Hearing from South Africa’s left challenge

June 21, 2016

Dorian Bon reports on the visit of a prominent South African unionist to New York City.

IRVIN JIM, a leader of the South African workers' movement, was in New York City in June to raise support for the labor struggle in his country. Jim is general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the country's largest union, representing around 300,000 workers in steel, electronics and auto manufacturing--and well-known as its most militant.

On June 14, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! hosted a public interview with Jim in Manhattan as part of an ongoing celebration of the show's 20th anniversary. The South African unionist wasted no time in using the platform to speak to his life's work.

Born into a family of farmworkers in the Eastern Cape, Jim threw himself into the anti-apartheid struggle from an early age, becoming a leader of the regional student movement. When he found work after graduation in a tire factory, he had already made such a name for himself that his co-workers insisted he be their shop steward, even though Jim initially refused.

That was 1992. Jim has never left the front lines of labor's fight since then.

Irvin Jim
Irvin Jim

STRIKING WORKERS in the energy, mining and manufacturing sectors played a decisive role in winning the decades-long, arduous struggle against apartheid. But despite the end of white minority rule, Black workers who were at the center of the revolution against apartheid continue to live with few rights and little access to the wealth they produce.

A protracted economic crisis has exacerbated conditions for the working class. Almost a third of South African wage earners are unemployed, a staggering level of joblessness that is dragging down the living standards of the entire working class.

The ruling African National Congress' (ANC) policy of handing increased control to both domestic and foreign corporations has resulted in severe job losses and downsizing in South African manufacturing. "Metalworkers are a good example," Jim explained at the Manhattan event, "because in 1994, our contribution to the GDP as a manufacturing union was about 20 percent. Today, it is less than 10 percent."

The majority of South African workers have been organized in an alliance with the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, since it consolidated the leadership of the anti-apartheid movement.

But the failure of the ruling party to deliver on its promises of empowerment for ordinary South Africans has strained this unity. The massacre of 34 platinum miners at Marikana in 2012 by ANC-directed police awakened the consciousness of millions of workers to the party's bitter betrayal of the freedom struggle.

Jim's NUMSA has taken the lead in holding the government accountable for its crimes. For this, NUMSA was recently expelled from the country's largest trade union federation, the Coalition of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which demands near-total subservience of its member unions to the commands of the ruling ANC--seeing this as necessary to complete an ongoing national revolution.

NUMSA is now in the process of helping to construct a new labor federation that will compete with COSATU for influence among South African workers, with a policy of working-class independence. "Now is the time to organize the working class as a class for itself," Jim insisted. "We cannot continue in an alliance which is destroying jobs and living standards for workers."

AS LAYERS of the South African working class seek a new path of political independence, their movement is confronting many important and difficult questions: Why did the party that led the anti-apartheid struggle betray its commitments to popular liberation? Where should ordinary South Africans go from here, and how do they get there?

During his interview with Amy Goodman, Jim pointed out that many workers feel the ANC's betrayal was caused by a conspiracy of the U.S. government and the International Monetary Fund to pressure the new government.

But Jim thinks the ANC's turn has much deeper roots--that in the face of a stark choice between reshaping the economy to empower workers and handing over the reins to international capitalists, leaders of the ANC, including Nelson Mandela, consciously chose the latter as the most feasible and desirable plan for national development.

The new direction of the ANC was cemented in 1996 when the party proposed the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GER) program, which advocated trade liberalization as a means toward job growth and economic expansion. Jim described how Mandela's ANC pushed through these corporate reforms:

When GER was being introduced, Nelson Mandela used his stature of leadership. On this one, he said there was no debate--that the [South African] rand was weak and something had to be done. The alliance must accept that there cannot be a debate on this matter. We're dealing with an issue of the economy. If we don't take these measures, this economy is going to crash. And it was implemented, basically unilaterally.

GER tied the South African economy much closer to the oscillations of the global marketplace and increased the country's dependency on foreign investment. Jim recalled the ANC's fetishistic worship of international credit rating agencies, which it constantly spoke about satisfying, as if rating agencies were some phantom force dictating all economic life rather than a part of the ruling class' system that we can find ways to resist.

Jim understands the fundamental basis of South Africa's development over the last two decades to be corporate control, which can only be countered, he argues, through the project of building workers' control. During his public interview, Jim elaborated on these ideas and couched them in an understanding of capitalism as a social system:

In society, generally, there is a contradiction because, if you are worker, and you work from nine to five each day, in South Africa for instance, you'll receive only one and a half hours in wages. What is paid to you is starvation wages. As for the other hours of the workday, you give that to the bosses for free. Under capitalism, you're supposed to exchange equal values. But for workers this doesn't apply. So the contradiction under capitalism is about who controls production and the surplus we produce. And that's what class struggle is about...Our struggle is about changing relations of production to stop this form of exploitation. We firmly believe that capitalism is a social system which offers no solutions to the problems of humanity; we believe that the future for workers and everybody in society is socialism.

RADICAL SOCIALIST politics are finding a mass hearing among South African workers. But Irvin Jim also cautions that the path toward realizing these aspirations remains long and challenging. NUMSA is quickly losing members as the crisis of unemployment intensifies. The question of how to exercise and increase workers' power in this environment is pressing.

Near the close of his talk, Jim unpacked some of the aspects of this question. For example, his union feels ambivalent toward parliament, stressing that it has limited use because it functions outside the workplace, where workers can exercise direct control. At the same time, it's clear that parliament will have to play a role in forging workers' political independence. But what will this role be?

Another factor to take into account in South Africa is the student movement. University and college students recently demonstrated their ability to force the hand of the government when the mass #FeesMustFall movement halted President Jacob Zuma's proposed tuition hikes and budget cuts. The question of how workers and students can collaborate in pursuing their common interests has since then been posed with increased forcefulness.

Lastly, the matter of how to treat the state bears heavily on the South African workers' movement. Irvin Jim's current perspective, as he explained Tuesday, is that the state must be taken over and used in the interests of workers and of national economic development. Yet Jim also insisted that nationalization will be insufficient, if not counterproductive, without measures for workers' direct control.

In other words, South African workers confront a whole host of questions about their strategies and objectives as they attempt to forge a path out of the contemporary crisis. Successfully navigating this path will require support and critical discussion between working-class movements internationally.

This international solidarity was a central point in Jim's comments on Tuesday, and his visit to New York City was a small, yet significant step in building that solidarity in preparation for future struggles.

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