A Cold War shadow looms in South Africa

Posted on November 6, 2012


Produced for Bulletin & Record (Zambia)

In the face of the ongoing global economic crisis, with massive unemployment and a wage and welfare gap perhaps second to none anywhere, South Africa is now confronting the shadow of the Cold War. And it looms large in the background, despite most of the current media focus on the recent strike wave and the impending elective conference of the governing African National Congress.

The shadow emerged because of a concerted effort by the small, but disproportionately influential, South African Communist Party (SACP) as it pushes to go back to a quite recent past in order to create a supposedly better future. It is a past of centralised political and economic control by a state headed by “the workers’ party”.

The SACP was able to conjure up this shadow because most of the leaders of some of the biggest trade unions in the country and almost all the executive members of South Africa’s major labour federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) are SACP members. This dominance is part of the party’s “medium term vision” that calls on members to “secure working class hegemony in the State in its diversity and in all other sites of power”.

Because the SACP defines itself as the only party of the working class, “working class hegemony” implies control by the party. The model is what existed in the former Soviet Union, although the party now looks to China, continues to hail Cuba and, through its latest moves, has come closer to North Korea.

It has done this by helping to boost the once flagging fortunes of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) that has as one of its mainstays, the official North Korean trade union federation. Founded in London in 1945 and headquartered in Prague for much of its existence, the WFTU became, to a large extent, the agent of Soviet foreign policy throughout the Cold War period while the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), founded in 1949, was the largely United States and British-inspired response.

This ideological fragmentation was an example of how important political parties, governments and business consider the potential power of unions. It revealed clearly that to wield influence over, and preferably control, trade unions was — and remains — the goal of any group wishing to gain or retain economic and political power.

These ideological alignments after World War II amounted to the greatest-ever rupture in the international labour movement. From either side, the split was portrayed as capitalist democracy versus socialist democracy or simply Capitalism versus Communism; a far cry from the call for workers of all countries to unite as sellers of labour, irrespective of gender, religious, ethnic or political differences.

The leaderships of both sides of that very recent geographic and ideological division promised, if not heaven on earth, at least peace, plenty and security for all. They claimed to provide the answer to the ills that afflicted humanity yet, on an economic level, both functioned on the same principle: competition. And this meant the accumulation of profit in order better to compete.

On the one side was the fusion of government and business — of state and capital — on the other, the economy was privately controlled with the government at apparent arm’s length. In the East the trade unions became merely conveyor belts for party and state, in the West, the were, to varying degrees, independent of party, state and business.

The East proclaimed itself to be “socialist” although, in the words of the late SACP chairman, Joe Slovo, this was “socialism where the element of democracy was missing”. In exchange for total agreement with party and state, with dissidence punishable by severe sanctions, there was generally free schooling, health care and affordable housing.

In the West the situation is perhaps best summed up by the comment by French author, Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” In other words a situation of often gross economic exploitation behind a veneer of equality.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellites in 1990, the WFTU all but collapsed. This was a time of triumphalism for one side in a politically bipolar world; the private enterprise West had apparently finally dominated the state-centred East and these models were portrayed as the only alternatives available

This was hailed in many quarters as the end of history, a complete cure for the political and economic illnesses that had beset the globe. And like the physical bipolar disorder, the international mood of that world had swung between elation and depression, held in control by the political medication labelled MAD (mutually assured destruction) that came in the form of massive stockpiles of nuclear weaponry.

With the fall of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the Soviet empire, those organisations reliant on that system also fell apart. As the Cosatu secretariat noted at its congress in September: “Is it any wonder that the WFTU imploded when the rule of the Party did?”

However, that comment was made only months after three Cosatu unions — the metalworkers, pulp and paper workers and police and prisons unions — hosted a meeting in Johannesburg of a recently revived WFTU. As the global economic crisis hit, and especially since 2008, the rump of the WFTU, having relocated to Athens, began again to stir and campaign to go back to the future.

Headed by George Mavrikos, a Communist Party (KKE) member of the Greek parliament, the WFTU has clearly set its sights on Africa’s most powerful trade union movement as a bridgehead into the continent. It is a campaign assisted greatly by the fact that the KKE enjoys “fraternal relations” with the SACP.

So it was that the matter of international affiliation got onto the agenda at the Cosatu congress. But Cosatu is affiliated to the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) the successor to the ICFTU. A large, incrementalist body that is transparent in its operations, the ITUC has been hamstrung to a degree by the fact that labour and other political parties supported by many of its members have proved, in power, to have ignored or even turned against their trade union backers. The WFTU is, by contrast, certainly smaller, secretive, noisy and professedly revolutionary.

Reform or revolution is now the cry from the Cosatu unions pressing for the federation to dump the ITUC. There is obviously a degree of contradiction and confusion in this, but supporters of the SACP tend to argue that we still live in a simple bipolar world with “socialists” on one side and “imperialists” on the other. And, despite obvious problems, not to say contradictions, nation-states such as China, Cuba and North Korea are perceived as examples of the road to this brighter future labelled “socialism”.

However, in the midst of the ongoing social and trade union tumult in South Africa, many protesting communities and workers have turned their backs on traditional organisations and have organised independently. This has been hailed by some observers as hinting at the emergence of a new, more democratic, labour party. It is a possibility that has attracted, from the political margins, groups of the radical Left and Right, peddling their specific alternatives in the hope of influencing such a move.

But whether they or some organically generated new way forward will emerge to dissipate the Cold War cloud remains moot.

Posted in: Reports abroad