1997 march on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE)

The Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was actively involved in the student struggle, often participating in actions by the South African Students Congress (SASCO) or the Socialist Student Action Committee (later, Socialist Worker Students, later Keep Left). Below is a newsclipping of a regional SASCO march in Gauteng, in which WSF participated. That did not mean uncritical support for SASCO, which was part of the African National Congress (ANC)-led movement: in the case below, SASCO was responding to serious cuts on higher education spending by the ANC-led state by marching on big business (the Johannesburg Stock Exchange/ JSE), a sleight-of-hand that avoided dealing with the contradiction of SASCO supporting the ANC despite ANC neo-liberalism.

 

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Nigerian, Sierra Leone and South African anarchist and syndicalist links in the 1990s

The 1990s upsurge of anarchism found one expression in South Africa, where the anarchist and syndicalist tradition re-emerged after a break of decades. But this was not unique in English-using African countries. A substantial section of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed among diamond miners in Sierra Leone, but destroyed in the country’s ongoing civil war in 1997, leading members ending up displaced in Guinea to the north. In Nigeria, the anarcho-syndicalist Awareness League emerged in 1990, claiming over 1,000 members, and joined the syndicalist International Workers Association in 1996. Its roots were in Nigeria’s large (mainly Marxist) left, and its development is partly described in a book issued by two League members,  Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey, African Anarchism (published 1997, See Sharp Press in the USA: See Sharp version available here; also in an interview with Mbah in 2012, here).

Yet there was very little direct contact between the West African groups, and those of South Africa: news of one another was often second-hand, there was no direct contact by email (email use was a rarity for many African people at the time, even in South Africa), only the South Africans had a website (the Workers Solidarity Federation / WSF had a basic website from around 1995,  on the then-popular, now-dead Geocities system; the WSF’s sister group in Ireland, the Workers Solidarity Movement / WSM,  put the then-available materials on the Nigerians and Sierra Leoneans on a basic site, which is still online here); communication between the groups, such as it was, was by snail mail, which was very erratic.

The Awareness League gained global attention when a number of its members were jailed in 1992  on the eve of a short-lived transition from military rule. The anarcho-syndicalist Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) in the United States of America built an international campaign, reliant on the then-key methods of spreading news in the anarchist and syndicalist milieu: snail mail. This meant mass mail-outs (of letters to groups), plus press statements that got picked up by anarchist and anarchist-friendly papers (these papers were also widely distributed by mail, the custom being that each group or paper would send free copies to a number of other groups).

So the South African Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM) read about the campaign in American anarchist papers, got letters from the WSA (see scanned copy of a WSA package sent to the South Africans here: this includes material by the League) and both ARM and WSF wrote about the Awareness League (here, here, here). The Nigerians meanwhile wrote about the Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM) in African Anarchism . ARM and WSF regularly sent materials and letters to the Awareness League, but only in 1999 did it get a direct letter from Sam Mbah. News about the IWW in Sierra Leone reached WSF through email contacts in the West. The South Africans sent letters and materials, but never heard back.

The Sierra Leone IWW did not survive the civil war; the Awareness League dissolved in the 2000s, and the stalwart Mbah passed away in 2014; and neither formation had obvious successors; while the WSF dissolved in 1999, it was replaced by projects like the Bikisha Media Collective, in turn absorbed into the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Fedeation (later, Front, the ZACF), in 2003.

A 1990s Durban-based group in South Africa, the Anarchist Awareness League, was obviously named after the Nigerian group: see here. This, too, ended up in ZACF.

Some images of Bikisha Media Collective (BMC) at the anti-EU summit, Gothenberg, Sweden, June 2001

Faces blurred: BMC comrades on left and right. Standing with delegates from Asia

 

BMC comrade speaking at meeting of independent syndicalist unions (face blurred)

 

BMC comrade in centre (in front of white pillar, face blurred)

 

With flag at start of march by syndicalist unions (face blurred)

 

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 Continue reading

Payn, “NUMSA and the ‘United Front Against Neoliberalism’” (2014)

NUMSA and the ‘United Front Against Neoliberalism’

By Jonathan Payn

Part 1 in a series of four articles on the concept and history of the United Front

This article first appeared in Workers World News

The resolution adopted by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) to form a ‘United Front against neoliberalism’ – as well as its decision not to endorse the ANC in the elections – represents an interesting development in the political landscape, one which activists should look at carefully and engage.  Due to the language used by the media, the Left, NUMSA’s critics and even NUMSA itself much confusion surrounds the debate – leaving many questions: Is the ‘United Front’ an organisation or attempt to build a new labour federation or political party? Is it an attempt to revive the 1980s United Democratic Front (UDF)? Why NUMSA’s sudden interest in community struggles?

This series, of which this article is the first, aims to clarify these and other questions by looking at the proposal and history of united fronts locally and internationally to clarify key issues and draw lessons that activists can use when engaging the pros and cons of NUMSA’s United Front proposal and if and how they think it should be developed.

NUMSA: The United Front is a weapon for uniting the working class.

Global capitalist crisis and a stalled revolution

To understand NUMSA’s decision to break with the ANC and SACP, and the potential its call for a united front could offer for building a working class-based alternative to the ANC-led Alliance and its neoliberal policies, activists must contextualise these decisions and unpack what NUMSA understands by the United Front.

NUMSA has noted that, twenty years after the democratic transition, the majority-black working class has not experienced meaningful improvements in its conditions. At the same time, however, a small black elite has become super wealthy. In South Africa NUMSA has noted that the neoliberal restructuring, implemented by the ANC government and supported by its Alliance partners, has been aimed at benefiting the capitalist class and has resulted in the increased dominance of finance capital, in massive job losses and increased poverty and inequality.

‘A weapon for uniting the working class’

NUMSA claims not to see the United Front as a new organisation or party but a mechanism “to mobilise the working class in all their formations into a United Front against neoliberalism”. Whereas NUMSA sees the Alliance as “simply a mechanism for mobilising a vote for the ANC”, it envisions the United Front as a “mobilising tool to organise and coordinate working class struggles”.

The United Front is also not about building a new labour federation as NUMSA is calling on COSATU to join it in breaking with the Alliance and building a new movement. Nor is it an attempt to simply revive the UDF. Rather, it is “a way to join other organisations in action, in the trenches”, through sharing common struggles.

NUMSA says that “better working conditions are inseparable from the working class community struggles for transportation, sanitation, water, electricity and shelter” and that it wants to break down the barriers that exist between worker and community struggles. The two pillars on which its United Front would stand are gaining community support for NUMSA campaigns and building “concrete support for other struggles of the working class and the poor wherever and whenever they take place”.

‘NUMSA is part of the community, and NOT the community’

For many community activists the question then is why now, after ignoring community struggles for so long, does NUMSA claim to want to support them? Moreover, why does NUMSA think it should lead this unification process? After all, community activists long ago identified the ANC’s neoliberal character.

Despite the fact that its members come from the communities NUMSA has not supported community struggles in recent years. Yet now it seems NUMSA wants to support community struggles and lead them in building a united front. While it might have a role to play, some community activists feel NUMSA cannot legitimately take the lead in uniting community struggles.

Instead they feel NUMSA should focus on building unity with other unions before approaching communities. Similarly, communities should first work together to unite their own struggles from the bottom up; a process that is already underway in parts of the country.

Only once community struggles are united and coordinated from below, by the activists involved, can they feel confident in uniting community and worker struggles without fear of bigger, more resourced organisations like NUMSA imposing themselves on them.

Conclusion

A good thing about the United Front is that it accommodates ideological differences in order to build the unity of working class formations in struggle. However, Communist Parties have historically engaged in united fronts to create unity in action in struggles against the onslaught of capitalism, but also with the aim of winning over the majority – who mostly (but not exclusively as there were other revolutionary currents) supported reformist social democratic parties – involved in these struggles to their programme and lead as a Party. When engaging the NUMSA United Front proposal, then, it is important to ask whether or not NUMSA also sees the United Front as a tactic to win what it has sometimes unfortunately described as leaderless and unorganised community struggles to its perspectives and to ensure they accept its leadership in struggles.

Community activists across the country have, despite scepticism, responded positively to NUMSA’s call by supporting the 19 March actions against the Youth Wage Subsidy.

Will NUMSA reciprocate by putting its resources and capacity at the service of building “concrete support for other struggles of the working class and the poor “wherever and whenever they take place”?

The possibility of NUMSA playing any relevant role in fostering working class unity depends on the answer to this question.

Payn,” ‘Xenophobia’, service delivery protest and government failure: The case of Thembelihle” (2015)

‘Xenophobia’, service delivery protest and government failure: The case of Thembelihle

Jonathan Payn

Like in 2008, the recent wave of anti-immigrant violence and looting of foreign-owned stores that followed King Zwelithini’s statement that foreigners must “pack their bags and leave” quickly spread to cities and townships across the country. Unlike other places in Johannesburg, however, there were no reports of xenophobic violence in Thembelihle and, although the violence spread to numerous parts of Soweto in 2008, this adjacent township was unaffected then too. This article, based on an interview with an activist from the Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC), looks at how working class self-organisation and solidarity helped curb or prevent the outbreak of xenophobic attacks and attempts to draw lessons for preventing future attacks.

xenophobicattacks.jpg

When anti-foreigner looting and violence broke out after a 14-year-old boy was shot dead in Soweto on January 19 this year while looting a foreign-owned store activists from the Thembelihle Crisis Committee, fearing that looting and violence would spill over from Soweto into the neighbouring township, went into action to try and prevent this from happening. First, they went around to the foreign-owned stores and called the owners to a meeting on the Wednesday following the shooting in Soweto to appeal to them to attend a mass meeting called by the TCC for the Sunday to explain to the community

Continue reading

Payn, “Class Struggle, ‘Xenophobia’ and the Local Elite” (2015)

Class Struggle, ‘Xenophobia’ and the Local Elite

Jonathan Payn

First published in Workers World News

The xenophobic violence and looting following King Zwelithini’s statement that foreigners “pack their bags and leave” spread to cities and townships across the country. However, the recent attacks are not an isolated incident; nor is Zwelithini solely responsible for fomenting it. Local elites – particularly those linked to the ruling party – also encourage anti-immigrant attitudes and actions. This article, based on discussions with Abahlali baseFreedom Park activists, looks at how local elites stimulate ‘xenophobia’ to protect their class interests, as well as how progressive working class activists have responded.

Xenophobia and local elites

Freedom Park is among few townships where development is underway; Continue reading