Black Unionists Try to Save South Africa From Becoming a Failed State

South African flag(Image: South African flag via Shutterstock)Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the largest union in South Africa, and Zwelinzima Vavi, the former general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) visited Washington, DC, this month to discuss the crisis within South African trade unions. They spoke of the betrayal by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in failing to implement the 1955 Freedom Charter [that contained the core values of the coalition that fought against the apartheid regime] and the deleterious impact of neoliberal economic policies that have exacerbated inequalities, continued unfair trading conditions and accelerated environmental degradation, unemployment and continued misery.

As NUMSA takes an increasingly central role in the struggle for full economic sovereignty and for the complete economic freedom of workers and the rural poor, the importance of international solidarity cannot be underestimated. In this interview, Jim and Vavi discuss: (1) NUMSA’s and Zwelinzima Vavi’s expulsion from COSATU, and the united stand by NUMSA’s and seven other COSATU affiliates to continue to fight for the rights of South Africa’s workers; (2) NUMSA’s formation of a United Front to galvanize other trade unions, as well as grassroots organizations, in the fight against inequality, poverty, and unemployment in South Africa; and (3) The formation of a worker’s party to contest elections and advance much-needed economic change in South Africa.

Irvin Jim was elected general secretary of NUMSA in October 2008. A fearless leader of workers and an unwavering advocate for the working class, Jim has not shied away from criticizing the ANC government as the triple crisis of poverty, unemployment, and inequality has continued to deepen in South Africa 21 years after the country’s first democratic election. Undeterred by the pressure to accept the status quo, he remains resolute and committed to the struggle to build a South Africa for all South Africans.

Zwelinzima Vavi is the former general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and is the vice-chairperson of the Millennium Labour Council. His name means: “this word is tough.” He was a former child laborer and mineworker. In 1988, he became COSATU’s regional secretary for the Western Transvaal. In 1992, he took up the position of national organizing secretary. Vavi served as COSATU’s deputy general secretary from 1993 to 1999. In 1999, he became general secretary of COSATU. He was expelled as general secretary in March 2015 for speaking out vigorously against the expulsion of NUMSA from the trade union federation in November, 2014.

NUMSA was founded in 1987 through the merger of four metalworkers’ unions. Today, it is the largest worker’s union in South Africa, with more than 300,000 members. Following the fall of apartheid and the election of South Africa’s first democratically elected government in 1994, NUMSA became known for its refusal to remain silent on controversial ANC policies, especially the promotion of privatization and its failure to end mass poverty in the country. Due to its continued criticism of the ANC and, specifically, its stance as a COSATU affiliate that COSATU should hold the ruling party accountable, NUMSA was expelled from the labor federation in November, 2014.NUMSA has continued to fight for its right to be a part of COSATU and for the need for COSATU to remain an independent voice advocating the rights of South Africa’s workers. NUMSA’s leadership sees its mandate, in part, to maintain solidarity within the union, as well as with working-class movements internationally.

This interview takes place in the aftermath of the South African government release of the investigation into the Marikina massacre in which 34 platinum mine workers, protesting low wages and environmentally unsafe conditions were killed by police. The majority of the striking miners were shot in the back. The South African government determined that no officers involved in the massacre would be held accountable. As a sidebar issue, South African Vanadium mine workers have also continued their strikes against US/Russian multinational corporations.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: The labor movement in South is in transition. The two of you are at the center of the struggle around the direction of the labor movement. Can you provide insight?

Zwelinzima Vavi: We flew here [to the US] to meet old friends of the labor movement who played a very critical role in cultivating solidarity between the unions in the United States and South Africa. We are meeting union leaders who were in the forefront of battling the apartheid system and who mobilized American citizens to isolate the apartheid government. Labor leaders who succeeded in organizing massive dis-investment campaigns against the apartheid economy and played an important role in the release of Nelson Mandela and other prisoners and who worked to un-ban [legalize] the African National Congress and other banned organization.

Irvin Jim: Mr. Vavi and I were expelled from COSATU because we championed four pillars of our struggle: mass mobilization, underground structures of movement, isolation of South Africa in trade matters and Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed struggle wing of ANC, co-founded by Nelson Mandela in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre).

COSATU has moved in an unfortunate direction. It was previously a part of the revolutionary movement and played a critical role in the overthrow of the apartheid system. It was COSATU that went into exile with the ANC in different capacities. At that point, we were driven by the same revolutionary agenda to overthrow the apartheid system. But also to mainstream, as a part of the revolutionary agenda, the execution of what we defined as the national democratic revolution. We have been a part of an alliance. And that alliance was brought together through the championing of a minimum program.

That minimum program is the Freedom Charter. The Freedom Charter needs to be advanced because the people of the country, in Fliptown and other areas, rejected the apartheid system, its colonization and super exploitation of Black people. The Freedom Charter was the cornerstone upon which the ANC was formed. Essentially, in 1910, a union developed between English and Afrikaner capital – whose sole mission was to exploit Black people. So, the ANC was formed in 1912, in reaction to the coalescing of the white groups in South Africa.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Many people on the Left would argue that South Africa has transitioned to a de-colonization process instead of national liberation. What is your perspective on this distinction?

Irvin Jim: It has become very clear since South Africa’s independence, that what was secured, through negotiated agreement, was some form of political power without the necessary economic power. There was a lot of engagement by Capital of ANC leaders before liberation.

By now, we can see that what we achieved was a negotiated agreement and quite frankly, we can be bold enough to say this, because of the research that has come out on this topic. What Black South Africans secured was political power without economic power. Because of the research and our current political reality, we can conclude that a “deal” was done. It was such a cheap deal for white monopoly capital – for multinationals. Apartheid, with all of its structures and institutions was expensive to maintain, the costs of police in our communities, the maintenance of an army and other infrastructures of oppression. Of course, it was also expensive for the revolutionary forces, as well. But we quickly learned that political power without economic power is an empty shell.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Were you surprised in 1996 when then President Nelson Mandela decided to endorse the World Bank Structural Adjustment Program?

Irvin Jim: Unfortunately, for us, when the movement led by Mandela in 1996 endorsed the World Bank structural adjustment program we found out that the devil is in the details. It became a very terrible program for our people. It destroyed jobs across sectors, removed exchange controls and allowed money to leave the country to search for financial speculation. South African companies were allowed to list in London, Lisbon and therefore investing in the casino economy. Mind you, we desperately needed to invest in our own production sectors of the economy in order to create jobs. We are the only country where the reserve bank is still in private hands and it basically champions inflation and keeps high interest rates, as the only pillar to attract capitol infusion. The ANC government has refused to nationalize the mineral and extractive industries and finance.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Did NUMSA take the position that it would not support ANC candidates in future elections and that the union would organize a United Front- perhaps, a Worker’s Party?

Irvin Jim: In 2013, we decided that we shall not take workers money and campaign for the ANC. In fact, the workers resolved that the time has come that we must organize the working class, as a class to challenge the neoliberal agenda and settle the fight for the full implementation of the Freedom Charter. As such, that means that we will launch and organize a United Front. The United Front will be a “front” to take up battles. We are very clear that we lost the South African Communist Party, which used to be with us in the trenches because the ANC took all of its leadership to Parliament and instead of [the South African Communist Party] championing the working class struggle it has become the spokesperson of the State.

COSATU is now run by a group of individuals who are aligned with the ANC and co-opted from both the main ANC group and the South African Communist Party. Outside of COASTU, they took a decision that they would dismiss NUMSA and dismiss Vavi. As things stand, we are talking about alternatives — of launching a United Front of crystalizing an alternative political organ and building a new federation.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: What would you like this trip to Washington, DC accomplish in the short term?

Zwelinzima Vavi: We are forever indebted to the labor and anti-apartheid movements for the role that it played. We are coming back now to ask for both labor and anti-apartheid activists to discuss the obstacles and challenges still facing South Africa, such as the challenge of democracy. We want to make sure that South Africa does not slide back into a dictatorship or become yet another symbol of a great promise that fades into a failed state.

Irvin Jim: What the South African people fought for is not what they have received and not the vision put forth by the Freedom Charter. We think it is high time that we continue the struggle for liberation.