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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 13, No. 48, 14 November 2014

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Open Letter to Steven Friedman: From a "Worm's Eye View" to one misstep after another

By Cde. Jeremy Cronin, SACP First Deputy General Secretary

Dear Steven

I have always respected your views, going back to the 1980s and your trade union journalism, your "Worm's Eye View" column in the old Weekly Mail, and much more. True, I haven't always agreed with you, but I've admired your thoughtfulness, the sobriety of your analyses, and, above all, your commitment to encouraging democratic debate. You have generally refused to be satisfied with the shallow mediocrity that so often parades as media commentary. So I was disappointed, not outraged, but disappointed by your column in BD Live on Wednesday, ("SACP helped push Numsa's expulsion from Cosatu.")

Let's take your argument step by step.

Step One: Your first thesis is that, in expelling NUMSA, COSATU's CEC "seems to have slapped the ANC in the face: it ignored the appeal by its task team, led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, for unity." Your Step One is also your First Misstep. It was the NUMSA leadership that systematically slapped the ANC task team in the face. They postponed meetings with the ANC task team for months. The final report of the ANC task team had critical things to say about all sides in the COSATU disputes, but it specifically called on Numsa to desist from actively breaking with the founding principle of the federation - one industry, one union. The Numsa leadership arrogantly dismissed this call, including in its statement at last week's CEC.

Your Step Two (based on Misstep One) goes as follows: if the ANC worked so hard for the unity of Cosatu, then someone else must have been egging on the expulsion. Hmmm, I wonder, who could that be? Reds under beds, is your argument. Really, Steven, I would have thought that you had outgrown that Cold War rubbish years ago.  From this second misstep you pronounce that the "ANC alliance is split on whether NUMSA should stay in COSATU". In fact, the SACP and ANC leaderships have met frequently to discuss a common approach to the challenges within COSATU, and the ANC task team has enjoyed the full support of the Party.

Your Step Three - really a series of confused little skips - seeks to buttress your argument that the SACP has been in the forefront of seeking Numsa's expulsion. Let's consider some of these misleading moves that skip ever so lightly over reality.

You say that the SACP "has issued statements denying that it was behind divisions in Cosatu" (which is true, we have, indeed, issued several statements in this regard). But then you add, as if we were prompted by a guilty conscience, that our statements denying culpability were issued "despite the fact that it [the Party] was not publicly accused of this…" On what planet have you been living?

I don't have the time or inclination to trawl up every statement by NUMSA's general secretary, Irvin Jim, or his deputy, Karl Cloete, or the NUMSA spokesperson, Castro Ngobese making precisely this allegation. You might, however, wish to check for yourself. Go to the NUMSA website (numsa.org.za) and google "SACP". You could begin, for instance, with a December 3, 2013 document ("NUMSA National Office Bearers' Statement on SACP Augmented CC Statement"). But there are dozens of NUMSA leadership statements accusing the SACP of all manner of sins, including seeking to divide COSATU.

It is, however, the NUMSA leadership that long ago pronounced COSATU as being fatally divided. See for instance their document "Ideological Reflections and Responses to some recent attacks" (NUMSA Special NEC, 15 September 2013):

"We have boldly maintained that at the heart of the crisis in COSATU are two opposing forces: the forces of capitalism and the forces socialism. The capitalist forces within the Federation seek to make workers to understand and tolerate the continuation of white monopoly capitalist domination, by accepting elements of the neoliberal NDP. The socialist forces seek to mobilise the working class to break the power of white monopoly capitalism through the implementation of the Freedom Charter as historically understood by the working class."

This is a declaration of civil war within the federation, not a constructive if critical engagement.

You say, Steven, (and this is the punch-line in your argument) that underpinning the SACP's alleged central role in driving NUMSA out of COSATU is our intolerance of any different views on the left. The Party's "attitude to NUMSA", you write, "suggests that it still sees those on the left who differ as enemies to be defeated, not critics to be debated."

Here you have precisely inverted the roles played by the SACP and the NUMSA leadership. Excuse me if I draw on a personal example. In March 2012 I took on the hot topic of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) and the e-toll debate in the SACP's on-line publication Umsebenzi Online. I agreed with COSATU and NUMSA that the whole GFIP project was seriously flawed, but differed with the COSATU position in certain respects. Irvin Jim responded robustly. Umsebenzi Online carried his response in full. (A tradition not reciprocated by any recent NUMSA publication).

Encouraged by this small engagement, in March 2013 I wrote an "Open Letter" to Irvin Jim which was also published in Umsebenzi Online. The letter began:

"Over the years you and I have had several debates. We have often differed. However, I would like to believe we`ve always agreed on at least one thing. If we are to build a vibrant socialist left in South Africa, then comradely ideological engagements (even robust ones) are a vital part of that project…neither of us has ever subscribed to the bureaucratic notion that ‘we shouldn`t air ANY of our differences in public'. When those differences are about analysing our reality and debating broad strategy and tactics, then I think we agree that we should open up robust, comradely engagement. This letter is written in that spirit." 

The next week Irvin Jim came back guns blazing. Again the SACP published his response in full, even though it was a nasty piece of ad hominem vituperative. I was labelled the self-appointed "Pope of Marxism in SA", accused of "factional manipulation from the outside", etc. etc. I have long since learned not to take these things personally. I merely cite them here as evidence against your claim that it is the SACP that is intolerant of alternative voices on the left. However, after Jim's March 2013 piece, I must admit that personally and comrades in the SACP gave up on trying to engage Jim in a constructive debate.

But this did not mean that the SACP ceased trying to build COSATU unity in and through a respect for comradely but robust debate. It was in this context that the SACP formally addressed the NUMSA delegates to their December 2013 Special Congress. In the course of the pamphlet we said:
"Trade union unity is not about the suppression of non-antagonistic differences within the working class. Throughout its history, NUMSA has been home to many shades of radical thinking. This has often been a strength of your union, not a weakness. The SACP is proud of the many outstanding communists who have been leaders and rank-and-file militants in NUMSA. But we also respect and acknowledge the co-existence of many other socialist comrades within your ranks. A vibrant and militant NUMSA in which there are contending socialist perspectives is not the primary challenge your union is facing today. Together, as communists and non-communists, let us not allow your union NUMSA to be hi-jacked, to become a pawn in a dangerous leadership gamble that has nothing to do with the interests of the working class - and everything to do with the personal ambitions of a few."

We have not abandoned this appreciation of left pluralism (nor have we abandoned our concern about Irvin Jim's agenda). At the beginning of this week the SACP PB issued a statement on the expulsion of Numsa - you might have read it? Amongst other things the statement said:

"For many months, throwing reckless insults in all directions, the NUMSA leadership has shown no inclination to seek constructive and unifying solutions to the many challenges confronting the organised working class. This was not a case of an externally manipulated witch-hunt, but a case of self-expulsion. The SACP remains committed to the struggle for working class unity, including a respect for a diversity of views amongst the organised working class and the popular masses. Let us prioritise the unity in diversity of the working class and poor in practical, on-the-ground work. Let us not elevate tactical differences amongst ourselves, while monopoly capital strengthens its exploitative grip on our country."

Dear Steven, as you can see I haven't given up on Open Letters. Perhaps, if you have the time, you might respond and I'm sure Umsebenzi Online would be happy to publish your response. I particularly hope that we can begin a thoughtful discussion around the more general challenges confronting the trade union movement in South Africa (and globally).

Best regards,

Jeremy Cronin


Challenges facing Cosatu: The cult of personality and the role of some sections of the media

By Kgaogelo Kgolomodumo and Manqoba Mphakathi

There are times when there is only a choice between a popular decision and an unpopular decision but when there is no better option except the unpleasant step to take an unpopular decision. Such appears to have been the choice before the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) Central Executive Committee (CEC) when it agreed to expel the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) early morning Saturday 9 November.

Most definitely, in the short term, this decision will weaken both Cosatu and the Alliance. Both Cosatu and the Alliance will no doubt be called upon to find a new way forward, under the circumstances. But what would have been the alternative? What was likely to happen?

It is no secret that for a long time now Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim has been at the centre of a co-ordinated programme to pull Cosatu out of its Alliance with the African National Congress (ANC), SA Communist Party (SACP) and the SA National Civics Organisation. The ultimate objective he and those he is working with is clearly pronounced, i.e. to dislodge the ANC from government. This is no secret at all.

At the recent general election Jim and his leadership collective and support base not only decided against supporting the ANC-led alliance; after the election which was won overwhelmingly by the ANC he congratulated the proto-fascist disruptors the so-called "Economic Freedom Fighters" (EFF) for its performance as if it had won the election and not the ANC.

A strategy was long adopted to pursue a politics of opposition to the ANC-led Alliance and, perhaps beyond his own control or without his consent, to anchor the mobilisation for this politics on Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. This had the effect of creating the cult of personality which characteristics include subordinating the organisation's views to personal views as long as it is profitable.

We have seen part of the broader plan being even the politicisation of that "one-time" unfortunate working hours' office sex scandal. It is not known whether it was the first time Vavi engaged in such a conduct. Neither is this of our interest and present focus. But wittingly or unwittingly in the process a Vavi-Jim syndicate was forged within Cosatu.

This and the embedded journalists who became associated with it, and it seems there are, created the label (the) "Dlamini faction", referring to Cosatu, or rather its highest decision-making body in between its congresses, the CEC. This was based on opposition to those of its decisions which they do not want. By so doing, they appeared not to be aware that they were on the other hand actually either identifying or declaring themselves as a faction.

While they made all sorts of vilifying allegations against others even outside Cosatu, they never explained how, where and at what time the many press conferences they held outside of Cosatu's organisational framework or the several court actions they initiated were planned, coordinated with press statements written and endorsed. It seems Jim is inverting things by accusing others of doing what he most probably has been leading himself.

There can be no doubt that he has deeply been involved in activities to capture Cosatu and bring it under the control of those, if not an agenda that is anti-ANC-led alliance. This is also obvious in the dichotomies he has constructed in his rhetoric on the internal division in Cosatu. An alternative plan has been to force Cosatu to split from the alliance and if it disagrees then force it to split internally with as much damage as possible so that a weakened federation will be left behind after parting ways to create new political organisations – a process that has been underway.

Then there circulated the letter from Vavi following the Cosatu press conference held on Tuesday 11 November where the federation publicly conveyed its CEC's decision on Numsa's expulsion. Vavi did not attend the press conference. According to Cosatu National Office Bearers at the press conference he gave the excuse that he was consulting his lawyers over the case concerning another matter he is involved in (i.e. a court application by his ex-girlfriend concerning that unfortunate "one-time moment" in the office). In fact he was, if not in addition engaging in a process of his letter in opposition to the CEC decision. This is itself an issue of discipline for a left organisation. But in so far as it is a Cosatu internal matter and given the federation's character as a trade union organisation that is not presently our focus.

Unfortunately Vavi seems to prefer working through the media. Ranjeni Munusamy (12 November 2014), who is now plying her trade at Daily Maverick,clearly reflects this in her "How Cosatu lost the PR war, and why Vavi refused to face the media on Numsa". Referring to the basic war requirement to know your enemy and yourself if you want to win battles Munusamy says "Dlamini ought to know …Vavi and …Jim by now". She then goes on to say "journalists received copies of Vavi's letter to Dlamini".

This inconceivably excludes her given her angle to focus attention away from the Cosatu statement not only in her report but at the press conference where she says the "Daily Maverick asked them [i.e. the Cosatu National Office Bearers] pointedly to confirm whether Vavi had informed them that he would not attend". So Munusamy's angle was most probably decided even before the press conference. The content of Cosatu's statement did not matter; that was the attitude.

For Dlamini, Vavi is not an enemy: "…relationship among the office bearers were defined by Ubuntu, and he and Vavi had a ‘comrade' and ‘collegial' relationship", Dlamini said at the press conference as quoted by Munusamy. Why would she then construct the dichotomy of enemies? In any movement differences of opinion do arise from time to time and under certain conditions they even grow acutely. This does not necessarily convert comrades into enemies.

Munusamy's logic followed to its logical conclusion suggests that there the challenges facing Cosatu must not be resolved; instead comrades must ruin each other considering each other as enemies. This is absolutely reactionary and wrong in the extreme. Does this not look like a mercenary's advice? Should Cosatu follow such advices it will perish; the new organisations that are being established will include a new labour federation to replace it. Surely others want this. Is not it?

At some point the role played by various sections of and the use of the media in relation to the challenges facing Cosatu must be scrutinised. Without this the process to seek resolution will not reach its logical conclusion and will fail to prevent past mistakes from being easily repeated if ever at all.

In natural science there's an agent called a catalyst. This can increase chemical reaction without itself being consumed. The media, which will smile all the way to the bank counting profit is unlikely to be scathed in the process of the political reaction that Cosatu has been going through.

Following the Cosatu's press conference some sections of the media sought to shift attention away from the federation's statement and replace it with a focus on Vavi's letter. This could not have been, without some form of coordination as a media strategy. Munusamy is perhaps a typical case in point. This not so much that she reflects an "embedded media activist" which she seems NOT actually.

Neither is the reason that her work under review is a typical example of the shift in attention away from the Cosatu's statement replaced with a on a rather secondary issue. Munusamy elevates media strategies. She condemns Cosatu for losing the so-called "PR war" to Vavi and Jim. This condemnation might not be naïve either. A consistent effort to blame Cosatu could have the effect of mobilising negative sentiment against it. Is that not something others want?

Munusamy has wittingly or unwittingly embedded herself in the challenges facing the federation. She too in a way perhaps identifies her position by endorsing that same factional labelling to Cosatu: (the) "Dlamini…faction". She does not stop there. She in fact adds by coining the same label differently: "Dlamini and co".

What Cosatu and the SA working class needs is principled and disciplined unity. Everyone who is committed must consider moving out of the media and re-focusing on creating an internal platform of engagement to ensure a revolutionary way forward. Relying on the instruments of the capitalist private monopoly ruling class (i.e. the very class that exploits workers and reproduces inequality, unemployment and poverty) and concentrating battles in one's own class and its elementary organisation (i.e. a trade union) instead of directing and intensifying class struggle against the real class enemy (which Munusamy wouldn't advise how to fight) has only proved so far to be a formula of class defeatism.

Let us prioritise the unity of Cosatu and the working class, so said the SACP, AND CORRECTLY SO!