The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) plans a nationwide general strike for April 25th, involving all its affiliates, to oppose years of neoliberal austerity measures from the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance, especially their intensification in recent months with the introduction of extreme anti-labor reforms that could see the minimum wage virtually abolished. The strike is expected to affect large sections of the country’s economy, with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) alone, the largest affiliate of SAFTU, organizing nearly 400,000 workers in the country’s industrial sector. In addition, they can expect nearly 100,000 food workers to join the effort under the direction of the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) and as many as 200,000 workers from other affiliate unions of SAFTU. If political unity can be maintained, the shockwaves will be global.
To understand the gravity of this strike we must first examine SAFTU itself, its history and trajectory. SAFTU was founded less than a year ago, in late April of 2017, from 21 left-wing labor unions formerly affiliated with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the largest alliance of labor unions in the country, and eminent member of the ruling coalition alongside the ANC and SACP. The formation of SAFTU was the product of a series of expulsions and splits within COSATU over the decades-long consolidation on the part of neoliberals within its central leadership, its transformation into a pro-company union, and its active and supporting roles in the institution of neoliberal austerity measures in the country. For opposing forces within COSATU, an irreconcilable threshold was undoubtedly crossed after the massacre in Marikana, wherein 47 miners were killed in August of 2012, and the expulsion of NUMSA two years later.
The Marikana Strike
The strike was organized by workers at the Lonmin mining company over the abysmal wages and squalid conditions of mineworkers in the area of Marikana. Without the support of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest affiliate of COSATU, the workers went ahead under the leadership of the unaffiliated Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), who had split from NUM years prior. The AMCU was by no means a progressive union, having split with COSATU over political disagreements, positioning itself firmly as a right-wing union, opposed to the historically communist position of COSATU.
Yet, with no alternatives, the disgruntled workers were driven into the hands of the AMCU, and continued the strike. Eventually security personnel were brought in, and NUM assisted in the crackdown that ended with more than 40 dead, wounding dozens more. It was even revealed that two of those shot non-fatally were attacked by NUM members directly. The miners received little sympathy from COSATU, who supported the police’s version of events. More interesting is the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa’s relation to events in Marikana, as he was on the board of directors of Lonmin, as well as the founder of NUM, having directly called for action against the striking miners a day prior to the massacre. Nevertheless, the miners were eventually awarded a 22% raise and returned to work shortly after the massacre, with the ANC offering a series of half-hearted messages of sympathy and mourning for the dead miners. The damage could not be undone, however, and marked a threshold in the neoliberal transformation of South Afrika, which had never truly departed from the capitalist road to begin with.
A Fraying Tripartite Alliance
At this time, Julius Malema had just been thrown out of the ANC Youth League, and had not yet formed the Economic Freedom Fighters, yet he and his supporters were quick to criticize the government’s actions in Marikana, weakening the position of rightist leadership of the ANC and its ruling coalition. Although it would be two years before NUMSA would be expelled from COSATU, and for reasons ostensibly unrelated to the massacre, there is no doubt that the events in Marikana contributed to the intensifying internal struggle that resulted in their expulsion. After NUMSA departed from COSATU, we have witnessed an acceleration of its bureaucratization and pro-capitalist degeneration. This, of course, began long before, with NUM-supporters having responded to the events in Marikana with affirmations of their support for private capital, regurgitating the same economistic nonsense dominant in the consciousness of the labor bureaucracy. Bureaucratization has received a great boost with the exodus of many organized communist elements.
It was from the nucleus created by the expulsion and attempted isolation of NUMSA that we saw the development of SAFTU as an independent and powerful Marxist-Leninist alliance of trade unions. Most important about their formation is that they took the road of explicit Marxist-Leninist organization, pushing back against the bureaucratism and reformist economism of COSATU. While SAFTU does not yet enjoy the same political representation or established strength of COSATU, the continuous fragmentation of the ruling coalition is likely only to benefit SAFTU, which draws left-wing defectors from the crumbling neoliberal establishment. The fact that SAFTU positions itself as a revolutionary alliance of trade unions, and identifies their primary objectives through the lens of the failures of COSATU to achieve real social and economic transformation, is extremely important in identifying their long-term political strength. They will be a pivotal part of any revolutionary center capable of seizing power in South Afrika.
This upcoming strike has a great potential as well. It will be a test of strength and organizational effectiveness of SAFTU at just one year old. Despite its youth, it is made up of experienced and capable leaders, who have spent much of their lives organizing within the left-wing of COSATU and a strong base in the proletariat who themselves have a decades-long tradition of struggle to shore up this current formation. They are new, but they are by no means amateurs. Nevertheless, there is the possibility that this strike may not produce the kind of cohesion that they are hoping for, and a great percentage of their membership may not participate in the strike. In either case, whatever it’s outcome, the strike will help to identify their immediate organizational capacity, and, most importantly, serve as a pivotal point to reflect upon in preparing themselves for whatever comes next. Such a huge undertaking is likely to have many problems, but the resolve of their disciplined and experienced leadership should prove more than capable of resolving contradictions among the people, self-criticism, and building toward proletarian revolution in South Afrika.
Hope for the Future
It is our sincerest hope that the coming weeks and months demonstrate the full force of the proletarian forces in Azania, of which SAFTU is a significant part. The paradigm in South Afrika is much different than in the west, and is now experiencing a great rupture in the current political order, with a significant and broadly communist left breaking away from, and disrupting the revisionist, neoliberal, and generally moribund political establishment. That is why we see such complete formations arising from the internal political conflicts of the largest parties in South Afrika/Azania, congealing around campaigns for workers’ rights, women’s rights, socialism and the return of the land. By no means is this process complete, or are the formations which have arisen entirely without flaw, but what we are witnessing is of the utmost importance to conscious proletarian forces throughout the world.
What we are witnessing is the transformation of the political status quo, and the emergence of previously sidelined political actors as powerful revolutionary forces. So long as this process continues, producing and empowering the most revolutionary sections of the Azanian proletariat, the revolutionary horizon draws closer. It is in the spirit of internationalism and exuberant solidarity that we cheer on the comrades of SAFTU in the coming strike. Let the ruling classes tremble.
Victory to the workers of Azania!
Death to Imperialism!