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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 13, No. 49, 20 November 2014

In this Issue:


Red Alert

A time for working class solidarity, not the cannibalising of membership - a further response to Steven Friedman

By Comrade Jeremy Cronin

Dear Steven,

Thank you for your response which, of course, is no less polemical than my own "Open Letter"to you. No problem. You seek to engage in a rational argument and that`s appreciated. Hopefully, as we proceed, we can make a small contribution to recovering a tradition of robust but constructive debate within the broad progressive camp. Ideas matter.  It`s critical that we move away from the abuse of ideological posturing to camouflage narrow sectarian agendas, or the playing up of victimhood when we are unable to sustain a rational debate.

Allow me, in return to engage with some of your core responses, hopefully in ways that, eventually, lead us out of a simple routine of argument and counter-argument. However, you`ll have to forgive me if I begin with some counter-arguing.

Cold War conspiracy theories versus democratic debate

You say that there is a major difference between an anti-communist, conspiracy theorist, forever sniffing out reds under the bed, on the one hand, and a participant, on the other, in democratic debate "who insists on the right to criticise all parties [including of course the SACP] who operate freely in our constitutional democracy."I agree. But it`s you who blurred the lines between these two things in several ways in your original article.

In seeking an explanation for the SACP`s perspective on current challenges within COSATU, you reach back into Cold War history when, in your words, the SACP was "for decades…the most uncritically pro-Soviet party in the world."  (At the very least this statement needs nuancing. In the interests of progress let`s leave that for another occasion). You then add: "The fall of the Soviet system and the advent of democracy here seemed to have persuaded the SACP to live with democracy. But it grew no more tolerant of those on the left who disagreed …"

There are four things that I want to underline:

First, democracy didn`t just arrive in SA as an "advent", as a "rainbow miracle". It was fought for, and communists often played a leading role in that regard. 

Second, it is snide, therefore, to suggest that this "advent"(along with the deserved collapse of what had become a decrepit Soviet bloc) "persuaded"us to grudgingly "live with democracy".

Third, we are not more or less reluctantly now "living with"our present constitutional democracy. We are proud of the democratic breakthrough of the early 1990s, and we seek actively to advance, deepen and defend it. This involves, as far as we are concerned, beginning to make serious advances towards socialism. Part of the task of defending our democratic breakthrough - and not falling back behind this constitutional advance - has involved engaging critically, precisely, with the Irvin Jim group. Why do I say that?

You might have read, for instance, the Jim group`s August 2013 position paper entitled "Analysis of the crisis in COSATU", in which they sought to portray themselves as the leading defenders of cde Zwelinzima Vavi. When the unfortunate episode of cde Vavi`s involvement at work with a subordinate whom he had appointed personally became public, Jim and company sprang to his defence in a manner which can only have embarrassed cde Vavi himself. This is what they wrote: "for us the working class, in a capitalist society, all law, morality, religion are so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which hides in ambush just as many bourgeois interests. And precisely because we the working class have no property…in a capitalist society, our relationship to our wives and children have no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations!"

You don`t have to be a defender of hypocritical bourgeois family values to see in this ranting a completely opportunistic and potentially dangerous disregard for our hard-won constitutional democratic dispensation. Of course, the Irvin Jim leadership is not alone in this corrosive attitude towards a progressive rule of law, our constitutional democracy and its founding values in the interests of defending this or that personality. You will find similar tendencies in some parts of our Alliance, not to mention the EFF. I know that you might legitimately say that the SACP has not always been consistent in condemning some of these tendencies. It`s a criticism that I believe we should accept.

However, in deepening, defending and advancing our democracy, the SACP reserves the right, as you put it, "to criticise all parties who operate freely within our constitutional democracy".  You have that right, and we have that right - but when we exercise it, you imply Stalinist "intolerance".

Fourth, your version of SACP history as an explanation for our current attitude towards the Irvin Jim group was published in BD Live - the electronic companion to Business Day. I have occasionally contributed articles to the Business Day (so I am not criticising you for using a Business Day platform). However, anything I have ever written for the Business Day is invariably followed by a rash of rabid anti-communist letters to the editor accusing me of being an unreconstructed Stalinist, etc. It`s hard not to believe that you were unaware that you were playing to a particular Business Day gallery by evoking a Cold War SACP past, even if it was to jokingly reassure the gallery that it was now the "left", hah-hah, and not the "market"that had to fear latter-day SACP conspiracies. (By the way, BD Live declined to publish my Open Letter response to your article - so much for bourgeois liberal democracy).

But let`s move on.


You argue that our main beef with Irvin Jim and co is that they are anti-ANC and anti- government, and that all of this reflects a consistent and intolerant SACP attack on "workerism". You are wrong in several respects.

Yes, it`s true that the SACP has consistently critiqued what came to be known as "workerism"in South African circles in the late 1970s and 1980s. As a UDF political education officer and an underground SACP activist I was a participant in those debates - and so were you. Neither the Party nor I ever regarded so-called "workerists"as the enemy. I still stand by the following passage published back in 1986 in the UDF journal "Isizwe"in an article entitled "Errors of Workerism":

"A word of warning before we look more closely at the details of workerism. Too often we use the words `populism` and `workerism` as loose, sectarian slogans. Too often we label someone, or some group or organisation `workerist` and then imagine we can dismiss them. But this is not so. In fact, individuals and organisations with workerist tendencies have made contributions to our struggle in the last 15 years. In criticising the errors of workerism, we must also learn from the strong points in theory and organisation of those who have workerist tendencies." 

Similar views can be found in the SACP`s underground publications. For instance in the 3rd quarter 1986 edition of Umsebenzi we are told: "However much we may disagree with the workerist political formulations which have emerged from certain trade unions, we should take seriously their experiences of promoting participatory forms of organisation. Without romanticising, we should soberly seek to build on and develop the practices of direct democratic participation which developed in a number of unions from the mid-1970s onwards."("Workerists and class leadership").

Excuse the length of these quotations - but I am trying to correct a misreading of the SACP`s positions back in the 1980s. It`s important for the SACP itself in the present not to accept such a misreading of its past, otherwise we might conduct ourselves in a sectarian manner in the present, imagining that we are upholding a non-existent tradition.

Turning more specifically to Irvin Jim and co, it would be wrong to characterise these individuals as consistently "workerist"- whether in a more ultra-left, anarcho-syndicalist version of workerism, or a more centrist, labourite version.  Sometimes Jim wears one cloak, sometimes another. Indeed, more often than not he becomes a caricature of an anti-workerist in the mould of a mis-imagined SACP of the past. Jim often poses as the rescuer of the SACP`s 1980s "vanguardist"traditions, now "abandoned by the Party of Nzimande". 

The Irvin Jim group has also been entirely inconsistent in its attitude towards the ANC and ANC-led government. Jim has never denied, for instance, that as recently as the months before the ANC`s December 2012 Mangaung national conference he travelled to Nkandla to caucus President Zuma to have cde Zwelinzima Vavi installed as his running-mate for deputy president of the ANC. This is hardly the posture of a principled "workerist"rejecting all participation in a "bourgeois nationalist"organisation.

But enough sparring.  For the record, let me state quite clearly that as the SACP we are prepared to debate in a comradely way the wisdom or otherwise of COSATU (or for that matter the SACP) remaining in the ANC-led alliance, or of the wisdom of our respective cadres participating in government structures. Differences on these matters cannot ever be a reason to split COSATU. Moreover, these debates are important even within the SACP, provided they are conducted in a non-factionalist manner. They should happen (and do happen) within the Party. Those with differing views are not enemies. Comrades in the Party, or in COSATU, who are sceptical about the Alliance or about the wisdom of some of us being in government are not in a majority (certainly not within the Party and certainly not for the moment). But who knows, the future may prove them to have been right. There are uncertainties, opportunities and risks in any strategic line of march. The future is not a precise science. 

The fundamental problem with the Irvin Jim group is not its attitude to the ANC, or the Alliance, or government. It is its thoroughly factionalist posturing, its "you`re either with us one-hundred percent, or you`re the enemy". It is this posture that has been having such a destabilising impact on the unity and functioning of COSATU and indeed on NUMSA itself. In last week`s "open letter"I quoted one typical example. Let me repeat the quotation:

"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."("Ideological Reflections and Responses to some recent attacks", NUMSA Special NEC, 15 September 2013)

This Manichean world-view, this simplistic line-up of good and evil, of friend and enemy within the federation itself, is characteristic of the most reactionary fundamentalisms. It is a declaration of civil war within COSATU, not an attempt to contribute to the unity of the federation through critical engagement with fellow workers and the officials they have elected. It is this posture that has been a major factor behind months of paralysis within COSATU. And this is why the regrettable expulsion of NUMSA, a formation with a heroic history but now held hostage by a leadership clique, presumably was viewed as unavoidable by a majority within COSATU`s CEC. I assume they saw this regrettable step as the only way of creating conditions for the rebuilding of unity within the federation and within the metal workers sector itself.

But of course there are much deeper problems confronting the trade union movement in general, and what most occupies media attention are mostly the symptoms of underlying problems. And this is where I hope we can begin to move our debate.

As pointers for further discussion, let me outline some general ideas:

The erosion of trade union gains over the past 20 years

The important gains made by the progressive trade union movement before 1994 and which were then consolidated after 1994 as an integral part of our new democratic constitutional dispensation have been considerably eroded over the past 20 years - particularly for workers employed in the private sector.

Some, like Sakhela Buhlungu, have attributed the declining impact of trade unions to the "sins of incumbency", the "paradox of victory". With the institutionalisation of trade union rights especially after 1994, and a growing trade union bureaucracy, the hard graft of daily contact between officials and the shop-floor has often been lost. Well-paid trade union machineries in the larger unions have developed. Being elected a shop steward is no longer a guarantee of being harassed, detained or even murdered by bosses and the apartheid regime, but rather, too often, a sinecure. In its post-Marikana self-examination, NUM has acknowledged many of these failings. But NUM is far from being alone in this regard. We believe that all trade unions should reflect profoundly on the degree to which they are actively servicing their members and practising the great traditions of worker-democracy that were the hall-mark of progressive unionism in SA in the anti-apartheid struggle years.

A second, and related contributory factor, has been the growth of what the SACP has characterised as "business unionism". In many if not most of COSATU`s affiliates internal factional battles, spuriously aligned to one or another "political"position (for or against the ANC-alliance for instance), have their real roots in leadership battles over the control of multi-billion rand union investment arms and worker retirement funds. These investment arms have too often become a Trojan Horse through which monopoly capital has penetrated into the heart of the union movement. Workers` retirement funds are nominally overseen by worker representatives, but all too often in practice the funds are managed by private financial institutions with elements of the union leadership bought-off and compromised in the process. It is for this reason (and not just in the case of NUMSA) that the SACP has been calling for the "socialisation"of these funds. In France, for instance, worker retirement funds are legally required to be invested in a public fund. In SA, some of the loudest proponents of nationalisation are remarkably silent about their own retirement and investment arms. 

But the greatest factor behind the current subjective turmoil within COSATU and the broader union movement is related to the dramatic private monopoly capital-driven restructuring of the work-place and of the labour market over the past 20 years. Monopoly capital has not been a passive observer of the advances made in terms of progressive labour legislation and other worker rights. Farm evictions, mass retrenchments, the recourse to labour brokering, and the deployment of casual workers on a massive scale have hollowed out formal gains. On top of this there has been the de-industrialisation of our economy, as former multi-sectoral conglomerates, funded with surplus bottled up in SA as a result of sanctions and tough apartheid-era exchange controls, have been restructured, globalised and financialised. More industrial sector jobs have been lost.

To the old racialised stratifications of the working class have now been added a myriad of further stratifications.

By contrast, in the public sector trade unions have been able to make major advances post-1994. This is as it should be. However, this now means that increasingly the collective membership of public sector unions is outpacing those of unions mainly organising in the private sector. While we completely reject the idea that public sector workers are "middle class", clearly the different labour market realities confronted by many public sector workers compared to those in the private sector creates further potential for tactical and strategic divisions which can only weaken the overall strength of the working class unless intelligently managed.

With unemployment in the narrow definition never under 20%, even in times of relative growth, the balance of power between private sector bosses and their employed workers has been further transformed to the advantage of the former. A key challenge for us all is how do we build unity and organisational capacity across the proletarianised majority in our country - the employed, the under-employed and the unemployed, private sector and public sector workers? How do we extend trade union organisation into the most vulnerable sectors of the working class? How do we forge links between unions and working class community struggles?

This is a time crying out for solidarity, not cut-throat recruitment competition, not poaching among unions, not the cannibalising of membership. 

I don`t think you disagree, best regards


Cde Jeremy Cronin is SACP First Deputy General Secretary


Dear Jeremy

By Prof Steven Friedman

Thanks for doing me the courtesy of sending this open letter to me and inviting me to respond in Umsebenzi Online. Thanks also for the kind words about my work. I am happy to return the compliment - I have followed your written work and welcome the contribution you have made to contemporary South African debates: your perspectives feature prominently in my soon to be published book on Harold Wolpe and 1970s radical thought.

But you are, of course, not only a public intellectual - you are a senior official of the SA Communist Party and, like all senior officials of all parties, you defend your organisation zealously even when this means obscuring reality - and blaming your opponents for problems embedded deep in our society. So I am not disappointed by your response. It is what I would have expected from a loyal party official whose gift for debate is placed at the service of the organisation even if that sometimes means defending the indefensible.

I do, however, have one reason for disappointment - I would have hoped that both you and the SACP would by now have weaned yourself of the tired and unhelpful habit of trying to tar anyone who criticises you as a red-baiter. You know as well as I that it is possible to criticise the SACP without believing that our problems are caused by `reds under the bed`.  You know too that there is a huge difference between an apartheid-era conspiracy theorist who blames all ills on the communists and a participant in democratic debate who insists on the right to criticise all parties who operate freely in our constitutional democracy. You do serious discussion of our society`s challenges no favours when you substitute a cheap smear for argument.

That said, let me turn to the substance of your response. You say nothing which challenges the central point I made in my column - that the SACP is hostile to the current leadership of Numsa and feels that it should not be tolerated in Cosatu. You say as much- the SACP has not, you declare, `abandoned our concern about Irvin Jim`s agenda`. So you do believe that Numsa under its current leadership is a problem - you differ with me only in insisting that this is not a product of the SACP`s intolerance of independent left positions but a response to a war waged by Numsa on the ANC and SACP. This does not, of course, deny the point I made in my column - that the SACP at the very least created a climate within Cosatu which made Numsa`s expulsion more likely: it simply offers a different reason for the SACP`s stance. But the evidence does not support your explanation. Contrary to your snide suggestion that I don`t read the documents of the organisations about which I write, I have looked at the documentation carefully. Among the documents I feel is relevant is an article you wrote in Umsebenzi Online on March 14 2013 -an attack on comments which Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim made about the Marikana killings.

The statements to which you react do not attack the SACP - they denounce police activity at Marikana. And the reason for your anger, other SACP statements at the time show, is that the Party saw events on the platinum mines as an attack not on workers demanding a higher wage but on the SACP`s firm ally, the National Union of Mineworkers. Your article seems far less concerned with the fact that working people demanding a better wage were shot down than with your concern that the Numsa general secretary is failing to come to the defence of the SACP`s ally. All of which suggests that the problem for the SACP is not that Numsa chose to pick a fight with it but that the SACP disapproves of trade unionists who denounce police shooting of strikers when the police in question are deployed by a government of which the SACP is a part and the workers who the unionist is defending have had the temerity to desert an SACP ally.

Your other attempts to demolish the credibility of my column are equally unconvincing. You say take that I am mistaken to see Numsa`s expulsion as a slap in the face for the ANC task team report. You produce no evidence for your claim - you seem far more eager to vilify Numsa and its leadership. Why am I wrong? Because Numsa, in your view, did not treat the task team well. What on earth has that to do with my argument? My point was that the report urged unity in Cosatu and the Cosatu CEC chose to ignore that. Nothing you say contradicts that.

You also, in your zeal to substitute claims of MacCarthyism for logic, fail to engage seriously with my argument. Anyone who tries to make sense of events in Cosatu must answer an obvious question - why would unionists who pledge undying loyalty to the ANC ignore the recommendations of an ANC task team? It is logical, not conspiratorial, to conclude that their position would be coherent only if not everyone in the ANC alliance agrees with the task team report that unity in Cosatu is paramount. It is also reasonable, not conspiratorial, to conclude that the likeliest source of support within the alliance for disunity is the only organisation in the alliance which has consistently - at least since your post-Marikana article - denounced Numsa and which, after Numsa`s expulsion, insisted that it only had itself to blame, much as union-bashing employers always insist that fired strikers `dismissed themselves`. You don`t need a conspiracy theory to conclude that the SACP is hostile to Numsa: you need only look at Umsebenzi Online.

You also try to rebut my argument that the SACP is hostile to independent thinking on the left by quoting a section of the Party`s message to Numsa members. The section you quote contains a pious commitment to pluralism - but in a context which makes it clear that this is purely rhetorical. It concludes: `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."So Numsa`s leaders are not people with a different perspective - they are dangerous hi-jackers driven by personal ambition. At around this time, the SACP was also demanding life style audits of the Numsa leadership. So the paragraph you quote is really saying that pluralism on the left is tolerated only if it falls within the parameters dictated by the SACP and that anyone who falls outside the framework requires investigation and vilification. Sadly, as I mentioned in the column, this approach harks back to a strong tradition within the SACP. In my work on Wolpe`s thought, I was struck by the degree to which even minor departures from the line dictated by the Party leadership was enough to relegate him and other critical thinkers to the margins. The parameters may have shifted - but the distinction between that which may be heard and that which risks a lifestyle audit and removal to the margins remains.

Some of your silences are also revealing. You ignore my argument that the SACP is more concerned with loyalty to the ANC and protecting its leadership than with championing policy changes which would empower working people and the poor. Is this because you find this issue irrelevant when weighed against the task of complaining about the many vices of Numsa leaders? Or because you realise that, despite the elegantly argued SACP policy documents which you and others pen, the analysis is accurate and that the SACP has done far more to protect holders of public office than it has to challenge the persistence of many of the patterns of the apartheid economy two decades into democracy?

Finally, I would be happy to accept your invitation to engage in serious discussion on the future of the trade union movement. The need is pressing, for the internal Cosatu dispute in which the SACP has been so eager to take sides is a symptom of a deep malaise - the degree to which unions have all too often become a symptom of the economic patterns buried deep in our apartheid past which they were formed to fight. Removing from Cosatu those who are considered disloyal to political and union leadership is not a solution - on the contrary, it simply deepens the problem by substituting the demonization of individuals for analysis and by silencing some of the voices which need urgently to be heard.

So, if you really do want to show that the SACP is open to frank discussion on the problems we face, the answer is not another attack on those you see as threats - it is an open discussion on this and other key issues facing working people and the poor in which all voices, not only those which the SACP likes to hear, are heard. I would be eager to be part of that discussion and hope that you and the SACP would be too.

Steven Friedman

Professor Steve Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy and a Political Analyst based at the University of Johannesburg


Note: Withdrawal and retraction

The article "Is GDP an udder full of milk?" in our issue 47 has been withdrawn, because it does not meet Umsebenzi Online`s standards of citation and attribution.

In this context, "attribution"means the proper acknowledgement of sources of information, while "citation"means the proper acknowledgment of actual texts used in an article, whether they be short quotations, or long passages.

All kinds of literary work do, and must in their nature, constantly refer to different works and sources, because literary work is an on-going conversation with other writers of the past, present and future.

If contributors to Umsebenzi Online have any doubts as to how to deal with questions of reference, attribution and citation, we strongly urge them to consult the editor about this when submitting articles.

We wish to reiterate that the views expressed in the piece published in Umsemebzi Online are not necessarily the views of Umsebenzi Online or SACP unless indicated otherwise. They remain the views of the authors, whose names are clearly indicated.

UoL Editorial collective