worker militants who have broken from the NUM are calling for “nonpolitical” unions. While this is understandable given the history of betrayals by the NUM leaders allied to the ANC, it is impossible to divorce union struggle from political struggle. This is especially clear in a country like South Africa, where the superexploitation of mainly black labour is the living legacy of apartheid and centuries of colonial oppression.

In a 17 January press conference widely broadcast on TV, AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa warned against “illegal, unprotected strikes,” insisted that workers must follow prescribed arbitration procedures and called for government intervention to settle disputes at Amplats. This shows clearly that the AMCU leadership does not oppose the established procedures for class collaboration and views the world through the same lens as the rest of the trade-union bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, the class-collaborationist Democratic Left Front, which is tied to imperialist-funded “social movements,” seeks to channel workers’ anger into the dead-end of pressuring the Farlam Commission of Enquiry, which was established by the government to whitewash its crimes at Marikana and to let the outraged public blow off some steam. We reject the double standards of people who claim to support struggling miners while at the same time preaching illusions in the institutions of the government that mowed them down like wild animals.

Trade-union consciousness is completely inadequate for the tasks necessary for the emancipation of the non-white majority. Parallel to starvation wages, there are problems of vulnerable workers employed by labour brokers, poor black communities in urban areas and especially in the rural reserves, and impoverished coloured townships as well. It is crucial that militant workers and youth assimilate the history of the genuine communist movement. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party was a steadfast champion of all struggles against oppression in the tsarist empire, the “prison house of peoples.” The Bolsheviks fought against Great Russian chauvinism and for the liberation of oppressed peoples using the methods of proletarian class struggle.

This Leninist understanding is all the more critical for South Africa, where class exploitation has always been integrally bound up with the national oppression of the non-white masses. In the mid 1930s, Leon Trotsky wrote to his followers in South Africa that in the event of a proletarian revolution there:

“But it is entirely obvious that the predominant majority of the population, liberated from slavish dependence, will put a certain imprint on the state.

“Insofar as a victorious revolution will radically change not only the relation between classes, but also between races, and will assure to the blacks that place in the state which corresponds to their numbers, insofar will social revolution in South Africa also have a national character.”

Our perspective for a black-centred workers government flows from this understanding of the class content of the struggle for the emancipation of the black majority. History shows that the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalist leaders of struggles for national liberation, once in power, become the agents of the same imperialist overlords, oppressing their “own” people. The “national liberation” rulers killed Marikana workers to protect the profits of Lonmin, which is based in London, capital city of the British former colonial masters of South Africa.

To answer the crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality plaguing this country, which no capitalist regime can solve, we turn to Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Programme, founding programme of the Fourth International. The programme puts forward transitional demands that provide a bridge from workers’ current struggles and consciousness to the fight for workers power. These include the demand for a sliding scale of wages, which means that collective agreements should assure an automatic rise in wages in relation to the increase in prices of consumer goods. This is a burning issue in South Africa, where, in addition to skyrocketing food and fuel prices, the masses are faced with the Eskom electrical company’s demand for annual 16 percent tariff hikes until the year 2018, as well as the threatened imposition of “e-tolling” on the highways.

To address unemployment, the trade unions should fight for a sliding scale of working hours, i.e., the division of work amongst available labour without the loss of pay. This would help to bind together the working class and the unemployed masses, who in South Africa are maintained mainly by workers who themselves make only starvation wages. The crying need for a massive public works programme—building affordable houses for the millions who need them, hospitals, schools, roads, etc.—would provide the jobs that apologists for the ANC-led regime say are nowhere to be found.

All these demands point to the need for a black-centred workers government that would expropriate the bourgeoisie as a class. With mining and banking dominated by finance capital based in London and New York, the fight for socialist revolution in South Africa is completely bound up with the struggle for workers power in the imperialist centres. Under a revolutionary leadership, workers who see the failure of capitalism to meet even the most basic human wants will be won to the understanding that the bourgeois order and its system of production for profit must be overthrown and replaced with a collectivised economy, where production is based on social need. This is the perspective of Spartacist/South Africa. Those who want to play a role in the emancipation of the workers and toilers should examine the revolutionary programme of the International Communist League.

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