Nationalisation, socialisation & worker control

Posted on August 12, 2011


Union members are battling with terms like nationalisation and socialisation. Because neither has been properly defined by those who are promoting the ideas. Many other people are doubtless also just as confused, especially since the concept of state control has also become a political football.

But with the prospect of still further job losses, with constant insecurity and the prospect of grinding poverty ever present, there is an often desperate need felt to cling to straws of hope, however tenuous. Nationalisation and socialisation — really only versions of the same thing — are two such straws: they are offered as simple solutions to the problems of joblessness, insecurity and poverty.

However, they are also potentially powerful emotive slogans that can be used to bolster the political fortunes of individuals and groups.

What adds to the confusion is that the avowedly nationalist ANC Youth League (ANCYL) publicly led the latest charge in demanding nationalisation. It did so after seeking the advice of Cosatu which insisted that there should not be “a narrow focus on the nationalisation of the mines”.

The ANCYL ignored this advice, putting Cosatu in what the federation admits was “an awkward position”. A Cosatu statement noted that the ANCYL call could be seen as “an unprincipled attempt to use the legitimate demands of the Freedom Charter to save the precarious position of the black mining tycoons who were in trouble after the global economic recession”.

As a result, the initial ANCYL demand was derided by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and other unionists as serving only the interests of certain mine owners.

It was pointed out that some BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) tycoons owned mines that were nearing the end of their profitable lives; that there was also the very expensive matter of dealing with acid water drainage and other environmental damage. The ANCYL position seemed to be: better the taxpayer pay than the mining tycoons.

However, as early as February, and to the annoyance, in particular, of NUM, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) came out in support of state control of the mines. The two unions have often been at loggerheads over conflicting recruitment especially in the energy sector.

“It was a populist ploy to recruit members,” was how at least one NUM official saw the statement. But it also almost certainly had to do with the then looming battle over succession within Cosatu.

Until this week it was assumed that general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi would definitely be stepping down at the Cosatu congress, scheduled for September next year. And two names emerged as the most likely successor: Frans Baleni of NUM and Irvin Jim of Numsa.

This week, following very public spats between Num and Numsa — including a full page newspaper advertisement — Vavi indicated that he would be prepared to stand for another term, if he has support. The Cosatu executive also secured an undertaking from the leaders of both NUM and Numsa, that any further disagreements would, effectively, be “kept in the family” and not aired publicly.

But there are two sides to this particular family, because all of the major players are also members of the Communist Party (SACP) which also displays divisions at the upper level. A significant minority of SACP members are unhappy with the party’s general secretary, Blade Nzimande, especially the fact that he is also higher education minister. Some want Vavi to take over.

And much of the argument centres on the issues of private and public ownership. As a recent Cosatu discussion document notes: “Hopefully we will never again have the ugly spectacle of senior SACP leaders in an ANC cabinet leading government’s privatisation programme…”

The document also maintains: “Elected public representatives who are Party members have responsibilities to the Party and the Party equally has responsibilities to support and effectively (if broadly) mandate them.”

And the SACP and Cosatu agree that a particular form of nationalisation is required. This is socialisation by which is meant proclaimed worker control through ownership by a “workers’ state”.

The need, therefore, is to define what is meant by a “workers’ state”. In SACP-speak, this means a state governed by a “workers’ party”. Since the SACP defines itself as such a party — a definition formally supported by Cosatu — “socialisation” can be achieved only when the SACP is in power.

How to get there, with whom in the lead lies at the root of much of the argument at leadership levels within Cosatu. Personal ambition also complicates the ideological debates.

And these debates seem to take little or no cognisance of the experience of the models promoted by the SACP. For example, the late SACP chairman Joe Slovo, minister of housing in the first post-apartheid government, claimed that socialism — an alternative to capitalism — existed in eastern Europe but that “the element of democracy was missing”.

Since democracy — and its extension to every aspect of society — was how Karl Marx and Frederick Engels defined socialism, this was a most peculiar argument. Especially since Slovo maintained — and the SACP and the Cosatu leadership still maintain — that the ideas expounded by Marx and Engels provide the correct analysis.

Given this background it is little wonder that there is so much confusion in the labour movement, let alone the community at large. Especially since most South Africans are aware, at the very least, of the gross exploitation suffered by workers in “socialist” China, a country governed by a party that enjoys “fraternal relations” with the SACP.

Perhaps, as a founding member of Cosatu noted this week, it is time to start discussing the concept of worker control that emerged during the turbulent years of the 1980s. A call then was that control should be vested in the majority working in any mine, factory, bank or enterprise; that management functions should be carried out by elected officials and that the state, in the form of an accountable government, should act only in a co-ordinating capacity.

This, at the very least, might raise the level of debate.