COSATU: New Trend Emerges in South Africa Freedom Struggle

Sandy Boyer & Dianne Feeley

TODAY’S SYSTEM of apartheid-a system fed on the rapid industrial expansion following World War II — is rooted in three centuries of colonial domination, racial oppression, and a semi-slave existence for the Black majority. No more than 5-10% of the nonwhite population has ever been enfranchised. Fundamental rights — including the right to an education, to freedom of speech or press, to live where one chooses-do not exist.

In response, a very powerful tradition of populist politics has emerged. Throughout the twentieth century in South Africa mass mobilizations of the oppressed and disenfranchised challenged racist laws, defying violent repression.

The African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, clearly arose from, and was in turn molded by this tradition. Reshaped by a more militant generation of activists in the 1940s-led by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo-the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter in 1955.

The charter outlines a nonracial, cross-class perspective for securing a democratic society, based on majority rule. It begins by asserting: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and white, and no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.”

Although the ANC is committed to socialism (never very precisely defined), it sees the struggle against apartheid as a battle to establish democracy. Somehow the struggle for socialism will logically follow at some later time. Therefore the ANC sees the present struggle as an alliance between everyone, whatever their social class, who is in favor of democracy. This does not mean that the working class is irrelevant. Rather, the strategy of the ANC is that, at this stage of the revolution, the power of the working class should be utilized to overthrow apartheid and establish a democratic society. Its duty is to be a part of that struggle, and not to conquer power to solve its separate needs as workers.

The second perspective for the South African struggle arose in reaction to the ANC, and split off from it following the adoption of the Freedom Charter. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) objected to the nonracialism of the charter. Following the regime’s crushing of the campaign against the pass system with the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, both organizations were banned, persecuted and driven underground. Both adopted a strategy of rural guerilla warfare, a strategy that has proven unsuccessful, and both have undergone severe repression.

Today the PAC is very weak. The ANC, while still banned and only functioning inside South Africa underground, has clearly emerged as the dominant symbol of the liberation struggle. The ANC’s imprisoned leader, Nelson Mandela, would undoubtedly be elected head of state in any election where majority rule prevailed.

Yet the perspective of the PAC was reflected in the development of the Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s, and is present in the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) today. While this nationalist trend is very much a minority tendency in the Black com­ munity, it nonetheless finds its political expression in both a section of trade union and community-based organizations. Its political program-the Azanian People’s Manifesto-begins:

“Our struggle for national liberation is directed against the system of racial capitalism which holds the people of Azania in bondage for the benefit of the small minority of white capitalists and their allies, the white workers and the reactionary sections of the Black middle class. The struggle against apartheid is no more than the point of departure for our liberation efforts. Apartheid will be eradicated with the system of racial capitalism.

The Black working class inspired by revolutionary consciousness is the driving force of the struggle. They alone can end the system as it stands today because they alone have nothing at all to lose.” (Apartheid: The Story of A Dispossessed People, p. 185)

The nonracial strategy rejects a system built on defining everyone by racial categories. Adherents of nonracialism would argue that it is adopting the method of apartheid to deny a person a role in the liberation struggle because of the color of one’s skin. They would see exclusion as an expression of the racism they are fighting against.

The nationalist perspective is based on the thesis that the most important task of the liberation struggle is the development of a Black leadership. Since Blacks have been trained by the system of apartheid to defer to whites, Blacks must exclude whites from the struggle, or inevitably find that whites participating in the movement are in positions of domination. And since whites come from a privileged layer in South African society, it is not in the material interests of whites — however well meaning-to be intransigent fighters for majority rule.

The nonracial strategy is predicated on the need of the Black majority to forge alliances with the Coloured, Asian (Indian) and progressive sections of the white population. The nationalist strategy, on the other hand, has been to approach the Coloured and Asian communities as part of the Black majority-to argue there should be a single, unified movement in which all the oppressed are Black people without distinctions.

It is clear that the Coloured and Asian communities understood the government’s attempt to draw them into alignment with the regime through its scheme to build a three-part parliamentary system which whites would control. The massive boycott of the constitutional referendum by the Coloured and Asian communities was an affirmation of the nonracial strategy, as has been the examples of whites who have been killed by the government for the role they have played in building nonracial trade unions.

Three years ago Rev. Allan Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, issued a call for people from all races to form a united front in South Africa to boycott the government referendum. The so-called constitutional reform was an attempt to defuse the demand for majority rule. The United Democratic Front (UDF) is the direct result of Boesak’s call. It is comprised of hundreds of organizations-ranging from civic associations to unions, student associations, churches, Black employers’ organizations and white liberal organizations, including Black Sash and the National Union of South African Students. In essence it is an alliance between the churches who oppose apartheid and those organizations which are influenced by the ANC.

The UDF, which adheres to the Freedom Charter, has built a broad following within the Black townships, although there is still a large gap between UDF sentiment and its activist base. It is, after all, a rather loose coalition of diverse organizations, each theoretically with an equal say in running the organization. But its influence is much weaker in the Coloured and Asian areas.

The Black nationalist organizations and unions built the National Forum (NF) as their answer to Boesak’s call. But just as the nationalist current is a minority current, the NF is a minority within the Black townships. Its main component, AZAPO, is neither a party nor a broad front, and the National Forum seems to be unable to find the political space upon which to build itself. AZAPO defines the struggle as socialist and sees the Black working class as the key agent of the revolution. However, it has no clear definition of socialism; and all Blacks are defined as working class. In practice very little is left except that Blacks will make the revolution alone.

The high school student boycott, the boycott of the white businesses, and the massive funeral demonstrations — which are frequently attacked by government troops — all point to the continued expression of the Black community’s opposition to apartheid. But despite the militancy of community struggles over the last two years, they have remained confined to the Black townships, and thus marginalized. The present level of popular struggle and the violence the government has unleashed indicates the need to chart a course that can overcome these limitations, and move the struggle forward.

The third, and still emerging, perspective for the South African liberation movement arises out of the development of the trade union movement.

The rapid industrialization of South Africa since 1960 and the growing economic crisis has produced a combative trade union movement that has built itself in confrontations with multinationals and the South African state itself. Since the 1973 strikes in Durban, this movement has been able to test out competing strategies of how to organize, measure its strength by a variety of shop floor actions and strikes, and consolidate important gains.

Last November 29-December 1 [1985\ the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was established. It is a national federation representing nearly half a million dues-paying members in almost all of the major industrial sectors of the economy, and was established on five principles:

• nonracialism

• one union per industry

• workers control

• representation on the basis of regular dues­payers

• cooperation on the national level in the framework of the new federation

The unification of the trade unions represents a gigantic step forward, and is the result of four years of discussions. Clearly the strategy of FOSATU, the federation of unionized workers that spearheaded the drive to unify has been key to this process. Its leadership was able to offer programmatic and organizational steps forward for solving questions on both the kind of unity and the type of federation that could be built. Rooted in a nonracial perspective, FOSATU has been consistent in insisting upon the central role the working class must play in the national struggle.

A number of key Black unions have remained outside COSATU. The majority are Black nationalist-oriented unions, the Congress of Unions of South Africa (CUSA), the much smaller Azanian Congress of Trade Unions (AZACTU). One of the key CUSA unions was forced to withdraw from the federation in order to join COSATU. But the withdrawal of the 100,000 National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) did not persuade CUSA to follow, at least for the present period.

At its inaugural congress COSATU pledged itself to undertaking an organizing drive among agricultural and state workers, began the process of mergers that will be necessary to reorganize an effective industrial federation, and issued a challenge to the government: dismantle the system of apartheid in six months. The new federation acknowledged its fundamental problem-to link the worker base it has been able to build with the present upsurge in South Africa’s Black townships.

What is new with the development of COSATU is the explicit recognition that the working class needs its own political as well as industrial organization. Of course this idea had been at the heart of FOSATU’s strategy, but the new federation can do more than merely outline a perspective.

As far back as 1982 a FOSATU convention endorsed the keynote address which analyzed FOSATU’s first years of existence and projected its objectives and concrete tasks. Joe Foster, FOSATU’s general secretary, focused on the importance of developing worker leadership:

“We are interested in how the leadership is elected or appointed; who it is answerable to and how this accountability is achieved; how experienced leadership is and how it gains this experience and how they develop means of training and educating leadership so that it remains self-critical and politically active.

The challenges facing worker leadership are undoubtedly different to other leadership groups. For worker leadership in a capitalist society, your everyday struggle is related to your job and therefore your wage and therefore your very ability to survive. The most appropriate comparison is with that of the guerrilla fighter who has to develop the strength to resist daily, the knowledge of his terrain that will give him every tactical advantage and the support of those for whom he is struggling. Probably most important because both the worker leader and the guerrilla are fighting a powerful enemy is the development of a sense of when to advance and when to retreat.

These skills are not easily learnt and not easily replaced. So worker leadership cannot be wasted by opportunistic and overly adventuristic actions.

We are also concerned with worker leadership in a wider arena than only that of the union struggle. Giving leadership to the working class requires an organisational base. Without this base, then the poverty and the lack of education, information and time that workers are struggling against will be the very factors which will force workers to surrender leadership of the community to other strata in society.

Our aim is to use the strength of factory-based organisation to allow workers to play an effective role in the community. Worker leadership will have:

• gained invaluable political experience from their factory struggles;

• organisation and resources behind them;

• organisational structures and location that will give them localised strength;

• the ability to speak with a clear and democratically established worker mandate.

The points made here should be our guide for action and we have a long way to go in building a larger leadership structure that has the political qualities of clarity, determination, and discipline and the ability to be self-critical.” (Power, pp. 152-3)

Foster was also specific in explaining why this development is so necessary to the national struggle:

“All the great and successful popular movements have had as their aim the overthrow of oppressive — most often colonial — regimes. But these movements cannot and have not in themselves been able to deal with the particular and fundamental problem of workers. Their task is to remove regimes that are regarded as illegitimate and unacceptable by the majority.

It is, therefore, essential that workers must strive to build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are part of the wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to protect and further worker interests and to ensure that the popular movement is not hi­jacked by elements that will in the end have no option but to turn against their worker supporters.” (Power, p. 149)

Chris Dlamini, FOSATU’s president, addressed the tragic experience of the independent African nations. After a visit to Zimbabwe, he stated: “During the time [I was] in Zimbabwe I noticed that although some people were liberated, workers were not. It seems to me that the people of Zimbabwe were taken up with the popular struggle but failed to organize themselves into a worker organization, like a union, which would have then liberated them as workers in their workplaces. Now they are faced with starting from scratch-having to organize themselves into a union to fight the bosses in the factory.” (Changes, Jan/Feb 1985, p. 5)

Cyril Ramaphosa— general secretary of the NUM and the convenor of the founding COSATU congress -­ pointed out in his speech that over the past four years the trade unions have grown stronger at the same time the struggles within the Black community have deepened. He outlined how it is possible to make the link between the two:

“As unions we have influenced the wider political struggle. Our struggles on the shop floor have widened the space for struggles in the community. Through interaction with community organizations, we have developed the principle of worker-controlled democratic organization. But our main political task as workers is to develop organization among workers as well as a strong worker leadership. We have as unions to act decisively to ensure that we, as workers, lead the struggle.

Our most urgent task is to develop a unity among workers. We would wish COSATU to give firm political direction for workers. If workers are to lead the struggle for liberation we have to win the confidence of other sec­ tors of society. It is important for us to work in alliance with other classes in society. But if we are to get into alliances with other progressive organizations, it must be on terms that are favourable to us as workers.” (Congress News, p. 5)

The formation of COSATU brings together unions who had involved themselves in the community struggles in differing ways. FOSATU, instead of affiliating with either the UOF or NF, chose to relate to specific campaigns by organizing independently, using the various union structures-especially on the shop steward level-as its outreach network.

Unions such as the General Workers’ Union and the Food and Canning Workers’ Union also rejected affiliation. However, the South African Allied Workers’ Union, the Municipal and General Workers’ Union, and the General and Allied Workers’ Union-the more community-based unions, as opposed to those organized along industrial lines-did join the UOF.

The merging of all these unions, and the reorganization this implies, has not yet resulted in a coherent political policy for the new federation. The convention managed, at least for the time being, to strike a balance between FOSATU and the UDF-affiliated unions. In keeping with the principle of industrial unionism, the UOF unions — which are general unions — have been given six months to make significant progress in reorganizing along industrial lines. The goal is one union per industry in every significant industrial sector.

At the same time there was more emphasis on union participation in the popular struggle than might possibly have emerged from a FOSATU convention. At times FOSATU had felt the need to build up industrial power before undertaking a full-scale confrontation with the state. The emphasis in virtually every speech and resolution was on workers leading, not just participating in, the popular struggle. There were frequent declarations that the working class would play a leading role in a free South Africa.

But political directions are decided more by actions over a course of months than by resolutions or speeches at a convention, however democratic. It is too early to say what COSATU’s long-range impact will be, or even whether the UOF unions will be able to stay in a federation with the former FOSATU unions and others with an equally strong industrial orientation.

It is over the course of the next year that COSATU’s political stance and concrete program of action will be hammered out. COSATU President Barayi, in a brief interview, stated the framework in which the decision will be made:

“But political involvement will be decided, depending on the issue, whether it is local or national, by the appropriate structure of the federation. Our relationship with other organizations will depend on whether they agree with our aims and objectives.” (Congress News, p. 9)

In other words, there may be some flexibility, but clearly the centrality of working-class tasks and methods will be at the heart of federation strategy.

FOSATU and the NUM have placed a great deal more emphasis on building shop floor organization than the community-based unions, because they were more focused on building industrial unions. Their experience in what has been accepted as an underlying principle of the federation will be valuable in the coming period. Both the NUM and FOSATU have paid close attention to developing educational programs. For instance, a two-week education workshop FOSATU held in and around Johannesburg in July 1983, attended by 300 workers, included such topics as “Workers and Democracy,” “Workers and the Community” and “Women Workers.”

One concrete model for the kind of worker-led com&munity organization is the two-day “stay away” in the Transvaal November 1984. According to the South African Labor Bulletin, somewhere between 300,000 and 800,000 workers participated, with another 400,000 students boycotting school. The “stay away” linked the townships, the factories and the schools in common action. This was reflected in both the methods of organizing and the actual demands that were raised.

FOSATU responded to an initial call from the Congress of South African Students, coming to the meeting with proposals for action and a mandate to proceed. The federation played a leading role in organizing the action, convening a coordinating meeting of all the Transvaal unions and following it up with a series of organizing meetings at the local union and shop steward level.

The central element in the “stay away” campaign was the level of democratic decision-making that forged a broad unity. Going into the action with such a high degree of agreement and involvement demonstrates how well-rooted the demands were. There was little state violence precisely because of the action’s geographic spread. Then, too, employers generally did not want the government to take a hard line. They feared this might lead to greater unrest. When thirty student and trade union leaders were detained, three major employers’ associations sent a letter to the Minister of Law and Order, warning that such action was exacerbating a delicate labor situation.

That is necessary at this stage in South Africa is a strategy that charts the way forward without forgetting that the struggle ahead is still long and bitter. Despite the militant battles that have been fought, any early overthrow of the system is excluded. What is necessary and possible now is to prepare limited confrontations.

Those who go into action must carefully prepare for the inevitable repression. The power of the working class-for workplace organising and educating, to withhold its labor or conduct a slowdown-combined with a massive popular movement that reaches beyond the Black townships are all important prerequisites to self-defense.

COSATU’s President, Elijah Berayi, proclaimed at the founding conference that “COSATU will run a free South Africa.” This statement indicates the role federation leaders foresee. It indicates that the trade union leader­ ship has consciously decided that working-class leader­ ship is a decisive component in moving forward the militant and democratic struggles that have been confined so far to the Black townships.

It is precisely in the course of combining the community-based struggles with the growing power of the working class that the movement has the potential to pass to a higher stage of confronting the racist regime. Building this unity is obviously key. The questions of how to accomplish such unity, on what terms, and whether it is in workplace strength or in a broader com­ munity base that working-class power ultimately lies, are at the heart of the strategic and organizational debates in the unions.

Of course political directions are decided more by actions over a course of months than resolutions or speeches at a convention, however democratically run. Yet the direction COSATU charted at its founding convention indicates the involvement of a conscious, working-class leadership in political action.

In that context it is important to remember that the struggle is still unfolding. The apartheid regime has massive military, diplomatic and economic power at its disposal. The army is not about to crumble. U.S. and British imperialism, recognizing South Africa as the key to a whole continent, are not about to desert. And while there is a deep division within the ruling class over how much reform and compromise is necessary to prevent such a revolution, the regime still has a firm base of sup­ port and enormous resources.

No one has convincingly spelled out the scenario that will lead to the exact combination of military, popular and workplace struggles that will bring the Black working class to power. The struggle for freedom in South Africa is a complex one. Its outcome could well depend on solving the political issues that are currently being debated. Thus the emergence of COSATU as a powerful, new force — and the potential it represents — may well prove to be a decisive development.

March-April 1986, ATC 2

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