Socialist Party
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29 May 2013

South Africa: Eye-witness to the developing struggle

Over the past several months, the South African affiliate of the Committee for a Workers' International, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), has been working with others to launch the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) as a broad party of the working class aiming to unite the struggles of workers, communities and youth around a programme of socialist nationalisation.

Visits have been made by Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe and national committee member Alec Thraves and other Socialist Party members have made more extended visits.

Here one of these visitors recounts the events and developments that occurred during their four months in South Africa.

The immediate background to the launch of WASP, the events that made it a possibility, was the rapid spread of strike action in the mining sector in 2012.

Then in August the police opened fire and killed 34 striking miners. The Marikana massacre was a watershed in South African society.

There is no doubt that this was planned with the collusion of the state, the mining bosses and the union leaders.

They were punishing workers for daring to take strike action to improve their living conditions and for taking their fate into their own hands by ejecting the right wing-led national Union of Miners (NUM) from the shafts and establishing independent worker-led strike committees to coordinate their action.

Even before Marikana and the 2012 miners' strikes, South Africa had been dubbed the world capital of protest due to the combativity of the working class and poor in the workplaces, townships and universities.

This has been a response to the African National Congress's (ANC) abject failure to address the burning social issues in the country following the overthrow of the racist segregation system of Apartheid.

The failure of the ANC is demonstrated by the growing inequality in the country. South Africa is more unequal now than when the Apartheid regime legislated for inequality and presided over a brutal apparatus of repression to maintain it.

The growth in inequality since the historic 1994 election of the ANC is the direct consequence of the ANC's refusal to break with capitalism and instead to embrace it.

Building the DSM

The forces of the DSM are small but have grown rapidly in the past 18 months. In the course of the 2012 miners' strikes it gained a national profile in the media and dug deep roots among the mining communities.

Two of DSM's best branches are in the village of Chaneng in Rustenburg next to the Royal Bafokeng Platinum mine, and the Wedela branch, in a township outside Carletonville in the shadow of the Harmony Gold Kusaselthu shaft.

We organised a national con-ference of DSM to weld together our new recruits and instil the ideas and organisational methods necessary for building a revolutionary party.

More than half of the 50-plus in attendance were mineworkers from all the major mining communities. A broader national leadership - a national committee - was elected and has already held its first meeting.

A new edition of DSM's paper - Izwi Labasebenzi - was prepared for the conference along with DSM t-shirts, creating a real buzz and sense of identity.

The paper is vital in South Africa where poverty and dire infrastructure means that less than a million people, about 3% of the population, have regular internet access.

One of the attendees at the conference, a young miner from the KDC goldfields, had not formally joined.

He demanded we sort out his membership then and there and trembling with excitement exclaimed how he "wanted to join more than anything else in the world".

Following the three day conference, one of the miners went straight back to his township and went door-to-door with the new paper selling 50 to his friends and neighbours.

The profile of DSM and its growing reputation as the organisation that leads and wins struggles has opened many doors.

It is often approached by communities to come and help lead their 'service delivery' struggles in the informal settlements and townships. These protests can take intense forms.

In one township, DSM members spent the entire night debating and discussing with a community struggling against electricity cut-offs, arguing that it would in fact set their struggle back if they carried out their plan of beating up the ANC councillor and burning down her house!

The transport union Natawu has asked us to organise a series of political education events for their shop stewards.

Launching WASP

Winning this layer to the banner of the CWI was no accident. The DSM carefully prepared its limited forces over the previous period, by turning towards the mining industry with the perspective that the class struggle would develop to a high crescendo in the near future.

It was this painstaking work that won us our first recruits from the mines and gave us political authority among the mineworkers when the strike wave began.

DSM members were able to address mass meetings of mineworkers organised by the independent worker-led strike committees that threw out the corrupt mining union, NUM, and organised the strikes themselves.

When we put forward the ideas of socialism and of building an independent party of the working class these ideas were taken up by workers as their own.

Working closely with the strike committees, it was at DSM's initiative that they began linking up, first across the platinum belt of Rustenburg, and later, into a national strike committee spanning the provinces of the North West, Gauteng and Limpopo.

Many of the new young strike leaders pushed forward by the workers have joined the DSM, including the chairman of the national strike committee.

Following the Marikana massacre one clear sentiment crystallised in the minds of millions of workers: this government does not support us and we need to build an alternative.

Towards the end of last year, the DSM along with a number of the independent strike committees began taking steps to transform this sentiment into a reality and the planning of the launch of what would become WASP began in earnest. The national strike committee formally backed the launching of WASP in early March.

The launch of WASP on the public holiday of Sharpeville Day (21 March) underlines the huge potential that exists.

Over 500 municipality workers from Pretoria attended the launch. These were workers that DSM comrades had helped lead in a successful dispute against the out-sourcing of their jobs.

In explaining why she was attending the launch, one worker commented: "These people have been with us through thick and thin".

Representatives of more than a dozen mines in gold, platinum, coal and iron ore attended and spoke at the launch.

The president and two executive members of the Natawu transport union also spoke from the top table. WASP's launch received extensive coverage in the media with leading members doing dozens of radio and television interviews.

Shifting debate

The launch of WASP and its profile in the mines, alongside that of the national strike committee, has had a significant mass impact and shifted the debate taking place in the country on the future of the ANC and the trade union movement.

Our forces are limited and WASP has yet to win a mass membership, but our enemies understand the danger that our ideas and our growing organisation represent.

No less than the deputy president of the ANC himself commented: "We keep hearing about the... [WASP]...or whatever and that seems also to be fanning the flames."

What these supporters of big business do not realise is they are viewing things back to front: it is not a case of the DSM or WASP pulling the workers' strings, rather WASP is the outcome of the conclusions that the working class are themselves drawing.

The Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) was launched on Sharpeville Day (21 March) to a packed hall of over 500 Pretoria municipality workers; mineworkers' delegates from a dozen mines in gold, platinum, coal and iron ore; and executive members of the 20,000-strong revolutionary transport union Natawu. The launch received extensive coverage in the South African media.

The initiative to launch WASP was born directly out of the experiences of the mineworkers in the course of their 2012 strike action.

The brutal repression and collusion of the state, the mine bosses and the corrupt union leaders, culminating in the Marikana massacre, crystalized one clear sentiment in the minds of millions: 'the ANC government does not care about us and we need our own political alternative'.

At a meeting at the end of last year, six of the rank and file strike committees that sprang up during the strikes, along with the Democratic Socialist Movement, agreed to take the step of launching WASP.

The mineworkers' national strike committee voted unanimously to back WASP at its meeting on 9 March.

WASP aims to unite the struggles of workers, communities and young people under one umbrella. WASP stands for the nationalisation of the mines and other sectors of the economy under democratic workers' control and management and intends to contest the 2014 general election.

c/o The Socialist Party

PO Box 24697


E11 1YD

Cheques payable to: "Socialist Party"

Please specify that the payment is a donation for WASP/mineworkers' national strike committee.

Receipts can be sent.

(NB. This is a temporary arrangement until the South African bank accounts are established)

South Africa

From slavery to the smashing of apartheid

by Peter Taaffe

1.25 including postage

Available from Socialist Books, PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD.

020 8988 8789