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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 2, No. 4, 5 March 2003

In this Issue:


Red Alert

New Possibilities for a Progressive Global Politics

By Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

The recent massive mobilisation of close to 10 million people across the world against the pending US-led war on Iraq raises several critical issues for the international communist movement which necessitate a broader strategic understanding and analysis of recent developments globally.

The November 2002 and February 2003 meetings of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party (SACP) have advanced a general thesis that over the past year there has been a significant shift within the global reality. In particular, the posture and stance of the US has become more aggressive, more militarised, more unilateralist, more protectionist, less nuanced in its imperialist ambitions. This shift is NOT a rupture with the underlying and persisting realities of a century-and-a-quarter of imperialism, but it does mark the end of a particular phase within imperialism. The previous phase, lasting just over a decade, began around 1990, with the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. It was dominated by the illusion of "benign globalisation" and two major ideological discourses - an economic discourse of limitless growth through neo-liberal alignment (the Washington consensus); and a political discourse of "transitions to democracy".

This analysis advances perspectives on new prospects and possibilities for a progressive global politics based on an analysis of what happened to a variety of progressive political currents in the 1990s.

Progressive Political Currents in the 1990s

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the general (but not complete) fragmentation of progressive, left-wing, working class, radical third-world, socialist and communist forces. Of course we should not exaggerate the unity of these forces prior to 1990, but the left project (in its various forms) was seriously and further fractured globally in this period. In the SACP we have sought to analyse and understand the main features of this fragmentation. We have argued that it was both the consequence and cause of a series of inter-related factors:

  • The (almost entirely peaceful) collapse of the Soviet-aligned state system;
  • The hollowing out of the post-1945 social democratic project that had spearheaded post-war recovery in many developed capitalist economies;
  • The post-independence weaknesses of many (formerly) radical, progressive third-world movements/governments.
  • The global assault by transnational corporations and neo-liberal governments on the working class, particularly its most unionised sections - retrenchments, casualisation, disinvestment, etc.

To generalise in a somewhat sweeping way, the above resulted in:

  • Disappearance of, turmoil in, or painful, defensive re-building of many Communist parties. Obviously there are very important exceptions (China, India, Cuba, and, on a lesser but significant note, SA), but generally Communist Parties, where they continued to exist, found themselves on the back-foot for most of the 1990s, defending a working class politics on the basis of a numerically diminishing traditional working class constituency. The ability to advance a pro-active, forward-looking global strategic perspective was severely limited;
  • Many of the major social democratic parties adopted neo-liberal policies - with varying degrees of enthusiasm (UK, Australia) - others defended, but in a largely reactive way, an eroding welfare state. With the exception of some interesting, perhaps temporary, experiments (France), social democracy has been unable to develop any effective fresh global strategic perspectives. The shallowness of the "third way" of Schroder and Blair stands exposed by the rigours of the post-Clinton phase. The major social democratic parties have also contributed to and suffered from electoral shifts and negative currents among the populations of the developed world - xenophobia, short-termism, political apathy.
  • The continued degeneration of many (most?) radical national liberation movements in the South - Zimbabwe being one of many emblematic examples.
  • The international trade union movement - positively surpassing much of its Cold War divisions, but largely fighting defensive battles.

Again to generalise, in the above conditions, the baton of global popular mobilisation and of anti-systemic politics has swung powerfully (and one-sidedly) towards social movement and NGO politics - what is sometimes called the "new left" (but which properly belongs to an old tradition - anarcho-syndicalism, cooperative socialism, etc etc), as opposed to the so-called "old left" (communism, social democracy, trade unions, and third world national liberation movements). Some of the main tendencies (found in varying measures) of this social movement/NGO current include:

  • An inclination towards anti-politics politics - a mistrust of institutionalised politics (parliament, the state, multi-lateral inter-state formations)
  • A focus on single-issue campaigns
  • The use of informal networking, rather than more formalised institutional structures
  • A preference for direct action tactics, or oppositionist lobbying
  • An imaginative and creative use of media, and also the new internet possibilities

As the "old left", we need to understand and appreciate the many positive features of this significant global current. Often better than other political/left traditions, this global wave of social movement mobilisation has punctured the myth of "benign globalisation" (with Seattle, Genoa, etc. being key moments).

Its strength is, in many ways, a symptom of the 1990s crisis and strategic uncertainty of the other major left traditions. Much of the activism it has mobilised has often been around areas where there are institutional failures, prevarication, inertia by otherwise progressive governments (eg. HIV/AIDS treatment in SA).

But it also has characteristic negative tendencies:

  • While its diffuse pluralism has enabled it to emerge organically and spontaneously in the midst of the complex 1990s, its diffuseness is also a strategic weakness. What unites many of these forces is often a negative single-issue ("anti-globalisation", or, to apply this kind of politics to a local reality, "anti-Mugabism"), and its ability to advance a positive, strategic programme of transformation is often very limited. Anti-globalisation forces might include workers from the developed north wanting more protectionism for ageing, non-competitive industrial sectors and third-world rural movements struggling for more equitable global trade and the dismantling of protectionism in the North. They might all march at Seattle, but their shared strategic objectives, beyond protesting against current realities, is often very limited, or non-existent. (Similar contradictions would apply to the forces making up the largely social movement originated MDC in Zimbabwe)
  • The tendency to renounce formal politics often means that bourgeois state power is left largely uncontested - (Marx's old complaint against anarchism). Relatively vibrant and progressive, but dispersed, social movement politics have long been a feature of US politics, while corporation driven politics occupies the commanding heights of institutional politics, largely unchallenged (in the US the pluralistic social movement traditions are more a symptom than a cause of this capitalist monopoly of the formal institutions.)
  • The social movement/NGO popular movements are, by and large, left-leaning and progressive. However, their orientation and political agendas are contested, including by imperialist circles, and also by an "old", i.e. sometimes very sectarian, ultra-left. There are many examples where their overall strategic role has been reactionary or negatively divisive.

New emerging realities

There are now very important new factors that are making a broader and more strategic global left agenda both more essential and more possible, surpassing the one-sided dominance of social movement/NGO popular mobilisation, without undermining the many positive features of this movement.

Prime among these new factors is the militaristic, aggressive, unilateralist posture of the Bush Administration and the impending war on Iraq. The Bush agenda has

  • Sharpened intra-imperialist contradictions, on a scale perhaps unprecedented since 1945;
  • opened up contradictions between the US administration and the major social democratic formations (in continental Europe) and within social democratic parties (Blair versus his own Party) - these contradictions are partly related to the intra-imperialist contradictions, and partly about a struggle over the kind of human civilisation we are trying to build
  • sharpened anti-imperialist sentiments rallying a range of formations spread across third-world liberation movements/ states, social movements in the North and South, and the communist left Bush and the most reactionary international elements have attempted to use the tragedy of September 11th to shape a new global agenda (which was up their sleeves all along). This agenda is opening very significant space for an alternative agenda of global solidarity with the following principal points of focus:
  • peace - in the Middle East, but also internationally (including, therefore, DRC, Burundi, Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire)
  • international multi-lateralism and against unilateralism
  • war on poverty, on the crisis of under-development.

Our role as the ANC-led alliance

All of the above underlines the many possibilities and responsibilities of our ANC-led alliance in galvanising forces nationally, but also internationally to strengthen a progressive global agenda. Two points need emphasising:

  • The core themes (peace, multi-lateralism, war on poverty) are precisely the core themes of our own post-1994 strategic agenda.
  • The ANC-led movement has within its traditions and resources a collective experience of all of the principal progressive traditions (communist, social democratic, labour, social movement, NGO, and, of course, radical third world nationalism) upon which we need to draw in order to advance a unifying left global agenda. In SA we now combine both broad movement and state power experience and resources. (Alongside of newly elected Brazilian president, Lula da Silva and the left alliance he heads, we have unique resources, and a strategic capacity and responsibility in helping to define and rally a progressive left global agenda.)

The role of the SACP

The SACP, for its part, has a responsibility to help to contribute to ensure that, collectively, we rise to the challenges of these emerging realities. In fact, the new situation is creating conditions in which, precisely, we are able to confidently affirm and follow the leadership of the ANC.

One of the important contributions we can make as the SACP is to highlight the need for a thoroughly dialectical approach to the challenges confronting the world at this time. One-sided emphases, partial truths that are exaggerated (all of which have been a feature of the recent past), will hobble the possibilities for boldly advancing a progressive global agenda :

  • We need to assert the need for both North-South "partnerships" (an important social democratic theme, dating back to at least Willie Brandt and Olaf Palme - and taken up in NEPAD) AND consistent anti-imperialism (a centre-piece of Leninism). The global integration of economies, the disappearance of an alternative political/military/trading bloc makes engagement with the North inevitable and therefore imperative. The deepening intra-imperialist contradictions, the groundswell of progressive social movements in the North, and the struggle for multi-lateralism (including balanced and equitable multi-lateralism in the global economic institutions) all create favourable factors in the struggle for more progressive North-South partnerships. However, the advocacy of North-South partnership based on the illusions of a "benign globalisation", or on Gorbachevian (i.e. anti-Leninist) notions of class-free human values will lead (have already led) to confusion and misplaced investment of energies.
  • We need to assert a consistent and strategic anti-imperialism - one that is not demagogic, chauvinistic, or backward. Our condemnation of an impending US war on Iraq is not a vote of confidence in Saddam Hussein.
  • We need to assert the need for unity between progressive governments (our own in the first place) and progressive social movements. As we have noted over the last several years, we (particularly government) have often mishandled or neglected our engagement and interaction with a range of (potentially) progressive social movements, treating them as the "enemy", abandoning them to sectarian take-overs, etc. More than ever, we must close ranks as much as possible, offering dynamic (not bureaucratic command) leadership, and we must rapidly address needless areas of prevarication (HIV/AIDS treatment, for example). We need to engage with the WTO and Porto Alegre.
  • We need to assert the importance of a basic macro-economic stability and sustainability in a country like our own as a critical measure for ensuring relative national self-determination in the conditions of our new epoch. Macro stability for this strategic objective, but, critically and fundamentally, ONLY for this objective. Macro stabilisation must be supported (in South Africa, as in Brazil), but its objectives must never be confused with a neo-liberal agenda.

Ongoing mass mobilisation in the coming months against war in the Middle East offers a major opportunity to take forward in practice the agenda sketched out above.

As the SACP we are convinced that these developments mark the opening of new spaces for intensified actions against capitalist globalisation and to deepen the struggle for a just world order. It is time now for concrete action to consolidate this resistance.

Another important development we need to strengthen and build upon is that of the gradual regrouping of communist and workers' parties across the world , as expressed by, amongst other things, the important initiative of a series of the Athens' meetings and the growing electoral support for many communist parties in the former Eastern Bloc countries. This is a positive sign that some communist forces are now gradually overcoming the initial hesitancy and uncertainties that characterised the early 1990's in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Our task, as communists, is to ensure that we effectively insert a socialist agenda into these globalised mass struggles, as socialism is the only rational and humane alternative to capitalist barbarism. Most importantly these struggles pose a challenge that were turn to the communist basics: to consistently take up issues affecting ordinary people, the need to forge alliances with progressive mass formations, the rebuilding of a militant labour movement and forge international solidarity through concrete action. The SACP is firmly of the view that the urgent and necessary discussion of, and convergence towards a platform for international socialist and progressive action will be critical in achieving these aims.

Building Co-operatives is critical to Job Creation and Poverty Eradication in South Africa  

In opening the second democratic parliament in June 1999, President Thabo Mbeki said "The Government will… place more emphasis on the development of a co-operative movement to combine the financial, labour and other resources among the masses of the people, rebuild our communities and engage the people in their own development through sustainable economic activity."

President Mbeki took this forward in his State of the Nation Address on 14 February, when he announced that "The development and support for small and medium business and the cooperative sector remains a priority for government. Accordingly, more financial and other resources will be committed to the development of this sector of our economy."

These commitments have been the central demands in the SACP-led campaign to transform and diversify the financial sector in our country. "Government must take urgent steps to develop and pass appropriate legislation in order to establish address adequate policy, legal and financial frameworks for the building and strengthening of co-operatives, co-operative and public banking sectors", read the SACP memorandum submitted to government in October 2000 (through 14 mass marches during the 2000 Red October Campaign).

But very few people in our country understand the concept and potential impact that co-operatives have in changing our country's economy. In the media, there has been very little attention paid to these commitments and recent developments in this regard.

What are co-operatives? How do they work? How can co-operatives contribute to job creation, poverty eradication, skills development and infrastructure development? What are the obstacles facing co-operatives in South Africa? What are government departments doing to promote co-operatives?

Convergence on Co-operatives

The 2003 State of the Nation commitment builds on a resolution adopted by the 51st National Conference of the ANC to build co-operatives. It also follows on resolutions and decisions made by the 2002 11th Congress of the SACP, the 1999 SACP Strategy Conference, the 2000 ANC National General Council, the 2000 Congress of COSATU, and the Ekurhuleni Alliance Summit in April 2002 which all passed resolutions to build a progressive co-operative movement as part of an overall growth and development strategy.

The NEDLAC-convened Summit on the Financial Sector (held in August 2002) agreed on the process and framework to develop legislation to promote co-operative banks.

All these highlights represent an important convergence on co-operatives. In addition, there is a growing awareness in many South African communities and mass-based organisations of the potential of cooperatives. A study published in 2001 by the National Co-operative Association of South Africa (NCASA) estimates a total of 60 000 participants in co-operative enterprises. Economically, the co-operative movement is still small in our country. A recent survey of 654 co-operatives in South Africa found that their aggregate turnover was R1,3 billion - however, this figure falls to a mere R84 million if the agricultural sector co-operatives from the previous era are excluded.

There has been a long tradition of co-operatives within the dominant classes. Emerging Afrikaner capital, in particular, used co-operative enterprises, especially for the marketing of agricultural products. This sector still dominates significant segments of production and marketing in our economy, and largely excludes the black working class and rural poor from any active co-management, or significant benefits.

Various forms of co-operative survival activity have, however, long been a feature among the oppressed majority, especially among black women. The urban and rural poor have sustained various savings co-operatives, for instance - stokvels, burial societies, savings clubs. Outstanding women communists, like Dora Tamana, played a pioneering role in establishing food purchasing co-operatives, and child-care co-operatives in the 1940s. There have also been more recent attempts from within the democratic and worker movements to establish co-operatives, including production co-operatives - often in response to mass retrenchments. Important, but limited, successes have been achieved. Lessons learned in all of these experiences are important for our ongoing struggle to build a vibrant co-operative sector.

The potential of co-operatives

Co-operatives are not a panacea, nor are co-operatives necessarily progressive - as the established capitalist-based, agricultural co-operatives from the previous era remind us. However, co-operatives owned and controlled democratically by the urban and rural poor have an enormous potential:

Co-operatives can be an important response to the poverty crisis in our society - they offer a feasible strategy to pool scare resources, collectivise efforts and help to build sustainable local communities.

Co-operatives can play (are already playing) an important role in empowering urban and rural poor women - providing a more equitable response to the burden of unpaid re-productive labour. In the face of deepening unemployment and the HIV/AIDS pandemic this burden is likely to increase.

Significant strategic emphasis has recently (and correctly) been placed on fostering black-owned small, micro and medium-sized enterprises (SMMEs). However, the model for these enterprises has often assumed a single owner-entrepreneur, and the tacit assumption is even sometimes that every owner-entrepreneur should be an aspirant Harry Oppenheimer or Bill Gates. These assumptions set up the great majority of SMMEs for failure. The pooling of limited resources through the co-operative approach, and the strategic orientation to different objectives (sustainable livelihoods and community development) are, we believe, more likely to provide an effective basis, in many cases, for SMME success.

Co-operatives are extremely important for the social values that they can help to nurture. Co-operatives build on traditions of collective endeavour, they are more attuned to the spirit of vuk' uzenzele (than free market competition). Progressive co-operatives can build the economic power of workers and the poor.

The co-operative model of enterprise is conceptually simple and is based on combining with others in a collectively owned and democratically controlled enterprise. A co-operative is broadly defined as an autonomous association of persons who voluntarily join together to meet their economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through the formation of a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. This is a universally accepted definition used by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Co-operative are distinguished by values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity; democratic member control; member economic participation; co-operation among co-operatives and concern for community. As shown in the examples of stokvels, for the economically disempowered communities, co-operatives are especially appropriate because they: -

  • Are often the only available effective means for increasing their economic and social well-being. It provides better control of their economic conditions
  • Combine resources, however limited, so that these become operationally effective
  • Manage common resources efficiently
  • Ensure that returns accrue only to member-owners, remain under their joint control and are used primarily for reinvestment
  • Establish formal legal status, thereby protecting common assets and facilitating operation in the formal market
  • Provide of access to formal auditing, thereby encouraging confidence among members and customers

For example, the fact that there are more than 14 200 spaza shops in the Cape Peninsula means that there is a basis for a wholesaler owned as a co-operative enterprises by these spaza shops instead of the fragmented manner in which they currently buy their supplies. The building of such a wholesale co-operative would shorten the food chain and, through bulk buying, contribute to lower prices for the spaza shops and their customers who come from poor communities which have been negatively affected by the increase in food prices during 2002.

Problems faced by Co-operatives

Operating, as they have to, in a capitalist-market dominated environment, and in communities beset with huge problems of under-development, progressive co-operatives face many challenges. However, the democratic breakthrough of 1994, and the ongoing consolidation of progressive state power, create conditions in which a progressive co-operative movement can flourish.

The principal problems faced by progressive co-operatives are:

  • inappropriate existing legislation governing co-operatives. The legislation was enacted by the apartheid regime to promote marketing co-operatives among white commercial farmers;
  • the existing banking and broader financial sector is completely inadequate for the developmental challenges facing our country (as noted in the section on transforming the financial sector above). Co-operatives, like other SMMEs, battle to get effective funding.
  • When co-operatives somehow manage to leap the hurdle, and obtain financing, it is often "over-geared", i.e. the co-operative is saddled with a huge debt repayable at high rates of interest. Small enterprises in developed countries are often initially funded partly by the state, and/or partly through the mobilisation of personal savings. The urban and rural in South Africa general lack adequate "own finance" when starting enterprises - hence the dangers of "over-gearing".

Co-operatives and Black Economic Empowerment

Let us take the case of residents of ward 08 in the Amahlathi municipality in the Eastern Cape who, through a community workshop, identified that they could create jobs and develop their skills by building co-operatives in Dairy Production, Sowing, Tourism, Bread Baking, Animal Husbandry, Agricultural Production, Consumer Shop, Firewood and Construction.

With regards to consumption of goods, the community identified that the key problem is access to, and prices of basic consumer goods. Unemployment is widespread in the Ward. In 1996, only 9,7% of the community was formally employed. Added to this, is high transport costs to buy goods in King William's Town (40km away) and Keiskammahoek (12km away but with insufficient supplies) make economic access to, and competitive pricing of, basic consumer goods a priority for residents. There are also a few formal and informal shops which exist in the ward. These are struggling themselves. They are far from homes and do not sell a wide range of goods and often they are expensive.

The community agreed that the solution lied in the building of a need-oriented, community-owned, community-controlled, co-operative retail shop.

The community would obtain savings through bulk buying. The co-operative will also, over time, develop a network structure to encourage the cooperative participation of members in the supply of value-added goods while remaining geared to promoting the primary objective which is for members to obtain good quality consumer products at competitive prices within walking distance of their homes.

The co-operative retail shop would be owned by all households in the community who decide to join on the basis of rules and procedures decided by the community. In essence, through membership to the co-operative retail shop the community is buying easier access to lower cost consumer goods with local ownership and control with an added drive to empower the community and contribute to broader community development. As soon as these retail co-ops multiply in other wards and turnover volumes increase, further price advantages could be obtained through workers' cooperatives which could undertake packaging and small scale manufacture at the level of the entire municipality (done from a centre such as Keiskammahoek and Stutterheim).

The Sample Business Plan that community leaders are working on is based on each family in the ward joining the shop at a cost of R30 joining fee. The Sample Business Plan also proposes monthly subscriptions of R5 paid by each family. The Sample Business Plan assumes that in the initial period the shop will get support from 500 families each family buying on average for R200 a month. The theoretical annual income calculated in the Sample Business Plan is R1 466 660 million with net profits of R184 060 after operating costs (R1 221 100 million) and capital costs (R61 500) have been deducted. For a community of its size, the net profits are substantial and they can be used for local investments, saving for the future and contributing to the growth of other co- operatives.

We go to this extent to elaborate the Amahlathi example in order to provide the concrete potential that co-operatives have to empower communities in a real way (economically and in terms of decision-making) and thus help the debate on the broadened concept of Black Economic Empowerment. The SACP is convinced that there is enormous potential in South Africa for cooperative and other collective, community based ventures. These would have enormous benefits in their own right. They would enable many of the most marginalised in our society, including rural women and people involved in small scale, survivalist activities to combine resources and create a basis for the more effective channeling of resources. Therefore BEE programmes and funds have to create space for the development of cooperative and other collective ventures.

What is to be done?

In government, the processes led by the Department of Trade and Industry to enact appropriate legislation and an enabling policy framework (to create the appropriate environment for the building and sustaining of a vibrant, progressive co-operative movement) must be consolidated and finalised during this year. Later this month, the DTI will be hosting a National Consultative Workshop on a Co-operative Development Policy and Strategy for South Africa.

In all government departments and in all spheres of government, building and sustaining a co-operative movement must enjoy strategic emphasis. In existing awarding of tenders guidelines, for instance, BEE small businesses are mentioned, but without any reference to black-owned and controlled co-operatives. In this regard, the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality has led the way by deciding during last year that 30% of its tenders will be awarded to community owned co-operatives. The same municipality is also supporting a process to build a Co-operative Development Centre to service co-operatives in the municipality.

Following the opening of parliament, the Department of Labour has also called for research proposals on the impact that co-operatives can make in job creation.

Progressive co-operatives must be given the necessary recognition and preference, including access to what must become a much more extensive programme of public works.

Government and parastatals must direct funding towards the progressive co-operative sector - start-up funding, poverty alleviation funds, research and development, and state assistance with marketing are all possible and necessary. Land restitution and land reform measures must be much more aligned with a co-operative enterprise approach.

Internationally, successful co-operative movements have often been linked directly with a network of co-operative banks. Partly linked to this, we need to more effectively consider ways of mobilising and co-ordinating finance that is already held in stokvels, burial societies, savings clubs, etc.

Central in all of these is the implementation of the NEDLAC Financial Sector Summit agreement.

At the end of the day, however, the success of a progressive co-operative movement will depend on the mobilisation, the initiative and resourcefulness of millions of working people and the urban and rural poor.


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