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southern africa / migration / racism / review Thursday January 14, 2021 18:27 byLAMA

A review of a movie about a cross-cultural marriage with political implications.

Love knows no borders. That’s one of the main messages of A United Kingdom. This is a film based on the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a ‘white’ clerical worker from London. The couple wanted to get married and faced a series of challenges to this from family and the powers-that-be in both countries.

The central protagonists meet in foggy post-World War II London. Khama is with friends at a function, he is holding forth on tactical approaches to dealing with the colonial power. The acting of Oyelowo in this scene and a couple of similar ones when addressing crowds in his homeland is electric. Ruth Williams looks at him, rightly mesmerised by his rhetoric and things move rapidly from there. The chemistry between the actors is one of the positive components of the movie. If perhaps this was a purely romantic story, the subsequent familial conflicts and opposition to their union based on their ‘race’ would be enough to provide a satisfying tale. It's been done before in Look Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) or in fact anything Sidney Poitier did in the 1960s’. So while it might not do anything new, such a tale could still work in showing a certain time and place.

What adds another thematic layer to the story is the political implications of their relationship. The post-war eclipsing of Britain meant that the latter's approach to Empire was less confident. In the case of Bechuanaland, the British held ultimate control over the territory while holding up the pretense that the local monarchy and its views were important to them. The movie shows that due to this situation, the colonial authority was sometimes outmaneuvered by Khama. He was an astute political player who knew how to use the public proclamations of the British government against itself to gain moral backing for his aspirations.

At times the movie hits home by outlining the blatant betrayal by both wings of the British establishment. The Labour Government under Atlee is often held in the same saintly regard by British Social Democrats as the Savage Government is by their equivalents in Aotearoa. A United Kingdom shows attempts by a very small minority of Left-wingers to alleviate the plight of Seretse and Ruth (who were physically divided at one point as a result of bureaucratic skullduggery) being countered by the leadership of their own party. Atlee explains that Britain is dependent on South Africa through its gold resources. A policy of Apartheid is about to be introduced, and having a neighbouring country ruled by a black and white couple would cause trouble for that financial relationship. Churchill while in opposition promises to help the Khamas, but upon subsequent election, the old Tory reactionary openly breaks this promise.

While it's clear skewering of imperialism is a welcome theme, there are other bits that are more problematic. For example, the scenes set on location in Bechuanaland only have the locals appear as background props. They mostly show up en masse to acclaim their hereditary leader or to sing spontaneously to his wife. The passivity or adulation of the masses and the rigid attention on the Chief as the focus of the story is a saddening aspect of the film. We are meant to buy into the liberal view of the makers that somehow this is all ok since Khama is a nice guy, speaks well, and evinces a paternal concern for these downtrodden subjects.

As noted, Oyelowo is in top form when talking to tribal members in big groups. One occasion near the end involves a declaration in which he declines a future monarchical role. Khama had spent a large period of his life being trained to adopt such a position so you could say his renunciation was a brave and situationally progressive one. However, it becomes clear his intention in doing so is to put himself forward as a potential leader in a future independent Botswana. He later went on to be the first President of that country. So in reality, the scion of an elite family merely changed titles, while gaining even more power than previously. It has to be admitted that the results have been a qualitative improvement over other places. Post-independence Africa is sadly full of examples of kleptocracy, corruption, civil wars, and a host of serious problems. Botswana is a rare exception to a lot of this. Yet holding it up as a model underplays the reality that there are still disparities in wealth and power that no hierarchical system of authority can overcome.

To conclude, A United Kingdom has bits that hold your interest. The romantic strand of the story is effectively shown thanks to the acting of the leads and is generally the most satisfying element to watch. The political dimension is less adequate. This is so both in the portrayals expected of the supporting cast (the British bureaucrats are viewed simplistically and the common tribespeople are mostly there as human wallpaper) and as noted, its overall liberal stance regarding the desired outcome. So if you want a surface look at a particular time and location that tends to be neglected, or you like a feel-good romance where the protagonists triumph over adversity, A United Kingdom might be your cup of tea old chap. If you want something weightier, you might have to grab your movie passport and head somewhere else.

southern africa / migration / racism / press release Monday May 18, 2020 02:32 byMqapheli Bonono

Since its formation in 2005 Abahlali baseMjondolo, which now has more than 70 000 members in good standing in Durban, has opposed xenophobia and sought to build a politics rooted in democratically run land occupations open to all. During period waves of xenophobic violence, always incited and sanctioned to some degree by the state, the movement has taken direct action to 'shelter and defend' people under attack.

Friday, 8 May 2020
Abahlali baseMjondolo press statement

Serious Concern at Escalating State Xenophobia

The crisis caused by the coronavirus is being exploited by the government as an excuse to repress those it has always wanted to repress. There have been illegal and violent evictions in all the major cities, and for weeks our movement was specifically targeted for violent daily attacks in Durban.

Our members, neighbours, comrades and fellow human beings who were born in other countries are also facing serious discrimination from a xenophobic state during this crisis.

From the time that our movement was first formed in 2005 we made no distinction between people based on the country or province in which they were born. The strength of our movement is in the occupations and the unity between families and neighbours. We have always worked on the principle that if you live in an occupation you are from that occupation and you have the same rights as every other resident of that occupation, including the right to participate in all discussions and to accept nomination for elected office. We are proud that people born in different provinces and countries hold elected positions in our movement. We invite migrant organisations to participate in and address our assemblies and rallies. When there have been xenophobic attacks we have always committed ourselves to shelter and defend the people under attack.

The politicians always try to divide us by telling people that they are not getting secure access to land, or services, or houses, because there are people born in other provinces and countries in their communities. We always resist this. A person is a person where ever they may find themselves. The strength of the oppressed is in our unity.

When the coronavirus crisis started the first thing that the government did was to build a very expensive wall along the border with Zimbabwe. Now people who were born in other countries are being denied access to food parcels. Communities that are being told that ‘foreigners’ will be deported before their settlements are ‘dedensified’. Senior people in government are saying that when people are allowed to go back to work jobs must be reserved for South Africans and that businesses with ‘too many foreigners’ will not be allowed to reopen. All this talk from the South African government of ‘putting South Africans first’ is no different to the language of Donald Trump. They are trying to divide the oppressed and to encourage us to blame our own neighbours and comrades rather than the government and the capitalists for the worsening impoverishment in which we find ourselves.

The government keeps saying that ‘putting South Africans first’ is not xenophobic but this is no different to racists wanting to be able to keep being racists while denying that they are racists. All things must be given their true names. The work to ensure that all things are given their true names is important political work. Just as racism is racism xenophobia is xenophobia and we wish to say clearly that our government is deeply and deliberately xenophobic.

After the escape from the notorious Lindela ‘repatriation centre’ people from African and Asian countries are being forcibly ‘repatriated’. People from the UK and the USA are being treated with dignity and voluntarily sent home if they so wish. The racism that drives the government’s xenophobia is clear.

We have been providing food to our members who are not able to access grants. We make not distinctions on the basis of the province or country in which people were born. In some branches we have also set up communal kitchens, in which men and women are encouraged to share the work of cooking, to make food available to all our neighbours. Many people who were born in other countries are eating from these communal kitchens. This is not a case of South Africans helping migrants. It is a case of residents and neighbours working together to build mutual aid and solidarity. There are people born in other countries who are helping with the cooking and people born in South Africa who are only eating because they have access to the communal kitchens.

We will never deviate from the principle that a neighbour is a neighbour and a comrade is a comrade no matter where they were born.

We call on our comrades in the trade unions, residents’ associations and all other progressive forces to join us and take a clear and strong position against the xenophobia that is being pushed by the government while popular organisation and mobilisation have been radically restricted during this crisis.

South Africa belongs to all who live in it.

Umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu.

Unyawo alunampumulo.

Mqapheli Bonono 073 0673 274
S’bu Zikode 083 547 0474
Nomsa Sizani 081 005 3686

southern africa / history / opinion / analysis Thursday December 12, 2019 14:58 byWarren McGregor (ZACF)

The history of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU), formed in South Africa in 1919, is replete with lessons for today's movements. The ICU, which also spread into neighbouring colonies like Basutoland (now Lesotho), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Southwest Africa (now Namibia) was by far the largest protest movement and organisation of black African and Coloured people of its time. Influenced by a range of ideas, including revolutionary syndicalism, the ICU had both amazing strengths and spectacular failings. This piece explains.

The relevance of the ICU of Africa for modern day unions and liberation movements

Presentation at the launch of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU) Centennial Exhibition, William Cullen Library, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

17 August 2019

Author’s note: the following is based on a 15 minute spoken presentation delivered by the author at the event. It was not meant and should not be read as an exhaustive historical or critical account of the ICU.



Audience: Awethu!

So, the audience is good. I suppose there is no need to talk about myself. Noor Nieftagodien, of Wits History Workshop, has mentioned I’m involved in workers’ and union education, and an activist. Importantly, I am an anarchist, which means I am a syndicalist. But, despite my ideological affiliations, I am also quite non-sectarian.

I am excited to be part of a larger project on revisiting the history of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU), along with Professor Noor, and with my comrade Professor Lucien van der Walt, down at the university still-called Rhodes. My experience in Industrial Sociology over the last few years, and my interest in labour history and left theory have indicated to me that there has been a dramatic drop in interest in labour studies, and in particular labour history.

This project, that I am fortunate to be involved in, will help change this. It aims at revisiting the history of the ICU, to recover or uncover and publish primary and secondary material, and to redevelop an interest in relatively neglected histories of popular and working class resistance and movements. The labour scholars involved in the project are also quite interested in questioning many earlier narratives established about the ICU. These narratives include a “rise-and-fall” thesis, which ignores that much ICU organizing in colonial southern Africa well beyond its “heyday” of the 1920s. Some are also questioning understanding the ICU through the prism of the personalities and actions of leaders and, thus, the narratives around contestations of power within the ICU.

I think what the project is proposing is a deeper look at its history – a much richer history that is to be uncovered. This panel is part of that initial discussion. This project, this exhibition and this discussion today goes beyond these narratives, and also aims at examining the ICU’s particular relevance for working class and poor people’s organisations and movement building today. This is what I want to focus on in the minutes that I have remaining.


Firstly, the ICU, as most of us will know having gone through all of the material at this was formed in 1919, amongst black – meaning coloured and black African – workers at the docks in Cape Town. That’s a 100 years ago, and that’s what we are commemorating.

In a few years, it quickly developed into a large-scale black protest movement. Although not the first trade union of black African workers – that being the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of Africa formed in 1917 in Johannesburg – the ICU rapidly developed into the most important black organisation and movement of working class and poor people in protest against colonialism, racism and capitalism in the early 20th century. It organised in urban, rural and small town communities and work places not only in South Africa, but across the southern African region including branches located in what was then Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, Southwest Africa and Basutoland.

It was by far the largest protest movement and organisation of black African people in its time, dwarfing and eclipsing the early South African National Native Congress (the early ANC) and the Communist Party of South Africa (the CPSA). To explain: by the 1940s, some 30 years after its formation, the ANC still only had around 4000 members; by the late 1920s, the CPSA had close to 2000 members. The ICU, however, at its height claimed close to 150 000 members in just South Africa. It drew its rank-and-file from communities experiencing the twin processes of a dramatically changing economic order that was violent, racist and exploitative, conditioned by colonial oppression, and the changing nature of African and black society with the breakdown of pre-existing social, political and economic orders under capitalism and the modern state.

The ICU’s influence must not only been seen in terms of numbers of rank-and-file members, but also in light of the impact and influence working class organizations have on the consciousness of the communities where workers and rank-and-file union members reside. These communities also benefit in real terms from the progressive gains won by movements in which workers are involved. The ICU was a pivot of protest, was involved in community-based movements, and was a power in the land.


The ICU’s weaknesses have been written about in depth. Some of these include the “big man” politics it suffered, and which split it; there was little follow-through on promises, and weak articulation between its means and ends in key regards; there was and no real, developed sense of how to sustain and continue to build a large movement over a long period of time. At particular points in its history there was little democratic rank-and-file involvement in organisational affairs, beyond electing certain local representatives. Many officials were also appointed by leaders and hired from outside the organization. Later, parts of the ICU developed quite an unfortunate penchant for ethnic tribalism, which was mobilised in contestations for control by certain leaders.

However, its key strength, and what made it so attractive to many, was its ability to develop its own repertoire of ideas and actions. The ICU, importantly, developed a new consciousness and militancy amongst oppressed black people, and the Union acted as a consciously political movement. It was a union but it was not a union with a narrow focus. It was the primary political movement for oppressed black people at the time, a filter for expression and a body for action by the downtrodden. It spoke to, and form a black majority. Importantly, it not only organised in urban workplaces, but in small communities and rural towns, not just amongst workers, but among sharecroppers and other peasantry battling against capitalist land dispossession and racist accumulation and proletarianisation.

Its tactics were conditioned by local experiences, and from its outset, by both racial liberation, and class-based struggles. It did not distinguish race and class as separate terrains of struggle, but saw these conjoined forces of domination in the southern African economic, political and social condition. It saw the black working class and poor as one big body of the oppressed, it actively organised across colonial borders, and it located the struggle in southern Africa in the global struggle of the working class.


Now, how was it actually perceived? According to one-time ICU activist, Jason Jingoes (quoted in Helen Bradford’s fantastic book on the rural ICU, A Taste of Freedom),

“…although its initials stood for a fancy title, to us Bantu, it meant basically that when you ill-treat the African people, I See You. If you kick them off the pavements I See You. When an African woman with a child on her back is knocked down by the cars in the street, I See You. I See You when you kick my brother. I See You.”

Thus the ICU exhibited many aspects of a highly politicised unionism – not the political unionism we see today, where the union outsources politics to a party and chases state power. It aimed at fundamentally transforming relationships of ownership and control for oppressed black and working class people. It saw itself as a transformative organization; an organisation that would be at the forefront of challenging domination, oppression and exploitation.

Despite some members and leaders having “dual” membership, including in the ANC and CPSA, the ICU had tenuous, mostly informal links with political party, and nationalist formations. I wold argue that it did not see political parties, nationalist formations or state power as the vehicles for social transformation. I think this is vital to any present and future reading of the ICU.

It engaged the state, to be sure, for example, attempting to leverage its position by utilizing Native Advisory Boards in the townships, or even running court cases and appearing at government commissions. It engaged with other organisations that were claiming leadership of African, black and workers struggles, including parties and other unions. But it never saw parties and state power as the primary loci of transformation.


There are many lessons trade unions and oppressed people’s movements can learn via a critical reappraisal of the ICU, not only what pitfalls to avoid, but also by understanding that many circumstances confronting organizations today were faced by the ICU in the first half of the 20th century.

The ICU organised in what organisers and activists have always considered difficult terrains. Its rural base, particularly by the later 1920s in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in the 1930s, was substantial, and at times militant in thought and deed. This allowed the ICU to articulate and develop a profound response to the land question, which included union ownership schemes, through which it espoused the aim of eventual collective, de-colonised and de-commodified working class and black ownership.

It had many ideological influences, including Garveyism, social democracy and Christian millenarianism. However, its ideas for organisation and social transformation, and its stress on the centrality of unions, not parties, also signify its revolutionary syndicalist roots and influences. It imagined, and saw itself as a One Big Union, and this union seen as the most strategic tool for anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggle. The syndicalist impulse cannot be ignored because it saw in the union the instrument of working class and black liberation in southern Africa.


I will conclude by saying that a re-examination of the ICU reveals a broader imagination of what a union can be, and its potential role in transforming society. It had a somewhat pre-figurative politics, aiming to build tomorrow today; this was developed in relation to an Africa that was being transformed by colonial domination and racist capitalist development.

It was not simply the product of external ideological influences and socio-economic pressures, but also made by its rank-and-file, and by its internal organizational imperatives and pressures. It was able to use its organisation and its struggles to develop its own repertoire of ideas, politics and action, prefiguring a new social order by developing independent working class organisation bent on transforming society.

I would propose that as you consider the ICU you shift your analytical eye from the more usual national and nationalist lens and personality narratives that I mentioned earlier – with their focus on individuals and contestations for individual power, their triumphalist story of the rise of the ANC and CPSA, and their narrow views on what unions can or should be.

I would advise a focus on the modes of ideological, political and organisational development as dialectical processes informed by the cries, demands and actions of the working class and peasant rank-and-file and their communities. Thus considered, it is not that difficult to see the ICU not just as a union, as we know them now, but a creative rebellion. Its experiences offer rich lessons, to be visited through honest analytical re-appraisal, which are relevant to modern day unions and liberation movements – if they choose to learn these. The ICU fought for the possibility of a better world…we can redevelop this imagination by learning from it and our collective pasts.

Thank you.


Η Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (Ένωση Βιομηχανικών και Εμπορικών Εργατών Αφρικής - ICU) ιδρύθηκε στο Κέιπ Τάουν το 1919. Το 1920 συγχωνεύθηκε με την επαναστατική συνδικαλιστική ένωση, Industrial Workers of Africa (Βιομηχανικοί Εργάτες της Αφρικής) και άλλα συνδικάτα. Μεγάλωσε ταχύτατα στη Νότια Αφρική μεταξύ της έγχρωμης και μαύρης εργατικής τάξης και των εκμισθωτών γης. Εξαπλώθηκε επίσης, τις δεκαετίες του 1920 και του 1930, σε γειτονικές χώρες.

Η ηρωική ιστορία της Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU): Αντλώντας διδάγματα

Η Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (Ένωση Βιομηχανικών και Εμπορικών Εργατών Αφρικής - ICU) ιδρύθηκε στο Κέιπ Τάουν το 1919. Το 1920 συγχωνεύθηκε με την επαναστατική συνδικαλιστική ένωση, Industrial Workers of Africa (Βιομηχανικοί Εργάτες της Αφρικής) και άλλα συνδικάτα. Μεγάλωσε ταχύτατα στη Νότια Αφρική μεταξύ της έγχρωμης και μαύρης εργατικής τάξης και των εκμισθωτών γης. Εξαπλώθηκε επίσης, τις δεκαετίες του 1920 και του 1930, σε γειτονικές χώρες.

Η ICU δεν ήταν ακριβώς επαναστατική συνδικαλιστική ένωση, αλλά επηρεάστηκε από τον επαναστατικό συνδικαλισμό.

Οι στόχοι της ICU ήταν μερικές φορές λίγο συγκεχυμένοι. Είχε δεχθεί επιρροές από αρκετές και ετερόκλητες ιδέες και ρεύματα. Ωστόσο, από το Καταστατικό της, που υιοθετήθηκε το 1925, και πολλές ομιλίες και ανακοινώσεις, συνάγεται ότι ο απώτερος στόχος της ήταν να καταργηθεί το ταξικό σύστημα μέσω της εργατικής και της άμεσης δράσης και να αναδιανεμηθεί εξίσου η οικονομική και πολιτική εξουσία σε συνδυασμό με τους οργανωμένους εργαζόμενους ανά τον κόσμο. Τα συνδικάτα να αναλάβουν τη λειτουργία των εργοστασίων και των αγροκτημάτων. Στη Νότια Αφρική, αυτό σήμαινε επίσης την κατοχή γης από πλευράς των μαύρων και των έγχρωμων εργατών, τερματίζοντας έτσι την εξουσία των λευκών μεγαλοαγροτών. Η ICU είχε ως στόχο να τερματίσει την εθνική καταπίεση στη Νότια Αφρική, φέροντας στο προσκήνιο του έγχρωμους εργάτες.

Στο Καταστατικό της ICU δηλωνόταν ότι η οργάνωση επιδίωκε την αναδιοργάνωση της κοινωνίας σύμφωνα με τις σοσιαλιστικές γραμμές και σύμφωνα με την αρχή: "Από τον καθένα σύμφωνα με τις ικανότητές του, στον καθένα σύμφωνα με τις ανάγκες του".

Ο βραχυπρόθεσμος στόχος της ICU ήταν η οργάνωση των εργαζομένων σε όλες τις βιομηχανίες, τόσο στις αστικές όσο και στις αγροτικές περιοχές. Οι αγωνιστές της ICU πίστευαν ότι η δύναμή τους ήταν στους αριθμούς τους που θα μπορούσε να αυξηθούν με τη συνένωση όλων των εργαζομένων σε μια "Μεγάλη Ένωση” (“One Big Union”). Πολλά μέλη δεν ήταν εργαζόμενοι. Ήταν εκμισθωτές αγρότες, δηλαδή αγροτικές οικογένειες που ενοίκιαζαν γη από λευκούς μεγαλοαγρότες, πληρώνοντας με εργασία, καλλιέργειες ή χρήμα.

Ένα μεγάλο επίτευγμα της ICU με τους αριθμούς, ήταν ότι η οργάνωση είχε πάνω από 100.000 μέλη μόνο στη Νότια Αφρική - και κατάφερε επίσης να κινητοποιηθεί σε μεγάλο μέρος της ευρύτερης περιοχής της Νότιας Αφρικής. Η ICU ήταν το μεγαλύτερο συνδικαλιστικό σωματείο που είχε ριζώσει στην αφρικανική ήπειρο μέχρι τη δεκαετία του 1940.

Ένα άλλο σημαντικό επίτευγμα ήταν ότι τα μέλη της οργάνωσης, στα τέλη της δεκαετίας του 1920, ήταν κυρίως εργάτες γης και μισθωτοί αγρότες, οι οποίοι γενικά είναι πολύ πιο δύσκολο να οργανωθούν από ό,τι οι εργάτες των πόλεων. Δημιουργήθηκαν επίσης διεθνείς συνδέσεις, κυρίως με αμερικανικά και βρετανικά συνδικάτα.

Η ICU είχε μια βασική ταξική ανάλυση και μια ιδέα για το τι ήθελε (μια ελεύθερη κοινωνία, όπου οι μαύροι και οι έγχρωμοι αντιμετωπίζονταν με αξιοπρέπεια και όπου οι εργαζόμενοι δεν εκμεταλλεύονταν) και τι να χρησιμοποιούν (συνδικάτα) για να φτάσουν εκεί. Ωστόσο, δεν υπήρχε στρατηγική ανάλυση του τρόπου με τον οποίο θα μπορούσε να συμβάλει η συνδικαλιστική οργάνωση της ICU. Αυτό, σε συνδυασμό με την κακή οργάνωση και τα προβλήματα με τη χρηματοδότηση και τις εσωτερικές διαμάχες, έκανε τη ICU εντελώς αναποτελεσματική, παρά τη δύναμή της σε μέλη.

Επίσης, η πολιτική της ICU συχνά συγχέεται. Μερικές φορές η ICU χρησιμοποιουσε μια ταξική ανάλυση, μερικές φορές ήταν εθνικιστική, μερικές φορές ήταν ριζοσπατική, μερικές φορές ήταν πολύ μέτρια. Μίλησε για απεργίες, αλλά δεν διοργάνωσε πολλούς. Μίλησε για δομές από τη βάση προς την κορυφή, αλλά πολλοί ηγέτες της ήταν διεφθαρμένοι και η ευθύνη ήταν αδύναμη. Στις αρχές της δεκαετίας του 1930, η ICU είχε καταρρεύσει στη Νότια Αφρική.

*Το κείμενο γράφτηκε από τον Warren McGregor (TAAC, ZACF), με τη βοήθεια των συντρόφων Abram, Anathi, Bongani, Eric, Jane, Leila, Lucky, Mzee, Nobuhle, Nonzukiso, Pitso, Siya, Warren.

**Μετάφραση: Ούτε Θεός-Ούτε Αφέντης.


southern africa / the left / opinion / analysis Sunday September 08, 2019 06:04 byJonathan Payn

The first part of this series stated that, despite various well-intentioned efforts by forces on the extra-Alliance and independent left over recent years to unite working class struggles in South Africa, these largely have and will continue to fail to resonate with the working class, help build unity in struggle and form the basis of a new movement because of the theoretical understandings of class and power – and their strategic implications – on which they are founded and which are prevalent on much of the left.

This article will give a basic overview of these theoretical understandings of class and power and their strategic implications and limitations and why it is therefore necessary to refine and develop understandings of class and power more capable of responding to the context of the neoliberal restructuring of the working class in order to advance the class struggle in pursuit of socialism.

[Part 1]

Class struggle, the Left and power – Part 2

Jonathan Payn (ZACF)

The first part of this series stated that, despite various well-intentioned efforts by forces on the extra-Alliance and independent left over recent years to unite working class struggles in South Africa, these largely have and will continue to fail to resonate with the working class, help build unity in struggle and form the basis of a new movement because of the theoretical understandings of class and power – and their strategic implications – on which they are founded and which are prevalent on much of the left.

This article will give a basic overview of these theoretical understandings of class and power and their strategic implications and limitations and why it is therefore necessary to refine and develop understandings of class and power more capable of responding to the context of the neoliberal restructuring of the working class in order to advance the class struggle in pursuit of socialism.


The strategic approach that Numsa’s bureaucracy and permanent leaders have taken since its 2013 Special National Congress, from calling for the launch of a “United Front against to neoliberalism”, exploring “the establishment of a Movement for Socialism” to the launch of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) is, like Cosatu and the SACP, informed by its class analysis. In fact, it is informed by the same class analysis.

According to this analysis capitalism is a class society in which the ruling class minority (bourgeoisie) exploits the working class majority (proletariat) in order to extract a profit (surplus value) to become even more rich and powerful. It is able to do this because it holds private ownership of the means of production (factories, land, mines etc.), which is legally recognised and protected by the state. Because the working class owns nothing – due to “primitive accumulation” (e.g. colonialism, dispossession of land and the means of production from the direct producers) – workers are force to sell their labour in exchange for a wage in order to buy the goods they need to survive (commodities) on the market. Class is defined primarily in terms of one’s relations to the means of production: the ruling class owns the means of production but doesn’t do productive work, the working class sells its labour for a wage at the point of production but doesn’t own it.

This, inevitably, gives rise to the class struggle for greater economic gains and an extension of rights and freedoms, in which the (permanently employed) industrial proletariat is identified as the only revolutionary subject because of its location at the point of production (factories, mines) and, therefore, its ability to withdraw its labour by going on strike. Because they are not considered to have the potential to be revolutionary other sectors of the working class, such as the peasantry (small farmers and rural workers) and “lumpen proletariat” (the unemployed, people working in the informal economy etc.), are typically ignored. Something which might help explain why, despite all their lip service to the contrary, all the major unions – whether Cosatu, Saftu or others – have by and large not only failed but never seriously tried to organise precarious labour broker, casual and short-term contract workers.

However, according to this theory the working class, including the revolutionary subject (industrial workers), is struggling so much just to survive that they cannot develop a revolutionary consciousness and their demands and struggles are only centred around so-called bread and butter issues. Because the working class is only capable of reaching this, what Lenin called “trade union consciousness” it needs to be led by a political vanguard of so-called revolutionaries organised in the form of a political party that seeks state power in order to implement socialism through the state.

Sectors of the working class outside of the permanently employed industrial proletariat are not only ignored or dismissed for not being revolutionary but even looked down on with disdain by this self-declared revolutionary vanguard – which might explain both the Numsa leadership’s reference to community struggles as “leaderless and disorganised” and the heckling by Numsa delegates to the Working Class Summit when, for example, unemployed community activists and farmworkers expressed different opinions.


As stated, the ruling class minority is able to get away with this situation of exploitation and injustice with the help of the state. The state, according to this analysis, is a neutral institution that can function in the interests of the working class or ruling class depending on what forces are in control of state power. Because the state is understood to be neutral state power is therefore something that, if under the control of a socialist or workers’ party, can be used in the interests of the working class and in pursuit of socialism.

The implication of this analysis, besides overlooking the creative revolutionary potential of the vast majority of the working class, is that the building of a political party to contest state power is both necessary and inevitable. This can either be done by contesting elections (reformist socialism) or an armed uprising (revolutionary socialism).

Because, again according to this analysis, the broader working class is supposedly incapable of being revolutionary and therefore requires an enlightened revolutionary vanguard to take control of the state and implement socialism from above; and because power is seen to lie primarily in the state and as something to be “seized” or “taken” so-called mass movements, such as unions, social movements and the United Front, are but a means to an end. That end is to build support for the party and help get it into state power – either by voting or through revolution.

However, because the state by its nature is an authoritarian and hierarchical institution that centralises decision-making and other power, which flows from the top down, so too does every political party whose aim it is to gain state power replicate this structure. Moreover, because the leaderships thereof – including socialist and workers’ parties – inherit the privileges and power of the predecessors they dispose of, instead of destroying exploitative class relations they tend to and have, historically, simply reproduced them in the name of the workers and poor.

The next installation in this education series will look at a more nuanced theoretical understanding of class and power and the strategic implications thereof for building working class unity in struggle that offer an alternative to the tried, tested and consistently disappointing state-centric one on which the SRWP and much of the left is based.

This article first appeared in issue 113 of Workers World News, produced by the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG)

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100 Years Since the Kronstadt Uprising: To Remember Means to Fight!

100 Years Since the Kronstadt Uprising: To Remember Means to Fight!

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