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Building co-operatives as a concrete expression of building peopleís power in the economy

All the Tripartite Alliance partners have a programmatic commitment to building co-operatives. The SACP 10th Party Congress adopted a Programme of Action, which asserts the imperative of building co-operatives. COSATUís September Commission has also called for the development of a social and economic sector in which co-operatives predominate. The last Alliance Summit in 1998 adopted Unity in Action programme, which placed co-operatives on the political agenda of the Alliance. A commitment to co-operatives also found expression in the Presidential Jobs Summit in the final Declaration. The ANCís manifesto makes reference to co-operatives.

This commitment to co-operatives has been further reinforced in President Thabo Mbekiís state of the nation address of Parliament this year. On this matter he said:

The Government will also 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 (25/06/1999).

In addition the Department of Trade and Industry, a move that the SACP warmly welcomes have given this by the establishment of a chief directorate on co-operatives.

The question of the development of co-operatives should be taken as one of the key strategic objectives of the SACP and indeed the Alliance as whole during this period. For us as the SACP a commitment to the development of a co-operative movement is of fundamental strategic importance in translating our slogan "Build Peopleís Power, Build Socialism Now". It is a concrete programme that would enable us also to concretely develop an alternative mode of economic production and social co-operation. In particular the development of a co-operative movement would contribute towards shifting the conception and programmes around small, medium and micro enterprises away from focusing on individual entrepreneurial activity to collective community production.

In our concrete economic conditions in South Africa, the co-operatives have an important role to play in fighting unemployment and poverty, but within the context of developing alternative forms of empowering communities and our people as a whole. In this context local communities, trade unions, local and provincial governments are best placed to utilise co-ops as part of a sustainable economic development strategy.

What are co-operatives?

Co-operatives are versatile economic enterprise and can be established across every sector of the economy. Banks, manufacturing plants, farms, mines and so on can be managed and run through co-operatives. However, precisely because of their versatility co-operatives are not inherently progressive, much as their structure makes it possible to be so. Co-operatives have developed in various societies taking different forms and playing roles ranging from the most reactionary to being an instrument for social revolution in favour of the mass of the ordinary people.

In the same way, much as co-operatives have been used as a means to challenge capitalism, this has not always been the case. In many countries the resolution of the contradiction defining the capital-labour relationship through co-operatives has amounted to a defence of capitalism. In fact co-operatives were used as part of General Francoís economic strategy in Spain. Ian Smithís regime in Zimbabwe used co-operatives to try and establish a buffer of "middle" peasants to fight guerilla incursions during the national liberation struggle. In the United States they were being used as part of low intensity warfare strategies in Guatemala. In South Africa the apartheid regime used co-operatives to also help alleviate the "poor white problem".

In a number of other instances the contradictory character of co-operatives arises out of the fact that instead of challenging the exploitative and oppressive order, co-operatives become shock-absorbers for the poor and the unemployed, whilst leaving the dominant structures of accumulation intact. In such instances they gradually become simultaneously integrated and marginalised by the dominant mode of accumulation. But at the same there is a wealth of experience where co-operatives can act as political schools for the working class and the landless rural masses in co-operative production, ownership and management

In short, co-operatives existing by themselves within capitalist economies and isolated from the tactical and strategic framework of progressive forces are doomed to either degenerate or collapse. However this does not mean that co-operatives are not viable and cannot be a part of a wider strategic response to transcending capitalism.

Therefore the most important feature of co-operatives is that they themselves become an expression of class contestations of the character of modern society. This should however be regarded as a challenge so that these co-operatives are understood and located within the strategic objectives of the broader progressive and socialist forces.

Different types of co-operatives in South Africa

In South Africa today there are broadly four kinds of experiences or types of co-operatives. The first two are those that have been historically created at the behest of the apartheid regime, whilst the third and fourth types are made up of massive ordinary co-operative activities by the working class and the poor.

The first one exists in white "organised agriculture". Essentially 250 agricultural co-operatives exist within white organised agriculture with about 142 000 members, total assets of some R12, 7 bn, total turnover of some R22, 5bn, and annual pre-tax profits of more than R500m (Amin and Bernstein, LAPC, 1995). According to this study agricultural co-operatives handle all exports of citrus and deciduous fruit, handle and/or process the entire wool clip, and market 90% of dried fruit.

The success story of white agricultural co-ops goes back to 1933, when they were used as part of state policy in order to develop agriculture and promote rural development. Since then, the policy and regulatory environment that was established ensure that white farmers had a high share of marketed output and dominance in agriculture. These co-operatives were a vital component in building the economic power of rural and poor Afrikaners in particular.

The second type of co-op is that found in the former bantustans. During the apartheid era separate legislation was enacted for co-operative development in the bantustans as an attempt to create a small, highly dependent petty bourgeoisie with a stake in the bantustan system. However, most of these co-ops merely existed on paper, or were tightly controlled by bantustan bureaucratic ruling elite and thus never really made a significant economic impact and quickly collapsed with the end of the apartheid regime. Though statistics are unreliable, the LAPC estimates that there are about 214 such co-operatives still in existence.

The third experience of co-operatives is those owned and controlled by democratic trade unions. Examples of these are the NUMSA co-op in Howick established in 1985 and NUM co-ops. The emergence of these co-ops has largely been a response to retrenchments and loss of jobs.

The fourth type is made up of a variety of thousands of stokvels, burial societies, co-operative taxi ventures like that in KZN and church-linked co-operatives. In addition there are a number of emerging co-operatives on the housing front. Together with the union co-operatives, these provide a fertile ground and foundation for building a strong and progressive co-operative movement in South Africa.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt out of these experiences is that apart from the need for sustained mobilisation of people, the attitude of, and resources provided by, the state is one critical component in the success or failure of co-ops. It is for this reason that without creating dependency on the state, the emphases that the Alliance and government are putting on this question is of vital importance. This perhaps creates a new environment within which the question of viable and effective co-ops needs to be explored seriously by our Party and the Alliance as a whole.

Building a co-operative movement

It is important that the SACP discusses and develops a concrete organisational strategy to embark on building of co-operative movement in South Africa. This should not be separated, but should be an integral part of the day-to-day work that our structures members are engaged in to accelerate transformation.

There are three important areas that the party has to engage itself in organisationally in order to contribute to the proper ideological and political direction of the co-operative movement in South Africa:

  1. Education within the party on worker co-operatives should be done in order to build awareness and develop activist capacity;
  2. Party branches have to take forward co-operative initiatives within communities, with unions, unemployed peoples organisations and so on both to advacne the practical development of a co-operative movement but also to ensure co-operatives have the proper socialist orientation;
  3. We need to work towards the convening of a Co-operative Movement Forum at a national level by the Alliance. Such a meeting should also include trade unions, civics, land reform movements, poor peoples movements, and NGOís that would provide co-ordination and the organisational infrastrucuture to build and drive the establioshment of a co-operative movement in the country.
  4. To work towards developing a policy capacity in this area, working together with the Alliance and NGOs

Some key areas of immediate attention should include the following:

  1. Systematic engagement with NGOs and other progressive organisations involved in this area
  2. Campaigning for the appropriate amendments to legislation dealing with co-operatives in order to cater for the establishment, resourcing and support to mass based co-operatives
  3. Effective engagement with Department of Trade and Industry, Provincial and Local Government in this regard
  4. Campaign for realignment of policy frameworks in the context of a number of policy delivery frameworks, in order to facilitate governmental support to such initiatives. This should include public works, restructuring of state assets, industrial policy, housing development and the state tender system, just to mention a few