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No 154 Second Quarter 2000


Published quarterly as a forum for Marxist-Leninist thought by the South African Communist Party


CONTENTS

EDITORIAL NOTES
Contemporary class struggles and the National Democratic Revolution

ARTICLE 1
The ANC NGC - reaffirming the revolutionary values of our movement. The African National Congress holds its National General Council this week under the slogan -ANC - people's revolutionary movement for transformation. This document presents a summary of political discussions, which took place at the June 2000 of the Politburo of the SACP.

ARTICLE 2
The question of the role of the progressive trade union movement in the current conjuncture - by Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

Other articles

(Not available on the here but from the hard copy of the AC on sale from SACP provincial offices and can be ordered via email).

1. The National Democratic Revolution and Class Struggle - by Joel Netshitenzhe

2. Intellectuals and the trade union movement - by Walter Mothapo

3. The Economic Kairos - by Cedric Mayson

4. SACP Strategy Conference report and resolutions

5. Militarisation in Southern Africa - by Vishwas Satgar and Jabu Dada

6. Zimbabwe elections: fudged ideologies - by Patrick Bond

7. Justice is timely - a reply to Tony Blair's third way - by Gregory Gysi

8. Forging the Iron Rice Bowl to the Sino-Soviet rift - by Pallo Jordan

9. The Young Person's Guide to the Global Crisis - book review by Matthew Willgress



EDITORIAL NOTES

Contemporary class struggles and the National Democratic Revolution

This issue of the African Communist reflects some of the progressive, left-wing ideological ferment that is once more in evidence here in South Africa, and indeed internationally. The decade of the 1990s began dismally for left-wing forces – the collapse of the Berlin Wall being the most dramatic symbol of a major world-historical set-back.

But the crisis and collapse of the former Soviet bloc was just one manifestation of the crisis of the left at that time. In Africa and through much of the Third World, the radical national democratic project had seemingly lost its way under the impact of structural adjustment programmes, internal bureaucratisation, and other weaknesses. By the beginning of the last decade this stagnation was already evident in a country like Zimbabwe. The sequel is playing itself out in our neighbouring country at present, and Patrick Bond contributes an interesting perspective in this issue on the complicated challenges facing the left in that country.

Ten years ago, that other significant left tradition, social democracy, was also in trouble even in those developed capitalist countries where it had become most entrenched. Globalisation and neo-liberal policies had undermined the social accord upon which social democracy had developed in the post-1945 period. In the course of the 1990s, however, social democracy has made something of a come-back, with centre-left political parties dominating most of the governments of the European Union. In some cases, notably in France where the Communist Party is in a governing alliance with the Socialist Party, there are extremely important attempts to re-vitalise the left project. In other cases, the electoral successes of social democratic and labour parties have resulted in extremely vague "third way" policies, designed, at best, to temper the worst excesses of neo-liberalism, without offering too many clear-cut alternatives.

In this issue, one of the leading intellectuals in the German Party of Democratic Socialism, George Gysi, analyses these developments, and underlines the importance of working for a modern socialist left, a challenge that requires that communists analyse the common ground as well as the differences amongst the broad left that has begun to re-emerge. If the decade of the 1990s began with the symbolic collapse of the Berlin Wall, it ended with Seattle. There is certainly more diversity, and less neo-liberal triumphalism now than ten years ago. Which does not mean, of course, that the neo-liberal juggernaut has now been defeated.

The renewed ferment, apparent in left and broad progressive circles internationally, is certainly present here within SA. Most of the articles in this issue reflect the strategic evaluation process that is happening within the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance. Joel Netshitenzhe, one of the leading intellectuals in the ANC reflects on the role of the working class in the national democratic struggle, as does SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, and Walter Mothapo of the National Union of Mineworkers looks at intellectuals in the struggle – alliance partners taking responsibility for each other, and for themselves.

This issue also coincides with the ANC’s major mid-term National General Council, with the recent completion of the SACP’s April Strategy Conference, and with COSATU’s imminent National Congress. There are a number of articles and documents that pick up on these major events.

Also heartening in the recent period has been the re-vitalisation of progressive religious circles, forces that played a major role in the liberation struggle here in South Africa. Amongst the recent results of this re-vitalisation is the development of an Economic Justice Kairos document (deliberately picking up and re-focusing the 1980s anti-apartheid and broader international liberation theology Kairos document). Cedric Mayson’s article in this issue analyses this development.

Finally, to go forward, we must also constantly return to our international past, learning critically from the strengths and weaknesses of our legacy. It is in this spirit that Pallo Jordan continues with his reflections on the Chinese Revolution.


ARTICLE 1

The ANC’s National General Council - Reaffirming the Revolutionary Values of our Movement

These notes are a summary of political discussions which took place at the June 2000 SACP Politburo meeting.

The African National Congress holds its National General Council in Port Elizabeth in mid-July under the slogan – "ANC – People’s Revolutionary Movement for Transformation. Forward to the African Century". For the SACP, and indeed, for all progressive, democratic forces in our country, the NGC is an immensely important event. The SACP will be sending a delegation of 30 to represent the Party at the NGC. Many hundreds of other communists will also be taking part as delegates from ANC structures, and other alliance delegations, including a 60-member strong COSATU delegation.

As is customary, the SACP will not go to this event with a "caucused" position, we will not hold communists to a particular mandate. We will expect communists to play an active and constructive role in the discussions. However, Party structures, including the Political Bureau of the Party, have debated (at the request of the ANC itself) the three major discussion papers prepared for the NGC.

The following represent some of the main points to emerge from, amongst other things, the PB’s discussion.

Reaffirming the ANC as the political centre

Within the ANC’s own regional and provincial discussions of the documents, a number of issues have been raised consistently. One such issue is a concern that economic policy is not featured adequately in the discussion papers. Since economic policy has been at the heart of much intra-ANC and intra-alliance debate in the last three and a half years, this is seen by many as a serious omission.

The SACP PB in its discussion of the papers agreed that this may well be the case – and we will return to the economic debate below. However, the PB also believed that the core strategic objective of the NGC needs to be a profound reflection upon (not economic policy) but the character, role, traditions and renewal of the ANC itself as a people’s revolutionary movement. This indeed underpins the slogan of the NGC, and it is the central question addressed by the major discussion paper – "ANC – People’s Movement and Agent for Change".

This paper correctly re-affirms the major organisational values and traditions of the ANC –

  • consistency on core principles (like non-racialism);
  • taking theory seriously, but always combining it with practice;
  • democratic centralism – encouraging robust debate and participation in policy-formation, coupled with unity in action;
  • fostering cadre development, ensuring that the ANC has thousands of activists capable of providing leadership wherever they are located;
  • building the alliance, and a capacity to unite a broad range of revolutionary and democratic forces;
  • openness to the best of international examples, combined with a South African patriotism;
  • a mass line – the ANC does not liberate the mass of the people, they are their own emancipators, the ANC is an instrument for this mass struggle for self-emancipation; etc.

All of these traditions, evolved over decades of struggle, are correctly affirmed to be more relevant than ever. However, the discussion paper correctly notes new challenges, including:

  • the danger of social distance creeping into the relationship between leading ANC comrades in new positions of power and our mass constituency; and
  • the potentially corrupting influence of the prevailing capitalist ethos on our own cadres.

The central challenge that the paper poses is for the ANC, in the era of governance, to reclaim its role as a political centre for policy-making, strategic direction, and popular mobilisation.

This requires a number of key decisions, which include:

  • greatly expanding the ANC’s capacity to develop policy and to monitor the impact of policy. As the paper correctly notes, too much policy has been driven bureaucratically and technocratically in the last period;
  • this, in turn, requires much greater attention to be given to ANC cadre development, including the more effective implementation of the decisions to set up an ANC political school; and
  • a much greater effort at integrating governance issues into the mobilisation programmes of ANC (and alliance) structures, not least at the branch level itself.

The SACP’s PB was of the view that these are fundamentally correct approaches, and that appropriate implementation measures are undertaken.

The economic debate

The PB also believed that these organisational questions are, in any case, an important precondition for the adequate development of effective economic policy. Part of the problem, as we have noted above, is that economic (and other) policies have too often been technocratically driven, and there is insufficient ANC (not to mention alliance) involvement and ownership.

Notwithstanding the relative absence of extensive economic policy discussion in the NGC discussion papers, there are a number of very important brief indicators that should not be overlooked in the paper entitled "ANC – People’s movement and agent for change". Specifically these important indicators are to be found in the brief paragraphs dealing with "Immediate governance priorities" (see pages 31-2 of Umrabulo, No.8, special NGC issue). These paragraphs underline the importance of "structuring government to ensure integrated planning and implementation of programmes".

More significantly, this section of the paper takes up the same perspective as the SACP’s Strategy Conference, when it calls particular attention to:

"Giving a spur to the drivers of economic growth and job-creation: take decisive steps to address the issue of allocation of public and private capital for productive purposes…and complete the process towards a comprehensive industrial strategy." (Umrabulo, p.31-2)

Later, the same document lists as one example of the kind of "boldness in thinking that shakes up convenient comfort zones", that it argues is now required, the following:

"in dealing with matters of the allocation of capital investments, to look at the balance between bank-based and Stock Exchange systems of raising capital; incentivised and enforced savings; assistance to SMME’s; fostering of the co-operative sector and so on, should we be satisfied with merely maintaining and tinkering with the so-called `modern sophisticated economy and infrastructure that the white man bequeathed us’ or should we search for bold and creative solutions? Related to this is the question of the size of the budget deficit and departments’ capacity to spend." (p.33)

While this passage is, more or less, a postscript, a P.S., it contains some extremely relevant questions, and policy development and debate around issues of this kind must be very strongly encouraged.

The working class and the motive forces

A second discussion paper for the NGC is entitled "Tasks of the NDR and the mobilisation of the motive forces". This paper continues a tradition of the ANC that goes back to Kabwe (1985) and Morogoro (1969) – conducting a class analysis of the main social forces in our society. It is a tradition that clearly reflects the important influence that Marxism has had, and continues to have, on our movement.

In taking up this tradition, the paper creates the basis for an important discussion. What remains unchanged and what is different in the dynamic interaction of class forces in our society? However, in its present form the paper has some serious shortcomings.

Unlike earlier strategic assessments made by the ANC, the number of progressive "motive" forces has now multiplied to six! These six "motive" forces are identified as the working class, the unemployed, the rural masses, women, the middle class, and black business/capitalists. There are, to begin with, a number of conceptual problems with this multiplication of "motive" forces:

  • It muddles classes with other social categories (women, rural masses).
  • It muddles classes with strata – for instance, it divides unemployed workers from the working class – as if the unemployed were a separate class. This is a particularly problematic confusion, as it plays straight into the hands of the neo-liberal allegation that employed workers are an "elite". Part of the ANC’s political leadership needs to be to unify working people (the employed and the unemployed, the organised and the unorganised) around a common political programme.
  • It assumes that there is such a thing as a "black capitalist class". But, since there is only one capitalist economy in our society, there is only one capitalist class. (Obviously, this capitalist class is segmented in varying ways – into small, medium, large and even transnational sectors, into various sectors, mining, agriculture, financial, and, also in terms of race and other factors). Instead of simply proclaiming the "black bourgeoisie" as a "motive" force, it would be more useful to analyse the capitalist class in SA in all of its diversity, and then analyse what aspects of our NDR programme different strata and segments of the bourgeoisie may (or may not) support, and for what reasons.

Apart from these weaknesses, the paper fails really to analyse why historically the ANC has described black workers as the major motive force in the national democratic revolution. It says that "black workers…bore the brunt of apartheid oppression and super-exploitation" and this "placed it (sic) at the head of the struggle for freedom" (p.11). In fact, the severity of oppression on its own was never the reason why we ascribed a leading strategic role to black workers. The oppression experienced by marginalised black rural women was, for instance, generally more severe than those who at least had the "privilege" of being exploited by capitalism. It was (and remains) the strategic position and that black workers occupy within the productive heartland of our economy and their numerical concentration organised by production processes themselves that led us to argue that this section of the working class was the most strategic motive force. It was (and is) the COMBINATION of motivation to pursue revolution to the end, AND the actual capacity of black workers that we have always seen to be critical.

Section C of this document ("Forces opposed to transformation"), while containing some useful points, also fails to really come to grips with the principal strategic contradiction in our society at present. The SACP has defined this principal strategic contradiction as lying between the pursuit of a thorough-going NDR on the one hand, and a neo-liberal structural adjustment of our society on the other. The DP, for instance, now the hegemonic opposition force in our society, articulates this strategic counter to the NDR with considerable clarity and energy. The DP perspective (it is not confined to this party alone) is not a backward looking conservatism. It is certainly trying to conserve the dominance of capital in our society, but it is seeking to do this through a radical restructuring of our society that includes:

    • The rapid and large-scale privatisation of the public sector;
    • The weakening of the state, making it "lean and mean", through massive budgetary reductions of everything except its mean side (law and order), the better to protect private property;
    • The massive restructuring of the working class – mass retrenchments, casualisation, and the creation of a two tier labour market.
    • The re-integration of our country into the imperialist network, through liberalisation and the dropping of any impediments to the export of capital, and
    • The partial de-racialisation of the bourgeosie and professional middle strata.

This is a radical programme, it is a programme that will certainly benefit the majority of strata that constituted the old white ruling bloc, along with upwardly mobile strata from the formerly oppressed. But it is not an unimaginative, myopic conservatism. Nor is it guided by an overt racist ideology, although the consequences of its implementation will be the perpetuation of racialised inequality and poverty for the majority. The paper does not come to grips with this political and ideological challenge.

Related to this problem, is the core problem with the third discussion paper for the NGC.

The "demon" of racism

The third NGC paper is entitled "Uprooting the Demon of Racism". Like the other papers it makes many important points, and it provides a useful basis for further discussion. There is, however, a fundamental problem with this particular paper.

It fails, basically, to approach the question of "racism" in South Africa, within the context of the broader "national question", and in failing in this way it breaks with a long ANC tradition. Odious prejudices against people based on differences (perceived or actual) are wide-spread, and go back very far into history. Gender, skin colour and other physical attributes, ethnicity, class, religion, disability, sexual orientation, age, geographical origins – all of these have proved to be the fertile ground upon which all kinds of noxious prejudices have flourished, and continue to flourish. In the ANC-led movement we have always tried to link our own immediate struggles to the wider enlightened struggle against all such anti-humanist prejudices.

Here in South Africa we have identified as our central strategic objective the overcoming of the national oppression of the black majority in general, and of indigenous African people in particular. Of course, this struggle involves a tireless and militant struggle against racist ideas and practices, but it is a lot more than that. As we have just said, the overt programme of the DP, for instance, is not particularly racist – indeed the DP calls for a colour-blind "merit" system to prevail in our country. (We are not saying that there are not many implicit racist ideas that are active within the DP and its leadership). There is still today in our country mass black poverty, unemployment, low life expectancy, a skills and resource back-log, illiteracy and many other forms of racialised inequality. Sadly, these realities do not require, for their perpetuation, the prop of official (or unofficial) racism. Accordingly, the struggle against these things needs to be a whole lot more than a struggle against the "demon" of racism.

This is what the ANC has advocated for many decades. It is precisely why we speak of a national democratic revolution. The national struggle involves three (and not just one) critical and inter-linking dimensions:

  • The national mobilisation of the great majority of historically oppressed (and all other democratic forces in our society). This mobilisation certainly requires a remorseless struggle against the scourge of racism, not least insofar as it impacts upon the outlook and confidence of the oppressed themselves. This is why we have always sought to build national pride, and why we have celebrated and drawn upon indigenous traditions of resistance and self-mobilisation. This mobilisation is not directed merely against racism, but towards the national democratic transformation of our society, which includes:
  • Nation-building – we have long recognised that the material conditions for the reproduction of racial oppression in our country have included the ways in which our society has been developed and under-developed – urban and rural areas, commercial rural and reserve rural, town and township. The struggle to nation build in the present includes the struggle to overcome creeping two-tierism – two health systems (private and public), two transport systems (private cars, and public transport), two labour markets (organised and formal on the one hand, and casualised, unorganised and non-formal on the other). In short, the present nation-building struggle includes the struggle to resist the neo-liberal agenda: the deracialisation of some power, wealth and privilege, alongside the persistence of racialised poverty and marginalisation.
  • National sovereignty, national self-determination. The ANC has, for many decades, connected national oppression within our country, to the wider imperialist-driven impoverishment and marginalisation of the South. We have long understood that a national democratic state in South Africa would face hostility if it sought to implement a thorough-going transformation of our society in order to overcome the legacy of racial oppression. The struggle for national sovereignty, for the capacity to set one’s own national democratic agenda, is central to overcoming the legacy of racial oppression within our country. In an era of rampant, neo-liberal driven globalisation, this is more true than ever before.

Although the NGC paper on racism makes some of the above points in passing, more or less haphazardly, it fails to approach the question of racism in our country from this kind of systematic political basis. As a result it lapses into moments of pseudo-academic speculation, and, above all, it fails to provide a clear line of march for dealing with the scourge of racism and its legacy that persists so disastrously in our society.

Forward to a successful ANC NGC

These are some of the views that have emerged from SACP discussions of the ANC’s NGC preparatory papers. We believe that they are views that are shared, in differing degrees by many comrades within the ANC (communists and non-communists alike). No doubt, there will also be SACP members who will have other views as well, and some may feel that the points of comradely criticism offered here are off the mark. At the very least, we hope that these brief comments will contribute to the critical national debate that the run-up to the ANC’s NGC is helping to foster.


ARTICLE 2

On the Question of the Role of the Progressive Trade Union Movement in the Current Conjuncture: Some initial reflections

Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

Introduction

It is indeed necessary for the Alliance as a whole to reflect on the 1999 public sector wage dispute between government and the unions, but this alone is not adequate for the purposes of answering the question of the role of the progressive trade union movement in the current period. This is simply because of the fact that much as the 1999 public sector wage dispute – the actual origins of this debate - is an important episode on which to reflect, the public sector only constitutes one site of struggle, albeit important, for the trade union movement. In the immediate aftermath of this dispute and strike a question has arisen from within the ranks of our movement as to what the role of the revolutionary trade union movement is, and should be, in the current conjuncture.

This debate becomes all the more important given the need to reflect and learn appropriate lessons from this dispute. Indeed it is imperative to confront the question of whether there were any tactical errors made by either government or the trade union movement, or indeed the Alliance as a whole in handling this matter? What were the expectations of the revolutionary movement as a whole in terms of the behaviour of the trade union movement in this dispute? At the same time what were the expectations of progressive public sector unions from the democratic government? The article by Makhura and Phadu is an important contribution to this debate. Much more importantly the thrust of their argument is a correct one, that "the current public service wage dispute and the issues around it should be examined in the context of the on-going, contested process of social transformation". In other words, at the centre of the dispute were the terms under which the transformation of the state should proceed, rather than the role of the revolutionary trade union movement per se.

Without seeking to undermine Makhura and Phadu’s correct identification of the real issues at stake, it is however important to contextualise and problematise the very asking of the broader question of the role of the trade union movement in the first instance. In addition this paper seeks to demonstrate the futility of asking this question outside of the class character of South African society, and the challenges this poses for the trade union movement and the working class. Lastly, the paper argues that the question of the role of the revolutionary trade union movement can also not be asked outside the role of the Alliance and each of its components as well as that of the democratic state itself.

The context within which to pose the question of the role of the revolutionary trade union movement in the current conjuncture

It is however important to start by properly understanding both the historical and conjunctural context within which this question is being posed. For this reason it is important that we be clear that none of us in the movement dare ask this question within the context of what Lenin strongly warned against in 1905:

Intellectual bourgeois know full well that they will not be able to get rid of the working class movement. That is why they do not at all come out against the working class movement as such, or against the proletariat’s class struggle as such – no, they even pay lip service to the right to strike… In other words they are fully prepared to "yield" to the workers the right to strike and freedom of association (which in fact has already been won by the workers themselves), if only the workers renounce their "rebelliousness", their "narrow-minded revolutionism", their hostility to "compromises of practical use", their claims and aspirations to place upon the "revolution of the whole Russian people" the imprint of their class struggle, the imprint of proletarian consistency, proletarian determination… That is why intellectual bourgeois all over Russia are exerting every effort, resorting to thousands of ways and means – books, lectures, speeches, talks, etc. – to imbue workers with the ideas of (bourgeois) sober-mindedness, (liberal) practicalness, (opportunist) realism… (In) appearance (these) coincide with Marxist slogans, and, with some minor omissions and slight distortions, can easily be confused with and sometimes even passed off as (socialist) slogans… Actually, however, it is a bourgeois imitation of (socialism), an opportunist distortion and perversion of the concept of the class struggle… At the root of all this gigantic bourgeois subterfuge lies an urge to reduce the working class movement mainly to a trade union movement, to keep it as far away as possible from an independent policy…

Hoping that none of us in the movement can pose the question of the role of the progressive trade unions within this framework, however that is not enough. In addition we need to be careful that none of us should pose this question in a manner that plays directly into the hands of this bourgeois ideology and attack on the working class. Indeed since 1994 South Africa’s working class has benefited immensely from the progressive transformation of the labour market – the LRA, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Safety legislation, etc. But casualisation and retrenchments threaten to erode these benefits, in part, as a deliberate strategy to undercut these democratic advances. This has been accompanied by intensified ideological attacks on the working class as being "selfish", "adversarial", "sectarian" and "unrealistic" and "not understanding the imperatives of globalisation". At the core of this attack is a bourgeois ideological assertion that the working class interests can never represent the interest of society as a whole, thereby projecting the narrow interests and "realism" of the bourgeoisie as representing the interests of society as a whole. Therefore we need to approach the question of the role of the progressive trade union movement from a consistently class perspective, grounded in the contemporary class, national and gender struggles.

In a capitalist society like ours, we cannot mechanically and expediently fragment the labour movement into its public and private sector components, without locating this within the totality of the challenges and tasks facing this movement. This therefore requires, if we are to be consistently Marxist-Leninist, that the role of the progressive trade union movement should be simultaneously located within the struggle for democracy and the struggle against capitalism.

To emphasise the role of the trade union movement only in relation to the consolidation of democracy outside of the context of the capitalist assault on the working class, can only reinforce, if not an apology for, capitalism. In the South African context this becomes even more accentuated given the reality of the interrelationship between the class and national content of the national democratic revolution (NDR). In our case it is not just the working class that is being exploited, brutalised and attacked in South Africa, but it is principally the black working class. This reality has far-reaching implications for the resolution of the dominant contradiction of our revolution – the national question.

The above therefore means that much as the question of the role of the revolutionary trade union movement in the current period is important, but it cannot be adequately addressed unless we ask similar questions of the movement a whole. To seek to answer this question only of the trade union movement would be wrong for a number of reasons:

  • The very core of the national democratic revolution is the resolution of the national question, of which the black working class represents by far the majority of the South Africa’s black people
  • The different components making up the revolutionary political movement are not isolated components but are mutually reinforcing within the overall context of the tasks of deepening and consolidating the NDR. For instance we cannot fully answer the question of the role of the progressive trade union movement without simultaneously asking a similar question of the ANC and the SACP in the light of the changed and changing political conditions and challenges. This is further necessitated by the fact that the very tasks of the progressive trade union movement needs to be related to the overall strategic and tactical objectives of the movement as a whole. To attempt to pose this question only of the progressive trade union movement would be self-defeating, if not dishonest, in that this would abstract and isolate the tasks of the revolutionary trade union movement from the tasks of the political movement as a whole.
  • Underpinning the asking of this question may as well be uneasiness about the current actions and struggles of the labour movement in general, in particular COSATU. We might as well have to remind ourselves of the truism that it is not only the progressive trade union movement that is susceptible to ultra-left or rightist tendencies. All mass based movements and political parties, as history teaches us, are prone to, and we all have to constantly struggle against, these tendencies
  • The capacity of the progressive trade union movement to continue to play a progressive role is dependent not only on its objective and subjective capacity or weaknesses. But it is also crucially dependent on the extent to which the Alliance acts in a manner that continuously reinforces and nurtures a progressive role and the constant creation by all of us of the conditions for the trade union movement to play such a role.

Therefore the question of the role of the trade union movement in the current conjuncture is a collective question in a double sense. Firstly it is a collective question in so far as it cannot be resolved outside of the role of the Alliance as a whole. Secondly, it is a collective question in that it simultaneously and in an on-going way poses the question of the role of each of the Alliance components.

It would also be counter-productive to pose the question of the role of the revolutionary trade union movement as a means of questioning each other’s bona fides. Rather this question should be posed with the view to deepening political cohesion within the revolutionary movement as a whole. This is simply because it would be wrong to assume that within the national liberation movement there is a sole corner or repository of wisdom about how to deepen and consolidate the NDR. Revolutionary leadership means understanding that the advancement of our revolutionary goals is dependent on harnessing and directing the collective energies and wisdom of all the democratic forces.

So let us start where we should begin in locating the role of the trade union movement:

Class struggles in South Africa’s transition to democracy

The SACP’s approach to our transition is principally that it seeks to address and lay a basis for the resolution of the class, racial and gender contradictions in their relationship to each other. To pose the challenges this way is not a subjective choice. It is because the South African revolution is objectively faced with the totality of these contradictions, whether one subjectively chooses to ignore or selectively emphasise one over others. This approach has always characterised the strategic approach not only of the SACP but also of our movement as a whole. The concept of Colonialism of a Special Type (CST) was precisely based on the understanding that much as the dominant contradiction under apartheid was the national question, CST was fundamentally a variant of bourgeois rule.

The SACP characterised the 1994 electoral victory by the ANC as a democratic breakthrough precisely because much as this marked a substantial change of, and advances in, the content and context of our struggle, nevertheless it did not mark the completion of the tasks of the NDR. This precisely means that South Africa is characterised not only by sharp racial and gender inequalities but also by the fact that it still is a capitalist society, dominated by white local and international monopoly capital. In other words, despite the advances made during and after the 1994 democratic breakthrough, the legacy of CST as a variant of bourgeois rule still remains the dominant feature of South African society. And that the contradictions of class, race and gender continue to characterise this society, albeit under different conditions.

The national liberation struggle has always had different class currents within it. These have expressed themselves differently at different phases of our revolution. And we had always known that the defeat of the apartheid regime would not sweep away these currents, but that in the post-apartheid era they would express themselves in different forms. It would therefore be theoretically and strategically incorrect to continue to analyse this period without at the same time recognising the specific features and content of the class character of our society in the era of the democratic breakthrough.

The reality of the simultaneous deepening of our political democracy and the continued dominance and deepening of the capitalist character of South African society is the most dominant feature through which we can characterise South Africa’s transition.

The first contradiction that this reality produces is that the struggle for the strengthening of political democracy is simultaneously threatened by the deepening of the crisis of capitalism nationally and globally. The racial character of South African society is reinforced by capitalism itself as it, in turn, reinforces the dominance of white monopoly capital which has for a long time controlled and dominated the South African economy.

This reality raises very complex challenges for the strategy and tactics of the liberation movement in the current period. The entire strategy and tactics of the liberation movement, from the period of the adoption of the Freedom Charter, through to the SACP’s Road to South African Freedom, the Morogoro Conference, right up to the unbanning of our movement, was principally premised on the weakening of capitalism as the terrain upon which to deepen the NDR. The very strategy of a NDR is based on the weakening of the capitalist structures of South African society.

The principal strategic contradiction

It is the above contradictions and struggles in the current period that the SACP has correctly sought to capture under the notion of the principal strategic contradiction. The contradiction is characterised as that expressing a struggle between, on the one hand, those forces seeking the most thorough transformation of South African society, including challenging the capitalist character of society. On the other hand, there are those forces that are seeking to modernise, and partly deracialise, South African capitalism as a means to secure a capitalist post-apartheid South Africa, within the framework of neo-liberalism. In other words the concept of a principal strategic contradiction captures the reality of the struggles and contradiction of a deepening political democracy in a context of a deepening capitalist character of South African society. The notion of a principal strategic contradiction captures the key struggles and contradictions of the conjuncture, whose particular outcome will determine the trajectory of the entire revolution. This notion also captures the class, gender and national character of the struggles in the conjuncture. In other words, a deepening contestation over the nature of a post-apartheid South Africa.

The concept of a principal strategic contradiction does not, as some might argue, privilege the class over the national and gender contradictions in the current period in South Africa. In fact the point of departure in understanding the main political content of the principal strategic contradiction is that of the legacy of national oppression in our country, in its articulation with the gender and class contradictions. The two principal strategic opponents are still primarily defined along racial cleavages, but with the recognition that the fundamental contradiction defining these camps, and shaping the struggles in the transition itself, is a class one. In essence the notion of a principal strategic contradiction is the particular conjunctural expression of the interrelationship between the class, race and gender contradictions in the current struggles over the direction of South Africa’s transition. In fact this concept seeks to capture both the relationship between the class and national struggles in South Africa as well as the contradictory articulation between the two in the context of a democratic breakthrough in a capitalist society. Its contradictory articulation expresses itself for instance in attempts to address the national question without seeking to transform class relations.

What the concept of a principal strategic contradiction also seeks to critique is a narrow approach to the current conjunctural challenges. It critiques an approach that seeks to define everything in terms of the national question to the exclusion of the class and gender content of that national question. It also seeks to critique a notion that emphasises the racial inequalities to the exclusion of the growing class inequalities within the black majority itself; as if the latter contradiction is acceptable by virtue of the existence and dominance of the former. Much more significantly it seeks to capture this relationship as ultimately an expression of the tension between seeking to deepen democracy in a context of deepening capitalist relations and their crises.

Globalisation, economic restructuring and the changing social composition of South Africa’s working class

As alluded to above, any attempt at defining the role of the progressive trade union movement without an analysis of the effects of capitalism on this class, as well as the challenges posed by this, is essentially an apologia for capitalism itself. But at the same time to rhetorically assert the leading role of the working class without grasping the effects and implications of capitalist economic restructuring on the social and political coherence of this class is tantamount to ultra-leftism of the worst kind.

However, much as we need to understand the effects of capitalist globalisation on this class, it is important to correctly characterise what globalisation is. Sometimes the use of the term "globalisation" has tended to obscure rather than assist our understanding of the current international political economy of capitalism. The term "globalisation" is sometimes used neutrally in a manner that obscures the fundamentally class and imperialist trajectory of globalisation

But the more powerful presentation of globalisation is that of neo-liberalism where "Globalisation is presented as a process driven by irrepressible market forces and irresistible technological determinism – in this way, proponents of neo-liberalism seek to intimidate the rest of us, and block any critical analysis or independent thinking. There are simply no alternatives in their perception of things" Much more importantly it is aimed at demobilising the working class and other progressive forces from struggling for an alternative to capitalist globalisation.

In all these definitions what is deliberately distorted is the class character of contemporary globalisation and the fact that globalisation is imperialism in the era of total dominance of the world by transnational corporations and speculative capital. Some of the key features of globalisation that have had significant impact on the working class and the poor, particularly in the developing world, include the simultaneous integration and marginalisation of developing countries and its peoples; prescription of structural adjustment programmes; privatisation and liberalisation; chasing budget deficits instead of social deficits; etc.

The outcome of these prescriptions capture one of the key features of imperialism in its globalised phase; that of an attack on the state, particularly in its role in driving developmental programmes beneficial to the majority of the people who are working and poor. These very core developmental activities of the state are increasingly being redefined as ‘non-core’ business, which therefore have to be privatised and outsourced. The origin of this language is to be found in the very basic logic of capital accumulation.

The basic logic and trajectory of capital accumulation is characterised by crises in its path of expanded reproduction. This expanded reproduction is, in turn, driven by the need to overcome the very crises inherent in the process of capital accumulation itself, thus capital constantly seeking new areas for its expansion. Therefore the rolling back of the state principally arises out of this logic, particularly through a process of transforming and subjecting every human productive, reproductive and social activity into new frontiers of private accumulation.

Therefore the language of ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ business has less to do with enhancing the efficiency of the state, but more to do with the pillaging of the state for purposes of private accumulation. In other words there is nothing objective nor scientific about what is ‘core’ or ‘non-core’, but this is a question of political and economic choices, in particular a choice about a path of development. This then has led to far reaching capitalist-led restructuring of the state, with disastrous consequences for the working class and the poor. This ranges from an attack on the European welfare state to the denuding of the post-colonial African state through structural adjustment programmes.

Flowing directly out of this is another key feature of capitalist globalisation, that of casualising, weakening, fragmenting and, in developing countries in particular, the general impoverishment of the working class. In fact apart from deep structural unemployment, the one feature of globalisation is the dramatic growth of the category of working poor, as will be illustrated below, in the case of our country. But this does not resolve the crisis of capital accumulation. Instead the very general impoverishment of the working people, rises in poverty and unemployment, reinforce the very original crisis of overproduction, thus making the boom and bust cycles of capitalism its inherent rather than accidental feature.

The combined effect of capitalist globalisation and the attendant restructuring of the South African economy within this context has seen a growing change in the social composition of the working class. It is politically imperative for our Party, the trade union movement and indeed the ANC itself to seek to understand this changing social composition in order to properly grasp the key challenges and tasks of the NDR and the struggles of the working class. Below is an attempt at understanding this changing social composition, and in some instances fractionalisation, of the working class and its political and organisational implications as part of a framework within which to locate the role of the progressive trade union movement.

The working class in South Africa today can be said to consist of, at least, the following five strata within itself:

  1. Employed workers occupying core, mainly ‘full-time’, semi-skilled and skilled jobs in the major sectors of our economy, principally in the mining, manufacturing, public service, parastatal and commercial sectors. This is the main base of the trade union movement, and COSATU in particular. It is this stratum of the working class that has been bearing most of the direct brunt of restructuring through being retrenched, casualised, etc. It is indeed a shrinking stratum of the working class, thus posing new challenges for the trade union movement. For instance, according to the 1998 October Household Survey, formal sector jobs between 1996 and 1998 declined from 5.2 to 4.9 million! Politically, this is the stratum of the working class that is the leading detachment in the struggles of the working class as a whole, because of its strategic economic location, revolutionary traditions and organisational muscle. Therefore it is the responsibility of the progressive trade union movement to defend the jobs in these sectors of the economy. And to do so is not an act of selfishness or narrow revolutionarism. No progressive trade union can claim such a title unless it is able to militantly defend jobs, even more in a country with such high levels of unemployment and poverty, and a lack of a comprehensive social security system. Demonisation on the grounds that workers are being ‘unrealistic’ and ‘do not understand the realities of globalisation’ is in essence an argument for the decimation of organised workers by asking them to commit suicide under the (neo-liberal) ideological guise of ‘realism’ and ‘maturity’! Defending jobs should also not be left to the trade union movement alone, but is a key component of the programme of the Alliance as a whole. Rather the key challenge is the mobilisation of the Alliance as a whole, and the strategic use of state power to defend and create jobs, as a component of defending the interests of the working class.
  2. The second stratum of the working class is that of the ‘peripheralised’ working class. This stratum is principally made up of casual and contract labour in the major sectors of our economy. It is peripheralised in the sense that it is on the periphery of the core of the working class, and through casualised and contract labour it does not have some of the benefits and security of full-time employment. The growth of this sector is a direct outcome of casualisation, privatisation, outsourcing and general restructuring that affects the core of the working class. This stratum is increasingly being used as a substitute for permanent employment as well as being available to be used against and to weaken the organisational capacity of the working class as a whole. For example, in a study done by Andrew Levy and Associates covering the period 1994-1998, 68,3% of the companies surveyed, 80,1% of whom were unionised, had outsourced. Seventy nine percent of these companies had outsourced more than once! Even more significant is that in this survey, the majority (90,6%) of workers affected by outsourcing was blue-collar workers. And only 40,5% of the companies reported that the outsourcing company had absorbed retrenched workers. In the retail sector, according to Central Statistical Services, between 1987 and 1997 full-time employment declined by 1%, part-time, morning only employment increased by 50%; and part-time other employment (casual work) increased by 81%. In Pick ‘n Pay alone for instance casual employment rose from 34,32% in 1995/6 to 37,86% in 1997/98. The sectors where the peripheralised working class tends to be most concentrated are retail and textiles, with the mining sector increasingly employing contract labour. Women are most affected by casualisation. This reality poses new organisational challenges for the trade union movement, requiring new strategies aimed at organising casual workers in order to avoid tensions between full-time and casual workers, and as part of the overall challenge to terms of restructuring that is generally depriving workers of their rights. This is a matter that requires special attention particularly from a federation like COSATU.
  3. A rightless working class located mainly in the countryside as farmworkers, and domestic servants, the latter being mainly women in the urban areas. According to SAAPAWU there is an estimated 1 million farmworkers who are unorganised, and there is no organisation of domestic workers of any significance. These workers are ‘rightless’ and unorganised not because they are not covered by the country’s labour laws, but because of the type of class domination and spatial dispersal to which they are subjected. They are also amongst the most exploited and underpaid sections of the working class, working long hours with little recourse to trade union protection to advance their rights. The conditions which this stratum of the working class is subjected to is substantively no different to the labour regime under apartheid. Change has passed them by. Again this is an area that requires renewed organisational attention by the trade union movement. A systematic focus on the organisation of women by all the Alliance formations will also go a long way in the mobilisation and organisation of this section of the working class. It is an area to which the ANC Women’s League needs to pay particular attention, organising domestic workers not only as women but as workers as well.
  4. An informalised working class found in the streets of our major cities, on the sides of the major highways and tourist centres, taxi drivers, as well as thousands who are involved in some kind of self-employed activity, but living from hand to mouth. This stratum of the working class is perhaps one of the most neglected, sometimes even subjected to harsh action, like the hawkers, from some of our very own ANC local councils. As an Alliance we have left this section of the working class either completely unorganised or in the hands of reactionary and even counter-revolutionary elements. Our strategy towards this section requires high articulation between the residential and economic forms of organising in this sector. Both the SACP and the ANC have a particularly important role in organising this sector, both residentially as well as around their immediate economic needs. For example effective organisation of taxi drivers into the revolutionary trade union movement will go a long way in stabilising the taxi industry and the elimination of violence that affect entire working class communities. A large section of retrenched workers also find themselves being thrown into this sector as joblessness increases. A strategic approach of using the organisational experiences of retrenched former union members in organising the informalised working class needs to be developed.
  5. Unemployed workers, who cannot find jobs, some coming in and out of the informal sector and others caught in a deep cycle of structural unemployment. The unemployed are largely concentrated in the periphery of our urban areas, in informal settlements, as well as in the former bantustan areas. They constitute the reserve army of labour that seems to be permanently reserved in the light of growing joblessness and absence of other economic opportunities. In the former bantustans they are under the rule of chiefs, therefore highly susceptible to political manipulation and are vulnerable to patronage. In the informal settlements there is a growing phenomenon of shacklords who carry out all forms of extortion against the unemployed and vulnerable workers who are seeking to retain a place to live closer to potential areas of employment or informal self-employment. It is this section of the working class that is forced to live a parasitic type of a relationship to the main urban economies of our country, thus being highly vulnerable to criminality and all other forms of social ills of society. It is also from this stratum of the working class that reactionary forces are seeking to build an alternative power base to the Alliance. Tackling the question of unemployment constitutes the biggest economic challenge of our revolution at this point in time. Residential organisation is the prime form of organising this section of the working class, around developmental initiatives aimed at generating means of livelihood. This is a task that requires maximum Alliance co-ordination.

There is another broad social category that we talk about in our country, that of the poor. In order to properly theorise the motive forces of our revolution and develop appropriate organisational strategies, it is important to define what we mean by the ‘poor’. This is important in that it is this social category of our society on whose behalf all class forces claim to be speaking and acting. When the bosses call for labour market flexibility they claim to be doing this in the interests of the poor, against the ‘selfish’ interests of the workers. There is a growing and aggressive attack on organised workers, again in the name of the poor, thus placing the interests of workers as being necessarily against the interests of the unemployed and the poor. We therefore should not use this category too loosely, but properly understand as to who constitutes the poor in our country.

Indeed part of our problem is that there is no class category known as ‘the poor’ in Marxism. The poor is sometimes used in a conflated manner to refer to the unemployed or to those caught at the bottom of structural unemployment or the rural people. In fact the poor is to be found in most of the above strata of the working class itself. One feature of globalisation is the growth of the working poor and the general impoverishment of the working class, as a result of privatisation, casualisation, outsourcing, etc. Using the UNDP’s measure of income of less than $1 a day, it is estimated that 57% of South Africa’s population is poor, of which 98% of the poor are African. In addition, we must still analyse the extent of the ‘working poor’ in South Africa.

Much as this section might be seen as a diversion to the main question of the paper, it is a necessary diversion in order to properly contextualise the role of the trade union movement and most importantly to illustrate the following five main conclusions:

Firstly, much as the progressive trade union movement has a distinct political and economic role to play, this cannot be abstracted from the concrete economic conditions facing the working class in a capitalist society and in a globalised world. In particular the effects of globalisation on the working class as a whole poses particular challenges to the trade union movement, that cannot simply be read off a single dispute involving public sector unions and the democratic government. Nor can the role of the trade union movement be derived from some kind of nostalgic definition of its historical role in the national liberation struggle. The starting point therefore should be a class analysis of South Africa’s capitalist society today, its location in the global context, the changing balance of class forces and the implications of all these for the role of the working class as the motive force of the NDR. Any short cut to this can only be a shoddy and unhelpful analysis of the tasks facing not only the trade union movement and the working class, but also our movement as a whole.

Secondly, and flowing from the above, the effects of economic restructuring on the working class places unique pressures on organised workers in particular. For instance the growth in the informalised, peripheralised and unemployed sections of the working class, places enormous pressure on the wages of employed workers. In fact this is, as pointed out above, part of the general impoverishment of the working class as a key feature of neo-liberal economic restructuring. It is also not unusual to find within the same working class families members who simultaneously belong to, and constantly shift in and out of, all the categories of the working class outlined above. Shouldn’t we therefore also be simultaneously debating strategies to be followed by the democratic government for this burden of a social wage not to be carried and be the sole responsibility of employed workers?

Thirdly, the aim of the above analysis has been to illustrate that building a strong working class is a collective task. Therefore the role of the progressive trade union movement should be firmly located within the mutually reinforcing character of the role of each Alliance partner and the Alliance as a whole. It might be that the trade union movement might fail to correctly perform its political and economic tasks at particular moments in history because of the failure of the ANC, the SACP or even the democratic government to play their roles properly. Have we, in a manner not characterised by self-righteousness, frankly analysed each of our roles in relation to the economic challenge facing the revolution? Indeed the December 1999 Alliance meeting did start this process, but this was only a start.

Fourthly, the above analysis aimed to lay a basis for understanding that perhaps the key question we have to deal with is less about the role of the progressive trade union movement but more about seeking a new economic policy consensus within the Alliance.

Fifthly this further clarifies the tasks and responsibilities of our Party in relation to the working class. Much as it is important to mobilise the different social components of the working class around their immediate economic needs, we however need to mobilise and unite these strata of the working class behind a programme for eradication of poverty, rolling back the capitalist market, deepening democracy and the struggle for socialism.

For the trade union movement to be progressive it needs to locate its struggles within these overall political and economic challenges. Any attempt to minimise the role of the trade unions or abstract their struggles from these broader challenges of the working class as a whole is to weaken the working class itself.

The challenges facing the working class

The critical question that this situation poses for the liberation movement is how to refine and adjust our tactics without abandoning the strategic objective of our movement. It also means guarding against the danger of the liberation movement seeking a long-term compromise with private capital, in a manner that sacrifices the genuine interests of the working class, under the guise of "revolutionary realism". It also needs to be accepted that the liberation movement itself, by its very and nature and character, is not immune from these dangers. Many a liberation movements have pursued this path whilst ideologically trying to defend it as the "only available and realistic route" to engage with imperialism and capitalism.

This reality also poses very complex and perhaps new challenges for the progressive trade union movement. One enduring feature of the progressive trade union movement in South Africa is that it had understood its trade union role within the broader context of deepening and advancing the NDR. It had correctly understood that without the deepening of the NDR there could be no secure trade union rights. At the same time it had understood that trade union rights, important as they be in themselves, are also a platform for pursuing the broader objectives of the revolution. It would therefore be completely wrong and would serve to undermine the interests of South Africa’s working class to expect it not to engage capital to defend its jobs and seek to roll back the dominance of the capitalist market. Instead, the very precondition of deepening democracy in our country is precisely to strengthen the working class as the most strategically important force to lead the offensive for a people-driven democracy.

However, in undertaking this task, the working class is faced with an acute dilemma. On the one hand, how does this working class seek to strengthen the democratic state without at the same time abandoning its struggle against an increasingly arrogant capitalist class? On the other hand, how does this working class challenge the capitalist character of South African society without at the same time undermining the democratic government? The key challenge therefore for the working class is to challenge and roll back the capitalist character of South African society, whilst simultaneously seeking to strengthen the democratic state. But for the working class to succeed in this respect, the liberation movement itself has to correctly define its role and strategic challenges in a context where South African and international capitalism seeks to shape the emergent state to advance capitalist interests.

In analysing and debating the question of the role of the progressive trade union movement in the current period, it is also important to properly understand and situate the distinction and relationship between the trade union movement and the working class as a whole. Whilst organised workers do not constitute the totality of the working class, at the same time they are the bedrock and the leading detachment of the working class as a whole. This is because of their strategic location at the point of production and the economy as a whole, as well as their organisational muscle. This therefore means that the role of the working class as the motive force of our revolution cannot be enhanced by weakening of its organised sector, as a presumed precondition for the strengthening of the revolutionary movement. It is precisely for this reason that of all of the working class, the bourgeoisie will usually reserve its most poisonous venom for organised workers.

The SACP does not necessarily support any struggle by the workers, but at the same time the Party must seek to direct workers’ struggles towards the broader objectives of the working class as a whole. Where the Party does not support a particular struggle of workers, it should not stand in the rooftops and shout or hurl elitist abuse at workers, but should seek to transform those struggles in favour of the broader interests of the working class. It should also strive to ensure that organised workers do not isolate itself into some kind of workerism as a response to the economic onslaught by capital.

It also becomes important that whilst the national liberation movement seeks to address the interests of the overwhelming majority of our people beyond just the working class, not to counterpoise the interests of the working class to those of the poor. It is also important for the liberation movement, given the pressure of a capitalist environment, not to adopt a rightist opportunist stance of being anti-worker, in particular organised workers in the name of broader imperatives for delivery. Rather the task of the liberation movement is to provide effective leadership by uniting the struggles of organised workers with those of the poor. This is because the consolidation of a people-centred democracy is, as we have always argued, directly dependent on rolling back the power of private capital, in which organised workers are a strategic component of this struggle. The achievement of a better life for all is premised on the correct strategies to undertake this task.

The challenges and role of the progressive trade union movement in the current conjuncture

Flowing from the above analysis the role of the progressive trade union movement can therefore be described in the following manner:

For us at the SACP the starting point for locating the role of the progressive trade union movement is captured in our own 10th Congress Party programme. "…the SACP considers the core social constituency of the Party (and of COSATU) – organised workers in the formal sector – as the crucial social force. It is this stratum of the working class that has the collective numbers, and the strategic economic location, as well as the revolutionary organisational traditions, to provide effective social weight to any progressive agenda… But the SACP (and COSATU and the ANC) must constantly struggle to ensure that this revolutionary core of the working class does not isolate itself into a narrow syndicalism or workerism… The organised working class must constantly deepen its organic links with the urban and rural poor" (p.17). It is this perspective that we believe should guide the role of the progressive trade union movement in our country today.

The above approach is grounded on the fact that our starting point should be that the struggle of South Africa’s working class is a struggle for socialism. This should be the framework that guides us in whatever we are doing now. It is a struggle for a society whose purpose is to meet the social needs of its people on a sustainable basis. It means that it is a society not based on the profit motive or greed by the few over the majority. It is a struggle for a caring society, a society free from class exploitation, free from women’s oppression and free from racism and national oppression. It is a society where those who produce wealth must be the arbiters on how that wealth is distributed and consumed.

It should be accepted that the basic function of any trade union is to effectively represent, defend and advance the interests of its members. Any union that fails to effectively undertake this task cannot be able to perform any other function, let alone contributing to a broader political struggle of deepening the NDR. But in carrying out these functions what distinguishes a conventional from a progressive trade union is that the former would subject all else to basic trade union functions, whilst the latter would locate basic trade union functions within the context of broader revolutionary objectives.

Perhaps, it should be stated that some within our movement tend to adopt contradictory positions or send conflicting messages with regard to the relationship between trade union functions of progressive trade unions and their broader political obligations. On the one hand we expect trade unions to take into account and be part of the broader political movement, but at the same time adopt critical stances when unions take up political stances and accuse them of seeking to replace the political movement. It is not unusual to hear the accusation that COSATU is behaving like a political party. At the same time when unions seek to perform their trade union duties in advancing the genuine interests of its members, they are also attacked as being economistic! Then, as Cde Mbhazima Shilowa once said, it becomes a situation of "Be damned if you do, and be damned if you don’t!" One of the critical challenges facing a progressive trade union movement is to always strike the correct balance between basic trade union functions and broader political roles or obligations. At different moments one function may tend to dominate over another depending on the objective conditions and challenges facing the progressive trade union movement at a particular moment.

In fact a truly progressive trade union movement should be as good in performing its basic trade union functions as it is in carrying our its broader revolutionary duties!

But the role of the progressive trade union movement cannot simply be posed at an abstract and theoretical level. Whilst a broader theoretical and strategic framework is necessary, these must always be related to concrete issues, policy choices and struggles. For instance, is government expecting progressive public sector unions to accept a wage restraint or even a wage freeze as part of their revolutionary duty? If it is so this needs to be said, and then seek to engage the progressive trade union movement on why such a stance would be in the interests of the revolution as a whole? With regard to the progressive trade unions in the private sector, are we expecting of these unions to accept a more deregulated labour market in order to attract foreign direct investment in the interests of job creation? Again, if that it is the case let it be said and boldly argued within the context of our developmental and revolutionary objectives. Otherwise if this question were debated abstractly and only from the standpoint of the history of the role of the progressive trade union movement or a particular interpretation of the Marxist classics, we would enter into a sterile theoretical debate.

Do public sector unions have a distinct role from the rest of the progressive trade union movement?

The SACP’s position, as articulated at the COSATU Special Congress last year, is that there is a special interdependence between the democratic government and progressive public sector unions. We stated at that Congress that one without the other couldn’t be able to advance the enormous tasks of the transformation and restructuring of the state.

But there are a number of critical issues that have to be considered in the relationship between the democratic state and public sector unions. The first important consideration is how does the progressive trade union movement in the public sector act in a manner that strengthens the democratic government and the transformation of the state without at the same time sacrificing the legitimate and genuine interests of its members. Conversely how do progressive trade unions advance the legitimate interests of its members without undermining the democratic government and the transformation process? By posing the questions in this way does not mean that the two objectives are necessarily in conflict, but there is a genuine tension between the two. This tension may be deepened by, on the one hand, the imperative to eradicate social inequalities and wage gap in the public service itself. And, on the other hand, the imperative of a democratic state to address the broader concerns of society, beyond just the inequalities and considerations of a living wage in the public service wage.

On the side of the state, the key consideration or dilemma is how to recognise the special partnership between progressive trade unions and the democratic government in a manner that does not undermine the broader objectives of the revolution. On the other hand, how does the democratic state seek to address broader societal concerns without at the same time undermining the progressive trade union movement or reinforcing the existing inequalities in the public service?

The other issue that requires careful consideration is whether the specific challenges facing the public sector can be abstracted or separated from the totality of the political economy of South Africa and the struggles facing the working class as a whole? The answer to this would obviously be yes and no. On the one hand we need to recognise that progressive public sector unions need to adopt a particular attitude towards government as a democratic rather than an enemy government. But on the other hand the totality of struggles facing workers in a capitalist society, calls for maximum unity of the labour movement in a manner that sometimes might conflict with the specific role that public sector unions might be expected to play in relation to the state in specific instances. Much more seriously the generalised offensive against the working class by private capital has an impact on how for instance job losses also put pressure on the wages of the working class as a whole, both in the public and private sectors. Whilst it is correct to highlight the distinct role of public sector unions, it would however be wrong to seek a mechanical and expedient separation between private and public sectors in a capitalist society

A large part of the answer lies on an Alliance economic policy consensus

Without denying the importance of analysing the role of the trade union movement, we collectively need to answer some prior questions as the Alliance. Is the primary question about the role of the progressive trade union movement, or is the fundamental issue the lack of consensus around economic policy in the Alliance? Or, is the primary issue about the role of progressive public sector unions, or is it about differences over public service restructuring and the restructuring of state assets.

As reported elsewhere in this publication, the SACP, at its last National Strategy Conference, has identified the question of an economic policy consensus within the Alliance as a key priority. And it is our honest belief that the question of the role of each of the Alliance partners needs to be located within processes that seek to develop this consensus. It would indeed be unfortunate were we to use the issue of the role of the trade union movement as a substitute to facing and engaging real issues facing the Alliance.

Again, these issues cannot be left at this general level, but they need to be translated to concrete measures based on the concrete economic challenges facing our revolution in the transformation of the state and the economy. The December 1999 was an important starting point in this regard, particularly since the adoption of GEAR, and we need to take this forward. To raise these issues is not to run away from debating the strengths and weaknesses of each of our organisations, not least the trade union movement, but to locate the questions properly. Let us debate these throughout the ranks of our movement.


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