Mbuyiselo Ngwenda memorial lecture delivered by Zwelinzima Vavi

It is an honour and a privilege to be asked to pay tribute to such a hero of the South African revolutionary workers’ movement as Comrade Mbuyiselo Ngwenda, the former NUMSA General Secretary, whose untimely passing this day, 10 March 1999 at the age of just 35 left the trade union movement poorer.
Comrade Mbuyi was a worker, but also a workers’ leader, shop steward, political activist, fighter for social justice, true revolutionary, educator, political commissar and agitator for fundamental change.
He had the sharp mind of a true organic intellectual, full of life yet humble and unassuming. He was at ease interacting with workers in the shebeens, yet in the evening he would have high-level intellectual debates with other leaders and engage with the complex terrain of a capitalist society.
He quickly graduated from worker and shop steward at Volkswagen to be a NUMSA educator and Eastern Cape Regional Secretary, NUMSA General Secretary and member of the Central Committee, and Politburo of South African Communist Party and a trade union giant recognised and celebrated by his peers all over the globe.
As a grassroots activist of the African National Congress underground structures, like thousands of others, he suffered years of detention without trial, often severely tortured by the brutal apartheid police.
We have not fully recovered from his loss. We know his wife Nombasa and his children suffered immensely from his years of detention without trial to leading a life without a breadwinner. This is where we are weak as the people’s organisation. We celebrate leaders but quickly forget these heroes are providers for their families. NUMSA has been with this family through thick and thin at its most difficult moments. But I wish that all of us who called Mbuyi our friend could do more to support this family.
In 2013 at the NUMSA Special National Congress, I recalled how at the 1997 COSATU National Congress in the World Trade Centre, “your general secretary, alone at that time, battled against the entire congress of COSATU and did not succeed in convincing everybody that the NUMSA position at that time was the correct line. He stood alone, literally.” It is okay, he said, for all the leaders to swell the ranks of the ANC and SACP, but NUMSA is standing firm that it is not all right, it is not strategic, it is not tactically okay to have the President and the General Secretary also serving in the ANC or SACP.
I myself was not convinced at the time of that argument but I am now absolutely convinced. The expulsion of NUMSA from COSATU, and the dismissal of its General Secretary was driven and led by former comrades who ignored Comrade Mbuyi’s plea, and are now entrenched in the state machine.
Mbuyi, a Marxist/Leninist through and through would have read and analysed what Lenin said when he warned that: “A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell, it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.”(Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917)
He clearly had a better understanding of the emerging trends between 1994 and 1997, when the leaders of the SACP swelled the ranks of the ANC government and then became the face of the most brutal assault on workers through neoliberal inspired GEAR and privatisation programmes.
How I wish that he would wake up today to see how things have moved from bad to worse. The entire SACP leadership, including its General Secretary, have abandoned the SACP offices to jump into the belly of a bourgeois state and to religiously implement programmes which are an assault of the working class. The best defenders of etolls, youth wage subsidy, GEAR/NDP economic programmes, etc. have become the leaders of the so-called vanguard of the working class.
If Ngwenda was to wake now he would be shocked to note that the 1962 Path To Power, and all the writings of Joe Slovo from the 1998 paper South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution and that famous pamphlet Has Socialism Failed? have been woefully abandoned. Slovo himself would wake to a different Communist Party altogether. Ngwenda, Chris Hani, Vuyisile Mini and countless other martyrs of the communist struggle should be turning on their graves to note that the SACP played such a divisive role leading to the implosion of the only weapon in the hands of workers in the workplace.
Chris Hani would not recognise the current SACP involved in a race to the bottom with other ANC opportunists over who will become councillors – not to serve but to head the queue for eating rights.
It was the same Hani who said: “The perks of a new government are not really appealing to me. Everybody would like to have a good job, a good salary…..but for me that is not the all of struggle. What is important is the continuation of the struggle… the real problems of the country are not whether one is in Cabinet …but what we do for social upliftment of the working masses of our country”.
In quoting this we are not in any way arguing that the communists must not be in government. We unsuccessfully argued for a balance to be struck between the need to swell the ranks and the need to build a strong and independent communist party that will retain its organisational independence and ability to mobilise the working class and play its vanguard role.
This is now water under the bridge. The SACP has abandoned the working class in favour of the “perks of the new government”. The struggle for total emancipation of the black working class and for an egalitarian society will no longer be led by the SACP, which has become so discredited as it defends the status quo and labels anyone genuinely fighting for fundamental change as part of the anti-majoritarian offensive.
It has abandoned its revolutionary Path to Power Programme of 1962. The total swallowing of the SACP by the ANC neoliberal and bourgeois state, contrary to the warning of Joe Slovo whose analysis of broad front and alliances (drawing from the Vietnamese experience) by saying: “But when a front is created the working class does not just melt into it. It does not abandon its independent class objectives or independent class organisation. On the contrary, the strengthening of workers’ independent mass and vanguard structures is even more imperative in periods demanding organised relations with other class forces.” (Joe Slovo The South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution 1988)
As we do this lecture today, NUMSA’s 340 000 plus members have been dismissed from the federation of Mbuyiselo Ngwenda. Thousands ofleaders and members of SAMWU, SADTU, POPCRU, NUM, SATAWU etc. have been purged from their unions, making the unity of workers under COSATU no longer possible. COSATU has been stolen from workers.
The workers movement is fragmenting every day with today 184 unions and 300 unregistered unions. It is now a shadow of its former self. The youth formation too has been domesticated. This agenda extends to hollowing out key institutions of our democracy. The NPA, Hawks SARS are today instruments to fight factional battles. Unless we stop this we are steadily en route to a kleptocractic capitalist order, underpinned by corruption and lack of accountability.
To understand the damage of this decay and division of the working class look no further than the recent State of the Nation Address to see the trend of government towards more business-friendly policies, and the betrayal of the principles the ANC committed itself to at the 2007 Polokwane conference. Yet within this government and the NEC of the ANC there are dozens of so called communists.
Mbuyi Ngwenda would have been part of the forces that drove change of direction in Polokwane in 2007 but would have also disappointed to see that whole project falling apart. He would have been the first to admit that the working class allowed the predatory capitalist class to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.
Just look at some of the resolutions that were adopted and see why we argue few of the policies adopted by the ANC 2007 national conference are reflected in the SONA 2016 and how far our

President and his government have moved away from them:

1. A developmental state to ensure that our national resource endowments, including land, water, minerals and marine resources are exploited to effectively maximise the growth, development and employment potential… and not purely for profit maximisation.
2. Transforming the structures of production and ownership, including… an active beneficiation strategy, building sustainable export industries, and expanding production for domestic and regional consumption.
3. An anti-monopoly and anti-concentration policy aimed at creating competitive markets, broadening ownership and participation by our people, addressing monopoly pricing and other forms of rent-seeking and anti-competitive behaviour.
4. Ensuring universal and subsidised access to basic services, health care, affordable transport and access to government information, free and compulsory education and on going campaigns for adult literacy.
5. A comprehensive social security net to provide a targeted and impeccable approach in eradicating poverty and unemployment.
6. Macro-economic policies that support and sustain growth, job creation and poverty eradication on a sustainable basis. We must reaffirm the Freedom Charter as a premise when discussing social transformation.
The reality today is that the economy is almost at a standstill. The World Bank predicts that our economy is at risk of falling into recession, and cut its growth forecast for 2016 to a pathetic 0.8%. South Africa has been deindustrialising since 1994. The manufacturing sector, which used to contribute 23% to our GDP, is now down to around 12%.
Thousands more jobs, and even whole industries, are in jeopardy. We have a shocking level of 34% unemployment by the realistic definition that includes those who have stopped even looking for work and the rate in most of black working class residential areas is around 45% or even more!
Slowly a neoliberal capitalist state is being entrenched, in which rising profits and appeasing credit rating agencies is the sole measure of success. Over-dependence on the export of minerals has led, as we predicted, to a catastrophe, as world prices of commodities crash. Beneficiation of these minerals has come to nought. Even worse privatisation is back on the agenda, with hints in the budget speech that the government wants more private sector involvement in SOEs.
Hundreds of the jobs, which remain, are being outsourced, made temporary or part-time or being farmed out to labour brokers. Greedy employers like those in the Free Market Foundation have launched an onslaught against collective bargaining. Already, employers impose a staggering 54% of all wage increases received by workers without any negotiations. The FMF ideologues, assisted by their political shop stewards in the DA, on behalf of the most verkrampte bosses, want to increase this to 100% by destroying remaining collective bargaining structures through which a mere 23% of workers negotiate their wages through collective bargaining.
The share of wages in the national income has plummeted from 57% in 1991 to below 50% today, whilst profits have been rising, as we take the gold medal for being the most unequal society on earth. The capitalists are reported to be sitting on R1.5 trillion of investable cash but won’t invest it, mainly because of lack of confidence to our collective future.
At the other end of the scale, University of Cape Town economists have admitted that a recent study they recently undertook suggests that Statistics South Africa’s poverty line underestimates poverty: “The Stats SA line indicates that approximately 53% of South Africans are poor, but ours suggests that this is closer to 63%.”
Oxfam reported that 13-million South Africans go to bed hungry every night. That is just about twice the size of the population of the Eastern Cape, and more than 25% of the total South African population.
Welfare grants that 17 million people depend on are shrinking in value, after two successive budgets increased them by less than the rate of inflation for poor families. The child grant of R340 is worth about a third of what even the World Bank considers poverty.
The prices of food are setting new records pushing inflation up to 11% for the poor who spend most of their income on food and transport. Yet the bosses insist that workers wages must be kept as close as possible to the country’s inappropriate inflation target of 3% -6%. On the other hand the bosses’ salaries are breaking all records. Look at the salary of the Investec Executive Director – a staggering R86 million a year whilst the median salary of workers is R3033 a month.
We are still waiting for the comprehensive social security and national health insurance systems. Our two-tier system in service delivery is getting worse, as the gap widens between the top-class provision of private education and healthcare for the rich, largely white minority and the pathetic service to the poor, overwhelmingly black majority. This is economic apartheid, which has led to more and more angry communities across the country taking to the streets, often violently, in protests over housing, water, roads and corruption.
State-owned enterprises are in a mess. Eskom, SAPO, SAA, PetroSA and others are staggering from crisis to crisis, worsened by constant allegations of corruption and nepotism. Far from being an advertisement for publicly owned enterprises, their adoption of capitalist methods has reduced many of them to virtual bankruptcy.
Similar chaos and incompetence is to be found in public institutions – the SAPS, the National Prosecution Agency, the SA Revenue Service. Chapter Nine institutions have been undermined.
Corruption is running out of control in both the public and private sectors, despite strong resolutions at successive ANC Conferences. It has become very hard to do business with government without greasing the hands of corrupt officials. Hyenas loot resources intended to provide services to the poor to line their own pockets.
Collusion and price-fixing by big monopolies keep coming before the Competition Commission. In 2013 alone $29 billion was illegally taken out of South Africa in illicit financial flows. The SARB and Treasury should have immediately investigated large multinational corporations and prosecuted those like MTN, Lonmin and De Beers, where research shows they have been looting South Africa.
22 years after our liberation, our people, in particular the black working class, can without any fear of a contradiction, state that the first two decades of
freedom have, in economic terms, benefitted white monopoly capital more than the motive forces of the liberation struggle.
Mbuyi would have not been shocked to note that the ANC has abandoned anything that will retain the honour of being “a disciplined force of the left” or a liberation movement with a bias towards the working class.
This leadership have no interest whatsoever in taking us back to the Freedom Charter’s economic demands that the land shall be shared and that the mineral wealth beneath the soil shall be transferred to the people as a whole. The leadership have closed the page on the 1969 Morogoro strategy and tactics that warned that:
“In our country—more than in any other part of the oppressed world—it is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning without a return of the wealth of the land to the people as a whole. It is therefore a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the root of racial supremacy and does not represent even the shadow of liberation…. in our land this cannot be effectively tackled unless the basic wealth and the basic resources are at the disposal of the people as a whole.”
The discussion this generation must have is: what would Mbuyiselo Ngwenda, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and Vuyisile Mini have done if faced with this onslaught on the standards of living of the working class? Would he (Ngwenda) have also abandoned the working class for a deployment in the government or would he have accepted responsibility to mobilise, instead of mourning? Facing this situation, would Mbuyi have stood in opposition to the NUMSA historic 2013 Special National Congress resolutions as some in the domesticated COSATU have argued?
I have no doubt in my mind that he would have drawn inspiration to Frantz Fanon’s popular saying that “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”
Our mission now is to liberate the working class from the politics of nostalgia and false hope! We need more than ever before an independent but not apolitical trade union movement that will militantly take up the struggles against the current status quo – the quadruple crisis of unemployment, poverty, inequalities and corruption.
More than ever before we need a new unity between workers and the rest of the progressive civil society in a battle against neoliberalism that not only seeks to entrench the status quo that the ANC Morogoro conference warned against but that will lead us to a predatory state where only the fittest will survive.
More importantly Ngwenda would have endorsed the call for workers’ political organ that will take up the political aspirations of the working class. He was inspired by what Marx and Engels once said: “People cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity”, and that: “Democracy would be quite useless to the proletariat if it were not immediately utilised as a means of accomplishing further measures directly attacking private ownership and securing the existence of the proletariat”.
As a resident of this Nelson Mandela Metro he would have been extremely disappointed to see what has happened to his movement the ANC. He would have been ashamed that those with whom he spent months in solitary confinement in the apartheid prisons have completely abandoned the principle of selflessness in favour of “me first and to hell with everybody else”. He would have been shocked by endless leadership wars that made our people to lose all their hope in their liberation movement.
He would have recognised that Frantz Fanon’s view taking root in every aspect of our peoples lives not only here but throughout the country:
“The… unemployed man [and woman] who never find employment do not manage, in spite of public holidays and flags, new and brightly-coloured though they may be, to convince themselves that anything has really changed in their lives. The bourgeoisie who are in power vainly increase the number of processions; the masses have no illusions. They are hungry; and the police officers, though now they are Africans, do not serve to reassure them particularly. The masses begin to sulk; they turn away from this nation in which they have been given no place and begin to lose interest in it.”
No amount of shouting of revolutionary slogans will blind the masses to the reality that the NDR continues to produce billionaires and wealthy capitalists, whilst the majority of the people still live in squalor.
Facing this we need working-class intellectuals to answer a question: what is to be done? How do we today forge unity between the workers in Volkswagen where Ngwenda worked with the workers who used to be employed there but are now declared non-core, outsourced and casualised, sometimes in the name of black economic empowerment?
Concretely how do we forge unity and establish a common cause with the 8.3 million workers who are unemployed? What policy debates should we have so that we do not create a space that is often exploited by our class enemies who say that we only represent a shrinking number of privileged workers? What campaigns we should take up, on jobs and against outsourcing and casualisation. How do we build links with the fees must fall and outsourcing must fall movements in the universities? How do we struggle against our class enemies given the increasing power they have through globalisation? How do we extend our strategies to stop the current trend where companies move their production to neighbouring countries or other sweatshop economies?
This is the new debate we should have today comrades. Sloganising is no longer adequate. The new federation must be consumed by these discussions if it is to be a breath of a fresh air. We are moving forward to a workers’ summit by the end of this month and we marching towards an independent militant trade union movement on May Day.
Comrade Mbuyi was so right to see the only solution to our crisis will come from the workers. He would have been proud that his union NUMSA has adopted the policies he fought for, and that it is playing a leading role in forming a new democratic workers’ federation, set to take off on 1 May 2016 and an organ of the working class to take forward the struggle for workers’ freedom to which he dedicated his all too short life.
Amandla ngawethu
Long Live undying spirit of Mbuyiselo Ngwenda Long Live
Ayigobi – lentsimbi