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South Africa’s New Revolutionary Party Takes on a Corrupt System

By Asad Ismi

When South Africans go to the polls in May, they will have a radical new choice on the ballot. The Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) of South Africa, which announced itself in December, will formally launch its election bid this March. Created by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the country’s biggest labour union with 400,000 members, the party aims to unite the working class to fight capitalism and create a socialist South Africa free of mass poverty, unemployment and corruption.

“We are the only ones fighting for the total destruction of capitalism,” SRWP and NUMSA spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola told Theto Mahlakoana of the Financial Mail in December. “We want a socialist [South Africa], where the interests of the working class will be primary and the wealth of the country will be used for the benefit of all.”

According to Irvin Jim, NUMSA’s general secretary, the party is growing rapidly and has a presence in all nine provinces of South Africa. That presence includes “a sizeable number of national leadership and branches,” he told Mahlakoana. But the party’s main emphasis is not on winning elections. “As communists,” Jim explained,  “we have an old view that elections are not necessarily a solution, however, they are a tactic that can be explored to test if we have the support of the working class.”

Shaheen Khan, who serves on the national core and national working committee of the SRWP, tells me the party “grew out of two important historical moments.” One was the Marikana massacre of 34 miners (at least 78 others were wounded) by state forces in 2012; the other was NUMSA’s “conscious rejection” of the Tri-Partite Alliance [between the ruling African National Congress party, South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions] in its resolutions taken in 2013.

“The ‘NUMSA Moment’ squarely raises the question of the creation of a vanguard working class party gaining a mass following in South Africa,” says Khan. “This fundamentally changes the political landscape in the country.”

Rather than pursuing votes, Khan says, the SRWP is “focused on using every opportunity to raise the consciousness of the working class on the nature of the capitalist system and our need to organize independently outside of parliament and against it.”  The party’s aim is “merely to secure a presence in parliament from which we can raise the working class voice and expose the capitalist nature of parliament itself.”

There have been other attempts to start radical leftist parties in South Africa, but none of them were backed by NUMSA, the country’s most powerful union. Professor Patrick Bond, who teaches political economy at Witwatersrand (Wits) University in Johannesburg, tells me he’s encouraged by this historic development, but also cautions that it may not be enough.

“I’m an independent ecosocialist so my bias is towards the kinds of social struggles that address concrete problems caused by capitalism at their root, in the commodity form, and in strengthening the power of labour in production and especially women’s labour in social reproduction,” he tells me.

“That means the main long-term agenda is transition to ecologically sound, decommodified, worker self-managed, community-controlled co-operative production and feminist systems of reproduction. I think the standard vehicles are appropriate: radical social movements allied with trade unions, together creating a socialist political party and eventually taking state power.”

According to Bond, the closest the left in South Africa came to creating the kind of organization he favours was the United Front in 2014, in which NUMSA attempted to bring together labour, women, youth, the elderly, environmentalists, the LBGTQ+ rights movement and other progressives. The United Front fell apart, in Bond’s opinion, partly because NUMSA “lost interest” in the project.

Khan disagrees with that outlook.  He tells me the United Front “was designed to unite the working class in struggle, irrespective of party affiliation. This meant that within its ranks the United Front was always going to be facing different views and perspectives on the meaning and character of the struggle.

“There were very few real Communists in the UF to fight for a revolutionary perspective and transform the UF into a revolutionary, working class front,” Khan says.  “In this sense, while pockets of the UF still remain, it will fall to the SRWP to resurrect a militant and fighting UF in the country.”

While forming a united front out of such diverse groups is a tall order for any organization, Imran Buccus says the time is right in South Africa for the SRWP’s formation. Buccus, a senior researcher at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI) based in Johannesburg, points out that “the road is open” for NUMSA to capture a currently vacant political space on the left.

“They have a charismatic leader in Jim, an impressive organizational infrastructure, an equally impressive international network and a dues-paying base of 400,000 workers. There has never been a better foundation for anyone to start a new party in post-apartheid South Africa.”

SRWP’s two main competitor parties on the left are both discredited, says Buccus. These are the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).  The former has lost “its claim to being a party of the left,” he says, due to the communists’ alliance with the corrupt African National Congress (ANC) and especially its former leader Jacob Zuma, who had to be removed by his own party in February 2018.

The EFF, which often employs leftist and anti-corruption rhetoric and wins about 10% of the vote, has been embroiled in its own corruption scandals. The party allegedly benefited financially from the scandalous collapse of VBS Mutual Bank, with deputy leader Floyd Shivambu allegedly getting 10 million rand (just under $1 million) from VBS. He, in turn, tried to suppress the official investigation into VBS by questioning the integrity of officials in the National Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

Buccus calls the SRWP’s formation “a thrilling moment.” He acknowledges that the party does not have much time to build public support for the election, but maintains that “the presence of an explicitly left-wing party in the fray will shift the political discourse.” The SRWP’s emergence, for Buccus, is “an important step towards the normalization of our politics, and towards offering real choices to the electorate.”

After 25 years of ANC rule, 65% of South Africans still live in poverty, 40% are unemployed, and voters are disillusioned from the unending corruption scandals stemming from the looting of public resources by ANC leaders and officials.  Not surprisingly, the World Bank declared South Africa the most unequal country in the world (in terms of income) in an April 2018 report. 

Adding to these disasters on the eve of the election is the country’s  “stagnant economy” according to Azar Jammine, director of Econometrix, a South African economic consultancy firm.  The South African economy went into recession in the second quarter of 2018 and emerged from it in the third quarter leaving overall GDP growth weak (expected to be below 1%) for the previous year.  The rand currency fell by 18% in less than a month in June 2018 and South Africa’s debt has become junk-rated making it harder for the government to borrow money.

The ANC’s current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, cannot be untangled from his party’s record, though he promised in January that the ANC is “getting out of that. We’re cleansing ourselves.” Ramaphosa is worth about $450 million, making him the 42nd richest person in Africa.  He is implicated in the Marikana massacre.  As a non-executive director of Lonmin (the British mining company the workers were striking against), Ramaphosa urged the authorities to take “concomitant action” against the miners before the massacre. 

Bond calls Ramaphosa the “ideal Johannesburg branch-plant comprador partner to multinational corporations.” He points to the politician’s “aiding” of both mining company Lonmin in “brazen illicit financial flow profit transfers to Bermuda,” and MTN, the largest African cellphone firm (which Ramaphosa chaired), “in its prolific profit outflows to Mauritius.” The current ANC leader should also be remembered, asserts Bond, for abusing tax havens via his main holding company, Shanduka coal, as exposed in the Paradise Papers leak in late 2017.

MTN transferred billions of rands earned in Africa to offshore tax havens while Ramaphosa was its chairman between 2001 and 2013. This was exposed in a joint investigation by amaBhungane (Centre for Investigative Journalism) and Finance Uncovered, a global investigative journalism network. After Ramaphosa left MTN to become South Africa’s deputy president in 2014, he criticized corporations “that make profits ‘disappear’ by shifting them ‘to low-tax operations where there is little or no genuine activity,’” as reported in the Mail & Guardian in October 2015.

Ramaphosa has been compelled by these factors to launch an official anti-corruption drive, but this is hamstrung by his own history and that of other ANC leaders whose support he depends upon.  Jacob Zuma’s supporters are still powerful within the ANC and, as Bond explains, “Ramaphosa’s agenda is extremely complicated, because in order to keep the ANC from fracturing, he had to continually re-appoint corrupt officials.”

Khan pledges that the if any SRWP candidates win legislative seats in the upcoming election they will be subject to instant recall by the party and will not be paid more than the wage of an “average skilled worker” with the rest of their salary going to the SRWP to “advance working class struggle.”  

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Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor (CCPA Monitor), March-April 2019.

https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2019/03/CCPA%20Monitor%20Mar%20Apr%202019%20WEB%5B1%5D.pdf#page=35&zoom=auto,-274,7

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