The danger in unprincipled unity

Posted on April 29, 2017


Unity for the sake of unity is both unprincipled and dangerous. To rally around a flag, an individual a label or a brand, and to follow blindly, is a recipe for disaster. Yet this is a call being loudly trumpetted today in South Africa. It is also a call that has been heeded far too often in the recent past.

And on Monday, May Day, there will be demands to unite behind various parties, factions, fractions and others pushing their own agendas. The main cry will almost certainly come from the embattled and faction-ridden ANC and from elements of what appears to be a tripartite political alliance in the process of disintegration.

This is understandable: such calls for what is, in essence, blind loyalty, have been particularly vociferous in the run-up to, and launch of, the new South Africa Federation of Trade Union (Saftu). The formation of this federation epitomises the breach in the governing alliance.

According to former National Union of Mineworkers general secretary — and now secretary-general of the ANC — Gwede Mantashe, Saftu has joined the ranks of “the enemy”. This depiction of all who oppose the ANC as the enemy [of the people] is based on the long-standing myth that the ANC was and is the only true representative of the people of South Africa. It was a claim made throughout the long years of exile and was just as fallacious then as it is now.

In the late 1970s and in the 1980s, militant trade unions, along with human rights and other groups, rallied behind the ANC as the major anti-apartheid political grouping, their common cause being to end apartheid. This despite the fact that the exiled ANC and its small, but highly influential ally, the SA Communist Party, initially opposed the emergence of what became Cosatu.

But reality on the ground, along with political pragmatism, quite quickly overcame the ideological dogma of the SACP and its self-exiled “true representative of the workers”, the South African Congress of Trade Unions. So it was that Cosatu became an ally of the ANC and SACP to battle a system that deprived the vast majority of workers in the country of even basic human rights.

But most of the emergent unions in those early days felt they should be inclusive organisations and should not, therefore, be formally aligned with political parties or other exclusive groupings. Unions, they felt, should remain independent and so be able to support or oppose policies, parties or groups on the basis of what was in the best interests of the working class. Opposition to apartheid clearly qualified.

Saftu has formally adopted this position in the new democratic dispensation. But it still retains — and uses — undefined exclusivist rhetoric, such as defining itself as “Marxist-Leninist”. However, the broadly inclusive position repeats the motion tabled by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) at the Cosatu Congress in 1993 that has underlain much of the tension within the federation over the past 20 years.

Numsa argued at the time that when the ANC became the government it would become the largest employer in the land and that unions should not “be in bed” with the bosses. Numsa also supported a proposal by Moeletsi Mbeki that unions should use their financial muscle through provident and pension funds: they should establish a bank that could provide rental and bonded accommodation to workers, shattering the “geography of apartheid”.

This imaginative proposal, centred on Johannesburg’s flatland of Hillbrow, was rejected as “too capitalistic” by a Cosatu headed by Jay Naidoo, a guest speaker at the Saftu launch last week. But, by 1996, most Cosatu unions were in the process of establishing investment companies, anathema to the early unions. Numsa, the main driver behind Saftu, still has such an apparently lucrative company.

This is only one of the many contradictions that remain to be resolved in what is, without doubt, a major milestone in the history of the South African labour movement. But at the core, as always, is the question of real democratic control. However, this is something all too often distorted behind a claimed Marxist-Leninist concept of democratic centralism that is merely a flimsy disguise for centralised bureaucracy.

In the coming months, the unions affiliated to Saftu are going to have to deal with these contradictions. How they manage will determine whether this major milestone in the history of the labour movement will become just another traditional player or whether it will break the mould to take on the fundamentally democratic challenges of the 21st Century.