A myth about the Cosatu general strike

In the run up to the recent Cosatu national strike against privatisation, job losses, poverty and the rising cost of living, the ANC President, Thabo Mbeki, used the ANC National Policy Conference to spell out his concerns with the 'ultra-left' and argued that it had taken control of Cosatu. In this article, Silumko Nondwangu, Numsa's general secretary, responds to Mbeki's claims. 

In the ANC National Policy Conference on Friday September 27, the ANC President made the following assertions: "That the ANC policies were also under attack from domestic and foreign left sectarian factions that claim to be the best representative of the workers and the poor of our country.

They accuse our movement of having abandoned the working people, saying that we have adopted and are implementing neo-liberal policies…. The resultant false characterisation of our movement and its policies enables the left sectarian factions to explain why they wage a struggle against the national liberation movement….. The issue of the offensive of the ultra-left against our movement is also important because this ultra-left works to implant itself within our ranks… It hopes to capture control of our movement and transform it into an instrument for the realisation of its objectives."

Without any doubt this statement has far reaching political implications for individuals within the ranks of the ANC and movements aligned to the ANC at whom it was directed.

The current attack portrays the movement as a movement under siege from within and suggests that should the need arise, it must act ruthlessly to defend itself. The common enemy ceases to be anti-transformation forces. Instead the enemy is forces from within who must be exposed.

This is nothing but a repeat of the Briefing Notes to the ANC structures at the beginning of this year which purported a strong existence of an ultra-left tendency within the ranks of the National Liberation Movement.

These argued that the existence of this tendency had overwhelmed components of the Liberation Movement, and in particular the trade union federation (Cosatu). And yet at the beginning of this year in a bilateral meeting between the ANC and Cosatu, the issue of the ultra-left tendency was dealt with extensively in the context of the Congress Alliance tradition and resolved.

So why are these same allegations of an ultra-left tendency made on the eve of the Cosatu general strike which the ANC leadership publicly regarded as a direct political attack against the ANC.

Many within the ranks of Cosatu, given the timing of these utterances, have drawn the conclusion that reference to the ultra-left working to implant itself within the ranks of the movement was a direct response to and an attack on Cosatu affiliates. Whereas the ANC made an attempt not to be seen to be trampling with the right to strike, it worked hard against the strike action.

What these utterances sought to project to Cosatu members, was a federation captured by domestic and international ultra-left forces, acting on behalf of these forces to export their syndicalist agendas to discredit and with the hope in the long-term, of unseating a legitimate democratically elected ANC government. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To the extent that this same conspiracy theory emerges once again on the eve of the Cosatu General Strike and towards the ANC National Conference, it suggests that a much more deep-seated problem exists in the Alliance .

Who constitutes this faceless ultra-left and how does it express itself concretely in the organisational work of the ANC? Is this not an attempt at diverting the movement from the real challenges it faces? Is the real issue the ultra-left tendency planting itself within the ranks of the ANC or an attempt whenever disagreement arises on the strategic and tactical question of transformation, to resort to the worst vilification of one another? When representatives of the 2 million members of the Federation charged their leadership at the Cosatu Congress to struggle against the wholesale privatisation of state assets, rampant unemployment and poverty, were they acting as one category of the ultra left tendency within the ANC? Or are they led blindly by a leadership who knowingly have or are becoming agents of an ultra-left plot, bent on weakening the ANC? What is the characterisation of this ultra-left tendency within Cosatu and whose interests does it serve?

These are fundamental questions that can now not be swept under the carpet on the pretext of unity and cohesion.

The Cosatu General Strike is consistent with the traditions of the National Liberation Movement that the masses are their own liberators. The strike is not directed at the ANC nor the legitimacy of the ANC government. It is directed at encroaching elements of neo-liberalism manifested in growing poverty, escalating unemployment, and more fundamentally, at an attempt to mortgage the democratic state to the dictates of the unfettered markets.

What the recent utterances from the ANC have failed to articulate is whether the terrain of mass mobilisation has been abandoned and substituted by board negotiations. Had it not been for the masses in trenches fighting for their own liberation, none of us would have hailed the 1994 democratic breakthrough as a beachhead towards social emancipation. It is this tradition that has earned the ANC the leadership role accorded in our country and world-wide.

Whereas Cosatu shares the broad strategic objectives of the movement in the context of and in pursuance of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), it remains an independent formation that should first and foremost, solicit its mandate from its members. Its decision to embark on a General Strike was derived from this constituency.

However, this General Strike and other forms of mass action, conflict with the broader role of the ANC as a multi-class formation that represents a range of sometimes divergent class interests. Nevertheless these actions cannot be construed in the theory and politics of the Liberation Movement as representative of an ultra-left wing plot against the ANC.

When other segments of the ANC, the petty bourgeoisie, benefit through black economic empowerment deals at the exclusion of the poor, have these been characterised as attempts by the right-wing to impose a neo-liberal agenda on the ANC? When many ANC councillors throughout the country engage in acts of corruption and greed not palatable with the ANC policies, are these characterised as the social values of capital and neo-liberalism creeping in to the movement?

The real danger for the movement in peddling this notion of an ultra-left plot is first, the potential to alienate the ANC constituency in Cosatu from the ANC itself as a movement, and encourage it to view the ANC as solely representing the class interests of the petty bourgeoisie.

Secondly, to elevate from within and outside this faceless ultra-left wing plot as an ideological force whose presence is now felt.

Thirdly, to create space for the suppression of the working class in the ANC and completely erode its role as a motive force in the NDR.

Fourthly, to engender an environment where real and genuine ideological differences are suppressed for fear of being branded as an ultra-left plot, consequently an enemy of the ANC from within.

Recently, the President of the ANC alluded in the General Council of the ANC in Port Elizabeth, of many instances in Africa or elsewhere in the world which show what happens when, on becoming a ruling party, a genuinely popular national liberation movement, such as ours, loses contact with the people and its leaders transform themselves into a self-centred ruling elite.

And yet current examples of various forces (Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee) (some opposed to the ANC and even Cosatu and the SACP) leading the masses in struggles that the ANC and its components should have led, are starting to question whether the ANC is already starting to lose contact with its people.

The fact that during the World Summit, a parallel march to that of the ANC-led Alliance organised by various formations, drew thousands more people, is another indication, and a warning that the ANC must not only lead in theory, but also in the trenches of Soweto, Alexandra, KwaMashu and many other parts of our country.

When the 51st ANC National Conference in December reflects on what the President of the ANC meant at the ANC National Policy Conference when he alluded to "better fewer, but better", delegates would do well to remember that the ANC has derived its progressive character and existence from the poor and the working class, a class larger than any other constituent element within the ANC. 

This is an unedited version of the article which appeared in the Sunday Times on October 6, 2002. Get a copy of Thabo Mbeki's speech from your local, regional office.


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