COSATU leader on SACP's 89th anniversary: `Mass power is the best defence'
By Zwelinzima Vavi
August 1, 2010 -- July 29, 2010, marks the 89th anniversary of a revolutionary organ of the working class, the South African Communist Party (SACP).
Being the only communist party in the African continent, the SACP (or Communist Party of South Africa as it was known then) has been a wagon that advanced and carried working-class struggles in the country and also in the continent. The formation of the CPSA is inseparable from the history of the Great October Revolution of 1917 and the launch of the Communist International in 1919.
The formation of the Communist Party in 1921 was a victory for non-racialism. It solidified the labour movement’s many attempts to form a trade union movement that united all workers regardless of race. 1921 was preceded by the attempts by the International Socialist League in 1915 to organise African workers, as well as the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU) led by Clemens Kadalie in 1919. Communists have been in the forefront of organising workers and planting the seeds for revolutionary non-racial trade unionism in South Africa. These seeds germinated through the launch of Communist Party of South Africa in 1921.
89 years is a milestone for any organisation and this must be used to take stock of the advances we have made and the setbacks we have faced in the struggle against national and gender oppression and class exploitation. The quest to turn the Communist Party into the party of the working class, rooted in the specific material conditions confronting the working class in South Africa dates from the early days of the party. This need was expressed sharply in the "Cradock Letter" by Moses Kotane, calling the party to become "Africanised" and pay special attention to the conditions inside the country and anchor itself among the toiling masses in the country. This was not a call for the party to abandon its internationalist outlook but to link this to the struggles of the nationally oppressed and class exploited black working class in South Africa. This is why we believe that any narrative of the South African struggle against apartheid and colonialism which omits the role of the SACP will be ahistorical.
It was through party’s efforts that from time to time a concrete analysis of the South African situation was given and analysed to spur a movement forward. The party has come a long way since then and new challenges have certainly emerged.
A capitalist onslaught on the working class
We are faced with the challenge to give a concise class understanding of post-apartheid South Africa and the nature of global capitalism. No one can deny that since the dawn of democracy workers enjoy a range of constitutional guarantees such as the right to fair labour practice, to form and join unions, strike and picket, the right to conclude union security agreements and the right to collective bargaining. The constitution also contains an array of socioeconomic rights such as the right to water, housing, health and education.
As the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), we have continued to point these out at every opportunity. However this is a mere political crown. The economic jewel is still missing.
Capital has found various ways of reinventing itself and to encroach on many working-class gains. One of these is the continued restructuring of the working class, thus creating a two-tiered labour market system. The first layer of workers enjoys most of the rights contained in the constitution. They are covered by collective bargaining system; enjoy better work security and better pay. The second layer consists of rightless and super-exploited workers for whom unionisation is a personal risk and upward job mobility an illusion.
Security guards, call centre workers, waitresses and retail sector workers are reeling under the pressure of this hostile workplace regime. This is why we must continue to dismiss the claims made by big business and its think tanks that our labour laws are too rigid. As we march on to the 100 years since the establishment of the Communist Party, we should intensify the struggle against capitalism and wage serious campaigns to strengthen the capacity of the working class to challenge any onslaught on it by its capitalist enemies. One of the things we must concede to -- as we take stock of the advances made and the losses suffered by the working class -- is that the apartheid fault lines remain unchanged.
We are faced with shocking statistics regarding the ensuing job loss bloodbath. More and more people are becoming relegated to the margins of the capitalist economy. Everyday working-class families lose their breadwinners and lose their means of subsistence. Everyday a worker must face his/her family to recount the often-told tale about how his/her labour is suddenly not needed by the big bosses. The number of working-class people who have to queue long hours for social grants and other types of social security measures is on the increase.
One only has to wake early in the morning and look at how our jobless youth are roaming the streets to understand the extent of the unemployment crisis in our country. No sane person can ever expect loyalty, patriotism and the advancement of so-called national interests from the thousands of youth who have fallen into the cracks of the unemployment black hole; from the thousands of women who toil and bear the scorching sun selling goods on the pavements of the major cities; from those who still suffer the indignity and humiliation of the bucket toilet system.
What kind of society demands that the working class must be modest in demanding higher wages when only 20 companies' CEOs in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange earn 1728 times more than the worker's wage and that CEOs of state-owned companies are getting golden handshakes for emptying the public purse in parastatals (state-owned enterprises)? To call for “class peace” in the context whereby poverty exists side by side with luxury and opulence is to add insult to injury! To tell the poor to be patient about land redistribution while golf estates, lavish townhouse apartments and shopping malls are popping up everywhere is to insult the intelligence of the working class!
It is ruthless to urge farm workers to persevere under racist and exploitative living and working conditions. The working class will not wait forever for change. We must never trail behind this class as it searches for an alternative to capitalism.
It's only the capitalist biased commentators and so-called analysts who will demand patience from the working class who are at the coalface of the dysfunctional education and health systems. How caring is a society that for years reduced HIV-positive people to beggars for antiretroviral medicines. Only an inhumane capitalist society imposes parenthood on young children due to the fact that parents have become casualties to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
What type of a society puts mothers through the pain of giving birth without the guarantee that they will survive the childbearing process? The maternal mortality rate in our country is unacceptably high. The death of many innocent babies in our public hospitals is a clear sign of the failures of privatisation of health and the resource starving of public hospitals due to the disastrous neoliberal GEAR policy [the post-apartheid ANC government's neoliberal economic Growth, Employment and Resdistribution policy]. This is why mass campaigns must be initiated to push for the implementation of the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme and prevent this from becoming a paper tiger. We know very well that the capitalist class is conspiring to rollback the gains on the resolution on the NHI. The party, as the vanguard of the working class, must lead us in challenging big business' narrow and selfish interersts. The health sector cannot continue to operate according to the profit motive. This 89th anniversary must inspire all of us into defending working-class gains against a well-orchestrated capitalist offensive.
Despite progress made in the education sector, the children of the working class still study in overcrowded classrooms, with broken windows, no proper toilet facilities and no libraries. It is working-class parents who constantly worry about their children dropping out, not passing matric or simply being a victim of an unsafe environment in schools. The reality of a dysfunctional, unsafe and uninspiring school environment haunts black working-class children and their parents the most.
Our non-racialism must always recognise the ways in which race continuously shapes subjective experience of the working class in South Africa. The average earnings for white males are almost eightfold more than the average monthly earnings for African males. On average, white women also earn eight times more than their African counterparts.
Apartheid spatial economy
The apartheid spatial economy remains unshaken. The highest levels of poverty and underdevelopment are still concentrated in the former bantustans. The black working class, are still located far away from places of production, meaning that the little wages they receive are absorbed by ever escalating costs of transport.
Our townships are still characterised by dilapidated houses, inadequate sanitation systems, lack of proper roads, lighting and recreational facilities. These townships and former bantustans still operate as mere pools for the reserve army of cheap African labour. The face of unemployment is black and young. Of the unemployed, 72% are young people between 15 and 34 years of age. Of this percentage of unemployed youth, 78% are African.
We should never be surprised as more and more service delivery protests occur. The frustrations of the working class stemming from its exclusion from the production process through unemployment will naturally find expression through struggles against the privatisation of water and electricity and the privatisation of development through tenders for housing, sanitation, roads and other infrastructure.
The party must intensify the campaign against the privatisation of basic goods and services and guide us into relooking at the role of the state in the delivery of these basic necessities. The period where the state merely acts as a signatory and a facilitator of business deals must come to an end. We need a decisive and activist developmental state, which is guided by a sound vision on the developmental path we should be travelling.
As the party marches to its centenary, it must ensure that it gives resolute leadership to the struggle for better living conditions in the townships, rural areas and informal settlements. The party should build on the legacy of the likes of Dora Tamana, who participated and led struggles against the threats of resettlement emanating from the segregationist government. The vigour and commitment of comrades such as Matthew Goniwe, a communist and a grassroots organiser par excellence, should motivate the party in leading working-class struggles in workplaces, communities and many other areas.
Mass work is the best defence by the working class against those who profit from working-class misery through unscrupulous tenders to degenerate our revolution. The party must lead us in campaigning against the tendencies that seek to transform the Congress movement to a stock exchange and a tender board. As the party matures and comes of age, the lesson that runs through the history of the party is that the only defence that we have against all forms of bourgeois attacks on the working class is mass power.
It is only the working class and mass campaigns that can defend the party of socialism from attacks waged on it by the bourgeoisie. The next 11 years until the centenary of the party must be dedicated to building and reviving mass working-class campaigns as well as waging a relentless struggle against capitalism and imperialism.
[Zwelinzima Vavi is secretary general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. This was a speech to the SACP's 89th anniversary rally in Rustenburg, North West province on August 1, 2010.]