South Africa and the Changing Possibilities for the Left

Photo by CSP-Conlutas

With the claims that a new trade union federation will be launched in March 2017, it is appropriate to draw up a balance sheet of the labour movement in South Africa, and ask whether the optimism of many that a new Left force is going to be unleashed is justified. Or whether the possibilities for a force of revolutionary working class politics lie elsewhere.

The period framed by the Marikana massacre of August 2012 and the December 2013 Special Congress of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) – a congress in which the union formally broke with the African National Congress’ (ANC) Tripartite Alliance – was one in which, so it seemed, a political rupture occurred. Marikana represented the end of the old anti-apartheid movement and NUMSA’s political break seemed to prefigure the rise of a Left project anchored on the largest trade union in South Africa. NUMSA’s resolutions of a United Front, a Movement for Socialism and even the possibilities of a Workers’ Party seemed to promise so much that its political break was dubbed “the NUMSA Moment” – signaling a new politics, much like the 1973 Durban strikes. Its aftermath was dubbed the “Durban Moment” as it appeared to be a break with a left politics defined by the then ANC’s political mix of national liberation based on liberal constitutionalism and guerilla warfare and the South African Communist Party’s (SACP) sanctification of this under the two-stage “National Democratic Revolution.”

Now, at the end of 2016 – on the eve of the next NUMSA National Congress, and with the claims by NUMSA’s union cohorts and expelled ex-Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) General-Secretary, Zwelenzima Vavi, that a new trade union federation rival will be launched in March 2017, it is appropriate to draw up a balance sheet of the labour movement three years later, and ask whether the optimism of many that a new Left force was going to be unleashed there, was justified. Or whether the possibilities for a force of revolutionary working class politics lie elsewhere.

State of the Unions

So far, the evidence for optimism for a trade union focus doesn’t look good…

  • At the beginning of 2015, the state announced reforms in labour legislation that amounted to a new terrain of struggle for the largely precarious majority of the working class. COSATU – who had been in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) negotiating these with its “social partners” – and all its affiliates, responded with a resounding silence. This reflected its social distance from the precarious working class majority.
  • Then, in the middle of 2015, COSATU had its long-contested Special National Congress – which proceeded to consolidate the victory of its decrepit bureaucracy and confirm the expulsion of NUMSA. This was followed by an end of the year national congress which served only to confirm its struggle against irrelevance.
  • Then, the tertiary student struggles in the second half of 2015 raised the demand of the end of outsourcing and it was to the students that the workers turned, and university management grappled with who to talk to as the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union’s (NEHAWU) distance from workers got exposed.
  • Then, at the end of 2016, the NEDLAC committee of experts appointed to come up with a proposed figure for a minimum wage of 20 Rand per hour – with farm workers and domestic workers exempted – at the same time as NEDLAC mulls a new law to limit the right to strike. These measures come after a ruling class and media hysteria-inducing campaign that South Africa has to be saved from a rating agency downgrade. COSATU and NUMSA commented on the figure proposed for the minimum wage, but are scrupulously silent on the new limitations on the right to strike and COSATU joins the initiatives to assure the rating agencies.

Here we will argue that the Marikana massacre – in signaling the end of the old anti-apartheid movement – also signaled the end of the necessary relation between 1970s-style trade unions and the fighting battalions of the working class. To the extent that the “NUMSA moment” was, albeit important, a rhetorical break with the ANC but not a rupture with the politics, tactics and organizational forms of the Tripartite Alliance, the most important evaluation of that moment is to note the continuity with those politics – as is also the case with the promised new federation. In this regard we seek to find the sources for that continuity, despite the laudable formal break with the ANC and the SACP.

COSATU has sunk into a terminal quagmire and has become a caricature of itself. Its biggest affiliate – NUMSA – has been expelled for breaking with the ANC, and food union, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU), has disaffiliated. Nine affiliates were originally part of NUMSA’s call on COSATU’s president to convene a special congress in 2014 (some of these are now part of an initiative to form a new trade union federation, first announced in 2015, and now scheduled to be launched in March 2017).

In 2014, workers and staff of the municipal union, the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU), occupied its head office in protest at allegations that over 160 million Rand had gone missing. Teachers’ union, SADTU, expelled its president, deemed to be too close to erstwhile COSATU General Secretary, Zwelenzima Vavi. Vavi was charged with securing sexual favours from a COSATU employee and also faced an enquiry into the selling of COSATU’s old building and the buying of the new one – the process conducted by the then head of COSATU’s investment arm Kopano ke Matla, Colin Matjila, who then moved on to head up the parastatal, the Electricity Supply Commission (Eskom).

COSATU’s ex-biggest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), has collapsed in the platinum sector and only holds on to gold workers by dint of centralized bargaining arrangements with the Chamber of Mines. Chemical and paper union, CEPPWAWU, is threatened with de-registration by the Department of Labour for failing to submit regular membership updates and not holding congresses, and is only saved by a cosy relationship with the minister of labour. Transport union, SATAWU, communications union, CWU, and teachers’ union, SADTU, have experienced splits with accusations about corruption around their investment company (in the case of SATAWU) and jobs-for-pals in the case of SADTU.

In 2016, it was revealed that the incoming NUM leadership received money from the Guptas family (of “state-capture” notoriety).

Only NEHAWU has a substantial membership, and that is due to its being a public sector union of white collar beneficiaries of affirmative action in the public services.

State of COSATU

This demise of COSATU is no cause for celebration or indifference.

Forged in the cauldron of thousands of strikes and campaigns, and rightly celebrated for both being at the centre of the resistance movement against apartheid and for being the first within the mass movement to begin to formulate new policies for a transformed South Africa, COSATU’s history is a noble one written in the blood of workers.

And yet, in 2013 the country experienced a national strike wave and an unprecedented farmworkers’ strike; and in 2014 we had the biggest and longest strike in South Africa’s mining history – both sources of renewal for the working class, and both waves passed COSATU and its affiliates by. Even worse, NUM actively tried to break the 2014 strike, but didn’t even have the credibility and muscle to do so.

We have had nearly 15 years of working class communities being in what has been called everything from “service delivery” protests to a “revolt of the poor.” And these too have passed COSATU by.

Far from the demise of COSATU occurring in a period of a lull in mass politics, or a new defeat of the working class, it is occurring when a new movement is on the rise. It is just that COSATU is not part of this new movement.

That it should implode is tragic. That it should disintegrate in this inglorious way is farce.

There are three sources for this disjuncture between the demise of COSATU (that includes the failure of the “NUMSA-moment”), and the rise of a new movement:

  • Firstly, the implosion of the Zuma-alliance as the most immediate.
  • Secondly, and at a deeper level, the insertion of COSATU and all its affiliates into the new industrial relations order after 1994 – a process that will reveal both the moral corruption of COSATU as well as the source of the new mass politics of today.
  • Thirdly, at the deepest level, the disconnect between a restructured working class after nearly 25 years of neoliberalism – both in the sphere of production and in the sphere of reproduction – and the shifting demographics of COSATU as an organization of a new middle class, while this restructured working class takes to the road of mass struggle.

It was to NUMSA’s credit that it saw the need to address the first source by breaking politically with the Tripartite Alliance (particularly the stranglehold exercised by the SACP). But its failure to have any serious engagement with the second and third sources (except in the rhetorical form of its “United Front”) has dashed the hopes of many that a new Left project would emerge out of the “NUMSA moment.”

Late 2016 saw the announcement of a range of restrictions placed on the right to strike – compulsory balloting, the setting up of compulsory advisory mediation and the declaration of the ending of violent strikes – taken at NEDLAC with the full compliance of COSATU. And, yet, presented as a victory, because the panel of experts had recommended a national minimum wage – set at 3,500 Rand, but with a number of exemptions – domestic workers, farmworkers and with provision for employers to win further exemptions.

This agreement takes place without a whimper of protest from COSATU, not even bothering to inform its own members, let alone galvanizing them. At the same time, the shell of COSATU begins to meddle in the ANC’s chaos with its central executive committee championing Cyril Ramaphosa – he with the blood of the Marikana workers on his hands.

As 2016 draws to an end, there is a forthcoming NUMSA Congress from 13 December. But already there are signs that NUMSA and its allies are part of the same rot bedeviling COSATU.

The hoped for alternative federation continues to flounder. NUMSA too has attacked the figure proposed for the new national minimum wage, but remained silent on the new proposed restrictions on the right to strike. The opportunity for the new federation to base its case on a defining mass struggle – such as the proposed restrictions on the right to strike – has not, to date, been prioritized.

NUMSA’s proposed United Front – spoken of since late 2013 – has not had a single instance of joint struggle, either with the working class communities active for 15 years, or with the iconic platinum mineworkers’ strike of 2014.

And NUMSA announces a three-year deal with the retail motor employers – backing down from its original demand for a super-bargaining council. NUMSA has just backed down on all its demands in each of its three core sectors – engineering, auto and now retail motor – without a strike or any testing of the waters of its own members.

The Sources for COSATU’s Demise

The immediate, first level, can be traced to the make-up of disgruntled forces which overthrew Thabo Mbeki. The SACP, COSATU and the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) were a coterie of conspirators which made a pact with Jacob Zuma that, in return for seats at the table of the state, they would champion a deeply-flawed individual into the highest office.

That agenda had little to do – as we now know – with some kind of Left-Right programmatic tension within the ANC, or that Zuma, as against Mbeki, was a more “pro-poor candidate,” but was about a series of manoeuvres to get into influential positions in the state machinery. COSATU is now reaping the whirlwind from that Faustian pact. It is to NUMSA’s and its allies’ credit that it sought to belatedly break with this pact.

But the second reason is one which has deeper roots – the growing corruption and the nature of the industrial relations framework that emerged after 1994 (a scenario which envelops NUMSA as well).

South Africa’s Labour Relations Act (LRA), Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) and their associated institutions of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), the Sector Education Training Authorities (SETAs) and National Economic, Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) came out of a series of engagements around the National Economic Forum, the Labour Market Commission and the National Training Board between 1990 and 1995. Like the World Trade Centre negotiations at Kempton Park, which shaped South African political compromises, there was a similar set of trade-offs being enacted within the labour market sphere between Labour (essentially COSATU) and Big Business.

The whole system presumed a scenario whereby Big Business would get the benefits of labour flexibility, industrial peace and skilled labour and Big Labour would get skills, job security, higher wages and a seat at the table of all labour market institutions.

But neither the state nor Big Business kept their side of the bargain. Whereas the LRA, the SETAs and NEDLAC were unveiled during the period of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, the government unveiled Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) and its neoliberal prescriptions, without any consideration of its Big Labour “partner.” And Big Business, instead of seeking beneficiation and skilled labour, took the gap – at least the biggest South African monopolies did – unbundled, financialized and then jumped ship to London, New York and Melbourne. Making money via releasing “share-holder value” on global stock markets was so much more profitable than extending employment and promoting skills, let alone hanging out with its “social partners” in NEDLAC.

That left COSATU with nowhere else to go. After responding with anger in the early days of GEAR, the federation was very happy – at least in the Mbeki years – to slag off the betrayals of its tripartite partner, the ANC, while its leaders, organizers and even shop stewards raked in the money involved in attending NEDLAC, SETAs and the myriad other tripartite and centralized bargaining fora. And each COSATU union, including the now departed NUMSA and FAWU, used workers’ retirement funds and Black Economic Empowerment niches to set up investment companies and serve on the boards of retirement funds. This amounted to no less than the corruption of the labour movement – from senior leadership down to its battalions of shop stewards.

But at its deepest level, the underlying causes for the demise of COSATU (which account for the failure of the “NUMSA moment”) lie in the major structural changes that have happened to the working class over the last 20 years of neoliberal capitalism and the re-alignment of COSATU’s membership. In this period, the neoliberal attacks on the working class have seen a shift away from full employment and fixed employment toward casualization, informalization and unemployment in the case of the world of work, and the abandonment by the state of the sphere of reproduction of the working class – from apartheid brick houses in townships to shacks in informal settlements; from Bantu education to no education or privatized education; from discriminatory services to no services or commodified services – beyond the reach of the poor. As a result, the working class in South Africa is now largely an unemployed, casualized, semi-homeless mass.

Neoliberalism was above all a strategy on the part of capital to respond to the crisis of over-production and over-accumulation which threatened profitability from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Much has been made of the features of this form of capital accumulation – mobile finance capital, accumulation by dispossession, new roles for the state, etc. Many of these features are being sharply illustrated by the ongoing global crisis. But the restructuring of social relations that is neoliberalism also included quite fundamental changes to the labour process: from millions of workers being driven out of the labour process itself (into unemployment), to a variety of forms of externalization and labour flexibility, part-time work, home work, casualization and outsourcing. These changes have also seen work become increasingly feminized and more vulnerable sections of the working class – immigrants and refugees for instance – being particularly susceptible to the most extreme forms of labour flexibility. Frequently, in cases such as outsourcing to home workers, the point of production has become blurred with residential spaces.

Many trade unions were formed in an entirely different period of accumulation characterized by higher degrees of permanent, industrial employment. In South Africa, for instance, we have a model of national industrial unions defined along sectoral lines, which successfully served to build a high degree of worker unity in the 1980s. Our labour laws after 1994 explicitly championed this model, and trade union organizers are well-versed in methods of organizing based on signing membership via stop orders on company payrolls, sticking closely to the notion of one-industry-one-union, and decision-making processes which work through vertical national structures.

And neoliberalism has equally been about the restructuring of the sphere of reproduction of the working class. The cuts in public services and social spending on public health, education and housing, and the commercialization and privatization of water, energy, housing, and so forth, practised by almost all states across the world, have cast the burden of reproduction of the working class largely back onto the working class itself, particularly working class women.

These changes in both the sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction have engendered something quite fundamental – a change in the composition of the working class, and a shift in the centre of gravity of struggles.

COSATU in the meanwhile has also changed in composition – from a largely blue-collar working class formation in the 1980s and 1990s – to the largely public sector, white collar federation it is today. This is reflected in studies done by its own research arm, the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (Naledi), as well as by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE). Until Marikana, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was the biggest single union, but NUM has moved on from a union of coal-face workers, to a union of white collar above-ground technicians. The bulk of COSATU membership is now drawn from NEHAWU, SADTU, CWU, SAMWU, POPCRU, etc. Nearly one-third of COSATU members now have degrees.

This changing composition of COSATU has seen the centre of gravity of mass struggles in South Africa today shift toward the township poor, who are those who have been waging service delivery struggles almost unabated for the last 15 years. These have been struggles largely waged by sections of the working class who are unemployed, the never-employed, the youth and women carrying the burden of reproduction of the class.

How Should We Regard COSATU’s Demise?

With the ongoing morass within COSATU, there is amongst many on the Left a sense that some kind of moral nadir has been reached. COSATU – the radical voice of the organized working class and the beacon of struggles in the 1980s and 1990s – particularly after the United Democratic Front (UDF) was banned in 1987 by the apartheid regime, has been reduced to a series of internecine squabbles about corruption and sexual power games.

Some might claim that the criticism that COSATU is not representative of the now largely unemployed, precariously-employed working class is unfair. Indeed, there are countless COSATU resolutions taken at congresses committing unions to organize casual workers, to force the state to ban labour brokers. There are initiatives of COSATU to research and possibly even set up structures to recruit informalized workers, etc. Some would even assert that what is required is the political will on the part of the industrial unions to tweak their structures and embrace new forms of organizing, which would be more appropriate for this changed working class.

But all of these initiatives presume a kind of “managerial” approach to struggles and fail to understand how the working class generates its various organizations, including the trade unions.

In this, there are those who wish to put the issue of politics at the centre but with two divergent paths to their critique and possible remedy. On the Right, the story goes that the COSATU unions have been too political and have sacrificed workers’ interests for political gain. From this side, the call then goes out for unions to go “back to basics” – meaning focusing on “pure” collective bargaining and servicing members. On the Left, on the other hand, the analysis is that COSATU has adopted the wrong politics – kowtowing to the ANC’s neoliberal policies. It’s not a problem of COSATU being too political, but not being political enough. From these quarters, the answer is that if COSATU were to embrace revolutionary politics, then the problem of worker disaffection would be solved.

With COSATU in terminal decline, this optimism was simply transferred to NUMSA after its 2013 Special Congress’ decision to break from the Tripartite Alliance – forge a “United Front,” a movement for socialism and explore a new party.

But NUMSA itself was caught in this conundrum – on the one hand, pitching its tent on the ground of the United Front – an initiative of seeking common ground with the hundreds on instances of existing working class struggles in communities and workplaces. And yet it was held captive by the need to honour its obligations to save COSATU from itself. Having done so much to inspire activists with its special congress resolutions of December 2013, it misread the mood in the country amongst working class militants as it kept its focus on the rot in COSATU – whether Vavi gets his job back, whether a special congress will be held, etc.

In a way, it was caught in a very traditional notion on the Left – that the trade unions are the very stuff of working class life and that any hope of taking the next step toward socialism depends on privileging the trade unions as the most organized force of the working class, etc.

Which takes us to, probably, the most existential question of the lot: Is the necessary issue of a working class organized to facilitate social change a trade union question? Does the question of working class organization even have to privilege trade unions at all?

It is not a given that the building of a mass working class movement privileges trade unions

There are no lack of instances of oppression and unfairness in contemporary society – and always when people of whatever social category experience such oppression they don’t just accept, but contest this oppression. Traditional liberal perspectives give moral legitimacy to these struggles as that of competing “interest groups” and seek mechanisms to allow for their mediation and resolution.

The starting point for a Marxist perspective is the notion of the central role of the working class in a theory of history and the possibilities of social justice. We lay claim to the idea that the working class – uniquely amongst all classes – is not just another “interest group” and that in pursuing its daily interests it is compelled to shake up the whole edifice of society, and open the way to revolution and human emancipation. But the working class, in order to act in this capacity, needs organization in order to act as class for itself. Traditionally, many on the Left have privileged trade unions as that exemplar of working class organization which may play that potential role.

Why? Some would argue because the trade unions organize workers as a collective at the point of production, and because trade unions, as collectives of workers doing bargaining about wages and working conditions, contest the social surpluses produced by the working class, and thereby contest the terms of exploitation of the working class. In this sense, trade unions objectively school workers for more radical projects of political power and social justice.

But this logic presupposes a long chain of causality which is not necessarily true, and can be shown to be conceptually, historically and empirically questionable. Over the course of its formation and history, the working class has thrown up a plethora of different kinds of organizations – from benefit societies, to clubs, cultural groups, co-operatives and trade unions, to political parties and social movements. In no country in the world are the trade unions, taken as a whole, the majority organizational expression of workers, even of the employed workers. To be sure, South Africa has a relatively large trade union density – at some 30 per cent – but in some major industrialized countries – like the USA – this can drop to less than 10 per cent. Nevertheless, despite this “numbers question,” many on the Left have argued that trade unions are unique amongst all the different forms of working class organization in that they contest the terms of exploitation of the working class, so their social weight and significance are far greater than their numbers.

But is that always historically true? That trade unions have played this role more than other organizational forms? Far from these being less about contestation of the exploitation of the working class, some have at various times played a greater role than trade unions in contesting that exploitation. In Britain, at the turn of the 20th century, workers who had set up trade unions, but had no political party, set up the Labour Party. And then, as the parliamentary party shifted toward the centre, the trade unions – with membership greater than the Labour Party – often occupied a space to the left of the party. In Germany, however, the original Social Democratic Party preceded the trade unions and vastly exceeded them in terms of membership. There, the trade unions occupied a space on the extreme right wing of the party. In Brazil in the 1980s, the trade unions set up the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT). When Lula came into power and shifted the PT to the right, the labour unions of the CUT (Unified Workers’ Central) were dragged rightwards with Lula. It was a social movement, the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement), which became more representative of the working class.

In South Africa, for the last 15 years, community-based social movements have been at the forefront of working class struggles while the trade unions have largely stuck to Labour Relations Act-regulated wage struggles and generally insured labour peace. In the South Africa of the 1920s, it was the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) which was most representative of the working class, although it was only nominally a trade union and was rather, in today’s language, a social movement of the urban and rural poor. When it was compelled to become a “proper” trade union under the advice of William Ballinger in 1929, it collapsed.

So there is no consistency in the historical record that suggests that trade unions are the primordial organizations of the working class or that they are the ones most devoted, by their very nature, to contesting the exploitation of the working class. And yet, despite this evidence, so many on the Left would argue the centrality of the trade unions from “first principles,” from Marxist theory, because they, falsely, conclude that the exploitation of the working class occurs “at the point of production.”

The notion that the exploitation of the working class is a matter of the “point of production” is a false one – at least from the perspective of Marxist theory. There has unfortunately been no lack of Left critics of capitalism who have responded to economists’ focus on relationships of exchange – as in, for instance, the notion of price being determined by the relation between supply and demand by bending the stick the other way, and focusing on production and associating this with Marx. By so doing they separate what needs to be unified, and thereby do disservice to Marx’s critique of classical political economy.

Marx’s critique of political economy was broad-ranging. But for our purposes, let us focus on three strands. One strand was Marx’s critique of classical political economy’s labour theory of value as the idea that value is about the amount of labour time spent in production. This led to the obvious rejoinder that capitalists would favour lazy workers. Instead, Marx amended this position to the notion of “socially-necessary” labour time. While labour produced value, it was only possible to give expression to this process in a world of competition between capitalists for the sale of commodities, which would reward the process by achieving a sale in the context of this competition – meaning that labour was only productive labour in the capitalist sense when it was able to realise value in the form of consumption/sale. So production and consumption had of necessity to be related.

A second strand is his notion of surplus value – that is the difference between the value produced (as realised in a sale) as against the value of the workers’ labour power. Increasing surplus value can be done either by extending the value creating period – what Marx called absolute surplus value, or by reducing the value of workers’ labour power – relative surplus value. Capitalists exploit workers both by commanding their labour power in production and by suppressing the value of their labour power in reproduction. So the exploitation of the working class is both about the production of value by the worker and the issue of the reproduction of the working class. In the case of the Keynesian welfare state, the cost of reproduction could be transferred onto the state rather that the individual capitalist, but under neoliberalism this has reverted, largely, to the extended families of the working class.

A third strand was to insist on the notion of the necessary unity of the circuit of capital – from reproduction, to production and the realisation through sale/consumption. A break in this virtuous cycle is the source of crisis for capitalism.

Without this understanding – of the relation between production, reproduction and consumption – we cannot understand exploitation, the working class and capitalism itself. It is false to see the working class as defined solely by the sphere of production. And therefore, the class struggle is waged both across the whole circuit of capital and certainly both within the sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction.

With this understanding, we can liberate ourselves from the class struggle being seen as a “trade union” question par excellence, and focus on which working class elements are actually struggling and which organizational forms are emerging, concretely.

Self-Organization and Struggle is the Key

When the wave of working class community protests first emerged at the beginning of the 2000s, the media termed them “service delivery” protests, whilst Left intellectuals close to some of the early protests dubbed them “new social movements,” and then borrowed the language and concepts of new social movement theory – which sought to emphasise an apparent break with “Old Left theory” to characterize them. Other academics merely trotted out the figures for protests and the police records to claim that South Africa was the “protest capital of the world.”

More recently, there have been two different views: one from University of Johannesburg that these protests constitute a “rebellion of the poor” and others at Wits University dubbing the protests “insurgent citizenship.” Underlying all of these is an attempt at creating a binary – working class activists are either rebelling against South Africa’s version of bourgeois society or else seeking to negotiate the terms of their access to bourgeois democracy. And the question can be settled by doing interviews and getting closer to what activists actually articulate.

But this misrepresents the peculiar dialectic of the working class and its location in society. The working class is not revolutionary because it rejects bourgeois social relations and wants socialist revolution. It is revolutionary in seeking what is on offer within bourgeois society, but its location within the bourgeois order compels it to overturn all the strictures of bourgeois society.

South Africa’s working class community activists “only” want houses, water, electricity and other services. But when they act collectively to get these services, they expose the whole edifice of neoliberal capitalism. They “only” want to be consulted on decision-making in their communities and hold councillors accountable, but when they act in collective action they challenge the whole moral construction of the Kempton Park order.

Of course, saying so does not settle the question as to whether these struggles are in the ascendancy or in retreat, whether the activists are deeply-rooted in their communities or what the consciousness of the leading layers is, or whether the balance of forces with the ruling class has changed significantly.

But our starting point is to characterize this as a New Movement. We have been characterizing it as such in three senses:

  • It is self-generating and not the work of professional activists, political parties or Left groups who “punch above their weight.”
  • It has begun to straddle different moments in the life of the working class – from initially being in the sphere of reproduction and then, before and after Marikana, moving into the sphere of production.
  • It is being conducted outside the sphere of the leading layers and organizations of the old anti-apartheid movement – the ANC, COSATU, the SACP and SANCO (South African National Civic Organization) – that are now thoroughly discredited and are seen as the perpetrators of the neoliberal order.

The rise of the new movement is the single most important feature of this conjuncture and poses both opportunities and challenges to the Left.

The tertiary student uprising of the second half of 2015, and again in 2016, is another addition to a growing new movement in South Africa. But having located the centrality of this new movement to understanding class struggles in South Africa today and the possibility that this represents to revolutionary Left politics it is important also to note that there are key unresolved challenges presented by this conjuncture of a new restructured working class and out-of-synch trade union organizations…

The Organizing Role of Capitalism Itself and New Questions for the Movement

Classically, capitalism itself organizes the working class, and, objectively, in its own image. The concentration and centralization of capital over some 100 years found its alter ego in the concentration of the working class – in mass factories, industrial areas and residential estates and townships, etc. Capital’s need for the reproduction of the working class saw mass public education and mass public housing (its apogee being the Keynesian welfare model – where even Apartheid became a racial variant by the 1950s/60s) provided grounds for the intellectual life and the material survival and development of the class.

Capital’s need for a working class provided the weapons for the organized formations which emerged amongst the working class to contest the terms of incorporation into their own exploitation – e.g. trade unions and other forms of collective bargaining. These forms even gave rise to other forms of organization concerned with the question of political power – e.g. mass parties of the working class – and even provided spaces for bourgeois parties to seek voters in trade-offs with working class formations. Taylorist/Fordist/Keynesian capitalism organized the working class in its own interest and yet on this basis the working class was able to form a movement against capitalist domination with all its regional, national and local peculiarities.

But how does this role played by capitalism itself look in the case of neoliberal capitalism, given the nature and extent of the restructuring of social relations that it is responsible for? Let us look at five key changes under neoliberalism and their related unresolved questions:

  • From the production of surplus value in the mass production of industry/ manufacture to the contestation amongst capitals over the distribution of surplus value through financialization.
  • From the mass factory/industrial area/mass reproduction and its role in forging a collective consciousness of the working class, to the casualization, outsourcing, homework, precariousness, unemployment, homelessness and the dismemberment of the class? And not just as a temporary phenomenon. Including the sense that many strata amongst the working class do not even self-identify as “working class”?
  • From the wage relation as the source of livelihoods – providing a basis for the working class fighting its exploitation whilst “enjoying” these livelihoods, so that the moral and intellectual life of the class is built on this basis – to the class having to seek ‘self-initiatives” for livelihoods, including living in a state of indebtedness?
  • From the state as the collective organizer of the capitalist class, ensuring the most general conditions for capital accumulation, to the state particularizing financial capital, devolving functions to local states and cities, outsourcing state functions, transferring functions to other networks of states – so that the unifying quality of political power for the dominated classes becomes far more diffuse.
  • From public services, education, health, and so forth, being provided by the state and therefore a source of direct political contestation, to the provision by private providers and by the class itself, particularly women, in which the state does not appear to be involved. So that the question of a political focus for organizing becomes more abstract.

In these senses, and others, neoliberal capitalism is organizing the class, objectively, differently to that of most of 20th century capitalism. And so the forms of organizing within the new movement will also be different.

But, seeing that the victory of neoliberalism was predicated on a profound defeat of the dominated classes since the 1970s and 1980s, the existential question arises: How does the class which is being organized differently, objectively, out of defeats by this form of capitalism yet find ways to forge a movement which is an expression not of defeat, but of new capabilities able to turn the historic defeats into new victories?

To do this the class is experimenting with new ways of organizing. But this is not a “pure” organizing question, but a political one of finding within these experiments new ways of how to re-assert the need for unity, for political power and for emancipatory practices, both as a vision for Left politics, for movements as well as practices within movements.

Any Left worth its salt needs to be part of these processes – grappling with the strategic, tactical, organizational and political questions that they throw up.

Leonard Gentle is a long-time South African political activist and trade unionist, and is the retired director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG).

This article originally appeared on Pambazuka.org.