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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 2, No. 9, 7 May 2003

In this Issue:


Red Alert

SACP Salutes Walter Sisulu

By Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

A giant has left us – Cde Walter Sisulu is no more. The South African Communist Party is saddened to hear of the death of Comrade Walter Sisulu (just 13 days before his 91st birthday). The South African Communist Party dips its banner, and expresses its heartfelt condolences to Mama Sisulu, to the Sisulu family, and to our movement, the African National Congress.

In his life and personality, in his easy-going non-racialism, unpretentious humility and passion for justice, Walter Sisulu embodied the core values of the struggle that liberated our country. It was for all these reasons that the 9th National Congress of the SACP held in 1995 unanimously made Comrade Walter Sisulu the first recipient of our Chris Hani Peace Award. This is an award named after our late General Secretary as the highest award that the SACP gives to honour those who have played a sterling role in our liberation struggle to bring peace to our country.

Comrade Walter is synonymous with more than half a century of ANC-led mass struggles. He played an unparalleled role in shaping the ANC. The recent publication of the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu (“In Our Lifetime”, by Elinor Sisulu) provides a timely and informative insight into the life and struggle of Walter Sisulu. What is striking about the biography is that it simultaneously captures the history of the ANC through the key decades in which it became a genuine mass movement, and the centrality of Cde Walter Sisulu in that history. It is the story of a rural boy, son of a domestic worker, later an urban worker, nurtured within the ranks of the ANC, and becoming one of the foremost architects of a non-racial, non-sexist and revolutionary organisation.

In 1949, when he assumed the position of ANC Secretary General on a full-time basis (he was the first to serve full-time in this post), there were still strong reservations amongst significant sections of the ANC leadership about working with other racial groups committed to change in our country. As SG he was instrumental in forging a working alliance between the ANC and the Indian Congresses in the early 1950s. He worked hard towards the formation of the Congress of Democrats (an organisation of white activists committed to the national liberation struggle), and the South African Coloured People’s Organisation. These organisations later came together to form what was known as the Congress Alliance. Comrade Walter embarked on this work sometimes at the risk of serious reprimand from some of his colleagues in the national executive committee, who still believed that Africans should work on their own for their liberation. In all of this, his incredible negotiation skills, patience and power of persuasion were critical.

He also distinguished himself as a promoter and defender of the revolutionary alliance between the national liberation movement, the communist party and the trade union movement. Most importantly, he was in the thick of the major struggles in the 1950s that forged the Alliance into a fighting machine. He helped to overcome a deeply anti-communist sentiment found within the ranks of our movement at the time. As a founder member of the ANC Youth League, comrade Walter had shared the same original anti-communist sentiments of the early leadership collective. But, and sooner than some of the others, through concrete struggles and working together with communist giants like Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Yusuf Dadoo and Michael Harmel, he gradually changed his attitude.

Indeed, in his last year, comrade Walter chose to reveal his longstanding association with the communist party to his biographer and daughter-in-law, Elinor. After its banning in 1950, the Party was reconstituted in 1953 in the deep underground. Cde Sisulu was recruited in 1955, and later became a member of the Central Committee.

Comrade Walter, the communist - this is a story that will, at some stage, have to be told in its fullness.

In 1960, he was centrally involved in the launching of the armed struggle. Arrested, finally, at Rivonia, he joined Cde Mandela in making a brave, defiant speech from the dock, fully expecting to be sentenced to death. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and served, mostly on Robben Island, for 25 years. Together with his fellow-inmates, he refused to be broken by the barbarism of the prison regime. With his comrades, he struggled to transform prison into what became known as the “people’s university”, conducting political classes and, later, teaching the younger cadres about the ANC and what it stood for. In honour of these traditions, and of this giant, the SACP pledges to continue conducting political classes as an integral part of our struggle to transform our country and build a better life for all.

Cde Walter Sisulu must surely rank as one of the greatest unifiers in our movement, a patient listener and a caring revolutionary. Some of us had the opportunity to work with him in the midst of the bitterest violence unleashed by the apartheid regime (in collaboration with the IFP) in the killing fields of KwaZulu Natal. The gravity of the situation threw up very sharp tactical differences within the ANC itself in that province in the late 1980s and early 1990s. How much emphasis should be placed on trying to talk peace with the IFP and the police? Or should the emphasis be on building self-defence structures? The two options were not necessarily in contradiction, but there was a great deal of disagreement on how to combine the two, and on the relative weight to be placed on each. Cde Mandela and the national executive committee of the ANC sent Cde Walter on more than one occasion to assist. He patiently listened to all points of view and was a great facilitator in trying to build a common strategic and tactical approach in one of the most difficult moments in the history of our revolution. Some of us were fascinated by his ability to engage a militant like the late Cde Harry Gwala, we were impressed at how the latter would sit and listen to his counsel and views. That was Cde Walter Sisulu at work!

In the midst of all this, Sisulu was a loving husband, father, and grandfather. Our hearts go out to Mama Sisulu, a leader in her own right and a pillar of strength to younger activists, and to the Sisulu family.

A thoroughly democratic South Africa is the best monument that we can build in honour of Comrade Walter. Let us honour him by deepening the struggle for a better life for all, and most critically by tackling, collectively, the twin challenges of jobs and poverty eradication. As the SACP we won’t be found wanting in this regard!

In honour of May Day heroes  

South Africa was shocked by the tragic death on 2003 May Day of more than 50 workers, many of whom belonging to SAMWU, a COSATU affiliate. The working class movement in our country and internationally cannot dare forget these working class heroes who died in a tragic bus accident near Bethlehem in the Free State Province. The bus was taking them from Kimberley to a May Day rally in Qwaqwa. What should have been a joyful celebration of workers' day turned into a disaster, when the bus plunged into a dam.

The SACP is humbled by the decision of all the bereaved families to agree to a joint mass funeral to be held in Kimberley on Sunday 11 May 2003. It is also befitting that COSATU called a week of mourning, to last until all the funerals have taken place. COSATU has met with business organisations asking them to make pledges for financial assistance to the families of those who lost their lives in the Bethlehem bus disaster. In a moving and historic meeting, close to 50 individuals representing 29 South African companies committed a total amount of R1 536 550, 00 was pledged.

The SACP calls on all its members and supporters to mourn the death of these comrades. The SACP also calls on all its members and all South Africans to support these efforts. The SACP also calls for a full and speedy investigation in order to determine the cause of this accident.

The tragic death of these comrades happened on a day when we not only celebrated nine years of democratic rule but also commemorated the lives of many workers who have died in a struggle for decent working and living conditions.

The SACP commits itself to forever treasure and honour the memory of these comrades as soldiers who died on duty. May Day is about celebrating the achievements and victories of the workers. However at the same time it is more than a celebration. It is an occasion for workers to reflect and recommit themselves to the challenges and struggles lying ahead. Therefore for the SACP attendance at May Day activities by workers is performance of a very important duty and participation in the furtherance of the workers' struggles.

As we honour these fallen comrades, the SACP commits itself to continue a just and moral fight against poverty, joblessness and injustice; and the militant traditions that characterise May Day in the workers' movement internationally - the demand for an 8-hour working day, the struggle for fair labour conditions, the struggle for a living wage and the struggle for heath and safety rights at work.

The best way to honour the memory of these comrades is for the working class to intensify its struggles and heighten the focus on the need for a safe, efficient and affordable public transport system in our country. It is the working class that is daily paying the highest price in the many road accidents in our country, largely attributable to the absence of a safe and efficient public transport system and lack of investment in this area. Perhaps it is time that we deliberately focus and re-launch a specific campaign, within the overall context of the campaign for building a strong, democratic and accountable public sector, on the urgent need for safe public transport in our country. The Growth and Development Summit provides just such an opportunity to seriously focus on significant investment by government and big capital on public transport infrastructure.

When South Africa's history is told, these comrades would have died on duty, serving the cause of the working class.

We urge as many people as possible to make a contribution to this fund so that our comrades can be buried in dignity. All those who are able to make a donation should make a deposit to:

People's Bank
Worker's Day Relief Fund
A/C Number 2947 0000 13


White private capital is guilty of collaboration with the apartheid regime  

At its meeting on April 25th, the Politburo of the SACP had an opportunity to discuss the issues of the tabling of the final report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), reparations and private capital. The PB noted that the issue that had received most attention in the debates that followed the tabling of the TRC’s final report was the collusion of big business with the apartheid regime, and the role that private capital should play in reparations.

The PB broadly concurred with the arguments made by the President that we cannot adequately compensate victims of gross human rights violations under apartheid through monetary reparations. We therefore accept the gesture announced by the President of a payment of R30,000 to victims named in the TRC report as just that – a gesture – which we should strive to make our people understand. Yet at the same time, we must understand and empathise with the anger and desperation of some of the victims of gross human rights violations. A further complication in this regard is that millions of people, in fact black people in general, were in a variety of ways victims of apartheid, thus making it impossible to really compensate all by financial handouts. The only real form of compensation is to drive the implementation of the reconstruction and development programme to eradicate poverty and create a better life for all.

We agree also that we should be looking at building monuments and directing other forms of social assistance to victims of gross human rights violations, including medical support, bursaries and other such meaningful forms of support. There are very pressing needs in this regard.

While welcoming the heightened focus on the role of private capital in reparations, the PB believes it is imperative to guard against the danger that the principled objection to seeing monetary compensation as the major form of response to apartheid oppression, does not slide into becoming a defence of “our” capitalist corporations against “interfering American courts”. We must also be vigilant against any tendency towards “reconciliation through amnesia” with private capital. In this respect, what appeared to be the reaction of capital to the debate on the tabling of the TRC report is a cause for some concern. The share price of companies threatened with litigation in the US rose and a number of commentators suggested that business was now off the hook. We cannot afford to allow business to think that it has licence to continue with “business as usual”.

We need to remind ourselves that in the TRC’s special hearings on the Role of Business held in November 1997, the ANC, SACP and COSATU all made submissions. Together these advanced a compelling case that private capital was actively complicit both in the creation and in the sustaining of the system of oppression and exploitation that developed under colonialism and apartheid. There are a number of dimensions to this.

First, several of the most important measures of national oppression associated with colonialism and apartheid were instruments of exploitation directed at the black working class. Pass laws, the closed compound system in the mining industry, Masters and Servants Acts, influx control regulations and racially discriminatory land and labour laws were all introduced at the behest of capital to create and sustain a low paid black labour force for the benefit of private capital.

Second, several of the large corporations and wealthy property owners active in the South African economy today owe their power and wealth to state patronage and support by the apartheid regime. Sanlam, Rembrandt and Absa bank were all closely associated with the apartheid regime and all owe their present power and wealth to “affirmative tendering” and other forms of state support after 1948. White landowners and many smaller white owned businesses also owe their current wealth and economic power directly to measures which provided them with exclusive, racially defined, privileged access to land, prime business sites and access to business opportunities.

Third, that was direct collusion of significant sections of private capital in the militarisation, and associated repression and aggression, during the period of P.W.Botha’s “total strategy”. More than 1.200 companies benefited from contracts in the regime’s armaments industry, while top businessmen served on structures associated with advancing the “total strategy”.

Fourth there was active collusion in the repression of workers’organisations. The ANC, SACP and Cosatu submissions all documented how private capital had made no objection to the policy of “bleeding black trade unions to death” embarked on by the apartheid regime in the 1950s and 1960s. Private capital was not prevented by law from paying wages higher than the prevailing minimum, yet by and large chose not to do so. When black trade unions began to re-emerge after the 1973 mass strikes, private capitals’ initial reaction was to call in the police to repress worker organization, and to actively collude in promoting dummy bodies like Works and Liaison Councils favoured by the regime. It was only when workers had achieved sufficient strength on the ground to make such strategies unviable that capital finally accepted the necessity to begin bargaining with unions.

In the hearings representatives of private capital attempted to portray themselves as having to accommodate to a system not of their liking, and in some cases even as “victims” of apartheid. All they could point to back up such preposterous assertions were the “hassles” of having to accommodate themselves to “job reservation” regulations implemented to benefit racist white labour organizations. Some also pointed to the later distancing of big capital from the Botha regime – after it had become apparent that the balance of forces had shifted and that the regime’s “total strategy” would not be able to save racist minority rule.

Significantly, the TRC rejected this line of argument. While apartheid had created minor “hassles” for capital it would rather not have had, it also for many decades sustained conditions of exploitation of black workers that directly benefited the bottom line of capitalist accumulation. The TRC also found that “The denial of trade union rights to black workers constituted a violation of human rights. Actions taken against trade unions by the state, at times with the collusion of certain businesses, frequently led to gross violations of human rights”. At the same time, the TRC chided the business sector for “fail[ing], in the hearings, to take responsibility for its involvement in state security initiatives…specifically designed to sustain apartheid rule”. The TRC found that “several businesses…benefited directly from their involvement in the complex web that constituted the military industry”.

Capital, in short, is definitely not off the hook. It has been indicted for, and found culpable of, collusion in gross human rights violations associated with apartheid oppression and exploitation. The only real debate, in our view, is how to respond.

While the SACP understands the activities of those pursuing class actions against some “South African” (some of them now having their primary listing overseas) companies for compensation, for us the fundamental issue is not individual compensation. Ours is to broaden the notion of reparation, particularly by private capital, to focus on how we cajole, pressurize, regulate and direct the massive resources in the hands of private capital, and eventually transform the current accumulation path, towards the growth and development of our economy to address the very pressing socio-economic needs.

In a way our arguments for a growth and development strategy, including an industrial strategy and an active developmental state are about reparations, but in the broader developmental sense. This is where the SACP will focus most of its energies and engagement with government, labour and our people in general around the reparations debate. It also means the mobilization of our people to put pressure on private capital to prioritise job-creating domestic investments. We will of course need further reflection on this matter, and the forthcoming Growth and Development Summit provides just such an opportunity to take forward this conception of reparations – reparations understood as a state-led, working class driven mobilization of domestic resources towards reconstruction and development.


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