By Fikile Majola, NEHAWU General Secretary
Organised workers and the working class in general still constitute a relatively small social force in Africa and this fact accounts for its severely weak capacity to influence the broader socioeconomic and political developments as an independent political force in its own right. In turn, this is because of the still largely colonial character of the African political economy, which is mainly based on the extraction of mineral resources and other primary sectors such as agriculture. Hence, the revolutionary theoreticians such as Frantz Fanon spoke of an advanced role for the African peasantry in the anti-colonial and even socialist struggles. Similarly, because of this “Mualimo” (teacher) Julius Nyerere spoke of Ujamaa or socialism with African characteristics.
Indeed, the question of the role and place of the working class in a predominantly peasant population of Africa even seized the minds of accomplished Marxist-Leninists such as Samora Machel, Amilcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara, Antonio Agostino Neto and others. However, just like ourselves, the latter group of African Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries was not convinced of these various forms of Maoism. Instead, they were convinced, just like the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia, that despite its relatively small size, as a socio-political force the working class remains the most revolutionary and advanced social force. And that only the working class (of course, in alliance with the large mass of poor peasants) is capable of deepening the democratic revolution into a socialist revolution (Lenin’s thesis in Two Tactics of Social Democracy). For this reason, the question of the organised workers and their trade unions as an advanced component of the working class in Africa is a critical question of our revolutionary agenda in terms of the future of our continent, especially in the midst of the current global capitalist crisis.
So, having asserted the centrality of the African trade union movement and the working class in general in the political and socioeconomic transformation of our continent - beyond the niceties of theoretical formulations what then are the practical challenges and the necessary responses required of the organised African workers in the midst of the currently unfolding global capitalist crisis? When all is said and done, the key question that we must face is one of practice and as Karl Marx said in the Theses on Feuerbach (Theses 11) “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”. But we cannot consider the question of practical action, without taking into account the context and relevant reality that we must deal with. So, let us first briefly capture the scale of the impact of the current global economic crisis on Africa.
Our starting point must be that this crisis comes at a time when Africa has been already bogged down in an economic crisis for more than two decades. Others when they look at the recent and current GDP growth rates may believe that Africa has emerged from its crises and that it was thriving - without reflecting on the socioeconomic and even political fabric of this continent for what it is today. The point that we want to underscore here is that, from the point of view of Africa, the economic setbacks of the 1970s and subsequently 1980s destroyed the socioeconomic advances, including industrialisation and infrastructure that many independent African countries made in the 1960s. This is primarily because of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) that Africa was subjected to especially between 1981 and 1999, administered by the World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF). In fact, in the current crisis we can say that only Greece and a few other peripheral European countries can be compared to Africa in terms of how they have been dealt with by the World Bank and IMF over their current debt-burden.
Clearly, our continent and the rest of the global-south were used as experimental sites for Neoliberal policies because the US and G7 countries are not responding to the similar crisis of huge budget-deficits and public-debts through severe austerity measures and SAPs that they have imposed on Africa and the global-south in the past. Instead, we see increased borrowing to spend more rather than budget cuts and more printing of money and interventions to keep interest rates low rather than high interest rates in the name of fighting inflation.
With regards to the impact of the current round of the global capitalist crisis on Africa, we must proceed from an understanding that the financialisation of capital in the west (as a result of sustained decline in the net-profit rates - average net profit rates in the G7 fell from 17.6% in the 1950-70 period to 13.3% in 1970-93 (Brenner, 2002), has resulted in a shift of the speculative capital to trade in open-markets on primary commodities such as oil, minerals and agricultural produce, which led to 2004-8 commodity price booms. At the same time, as a result of this very high oil and food prices, many governments started to reduce and even to terminate subsidies on these goods. Hence, the outbreak of uprisings in North Africa, sporadic riots in Mozambique in 2010/2011 and more recently in Nigeria and in other countries. Despite China’s vast consumption of these African raw materials and primary goods, the outbreak of the capitalist crisis in 2008 plunged the prices of these goods down (except for few commodities such as gold), which devastated key sectors of the African economy. Hence, we saw:
« Rising unemployment e.g. in the DRC’s 100,000 and Zambia’s copper belt 80,000 workers lost their jobs in the mining sector.
« The estimated $15 billion per annum of remittances from the diaspora significantly declining.
« Revenue from tourism plunging down by 13% in 2008 compared to 2007 and this continued especially in North Africa in 2011. (The world famous Egyptian tourism was basically shutdown).
« Botswana was exposed to severe shocks due to its high dependence on diamond exports (35 to 50% of public revenues) as it experienced a decline in industrial production, exports and public revenues.
« Many donor depended countries suffered major cuts as their imperial patrons significantly reduced the patronage.
« Several African countries producing cocoa, tea, coffee, cotton, sisal etc., lost millions of US dollars from the exports of these agricultural commodities due to the shrinking global demand.
We now return to that practical question, because indeed it is in practice where our theoretical formulations can be clarified and where revolutions are ultimately experiences. Karl Marx says “practice is the only criterion of the truth”.
Despite the weaknesses of the working class in Africa, we must assert this point (in order maintain our confidence) that the key founding fathers of the former Organization of African Unity (OAU) were actually trade union leaders. We speak of:
« The late Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea who mobilized the Guinean people to end the French colonialism in 1958.
« The late President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania who led the then Tangayika to independence from British colonialism.
« The great President Kenneth Kaunda, a champion of the Southern African liberation struggle, the founding President of Zambia and one of the founding fathers of the OAU.
« The late President Hamani Diori who was the founding President of Niger - who led the struggle there against French colonialism and who was also a founding father of the OAU.
« The late President Modibo Keita of Mali, who is the first President of Mali and also a founding father of the OAU. He was also a visionary Pan-Africanist along with the late President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.
Similarly, it is necessary to briefly highlight the impact of the African trade union movement in the anti-colonial and independence struggle, for example:
« The great six weeks general strike of 1945 of Railway Workers’ Union in Nigeria paralyzed the entire country, which was followed by the coalminers’ strike of 1949. These workers’ struggles placed the Nigerian trade union movement in the forefront until independence was achieved on 1st October, 1960.
« In Kenya, we can talk about the late Tom Mboya who led the Kenyan trade union movement in support of the political struggle, an independence struggle which was led by the great Jomo Kenyatta, the first Prime Minister of Kenya.
Of course, we all know about the critical role that the trade union movement played and continues to play in South Africa, as indeed we know about the contribution of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) in the liberation struggle against colonialist South Africa which resulted in a victory of the independence struggle on the 21st March, 1990.
Clearly, we cannot engage in discussions on building the WFTU on the African continent and on how to respond to the crisis without relating this major strategic task to its implications on the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), which commands about 73 affiliates across the continent. We need to have a proper discussion on OATUU. However, our starting point in this regard is our overriding long-term goal of maximum unity of the African trade union movement and the working class. Thus, whilst we respect OATUU’s non-alignment position which it adopted from its founding in 1973, we believe that the present post-Cold War reality, with its intensified imperialist interventions and plunder of African resources especially since the start of the current global capitalist crisis, does not allow us and we cannot afford to sit on the fence between a class-collaborationist international centre (ITUC) and a revolutionary class-oriented WFTU. Therefore, it is our key task to identify and win over unions in specific and strategic countries that are:
« At the junction points of the ongoing Sino-West scramble for African resources, such as the Sudan, Congo, Nigeria and others.
« Responding to the socioeconomic crisis, including politically, such as in Senegal, Swaziland and of course the entire North Africa.
We also need to study in order to understand the relevant dynamics and engage the existing regional unions such as the Southern African Trade Union Consultative Council (SATUCC), the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA), the Union of Arab Maghreb Trade Unions and the Trade Union Federation of Eastern Africa (TUFEA).
However, having stated these tasks, we must point out that there are major challenges and limitations in the African trade union movement that we must face if we are to realise our objectives. Amongst others, these challenges and limitations include:
« The impact of Neoliberalism on the African labour force, in which there have been an escalation and entrenchment of the informalisation of work and de-unionisation.
« The severely limited union densities, which mainly tend to be only relatively, better in the public sector.
« Major challenges related to self-reliance and independence of national unions especially politically vis-a-vis the ruling parties - as highlighted by the vacillation of the union centres at the beginning of the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
« The continuing colonial patterns of patronage between unions in the global-north and African unions, in which finances and historical ties, including the question of language, are used to divide the African trade union movement on major international issues.
Beyond these organisational challenges, there are a range of socioeconomic and political tasks for the trade union movement which must be part of our basis of building the WFTU, including:
« Building the necessary capacity to engage with the identified strategic unions on issues such as the Economic Partnership Agreements and the current DOHA round of the WTO Negotiations as part of our resistance to imperialism and the imposed unjust economic accumulation regimes.
« To develop strategies with unions, including OATUU and the above regional unions, to engage with the Constitutive Act of the African Union which calls for Africa’s economic integration in order to open possibilities for greater self-reliance and a just and fair trade amongst African countries.
« To vigorously work with relevant mass-based organisations to take up the scientifically established evidence in relation to severe impact of global warming on Africa and to fight for the implementation of the global fund for transitional justice in Africa.
Having stated the above, we must not be delusional. In the past, progressive organisations, the trade union movement and African governments themselves at a continental level have adopted progressive and alternative economic development policies that were never implemented. For example, in 1986 at the height of the Neoliberal orthodoxy, the African Heads of State and Government adopted the African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programmes for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation. No country could implement these alternative policies! This may have been a function of a combination of a weak agency on the part of governments and the overwhelming power of imperialism. Therefore, in the context of global capitalism of the 21st century, our challenge against imperialism and monopoly capitalism can only become real in the context of building the necessary south-to-south alliances. Amongst others, we need to define our strategy and formulate our approach to:
« The potential of BRICS as a counter-hegemonic block both politically (as we can see currently at the UN in terms of Russia and China in relation to Syria) and economically. In this regard, we must work with the unions of these countries and engage their governments, especially China (and the African Union and regional economic blocks), in relation to the terms of trade and development financing.
« As COSATU moves towards affiliation to the WFTU, we must develop an approach on how to engage the SIGTUR (Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights) not only in terms of building relations with the WFTU in Africa and its affiliates in the global-south but also around some of the concrete global economic issues raised above. In this regard, the Latin-American trade unions are crucial as they are located in a region that has seen a clear shift of its political centre to the left and the rolling-back of the US imperialism in multilateral economic and political bodies.
So, what implications do this reality of the global economic crisis on Africa and the identified challenges, limitations and tasks of the African trade union movement has for us in South Africa? For us to make a sterling contribution in deepening the democratic transformation in order to open possibilities of socialist revolutions in Africa, means that here at home we must fight and defeat the three distinct but ultimately related adversaries of a proletarian-led NDR, namely:
« The tenderpreneurs tendency fronted by the populist demagogy,
« The residual 1996 Class Project (which is mainly strategically located in the state), and
« The liberal-offensive led by the Democratic Alliance, commercial media and certain sections of the so-called civil society.
However, in the immediate and medium-term, our major political tasks in relation to the subject at hand are:
« Firstly, to ensure that COSATU adopts a resolution to affiliate to the WFTU at its 10th congress in September 2012.
« Secondly, to come to terms with the fact that the working class has no option but to ensure that it defends the progressive outcomes of Polokwane and build on them in Mangaung, including the key political leadership led by Cde Jacob Zuma. As the working class we must also ensure that we strengthen our presence in the NEC and NWC of the ANC. Of course, all this must be won on the ground in all the branches, regions and provinces. Therefore, our own campaign of the swelling-of-the-ranks and activism in the ANC is crucial.
The relevance of this is that the successful implementation of these tasks and realisation of these objectives would help us to have an ANC collective leadership that is single-mindedly committed to the progressive mandate of the branches and the people. On its own, a united ANC free from the current corrosive factional battles is an advantage in confronting out strategic class adversary and therefore, in helping to shift the overall balance of forces in favour of a radical transformation in the rest of our continent.
We certainly welcome the recent decisiveness of the ANC leadership in dealing with corruption in government both nationally and in provinces, and with ill-discipline in the ANC. The rolling-back of the frontiers of corruption in government and anarchy in the ANC - on which the populist demagogy depends - will dry up the dirty swamp of water in which it can only exists for its survival.
Let us go out to all our structures in the alliance, and the ANC in particular, to ensure maximum unity and discipline, the isolation and defeat of the populist demagogy as we celebrate the centenary.
Workers of the world unite!
Long live WFTU long live!
Socialism is the future, build it now!