Labour, socialism & the search for a party

Posted on April 5, 2019


What will workers decide when faced with the confusion of 48 political parties listed for the national and provincial poll on May 8? Many clearly did not register to vote, some have said they will abstain, others remain uncertain about who to support.

The prime problem seems to be that a consensus exists that, for organised workers, there is no alternative to the ANC, although, for some, it may be possible to “hold your nose and vote DA” (Democratic Alliance). However, the DA, while it is the main opposition, is a clearly capitalist party while most organised labour classifies itself in vague terms as socialist.

This is only one aspect of the confusion. While 48 have put up their deposits and registered with the Independent Electoral Commission to contest, more than 200 others threatened to do so. And the party adopted by Cosatu as “the workers’ party”, the SA Communist Party (SACP), remains aligned to the governing ANC.

But within the 48 there are, besides Cosatu’s continuing support for the ANC, two that have direct links to the modern labour movement and to the various ideological battles that have raged within it over nearly 50 years. The most obvious one is the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP), set up by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) following a union congress resolution.

This party supports mass working class action “under the general leadership of a united, disciplined, centralised” party. For the SRWP, entering parliament is merely a tactic; its role in the assembly is to take action “that helps to smash the bourgeois state machine and parliament itself”.

Confusingly, SRWP posters feature the picture of Numsa general secretary, Irvin Jim, his name, and a statement attributed to him. Yet Jim’s name is second last of the 20 on the SRWP’s national list.

To critics on the Left, this amounts to “SACP Mark 2”, even down to the hammer and sickle symbol adopted by the SRWP. Numsa is also affiliated to the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) which is not backing any political party, while supporting the idea of “a working class party….democratically built by the workers from the bottom up”. This sums up the arguments that raged 40 and more years ago about a centralised, command structure versus the greater extension of democracy..

Then, the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union (Mawu), later to become the core of the amalgamated unions in the sector that emerged as Numsa, supported not only a democratic workers’ party, but also a “workers’ charter”. This in response to the Freedom Charter of the ANC which Mawu and other “workerists” found “confusing and pro-capitalist”. They also rejected the SACP as authoritarian and undemocratic.

Harassment, detention and lengthy political trials followed as South Africa moved toward its eventual negotiated settlement. The ANC and SACP also became dominant in Cosatu, which joined the ANC-led alliance.

Mawu, along with other unions in the metal and allied industries amalgamated as the Cosatu-affiliated Numsa, elected as the new union’s first general secretary, Moses — “Comrade Moss” — Mayekiso who was then still in jail and charged with treason. Mayekiso now emerges at the head of the national electoral list for African Democratic Change (ADeC).

This is the party set up by former ANC MP Makhosi Khosa who quit parliament complaining of graft and corruption. The major thrust of ADeC appears to be a change in the electoral system to allow elected representatives to be wholly accountable to, and recallable by, their constituents. Perhaps it is a sign of its libertarian orientation that it is now supported by the Dagga (marijuana) Party that has campaigned for the legalisation of cannabis.

This is, however, the fifth political incarnation for Mayekiso. He was initially recruited into the SACP by the late Chris Hani on the basis that Hani would democratise that party. He left when Hani was assassinated, but entered parliament in 1994 as a Cosatu member of the ANC.

After two years as an MP, he walked out, complaining that Cosatu was “just a rubber stamp for the ANC”. He next emerged when a “national convention” was called by Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosious Lekota that led to the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope).

“This is it. At last we’re moving again,” he told me excitedly at the time. I disagreed. I was right, and Comrade Moss drifted out of Cope to emerge at the 2014 election on the list of the Workers and Socialist Party. “A mistake,” he concedes.

“He’s just a serial joiner,” is a common jibe aimed at him. However, a long time friend probably assessed his position more accurately: “Moss a good, grassroots, democratic socialist who has spent his life looking for the right party.”

Perhaps, like so many others, he is still looking. Time alone will tell whether any answers will emerge from the present apparent confusion.

But history does stalk us and the labour movement especially, would do well to pay heed to what lessons it provides.