Factoria, Sizovuka, “The General Approach of Anarchists/Syndicalists to the United Front and NUMSA” (2015)

The General Approach of Anarchists/Syndicalists to the United Front and NUMSA

b1028by Jakes Factoria and Tina Sizovuka (ZACF)

FROM: Zabalaza number 14, from here

In this section we address questions that have been posed to ZACF militants. We are sharing these discussions because we think these are important and pertinent issues in Southern Africa. If you have questions you would us to address in our next issue, please get in touch!

In this column, comrade Themba Kotane, a union militant, asks:

Will the United Front (UF) address the crises we are currently facing in South Africa? I am concerned about how the UF works and who leads it. In my own view we don’t need a leader, we need to all have equal voice. How can we build the UF as a basis for a stateless, socialist, South Africa?

Jakes Factoria and Tina Sizovuka respond:

What the UF will do, will depend on which perspectives win out in it. Our general anarchist/ syndicalist perspective is that the UF (as well as the unions, like the National union of Metalworkers of SA, NUMSA) should be (re)built, as far as possible, into a movement of counterpower, outside and against the state and capital.

This means UF structures and affiliates should be developed into radical, democratic structures (in the workplaces and in communities) that can fight now against the ruling class, and that can eventually take power, directly. The UF should be (re)built into a direct action-based, direct democratic-structured movement for anarchist revolution. That means building structures in communities (street and ward committees and assemblies) that can replace municipalities, and developing the unions in the workplaces (through shopstewards committees and assemblies) into structures that can take over and run workplaces. This is not such a foreign concept in recent South African history: NUMSA’s predecessor, MAWU, was involved in the movement for “people’s power”, which took many steps in this direction during the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s.

For this to happen, a second step is needed: mass movements like UF and unions must be infused with a revolutionary counterculture. This means the masses are won over through anarchist political education, which is partly about building up the confidence and ability of workers and poor people to run society, including the understanding amongst the majority, that the tasks ahead are bigger than simply voting in elections or campaigning for reforms to the system. When we talk about the masses, we mean the broad working class, including the unemployed and poor, and working class people of all races, South African and immigrant.

The tasks are to build for anarchist revolution, using the strategic perspectives of counterpower and counterculture. This means fighting for a self-managed society from below, won through revolution. The corrupt and oppressive political system (the state) and the exploiting and authoritarian economic system (capitalism) are completely and obviously unable to create a decent society, real democracy or eradicate the apartheid legacy. Radical change is needed, involving the overthrow of the (multi-racial) ruling class by the broad working class, collectivization, self-management and participatory planning, and a reign of economic and social equality and direct democracy.

Therefore, all our activities must ultimately be structured around the goals of winning larger mass movements like the UF and the unions to these revolutionary, anti-party, anarchist perspectives. We, as the working class, have to stop making the same mistakes, of putting power in elite hands, of misleading people into electoral participation, and of limiting ourselves to reformism (i.e. to small, legal changes).

We, frankly, do not have the forces to win the UF over at this stage. A discussion of the best tactics to use in this situation belongs to another discussion. However, we must by all means at least raise the anarchist/ syndicalist perspectives of anarchism/ syndicalism in the UF and NUMSA where possible, as a basis of building a larger red-and-black anarchist/ syndicalist network.

Some limits of the NUMSA project

We do think, however, that it is just not enough to see the problem as lying solely in neo-liberalism or the ANC, as NUMSA seems to do. Neo-liberalism is the latest phase of capitalism; it does not arise from bad policy advisors or undue World Bank influence, but from the deep structure of the global political economy. Therefore it is absurd to think neo-liberalism can be gotten rid of simply by getting rid of the ANC. Any party in office would be under huge pressure to adopt much of the neo-liberal programme.

Since reformed forms of capitalism like the Keynesian Welfare State are no longer feasible (if they ever were in South Africa, but that is another story), it is problematic to pose the solution as keeping capitalism, but dumping neo-liberalism. This, however, is the direction in which both COSATU and NUMSA lean: despite their Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, their actual policy proposals – active industrial policy, protectionism, demand stimulation etc. – really amount to a programme of social democratic reform that is impossible to implement.

Second, while the ANC is part of the problem, it is not the whole problem. The whole political system is rotten. Parliament is a place where elites connive against the poor: the state itself is an apparatus of ruling class power, as bad as any capitalist corporation, which means that any party would end up as disappointing as the ANC. Both of these points mean that it is completely pointless to blame the ANC.

Given the power of the ANC in the minds of large parts of the working class, steps to discredit it are welcome. However, the idea that the solution is to replace the ANC with a better party should be firmly opposed. These ideas are very current in a sector of the NUMSA leadership, as well as in a certain sector of the UF, particularly amongst the Marxists. We oppose them, because we have no faith in the project of forming a “mass workers party” (MWP).

Another error: the protest politics of “Doing Stuff”

We also disagree with the many activists in SA who see the task in movements like APF and UF as simply building protests and fighting around immediate campaigns. From this perspective, the main aim of these comrades is to get as many people involved in actions as possible.

A key problem with this approach is that it is very short-term in outlook. There is no real discussion of how the protests can lay the basis for radical change; in fact, the aims are quite modest, and involve mostly fighting around some of the most immediate evils in our society, like electricity cut-offs. Politics becomes a matter of running from one event to the next; there is no real plan to build and expand mass movements; political debate and education is always kept at the level of issues like the problems of privatization; bigger issues like the ANC, the need to abolish the state and capitalism, and so on, are left out.

The problems people face have deep roots: while it is vital to fight around problems like cut-offs, these are rooted in major problems in the power industry, in the way the state runs, in the crisis of the capitalist economy. Therefore, to really solve the problem, you need radical changes, including a massive reallocation of resources to abolish poverty and inequality – and this means, revolution.

But for the protest politics people, this does not matter. So long as there is a big demonstration, these comrades are satisfied. This means that politics becomes reduced to the problem of getting the maximum turn-out at events. This often translates into recruiting “leaders,” each claiming to represent a “community,” who can then deliver masses on the days of action. No real care is taken to build multiple layers of activists to ensure the construction of strong democratic structures based on mandates and delegates. The protest agenda is also normally set here, by a small group, which also writes the press statements and discussion documents, and sets the slogans. Mass participation often involves little more than the masses being bussed to events, where it’s really rent-a-crowd.

From the anarchist / syndicalist perspective, that does not take us anywhere, since our aim is to build working class movements that can resist today… but also take control in the future.

Again, against the party building agenda

It is precisely because of the short-sighted nature of the politics of “doing stuff” that many comrades argue for an MWP as a means of breaking people from the ANC, of deepening political education, of uniting people. The idea is also that the MWP can somehow get control of the state, and use it to undertake massive reforms, perhaps even revolution.

In this sense, the MWP approach is a step forward from the protest politics approach, in that it recognizes that a focus on short-term issues and low levels of political education, are serious problems – that imply that real change is needed.

But the problem is that the MWP strategy cannot work. The existing situation does not allow a radical shift from neo-liberal policies via the state: there is little doubt that any radical party going into parliament will be corrupted, paralyzed or coopted. As experiences like Cuba and the Soviet Union show, putting a party in charge of a new “revolutionary” state creates a situation at least as bad as what we have – where an elite runs the show while the the masses are left outside.

A further problem is that the “party builders” see mass movements as a way of achieving something else, a means to an end. They do not see these movements as themselves the potential basis of a new society. The political perspective here is to get movements to endorse a party. The party is seen as the real and best way of struggle – and this almost always translates into running in elections. “Party builders” are often less concerned with building educated, bottom-up and democratic movements, than with pushing the party idea through. Often this programme is pushed through the unions and community structures by all sorts of questionable, top-down methods that are unable to bring the masses along. This is completely pointless, even damaging.

Our line of march

Where do we differ? The difference is that anarchists/ syndicalists want to build a free society through class struggle. Concretely, the perspective is to build movements – including unions, community organizations, UF-type structures – in a way that leads to this goal. Form and method become central: leader-dominated, uneducated, “stepping-stone” movements that do not transcend protest, cannot generate a free society.

Counterpower requires more than a few leaders calling protests according to their own whims, and then arranging transport for everyone else to attend; it means active participation in decision-making, masses that run the organisations and set the agenda, clued-up, critical and questioning members that can avoid the trap of elections and control by parties or by a few leaders.

Mass movements like the UF need to be transformed in two ways in order to make them capable of such a task. They need to become organs of counterpower, and they need to be infused with revolutionary counterculture. The CNT in 1930s Spain is a good example, where in some areas of Spain, the trade union itself took over the running of industry, transport, and distribution of goods – under direct control of union members.

Working within, organising

How can we go about this? Clearly anarchist ideas won’t spontaneously appear out of thin air. Although its insights have been derived through struggle, it has taken years of debate, discussion and active involvement by millions of people for anarchism to crystalize into a coherent ideology. Within that, we argue that a specific political organisation is necessary in order to fight for anarchism within the battle of ideas, to work within and alongside mass movements like the UF for democratic structures, participatory practices, and an anti-party, anti-state (anarchist) consciousness. The purpose is not to rally the masses under our “leadership” (like political parties, including so-called workers’ parties do), but to rally the masses around the leadership of a specific set of ideas and practices (counterpower and counterculture).

“Boring from within” mass movements requires non-sectarianism, and we do not object to working with other organisations of the left in committees or on campaigns where necessary. But we are not convinced by the calls for building unity within the left, since that is not our goal. Our orientation is not towards the left, but towards the masses – in their organisations in workplaces and communities – and our projects are often vastly different and require very different strategies that are often incompatible with much of the left’s. By working in movements, we aim to retain our political independence, and operate by a clear plan, which means avoiding both “do-stuffism” (actions which do not tie into a clearly thought-through programme), and “liquidationism” (dissolving your own politics into that of another group).

We would also argue for raising specific slogans and ideas, like anti-electionism, collectivisation (over nationalisation/ privatization), self-management. The UF would also need to focus its work at the base, and not on committee work, while opposing the culture of demagogy that has affected many movements in SA. Related to this, there is a strong need to combat the tradition of political manipulation that currently grips much of the labour movement, and return it to a politics of openness, debate and political pluralism.


About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).