Next steps for South African workers’ movement

As we go to press a one-day national shutdown organised by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) is about to begin. Called as a ‘National shutdown to defend the socio-economic interests of the working class’, Saftu held meetings of provincial shop stewards committees at the start of the month to prepare the action. Members of the Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa) distributed a leaflet at these assemblies, reprinted below, that analysed this important step and made proposals on the way forward.

The National Shutdown Saftu has called for 24 August represents potentially a very important step forward for the working class. It will be taking place under conditions that are significantly different from the previous largely unsuccessful Section 77 actions of October 2020 and February 2021.

What is even clearer now than then, is that the capitalist class worldwide has no solution to the crisis of their system, worsened by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, other than to make the working class pay. Across the world, a new fighting mood has developed, with the working class on the march in their millions. In South Africa, communities are organising their own shut downs. The National Shut Down offers the opportunity to compress the energies of all these actions into a single movement of workers unity against the ANC government and the capitalist system.

No worker needs to be told about the desperate situation facing the working class that demands action – increasing prices, low wages, unemployment, cuts to services, crime, gender-based violence etc. The ongoing wave of strikes shows the willingness of workers to fight long and bitter battles.

It is a positive sign that the newly elected Saftu leadership has made the convening of Shop Steward Councils central to mobilisation for August 24. It implies that the main lesson of October 2020 and February 2021 has been taken on board – a conscious campaign of mobilisation at shop-floor level is crucial. Saftu’s shop stewards and worker-activists are key to a successful National Shut Down. They are best placed to mobilise the workplaces allowing Saftu’s 630,000 members to rise to their feet as one. Shutting down workplaces across the public and private sectors will be an important demonstration of working class power and the surest way to pressure the bosses and the government.

However, no one is under the illusion that a single day of protest – even an extremely powerful one – can solve all the problems facing the working class overnight. Therefore the success of August 24 will be decided by whether or not it is used as a platform to begin a sustained campaign of rolling mass actions with the aim, not only of transforming the living standards of the working class and poor, but preparing the working class for political power too.

Ahead of August 24 Saftu’s shop stewards and worker-activists are in the best position to reach out on the ground to workers organised in other trade union federations, as well as community and youth organisations, inviting them to participate. The Saftu leadership is correctly appealing to the leaders of the Cosatu, Nactu and Fedusa federations to participate. But it would be a mistake to leave the question of united strike action to letters and meetings between head offices.

Saftu’s shop stewards should create facts on the ground. Both the recent Sibanye and Eskom strikes have demonstrated afresh workers’ yearning for unity in struggle. Saftu activists should make direct appeals to workers organised under other federations through workplace visits, extending invitations to form joint strike-preparation committees that leave bureaucratic rivalries at the door. The Sibanye mineworkers did this and it worked!

The public sector should be given special attention in preparations for August 24. The approach of the leaders of the major public sector unions thus far can only lead to another defeat. Accepting the government’s arguments that salary increases are unaffordable is a fatal mistake. The ANC government and its capitalist masters are using the crisis they have created to cripple the power of the trade unions to defend the working class. The failure to turn the threats of strike action in 2020 and 2021 into action has emboldened the government. August 24 should be offered to public sector workers to compel their leaders to rise from their knees. It must be used for the legal strike that their leaders appear to be recoiling from organising.

It will not be possible to reach every workplace and community in the ten days remaining until August 24. Therefore the day itself must be used to raise the banner of the working class for the masses to see. This requires mobilising all Saftu members for workplace pickets, marches and other public protest actions. The Nupsaw union’s initiative to occupy the Union Buildings lawns over the night of 23/24 August sets a good example. On every picket line, march and protest the message must be: next time YOU join us! In this way, August 24 can be used to marshal the forces of the working class, test the strength and preparedness of its structures, and push forward unity.

It is crucial that the next steps for the campaign of mass actions be decided before August 24. The strike must be used as a platform to promote this roadmap and linked to an appeal to wider layers of the working class to participate in future protests and events. These plans can of course be modified in democratic discussion by workers based on the experience of the strike. But it is crucial that on the day itself leadership leads by answering the question: what next?

We propose that a date in September be put forward for a further Section 77 strike (whether this is one or two days should be based on a review of August 24) which would include mass marches in all key cities.

Opposition to the ANC government and the desire to remove it has reached new levels. That the Saftu NEC statement calls on the government to “step-aside” and the 5 August Working Class Summit (WCS) declaration calls on it to “resign”, brings all the forces so far organised behind the federation into line with the general sentiment within the working class. But the question that follows is: to be replaced by what?

The revolution in Sri Lanka has again shown, like the ‘Arab Spring’ a decade ago, that overthrowing a government is not enough. Unless the working class has an organisation that can take power, one set of crooks will simply replace another. The working class needs its own party! Unfortunately both the Saftu and WCS leaderships refuse to give an answer to the question their own statements pose. They are ignoring the resolutions adopted by both Saftu and the WCS in favour of moving ahead with the creation of a workers’ party.

August 24 should be used to correct this. The Saftu leadership should boldly proclaim its intention to launch a workers’ party and announce a date – before the end of the year – for reconvening the Working Class Summit to agree on a launch-date.

Shop stewards and worker-activists will need to lobby and campaign for their leaders to take this approach to August 24. Capitalism in South Africa and worldwide is in a total dead-end. Only the working class, taking power and setting about the socialist reconstruction of society, can offer humanity a way out.