Delegates at the launch of the South African Federation of Trade Unions. Picture: The Star/Nokuthula Mbatha
The biggest lesson from the tripartite alliance is not necessarily for Saftu to keep its distance from political parties, but to form one, says Ebrahim Harvey.

In the conclusion of his article “Can new trade union, Saftu (SA Federation of Trade Unions), break the mould - and not the promises?” (The Sunday Independent, April 30), Professor Edward Webster states that the challenge for the new federation is to be a “genuine forum for political debate, respecting different views and even allowing different ideological factions to be institutionalised”.

I argue that this perspective holds problems for Saftu, and for any trade union, especially for black workers. The reason why trade unions, especially for the black working-class, were historically always highly political was as a result of the intrinsic race-class and apartheid-capitalism nexus.

This virtually symbiotic relationship between racism and capitalism, for most of the time, has endured in post-apartheid South Africa. And the biggest reason for this is that the political transformation was seriously limited because it was consciously and deliberately not accompanied by confronting the power of the white-dominated capitalist economy, with which apartheid largely lived cheek by jowl.

What this has in fact meant is that though the trade unions have a non-racial constitutional democracy, which in itself was a massive gain compared to racist apartheid, in every struggle, including for a living wage, they run up against the capitalist framework, within which the economy remains enveloped and in fact shackled.

You do not need to be a Marxist political economist to figure out that the major reason why the black working class is still trapped in poor wages, poverty and massive class inequalities is because the mainly white-dominated economy has resisted a real living wage and in fact a decent national minimum wage with all its reactionary might.

If you add to that the devastating magnitude of the current global capitalist crisis and its negative impacts on the entire working class - and in fact the middle class, especially its black sections - then we have many reasons why trade unions must not only remain politically interested and active, but must seriously explore the formation of a political party dedicated to the interests and needs of the majority black working class, the most neglected constituency in post-apartheid South Africa.

The experiences of Cosatu in its alliance since 1994 with the ruling ANC and the SACP, have made it abundantly clear that that federation was little more than convenient electoral cannon fodder for the ANC. In fact, I have many times argued elsewhere that it is this situation that is the primary cause of the decimating and crippling crisis within the ANC alliance today. Besides, the toeing-the-line controlling pressures the ANC and in fact the SACP placed Cosatu under was relentless and its impact devastating over time.

Saftu must be very careful to avoid political cynicism as a result of what happened in Cosatu and in its alliance with the ANC and SACP. Instead, the biggest lesson from that experience is not to necessarily keep its distance from political parties, but to form one dedicated to championing the interests and needs of the black working class.

In fact, it is in the light of the enormous socio-economic crisis facing organised workers and the entire black working class today, that I argue that it is mistaken, abstract and distracting for Webster to entertain and be inspired by a “lively debate over the relationship between Marxism-Leninism and Pan-Africanism” at the Saftu launch conference.

But if workers foundationally focused on their material and social needs and interests, especially during a devastating economic crisis, they would have far more common ground for unity in action than whether some were attracted to the political ideas of Pan-Africanism or what Webster calls “Marxism-Leninism”, which in any case today in the relevant literature largely begs definition and redefinition and is in fact somewhat anachronistic.

Nothing shows this more than the fact that the “Marxism-Leninism” of the SACP was for decades Stalinism, ideologically, politically and programmatically. In this regard the SACP, the supposed leader of the working class, discouraged black workers and in fact the ANC from struggling directly for socialism and instead insisted that the black working class first needed to attain a non-racial political democracy, which left power in the hands of the white capitalist class and which is precisely where it has been stuck in since 1994.

The result has been worsening black poverty, joblessness, squalor and exploitation. That is why I argue that as much as the exploitative shenanigans of the Gupta family is a serious problem, “white monopoly capital” is not a deceiving myth, but a fatal reality we live with. We must deal with both.

* Dr Harvey is a political writer, analyst and author.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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