Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of COSATU and himself an SACP member, got into a public argument with SACP Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Cronin last November over contentious issues in the Alliance that rules South Africa.
This bare fact alone shows how utterly fundamental the political crisis in South Africa is.
A lengthy reply by Vavi to Cronin dated December 17, 2014 is available online at:
The basic division in the political crisis is between the working class and wider layers of working people on the one hand and the bourgeoisie and its representatives in the Alliance on the other. That was made very clear when armed police opened fire on striking rock-drillers at Marikana on 16 August 2012 and in the way political forces have lined up subsequently. It is therefore very hard to understand why in his reply Vavi makes no reference of any kind at all to the events at Marikana. The silence on this issue robs his remarks of meaning in a certain sense. It belies the very reality he attempts to portray at considerable length in the letter.
The crisis in South Africa involves the unravelling of the National Democratic Revolution’s meretricious promises. It is a crisis which involves workers driven to mobilise against the Alliance government in order to defend their class interests, but also one which works right through every element in the alliance, COSATU, SACP and ANC.
It is a crisis in which the developing leadership of the working class lies in the hands of the NUMSA officeholders, who correctly take the fight through all parts of the Alliance, while at the same time building their movement in a very open way in the United Front and among their international contacts. Their insistence upon their right to belong to COSATU and fight within the federation testifies to their understanding of their responsibilities towards their class and the masses in general. Big, indeed historical, political issues are at stake. They cannot be resolved by walking away from this fight or displacing it elsewhere.
Vavi comes across from this letter as a man of a somewhat different kidney from the NUMSA leaders. He describes very tellingly the abusive nature of the working class’s relationship (through the COSATU federation) with the SACP and the government, but also he is looking to restore a relationship that is damaged, appealing to common sense and goodwill to overcome a rocky patch in a fundamentally sound, if occasionally violent, marriage.
For all its diplomatic language, however, this long letter makes it absolutely clear that it is the government which is smashing up the ANC-SACP alliance along class lines on behalf of bourgeois interests, and that many leading figures in the SACP are up to their necks in collaboration with this government. It stands out that, to say the very least, the SACP fails to provide leadership for the working class, deceives and betrays the interests of that class, uses prevarication and double-talk while class interests are attacked and that, having stood back while neo-liberal “reforms” are inflicted, belatedly adapts to pressure from workers’ organisations via bombastic rhetoric not backed by actions. The leaders of the SACP are the splitters. Vavi is not just any member of the SACP: he is the elected secretary of the trade union confederation Cosatu.
Vavi is aware that the stakes are high: ““Labelling, rumour-mongering and character assassination become the order of the day”, he warns, bringing the threat of “the unthinkable – physical conflict between the members and leaders of the working class”.
He calls for: “necessary debates about the state of the National Democratic Revolution and whether the current trajectory can even herald a seamless movement towards socialism.”
Vavi goes through a long list of issues which have been contentious. His treatment of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan (GEAR) provides a good example of the problems he is describing. Vavi recalls that the SACP statement of 14 June 1996 welcomed and “fully backed” GEAR, insisted it “situates itself as a framework for the National Democratic Revolution”, asserted that it “resists” “free market dogmatism” and “envisages a key economic role for the public sector” and “reaffirms and reinforces the bilateral (between government and unions) National Framework Agreement process.” The SACP statement went on that it “envisages the extension of a regulated market and it introduces an innovative approach to flexibility. It rejects laisser-faire market-driven flexibility and instead calls for negotiated regional and sectoral flexibility.”
“The opposite of the truth …”
Vavi’s comment now should be written in letters of fire:
“History will record that, on this crit-ical issue of GEAR, which was to divide the movement for many years to come, virtually every line of this statement proved to be incorrect and problematic, and the SACP itself subsequently came to realise this fact. This is important because its raises the question as to how such a fundamental error of judgement could be made on such a vital question for the working class”. How indeed!
Recalling that the SACP rushed this statement out without consulting its members, Vavi continues: “The SACP statement on every key topic makes assertions which would later be exposed as the opposite of the truth”.
“It is now history that GEAR sought to replace and overturn the RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme)”, Vavi continues. “GEAR espoused market fundamentalism, and sought to slash the public sector …” He adds: “It aimed to remove key rights of workers in the labour market”. Vavi describes GEAR as “a comprehensive neo-liberal macroeconomic strategy, which the Party was later to denounce as the 1996 Class Project”.
“This is still relevant”, he continues, “because it was seen by the working class as a major betrayal of trust in the SACP’s responsibility as a leadership rooted in its attempt to retain its proximity to power. Others on the left of the SACP argue that this was not a misjudgement but a political choice and have from that time written off the SACP. It didn’t help that a leader of the SACP, Cde Alec Erwin, was a prominent driver of the GEAR strategy.”
On this, as on other matters, Vavi recalls that the SACP made purely “rhetorical” adjustments. It had been the same previously with the 1995 “6-pack” and privatisation plans. The SACP claimed: (Umsebenzi February 1996): “Contrary to many press reports, the GNU (government) position actually calls for the basic retention of Telkom, Transnet, SAA etc. in public hands, while allowing some minority strategic partnerships with private companies … We see in it a rejection of mindless privatisation”. The Party also welcomed “comrade Mbeki’s very clear statement that the positions were a point of departure for negotiations, in particular with labour”, as an implied promise that the privatisation measures would not be pushed through roughshod (Mbeki was at the time President of the country).
Although COSATU was able “to exercise power by the Federation’s membership, which, in the end partially halted the privatisation drive in its tracks”, Vavi comments: “Today workers at Telkom and other SOEs (State Owned Enterprises) are still paying a heavy price of private equity partnerships and commercialisation and therefore neoliberalism”.
Vavi praises the SACP’s policies on the banks and the land, but points out: “But deeper analysis suggests that it has studiously avoided anything which could be construed as taking on the state … where it has raised criticisms they have tended to be muted, or so ‘nuanced’ as to be ineffective or simply sending out confusing messages”.
With the “launch of the NDP (National Development Plan) in August 2012 “there was silence from the Party about the ideological and class problems within it”, says Vavi (himself no stranger to “muted” language and “nuances”), pointing out that top Party leaders were members of the cabinet which had endorsed it. While SACP Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Cronin engaged in double-talk about fighting “for our macro-economic policies to be better aligned to those important micro-economic interventions”, Vavi notes: “The NDP … proposes both macro- and micro-economic policies which are at odds with the progressive elements of the NGP (New Growth Path) and IPAP (industrial Policy Action Plan)”.
In other words, while the unions solemnly negotiate socially progressive measures through the NGP and IPAP processes, the government is pressing ahead with neoliberal reforms and deregulation measures which, along with the general pressures of imperialism on wages and working conditions, completely undermine such agreements.
Vavi’s explanation is that the Party is “seemingly blinded by not just its close relationship with government but the presence of top leaders in government … If the Party was the vanguard, why was it constantly taking up a position at the rear?” This remark arises in relation to the 2013 Alliance summit (held at the end of August, immediately after the Marikana Massacre which Vavi fails to mention). Discussing how the NDP was simply imposed, Vavi says:
“The price paid by the working class in this process is immeasurable. A pro-business economic strategy will now run till 2030 unless a major pro-left political rupture takes place within the ANC and the Alliance. Frankly I see no possibility of this happening inside the government or even the ANC in the near future. COSATU has found itself completely isolated, as many government leaders, in particular the President, have repeatedly told the world that there is sufficient consensus to implement the NDP. But this ‘national consensus’ excludes the working class.”
According to Vavi, the SACP neglects macro-economic policy and believes “we must rather focus on micro-economic policy, industrial policy, etc. In this respect the Party has shared common ground with many conservatives inside and outside the state…” But he explains that this is a problem because “macro-economic policy is the state’s major lever to drive development”. He goes on: “Our progressive IPAP policy has failed to stem deindustrialisation … because the incorrect macro-economic policies are in place”.
In his own “muted” and “nuanced” way, Vavi is depicting how the National Democratic Revolution has crashed into the buffers.
He again (politely) accuses the SACP leaders of lying to the masses over budgets. For example, this is how the SACP responded to the 2013 “austerity” budget: “ … the budget’s stance has rejected the path of austerity disastrously followed by many countries in Europe”. The Party claims that “many of the major pillars of expenditure including infrastructure, education and health-care are maintained”. The trade union federation COSATU was forced to reply: “We are following European/IMF austerity policies, which have only plunged Europe deeper into crisis”.
Vavi points out the key role of “certain economic ministries and state institutions (including the Reserve Bank, strategic SOEs etc.) … with the Presidency as the coordinating centre. But the institutional engine for monopoly capital in the state is the National Treasury”, which “uses its control of the purse strings … to attempt to shape, drive and often frustrate the policy agenda in the state”.
When COSATU called for the scrapping of motorway e-tolls and a boycott of ebills, the SACP accused them of allying itself with the Democratic Alliance.
Vavi deals directly with the crisis in relations between the Alliance government and the metal-worker’s union NUMSA:
“The question we must ask is: why, in its Special National Congress, did NUMSA move from being the defender of the ANC to its biggest critic? … The intensity of NUMSA’s critique, particularly since 2013, and the NUMSA Special National Congress resolutions of December 2013, reflect the crisis in COSATU, in the Alliance and in the working class as a whole.
“This is what the Party should have been responding to, not their irritation with NUMSA positions which they regard as extreme. Rather they should be responding to the extremity of the moment, in which the working class find itself in deepening crisis.
“Secondly, we need to ask, why is the SACP so threatened by NUMSA’s critique of ‘neoliberalism’ in South Africa?
“It may be that NUMSA’s critique has sometimes been overly crude in not recognising areas of progress, contradiction and contestation in the state. But equally the SACP has been in denial about the reality that neo-liberalism is a significant feature of strategic aspects of government economic policy, and that this needs to be contested. If the economic proposals of the NDP are clearly neoliberal, what else should we call them?”
Vavi points out that the SACP is: “… very cautious – many would say too cautious and hyper-diplomatic” in its approach to “managing its differences with the ANC, even in the face of attacks from the movement”.
“However it has chosen to adopt the opposite standpoint in handling its differences with NUMSA. The Party seems to have decided on a course of total confrontation, engaging in running battles with NUMSA, hyping up the war talk, and pushing for the purging of NUMSA from the movement.”
Complaining about a “confrontational posture … reflected in the extreme language continuously used by the Party”, Vavi adds:
“Party statements thinly disguise the fact that it was celebrating the expulsion of NUMSA. This creates the clear impression amongst workers that the Party was indeed behind this, despite its denials.
“The SACP can’t say that we want worker controlled unions and a democratic federation, but we also want to purge particular unions we disagree with, or change the democratically determined mandate of their federation.”
These are words which must be weighed seriously by trade unionists and political activists around the world who are accustomed, without reflecting too much, to respecting the Alliance as the leadership of the South African people’s struggle for liberation.
More broadly, Vavi raises the general question:
“Many workers will be astonished, and also perplexed, at how a party calling itself Communist and with a long history of revolutionary struggle, could have ended up supporting right-wing, pro-capitalist economic policies and becoming the main defenders of a democratic yet capitalist government, while waging a campaign to emasculate, weaken and ultimately destroy the independent mass workers’ union movement, COSATU.”
This is of course the central question. Vavi thinks: “The best answer to this question is to be found in a famous pamphlet by … Comrade Joe Slovo: Has Socialism failed, written in 1989”.
Discussing the source of the degeneration and collapse of the USSR and the international Communist movement, Slovo said: “ … the party leadership was transformed into a command post with overbearing centralism and very little democracy … the gap between socialism and democracy widened … the commandist and bureaucratic approaches which took root during Stalin’s time affected communist parties throughout the world”.
Now Vavi takes this matter somewhat further. He comments that the Party members should have addressed the problems of bureaucracy and personality cult much earlier, and points to some of the consequences:
“The fear of any democratic opposition from within each country spread to other parts of the world. In Spain in the mid-1930s the Communist Party uncritically supported the Republican government which, although a left-wing coalition, was still essentially a capitalist government, and it declared war on workers who were then struggling for a socialist Spain. The anarchists, Trotskyists and independent workers, not the capitalists and fascists, became the CP’s main enemy.
“They were attacked with exactly the same sort of insults and absurd conspiracy theories we hear today in South Africa, in which NUMSA and COSATU leaders, NGOs and progressive civil society groups are charged with ‘anti-majoritarianism’ and conspiring with international counter-revolutionaries to destabilise ‘our’ ANC government.”
Yes, this is an SACP member and the elected General Secretary of one of the world’s most respected trade union confederations speaking!
We Trotskyists in the Workers International have more – much more! – to say about the origins and character of the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union and the Communist International. We have a scientific analysis of these things which places “personal” failings and “commandist and bureaucratic approaches” in a proper context.
A useful introduction to our analysis, and the issues raised, is contained in the articles Stalinism and Bolshevism which Trotsky wrote in 1937. It is easily available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/08/stalinism.htm.
Vavi concludes his long letter with an expression of hope that:
“It is not too late for the Party to change direction, and recapture its historical role, so that together we can transform our skewed internal development and place society onto a new growth and development path”.
Whether or not this is too optimistic, the issues he raises must be fought out to the very end at all political levels in the movement. They are clearly under discussion in every nook and cranny of the movement in South Africa. We at Workers International stand shoulder to shoulder with all those who wish to take the theory and practice of the masses forward.
Bob Archer, January 2015