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Numsa's United Front: Forward to the Past? by Jane Duncan

19 November 2014

The country’s largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), has expelled the National Union of Metalworkers’ of South Africa (Numsa), for not supporting the African National Congress (ANC). Anyone in South Africa who doesn’t know this news must have been living under a rock for the past week.

Numsa has been exploring political alternatives for the past year. In its December 2013 congress, it decided to launch a United Front to explore the development of a socialist movement, and time will tell if this movement will result in the establishment of a workers’ party.

In pursuing a United Front, the union claims to uphold socialist ideas in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, although it also recognises the importance of a diversity of political thought. But it also invokes received ideas from a particular tradition in liberation politics.

According to Numsa, South Africa has fallen victim to a peculiar form of colonialism, where the largely black working class was colonised internally by a largely white elite, and these exploitative relations continue to this day. This is unlike other classic colonies, where an external invading force colonises an indigenous population: hence the South African version being called Colonialism of a Special Type (CST).

In order to address this poisonous colonial legacy, Numsa has invoked another received idea, that of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). They argue that the continued existence of exploitative practices from apartheid to a democracy ‘…serve as clear evidence that the NDR as the most direct route to socialism, is completely off track, and in fact has been abandoned in favour of a capitalist post-apartheid South Africa’.

In order to break these cycles of exploitation, the union has called for the country to return to the NDR, guided by a very familiar and much revered document from South Africa’s history, the Freedom Charter, as a path towards a socialist society. But do these received ideas really offer the basis for an alternative socialist politics?

The NDR concept has a troubling history in liberation politics. In the 1920’s the Soviet bloc, through the Third Communist International (Comintern), developed the NDR as a national liberation programme for countries in the-then colonies, and transmitted it to all communist parties around the world as a one-size-fits-all approach to struggle. They argued that these countries had not developed productive forces and working classes that were sizeable enough to win socialism immediately.

The Comintern argued that any sustainable revolution in the colonies must pass through two stages. The first would be a national democratic stage, where a liberation movement would win basic democratic rights and freedoms or national liberation from colonial rule. This would be done through an alliance with the broadest range of forces across classes.

The resulting society would be non-capitalist. Once national democratic rights were won - which ostensibly created democratic space for more thoroughgoing transformation - then the movement would move onto the second stage, namely a socialist society.

Many independent socialists opposed this doctrinaire approach to struggle, which was not applicable to all situations. They argued that the broadness of the alliances forged in the struggle for the NDR would give the middle classes too much power, who risked derailing the transition by ensuring that the struggle would never move onto the second stage. They advocated for a diversity of approaches to struggle and programmatic independence.

Predictably, and as documented by Franz Fanon, many counties that followed this path to liberation never moved beyond the first stage, as the middle classes abandoned their former allies and cashed in on the opportunities that national liberation offered. In these situations, some of the basic democratic gains won in the first stage were reversed. Many of the socialists who opposed the Comintern’s directives were routed from mass organisations, and some were even killed.

The two-stage programme was particularly inappropriate for South Africa, as its productive forces were highly developed and its working class sizeable. However, under apartheid, the South African Communist Party (SACP) dutifully followed the Soviet line, and in fact continues to parrot it to this day to justify the continued existence of its hugely profitable alliance with the ANC.

It is unfortunate that Numsa is invoking a Stalinist path to socialism: a path that has been tried and shown to fail.

The CST analysis, which is also classic SACP doctrine, is also flawed as it misconstrues the nature of South African society. CST represented a tortured attempt by the SACP to shoe-horn the South African struggle into the Comintern’s dictates for colonial countries.

By arguing that racial divisions trumped all other, CST ignored the fact that the dominant relations in South Africa were capitalist. As a result, in practice, the SACP prioritised alliances with the black capitalist class over unity with the white working class, with the result that the former has benefited much more from the transition than the latter. By continuing to evoke this analysis, Numsa risks repeating these historical errors.

Then there is the question of the Freedom Charter, and its political character. It is not socialist, and cannot even be described as anti-capitalist, which is why sections of the trade union movement argued for the development of a Workers’ Charter in the 1980s. The document was meant to unite the broadest possible range of forces to oppose apartheid as the first phase of the struggle; as a result, it was left deliberately vague in strategic places.

The Freedom Charter contains basic democratic demands that no one in their right minds can disagree with, and many of these demands have been won. Yet it also fails to identify the social forces that are most likely to bring fundamental social change about. As a result, democratic rights are being enjoyed (although they are coming under pressure), while exploitation continues relatively unhindered. This means that while the Charter has huge symbolic value, it is a tenuous programme for contemporary struggles.

The Freedom Charter contained a highly problematic formulation on the national question, assuming that South Africa is divided into four national groups. It also states that ‘the land shall be shared among those who work it’, which could include small subsistence farmers and big commercial farming multinationals. Its pronouncements on nationalisation are not inherently radical, and it is silent on the need to move beyond nationalisation to socialisation.

At times in its history, the Freedom Charter has not been a unifying document. People were killed in the mid 1980’s for opposing the imposition of the document on mass organisations, including the trade union movement.  By asserting the Freedom Charter as a basis of a United Front, Numsa risks alienating various political currents that may otherwise be sympathetic to it.

Numsa has not been insensitive to these controversies around the Freedom Charter: its own history tells us that. Writing in 1987, the Azanian Labour Monitoring Group recounted the debates in Numsa about adopting of the Freedom Charter in the wake of the National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) adoption.

At the time, three motions were tabled at a Numsa conference: the first for the adoption of the Charter, the second for adoption with the qualification that the Charter was limited in outlook, and the third supporting the drafting of a Workers’ Charter. The third motion was adopted. When Cosatu held its second national congress in that year, a NUM resolution calling for the adoption of the Charter was passed, despite a contrary motion by Numsa.

It is important to reach back into the socialist movement’s rich political history and build new political organisations on the best it has to offer. But pursuing these politics using these received ideas may well lead to a repetition of the political dead ends that progressive politics strayed into, here and elsewhere.

Unavoidably, building an alternative politics means building alternative forms of political organisation, and an alternative language. Theoretical errors can lead to serious mistakes in the world of practical politics: mistakes that can (and have) cost lives.

The United Front and whatever political force it gives rise to cannot afford to allow Stalin to direct South African history from the grave. It needs to try and prevent, in the words of Marx, ‘…world historic facts and personages from repeating themselves, first as tragedy, second as farce’.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.