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On Tuesday, June 30th 2020 the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will be celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of its independence from Belgian colonial rule. But sixty years after independence, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. This poverty is rooted in the neo-colonial plundering post-independence, dictatorships and war of DRC.
On Tuesday, June 30th 2020 the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will be celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of its independence from Belgian colonial rule. Celebrations are set to be subdued in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Tshisekedi announced that the funds destined for a grand celebration will be redirected to fight the pandemic and to provide the Congolese army with pay bonuses for their ‘bravery and heroism’.
But sixty years after independence, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, placing 179th on the Human Development Index measuring life expectancy, education and per capita income.
In 2018, 72% of the population of 84 million was living in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day.
And yet, this is poverty amidst plenty. The DRC is the world’s biggest producer of cobalt, accounting for 70% of the global supply of the metal used in batteries for phones and electric cars. It is Africa’s top copper producer and produces 80% of the world’s coltan, a mineral essential in the production of the micro-processors that have enabled the global information technology boom of the last two decades.
This poverty amidst plenty is rooted in the DRC’s colonial history, the neo-colonial plundering post-independence, dictatorships and war.
The Congo Free State — 1885–1908
Prior to colonization, the Congo River delta was an important hub in the trans-Atlantic slave trade from 1500 to 1850. Four million slaves were taken from the area, smashing previous social structures and realigning the coastal Kongo kingdom into European trade networks.
From 1874–1895, Belgian King Leopold II invested his personal fortune and huge loans from the Belgian government to lay claim to what is today the DRC in the context of the European imperialist scramble for African colonies. At the 1885 Berlin Conference Leopold played the main colonial powers off against each other, promising that he would destroy East-African slave trading and turn the area into a free trade zone. Leopold II renamed an area encompassing the Congo Free State, imposing a new collective identity on around 250 different ethnic groups speaking up to 700 different languages and dialects. Taking the mantle of a humanitarian, Leopold made all land outside human settlement his personal property and introduced a system of terror.
The territory was plundered first of ivory and then of rubber. Leopold’s mercenary army imposed harsh harvesting quotas, brutalizing and murdering the population of areas that did not or could not comply. The race for rubber led to the collapse of agriculture, adding famine to the atrocities. Leopold’s seizure of ‘vacant’ land created long-term agrarian and inter-communal tensions, as farmers moved off exhausted land and onto crown lands. This system led to 3 to 5 million deaths, the higher estimations of 10 million are based on incorrect extrapolations by explorer-colonizer Henry Morton Stanley.
Contrary to the claims of colonial apologists, Leopold was fully aware of these atrocities in a territory he never visited in person. An international humanitarian campaign drew attention to the atrocities in the Congo Free State. Colonial propaganda spoke of an ‘English campaign’ led by Edmund Morel, Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement and Mark Twain. The campaign gathered African eyewitness reports of atrocities committed by Leopold’s forces, so the King and Belgium’s politicians and bourgeois elite knew what was being perpetrated. Leopold even had several archives burned to obscure his complicity. For a variety of reasons, Leopold was forced to relinquish control of the Congo Free State to the Belgian state in 1908. Leopold II’s legacy to the Congo was a history of mass murder, an artificially created national identity and the establishment of Congo’s long history of imperialist looting.
The Belgian Congo — 1908–1960
The Belgian State reformed the colonial system in order to pave the way for long-term economic exploitation. The Catholic Church worked hand in hand with the colonial regime to encourage Christianity’s message of obedience. Church schools censored everything rebellious, avoiding, for example, talk about the French revolution. While Christian obedience was encouraged, critical religious movements suffered harsh repression. The preacher, Simon Kimbangu, was arrested in 1921. He died in prison 30 years later. His followers, the Kimbanguists, were displaced and persecuted, but are still a big movement in Congo. Starting in 1937, forced labor concentration camps were set up for members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses inspired Kitawala sect due to their anti-colonial sentiments.
Unlike in some African colonies such as Kenya and South Africa, European settlement in the Congo was tightly controlled by the Belgian State for fear of white, anti-colonial, communist agitation. As if the Congolese did not have reason to oppose colonization!
With the discovery of Congo’s vast mineral wealth, the country was industrialized. The dominant mining company, Union Minière, ran its own totalitarian state apparatus in the southeastern province of Katanga, mining copper, manganese, uranium, gold, etc. Palm oil plantations provided the raw material for the soaps that laid the foundation for today’s multinational giant, Unilever.
The working class grew from a few hundred in 1900 to 450,000 in 1929, then to nearly one million in World War II, when the mining industry boomed. The US atomic bombs dropped on Japan used uranium mined in Katanga. Congo became the second most industrialized sub-Saharan country, after South Africa, but living conditions for workers and the poor remained terrible.
Discontent led to strikes and riots at the beginning and end of the war, with 60 miners killed in a mass protest in Elizabethville, now Lumbumbashi, in Katanga. Strike leaders were tracked down. In 1944, the army shot 55 unarmed Kitawala rebels, using scorched earth tactics on their villages and fields after they rose up against wartime forced labor. Certain groups or tribes were singled out as ‘troublemakers’. It was part of the divide and rule strategy.
Congolese people who had endured the brutal wartime corvée labor and quotas in the mines and plantations expected their lives to improve after the war. Congolese soldiers who fought against totalitarianism with the ‘Allies’ in Abyssinia, Egypt and Burma also expected improved conditions. Racism, however, persisted. Africans could still be whipped in public, had to stand at the end of queues, and were banned from bathing facilities. Trade unions were illegal. Local elections were introduced in some cities, but any mayor was subservient to the Belgian ‘first mayor’. In the same way that capitalist governments granted concessions and reforms in the post-war period to stave off revolution, colonial governments across Africa engaged in ‘developmental colonialism’ in the post-war period to prevent pro-independence movements. The Belgians invested in infrastructure development projects to raise the standard of living, such as the INGA hydroelectric dam project, but then also left the Congolese with the bill upon independence.
After World War II colonial revolutions and liberation wars erupted around the world. India, Indonesia and the Philippines shook off British, Dutch and US control. In Algeria and Indochina armed struggle continued against French colonial troops. In 1957, Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to become independent, sparking a wave of decolonization across the continent.
The Belgian Congo had its share of religious organizations opposed to colonial rule, however up to 1955 there was no national political organization demanding independence. All this changed in 1956 with the rise of civil disobedience campaigns. The Association des Bakongo (ABAKO), originally a tribal organization led by Joseph Kasa-Vubu, put forward a freedom manifesto.
Two years later, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) was formed, with Patrice Lumumba as leader. Its goal was to liberate Congo from imperialism and colonial rule. The response was enormous. Lumumba visited the new state of Ghana, where he met the country’s leader, Kwame Nkrumah. On returning to Congo, 7,000 people gathered to listen to his report. The Belgian government anticipated having to grant independence eventually, but until 1958 the Belgian Colonial Ministry had no plans for the Congo’s independent political future.
In January 1959, Congo exploded. The Belgian first mayor banned a protest meeting in Kinshasa, then Léopoldville, leading to riots. The army was used in full force, killing up to 300 and injuring many more. The unrest spread to Kivu, Kasai and Katanga.
At the start of 1960, the Belgian government announced it was convening a round table conference with the goal of negotiating the Congolese transition from colonial rule to independence. The post-war Congolese economy was deteriorating, due in part to Belgium developing more public services in the colony. The colony’s public debt rose from 4 to 46 billion Belgian francs between 1949 and 1960, a debt which Belgium graciously allowed Congo to inherit upon independence after decades of colonial exploitation. King Baudouin visited the Belgian Congo to reduce political tensions, but only managed to have his ceremonial sword stolen. The growing grassroots movement in Congo, the riots in Kinshasa, and the global struggles against colonialism all contributed to the decision to accelerate the pace towards independence to June 30th 1960!
The Congo was to have formal, political independence but multinational companies were to operate as before, acting in accordance with Belgian law. Further undermining any real Congolese economic power, the Belgian parliament abolished Congolese power over the dominant Union Minière three days before independence. All army officers and the highest officials were to remain Belgian. It was going to be independence in name only.
Nevertheless, hopes for real change were high and the MNC under Lumumba won the first elections. However, regional parties also had great support: the breakaway MNC-K led by Albert Kalonji in Kasai, the Confédération des Associations Tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT) under Moïse Tshombe in south Katanga, and ABAKO in Bas-Congo. Kasa-Vubu became president, with Lumumba as prime minister.
The stage was set for a multifaceted struggle: a Congolese fight for true independence, a civil war, a Belgian attempt to retain control and a Cold War proxy conflict.
‘The Congo Crisis’ — 1960–1965
One week into Congo’s ‘independence’ a mutiny in the army against the Belgian officers led to the Africanization of the officer corps. Violence erupted between black and white civilians. Belgium sent in troops, officially to protect its citizens but in reality to protect its mining assets. Katanga and South Kasai seceded with Belgian support. Thousands died in the fighting.
Lumumba was only in office for two months in a country that was unravelling under his feet. He appealed to the United Nations to intervene, but the UN peacekeepers actively prevented the Congolese government from retaking the breakaway regions. He also appealed to Nikita Khrushchev, who sent food, weapons and vehicles. The Congo crisis struck at the heart of the cold war between the US and Stalinist Russia and in September, he was deposed by Kasa-Vubu.
Joseph Mobutu, in command of the army, conducted a CIA-backed coup d’état, establishing a new government in Kinshasa under his control. Lumumba was placed under house arrest. The Belgian government and US president, Dwight Eisenhower, gave the green light for him to be murdered.
After torture and transportation to Katanga, Lumumba was shot in front of local leaders, including Tshombe.
Lumumba had clearly been a threat to the interests of the former colonial elite and had stood in the way of a new aspirant black elite eager to become the privileged gatekeepers to Congolese wealth. The Belgians planned and executed the plan to kill Lumumba, as his call to nationalize Congo’s riches for the benefit of the Congolese people ran counter to their plans to retain control of this wealth. In the context of the Cold War, the US feared that Lumumba would end up like Fidel Castro, that the colonial revolution would push him from a liberal to a ‘communist’ position. Lumumba’s unpredictability, the expectations he created and his supporters’ talk of revolution scared the imperialist powers. The Africanization of the Congolese army officer corps loosened Belgium’s grip on the Congo, leading to the decision by the Western powers, Belgium, the CIA, the UN and their accomplices in Leopoldville, Kasai and Katanga that Lumumba had to be removed. Furthermore, Lumumba’s pan-African vision for the Congo, unity across ethnic and tribal divisions, ran counter to tribalist Congolese elites like Tschombe and Kasa-Vubu who only sought to defend the interests of their own ethnic groups. Lumumba’s popular appeal threatened to rouse the Congolese masses behind a program meeting the social, economic and democratic demands of the population, which would have required the nationalization of the Congo’s mineral wealth. This ran counter to the interest of Congolese elites and international capitalism.
Contrary to colonial apologists, the Congo crisis was not the result of Belgium leaving too early. Belgian colonialism existed to economically exploit the Congo, not prepare it for independence. Belgium purposefully accelerated the pace towards independence because the Congo had a new, unstable government and the nation had not had the time to develop a workers’ movement with a clear program aimed at meeting the needs of the population. Lumumba was not an explicit socialist and lacked weapons as well as a nationwide, democratic socialist movement among workers and the rural poor, which could have drawn the support from the working class internationally. The legacy of Congo’s accelerated independence is that gains could not be won by the Congolese working class upon independence, instead the Congolese working class were served with a series of defeats and dictatorship which have hampered the development of strong working class organizations to this day.
The central government defeated the rival pro-Lumumba, Soviet-backed Free Republic of the Congo in the eastern Congo by 1962, defeated the secessionist movements in Katanga and South Kasai by 1963 and with Belgian support crushed the Simba’s proclaimed communist Peoples’ Republic of the Congo in 1964 alongside whom Che Guevara briefly fought. The Soviet Union and China only provided limited support, not wanting to see a region of the world develop genuine workers’ democracy outside of their control. Tshombe, now in support of the central government, won the 1965 election with US and western support. However, he was too unreliable and Mobutu carried out a second coup d’état to finally ensure that the Congo would be open for business with western imperialist powers.
The Mobutu Years
Mobutu became a brutal and corrupt dictator, remaining in power until 1997, at the head of the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR). He became a close ally of the US and Israel, fighting ‘communism’ in central Africa. Washington depended on Zaire as a supply route for the US-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) rebel movement fighting a 17-year guerrilla war against the government of neighboring Angola supported by the Soviet-Union and Cuba.
At the same time, Mobutu also maintained a friendly relationship with China. He adopted a cult of personality featuring hours of musical tributes and a cultural nationalist policy to underpin his rule. Only indigenous names and music were allowed. The country was renamed Zaire in 1971 and the following year Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (meaning “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”)
In 1968–69 a Congolese student movement rose up, with Lumumba as its hero, parallel to the student protests in Europe and the US. Mobutu had the movement violently crushed in 1969. Officially, 6 students died in the protests, but in reality 300 were killed and another 800 sentenced to long prison terms.
Despite this repressive violence, or maybe because of it, the West pandered to Mobutu’s regime in order to gain access to Congo’s mineral resources. The US provided more than $300 million in arms and $100 million in military training for the dictatorship.
Mobutu’s corrupt and inept rule squandered Congo’s agricultural potential, making the country dependent on food imports. Inflation spiked and loans made up 30% of the state budget in the 1970s. Like many other African countries, Congo ended up in the clutches of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Their structural adjustment programs imposed privatization and cuts. Congo reduced the number of teachers in a short time from 285,000 to 126,000 — transforming its high literacy to the situation today, where 30% are illiterate.
Meanwhile, the term ‘kleptocracy’ — a government by those who seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the governed — was coined to describe Mobutu’s use of state funds. By the end of his rule he had amassed a personal fortune estimated at $4 billion, while running up a $12 billion external debt.
Mobutu’s position got increasingly complicated in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1982, his long-term ally and member of the MPR central committee, Étienne Tshisekedi broke with Mobutu, forming the country’s first opposition party calling for non-violent democratic change, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). In the late 1980s, protest movements against IMF policies and dictatorships arose across Africa, sparking the formation of new political parties, associations and trade unions.
With the end of the Cold War, Mobutu’s western imperialist allies pressured him to move Zaire in a more democratic direction, or at least neo-colonial capitalism with a human face. Mobutu permitted multi-party politics in April 1990, but angered his Western backers, especially Belgium when his soldiers attacked a student hostel in the same year, killing dozens. Belgium temporarily cut off aid in response, and mass opposition to Mobutu’s rule grew through 1991.
At the same time, the mineral-based economy collapsed as production from vital copper mines in Katanga dropped precipitously. Thousands of Congolese soldiers, angry at not receiving a pay rise, went on a looting spree in Kinshasa, killing at least 250 people. On 16 February 1992, priests and churches organized the ‘hope march’ in several cities in protest at the shutting down of a conference on democratization. Over one million Congolese took part. Thirty-five demonstrators were killed in the repression. In 1993, Mobutu clamped down on any talk of democratization, thwarted an impeachment attempt by Tshisekedi and regained full control. Inflation exploded, reaching 9,769% in 1994. Mobutu was forced to introduce a five-million New Zaire note.
After decades of political repression and amid the worsening economic crisis, ethnic violence erupted. In Katanga groups demanded that migrant laborers from other provinces ‘go home’ and in eastern Kivu province, nativist Mai-Mai militias started threatening Tutsis, some of whom had been settled in the area by the Belgians during the colonial era. Like the rebel groups active in eastern Congo today, they fought for farmland and control over mines. Opponents of the Museveni dictatorship in Uganda also gained a foothold in eastern Congo, organizing rebel bands.
In 1994, after Rwandan civil war and genocide, a large part of the defeated Habyarimana regime fled into Eastern Congo with France providing protection. Mobutu welcomed the Rwandans, thereby sealing his fate and sparking a transnational conflict that persists to this day.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Museveni of Uganda backed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFLC) that killed up to 300,000 Hutus, including Rwandan refugees that participated in the Rwandan genocide. Laurent Kabila, a Congolese citizen and former Maoist Simba leader, headed the ADFLC, marching his army for 2000 km across the country. Tired of decades of corruption, poverty and an ill-disciplined army, support for Mobutu quickly disappeared and Zairians welcomed Kabila’s soldiers as liberators. Kabila overthrew Mobutu upon arriving in Kinshasa.
Kabila was let down by his former imperialist supporters (mainly the US) because he was not docile. On the other hand his Stalinist idea of a two-stages revolution made him seek support from what he called “good capitalists”, capitalists who were willing to participate in “national development.” The Congo was to develop into a stable capitalist country with a constitution, individual rights, private property and the rule of law, before it could attempt a second socialist revolution, in which workers and peasants would seize economic and political power. Yet, this policy meant that there was no fundamental progress for the population, as there were no “good capitalists” to be found. There was no agricultural reform and no nationalization of the key sectors of the economy.
Kabila also fell out with his Rwandan and Ugandan backers, who wanted a part of Congo’s riches. Rwandan and Ugandan backed troops made war on Kabila, but also each other for the Congo’s natural resources. Angolan and Zimbabwean military interventions saved Kabila’s regime. The UN sent in a massive peacekeeping force in 1999. The now renamed DRC fell into chaos.
The Congo war was fuelled by the region’s huge mineral wealth, with all sides, including multinational corporations, taking advantage of the chaos to plunder the country and further finance the war. Half way through the war in 2001, a UN Security Council report estimated that Rwanda alone had gained at least $250 million from illegal coltan exports. The US, Belgium, Britain and France also jostled to defend their economic interests, supplying millions of dollars of weapons to different sides in the war.
The war from 1998 to 2006 killed over 5 million people through violence and famine, making it the most deadly conflict since World War II. Millions more were displaced. Kabila’s government was weak, split and corrupt, with no full control of its armed forces. The Congolese army participated in widespread ethnic slaughter, executions, torture, rapes and arbitrary arrests.
In 2001 Laurent Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. His son Joseph Kabila assumed power, supported by the EU, the USA and China. His political course is more reminiscent of the self-enrichment of Mobutuism than of Lumumbism.
At the height of his popularity, Joseph Kabila won the 2006 election against the ex-warlord and vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba. The first round of election results led to three days of fighting between Kabila’s and Bemba’s armies. These divided loyalties in the Congolese army have never been truly overcome, rooted in the one president and four vice-presidents formula of 2001–2006 meant to resolve armed tensions in the country.
Kabila proceeded to court increased foreign investment and to promise infrastructure development in a country two-thirds the size of Western Europe, but with only 300 miles of paved road. China’s insatiable thirst for raw resources and rise to Africa’s biggest trading partner and lender was felt in the DRC. In 2009, the Kabila government signed a $9 billion dollar investment deal with China, allowing Chinese companies the right to develop Congolese copper and cobalt mines in exchange for building roads, railways, hydroelectric dams, universities, airports and hospitals.
The DRC’s economy boomed during Kabila’s years in power, experiencing between 2.5% and 9.5% GDP growth depending on the year. However, the surging copper and cobalt production failed to reduce the crushing poverty experienced by the majority of the population.
In the lead up to the 2011 election, hopes for change coalesced around opposition candidate, Étienne Tshisekedi. Kabila was re-elected, while Tshisekedi immediately disputed the results and declared himself president. The UDPS called on the Congolese people to mobilize themselves and protect Tshisekedi’s victory. Protesters flooded the streets of Kinshasa, tired of poverty, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, violence in the East and corruption.
Police clashed with UDPS supporters, killing dozens. The protesters were angry at the lost opportunity for change but also encouraged by similar movements for regime change in Senegal and Tunisia. Despite not being able to remove Kabila, 2011 contributed to the formation of underground information and training networks for political activism across Congo.
As under Mobutu, massive corruption continued under Kabila. At least $750 million paid to Congo’s tax bodies and state mining company disappeared in 2013–2015, $1.3 billion when other state bodies and a now-defunct provincial tax bodies were included. At the same time, chronic lack of funding for government services continued.
In 2015 protests erupted again when Kabila announced that he would seek re-election, despite exceeding his constitutionally established term limits. Protesters, mostly youth, returned to the streets inspired by the role of youth in the Citoyen Balais movement that removed Blaise Compaoré from power in 2014 in Burkina Faso. Police and military used lived rounds, killing 42 and arresting hundreds. The government shut down the internet and blocked text messages to contain the movement, but demonstrations spread to eastern Congo, to Goma and Bukavu. The government, seeing how big the movement now was, declared the youth movements illegal, declared its leaders terrorists, hunted them down, kidnapping and jailing. Many went into exile or hid out in remote towns. A mass grave was discovered outside Kinshasa.
However, the protests forced the government to retreat. The Senate amended the bill aimed at giving Kabila a third term, allowing Kabila to stay on until the national census added younger voters. Opposition parties called off the protests, but the youth stayed out demanding that Kabila resign.
Kabila remained in power for another 2 years, allegedly waiting for the census, while the movement for his removal continued. “Villes mortes” — dead cities — was the opposition’s main slogan in the general strike organized in August 2016. The streets of Congo’s major cities emptied as both workers and employers stayed home.
Demonstrators stopped traffic in Goma while in Kinshasa they erected barricades nearby the UDPS headquarters after police attacked them. Police violence escalated in September with 53 killed, 127 injured and 368 arrested according to the UN.
Étienne Tshisekedi’s 2016 speeches failed to gather the same excitement as in 2011. He called on his supporters to have faith in the electoral process, to believe in the constitution and to trust in negotiations with Kabila. He purposefully did not call for a mass movement to take action. As a result, the UDPS did not take to the streets as before, but again youth protests continued. By the time elections finally happened at the end of 2018, at least 320 people were killed and 3,500 injured in Kinshasa after 3 years of protest.
Félix Tshisekedi — a new beginning to an old situation
Congo’s elections finally took place in December 2018, but once again, they were mired in controversy. On the surface, Félix Tshisekedi, Étienne’s son, assumed the presidency in the much-touted “first peaceful transfer since independence.” Félix invited high hopes after 18 years of Kabila, running on a pledge to further ‘national reconciliation’ and to fight corruption and poverty. Tshisekedi had some political prisoners released and launched his $304 million “100 Days Program” aimed at developing roads, health, education, housing, energy (water and electricity), employment, transport and agriculture.
The effectiveness of such programs will be limited if the DRC’s mineral wealth is not nationalized and used to the benefit of the Congolese peasants and working class. In Kabila’s final years in power, multinationals campaigned against the government’s proposals for modest increases in corporate taxes. After threats of reduced investments, the government backed down and accepted a 10% share in new projects, down from the proposed 30%. The fee for gold mines stops at 6%. Unless Tshisekedi bites the hands that feed him, the Congo’s government remains in the hands of multinational mining corporations.
The 2018 election results were also heavily contested. Both international observers and the Congolese Catholic Church, which fielded 40,000 observers, maintain that pro-Western interests, ex-ExxonMobil executive Martin Fayulu was the winning candidate. Fayulu probably was the winner; but he hardly represented an alternative for the Congolese people, being close friends with some of the richest men in Congo. The announcement of the electoral results coincided with a beefing up of security forces in cities, an internet service disruption to contain protest mobilizations and clashes with security forces. Sporadic unrest resulted in 34 people killed, 59 wounded and 241 “arbitrary arrests” in the week after the announcement, according to the UN human rights office.
The state is no neutral arbiter, serving the needs of the ruling class. The constitutional court upheld Tshisekedi’s victory, permitting Kabila to stick around. Tshisekedi entered into a power-sharing agreement with Kabila, who is no longer president, but still holds the reins of many key sectors from his position of ‘senator-for-life’. Kabila has refused to rule out a fresh run for president in 2023, when he will no longer be constrained by term limits. During his 18 years in power, Kabila installed his loyalists throughout the federal bureaucracy, and his ruling coalition won a resounding parliamentary majority, 342 of 485 seats. As a result, it came to no surprise when Tshisekedi finally announced a coalition government, with 23 UDPS members and 42 members from Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition, seven months after the inauguration.
The ruling UDPS-FCC coalition has already been struck by a high profile corruption scandal as on the eve of Independence Day celebrations. Presidential chief of staff Vital Kamerhe was recently sentenced to 20 years in jail for allegedly embezzling $49 million earmarked for social housing in the 100-day building program. Kamerhe backed Tshisekedi in his successful 2018 election campaign in return for Tshisekedi’s support in the next election in 2023. As a result, his arrest and conviction has sent shock waves through Congo, stoking speculation that the case is politically motivated to prevent him from challenging Tshisekedi in 2023. Earlier in the month, the justice minister revealed that the former presiding judge, who was originally said to have died of a heart attack last month, was actually murdered. As a result, on the 60th anniversary of independence, it is business as usual in the ruling circles of the DRC.
Eastern Congo and MONUSCO
MONUSCO is the 20,000 strong United Nations ‘peacekeeping’ mission active in eastern Congo since 1999 with a budget of $1 billion a year. First deployed in the context of the second Congo war, the mission focused on dispersing the FDLR and has since moved to engage other rebel groups operating in the Congo. An estimated 160 rebel groups with a total of more than 20,000 fighters operate in North Kivu province alone, controlling key gold and cobalt mines.
MONUSCO has been controversial from the beginning, with UN soldiers lending extensive support to Congolese government soldiers, accused of widespread rape and killings (the same crimes committed by the rebel FDLR). MONUSCO soldiers themselves have been frequently accused of sexually assaulting civilians, while also not preventing the exploitation of miners at the hands of multinational corporations or effectively protecting civilians from rebel attacks.
In 2013, the rebel group M23 took the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma, discrediting the UN mission in the process. The UN responded by authorizing its soldiers to fire first, a break with traditional UN peacekeeping regulations.
Victory over rebel forces has remained elusive, as rebels control very lucrative and resource rich regions. Added to this, several rebel groups have active support from Kagame’s Rwanda and Museveni’s Uganda, neither of which are subjected to international pressure to desist, as they are western allies in the war on terror. There are also significant numbers of Rwandan refugees still in eastern Congo, some of them war criminals, further complicating ethnic, resource and land tensions in the country’s east. Lastly, the government’s and MONUSCO’s inability to protect civilians as well as the lack of accountability for crimes committed by government forces understandably encourages people living in Eastern Congo to form their own armed groups.
Since fall 2019, violence has once again been on the rise in the east with rebel groups attacking civilians in retaliation for a renewed government offensive. In Beni frustrations erupted over the UN’s inability to protect civilians massacred by rebel forces. Protesters attacked a UN compound after UN soldiers killed two protesters, burning it to the ground. The protest was accompanied by a week-long shut down of businesses and solidarity protests in Goma.
In 2020, violence has escalated further and so far has received almost no media coverage. Rebel attacks, including mass murder and rape, are slowing aid worker and government interventions against Ebola virus and COVID-19 in the region. In Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu over 1,300 people have been killed and over 500,000 people displaced over the last 8 months by rebel massacres of the civilian population. The army has retaliated against the rebels, but soldiers continue to kill and sexually assault civilians on a regular basis. These actions prevent any kind of trust between the Congolese people and state representatives, both security and political.
The Way Forward
Despite the Congo’s tumultuous history of colonialism and neo-colonialism, it is not in a hopeless situation. The solution to poverty, war and imperialism lies with the Congolese people, not with the current government, its international allies or the UN. There will be no end to the Congolese peoples’ troubles as long as the country is run on the basis of anti-poor, neo-liberal policies, as dictated by the IMF/World Bank, and for as long as the Congo’s huge mineral wealth is plundered by the multinationals and rebel troops.
Workers’ organizations are weak in the DRC due to years of war and dictatorship. Yet, only by building building independent organizations of workers and the poor can the grip of the local looters and imperialists be broken. The sustained campaign for Kabila’s resignation and the “villes mortes” general strike shows the emerging power of the Congolese working class. These kinds of movements allow lessons to be learned on how to broaden protests and strike movements, on how to link social issues, safety issues and democratic issues, on how to organize democratically and on how to fight for the right to build independent unions and a party of the workers and oppressed.
A socialist struggle is necessary in the DRC and it is the only way to break the endless cycle of poverty, corruption, war and exploitation. The rights of minorities must be protected. Workers must organize to defend themselves against exploitation and for the nationalization of natural resources and finance capital under democratic workers’ control, with support from the rural poor. The profits from Congo’s mineral wealth should be invested in education and healthcare. The DRC’s debts need to be abolished. The governments and politicians of Congo are blocking development, since their interests lie with multinational corporations, and must be overthrown. Workers around the world must stand in solidarity with Congo’s workers in achieving these goals.
Perspectives to build a militant trade union movement in the context of Covid-19 and economic turmoil
Statement by WASP National Committee
The Treasury forecasts that job losses this year will range from 3 to 7 million. Even the highly optimistic three-million-scenario sketches the outlines of the economic storm and extreme shocks awaiting the working class. The most probable scenario is for much higher losses in jobs and catastrophic levels of poverty and hunger, based on realistic projections of GDP contraction and considering reactions of supply and demand impacts on the real economy, shocks in treasury, in financial and world markets.
According to the SA Reserve Bank, the 1,5% GDP contraction following the 2008 Great Recession led to 900 000 formal sector job losses. It becomes patently clear that the projected contraction ranging from 4% to 15% of GDP spells a jobs bloodbath of unimaginable proportions and horrific living conditions for the masses.
Working class people are already bearing the political brunt of the lockdown as the ruling class is opportunistically pounding them with an avalanche of attacks, even as they hypocritically preach class ceasefire and patriotism. Punitive anti-working class terms of the curfews on the hungry and starving poor, widespread abuses and human rights violations by the military and the police, as well job and income losses for millions of workers in precarious employment and the informal economy for whom government offers no relief, compel the working class to fight back.
In addition to the 10,3 million people who were unemployed and without income before the pandemic escalated the economic crisis, there are 3 million workers in the informal sector. Representing 20% of total employment in the country, many informal workers are currently wholly or partly unable to ply their trades, losing their source of income. These include over 1,1 million street traders, over 200 000 mechanics, construction workers and electricians under strict curfew, and 26 500 tavern and shebeen operations (who up to 1 June were prohibited from operating in terms of lockdown restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages).
Current relief measures like the Temporary Employees/Employers Relief Scheme (TERS) and Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) for farmers are not only inadequate to provide relief to targeted recipients, but geared strictly to workers in formal sectors. This excludes millions of the poorest and most marginalized sections of the working class, who are also being excluded from the social grants for the unemployed on bogus grounds.
In spite of great difficulties, many of these communities are already trying to organize around solidarity and fighting for support from government with tenacity. These communities deserve support from the broader movement and organized working class in particular.
Workers in the labour broking companies, outsourced services and other precarious forms of employment in formal sectors are formally entitled to benefits and protections offered by relief programmes. The reality, however, is that many are excluded as they are not registered with the Department of Labour. These workers are employed under the worst conditions of ruthless precarity and slave wages by an extremely parasitic section of the capitalist class. Their entire social existence depends on the plundering of the state and human trafficking that the ANC characterizes as the ‘patriotic black bourgeoisie’. Not only can we trust that these leeches will leave their workers out to dry, but we can expect them to steal funds meant for UIF relief funds of unpaid workers, as many workers have reported.
However, we can also expect that rising anger at the hunger and theft will propel these workers into struggles in the private sectors in a way we have seen in the public sector during the #OutsourcingMustFall movement. If the trade union movement seizes the opportunity to step up campaigns to target these workers and rapidly finds creative ways to organize under conditions of lockdown, they could organize these workers in their thousands. This will strengthen unity and the fighting capacity of organized labour, currently severely weakened by the poor levels of organization of these layers.
In the formal sectors of the economy, workers are also being hammered and forced to resist. The capitalist system is driven by extracting as much wealth on the backs of workers as it can. This cruel logic of capitalism is exposed in the callous maneuvering of employers seeking exemptions to operate as “essential services”. The bosses have openly blackmailed the government to “reopen” the economy. It unmasks the repulsive patriotic pretensions of the past months and betrays their heartless attitude to keep the wheels of industry turning to churn out profits without regard for the health and lives of workers, their families and communities. Emboldened by the lackluster response and capitulation of the trade unions, big corporations are now lobbying government to completely reopen every section of big business. At the same time, the working class is kept under militarized lockdowns to crush occasional food riots and protests, and repress the impending political revolt.
Many companies where bosses are unable to manoeuver around lockdown regulations, management has forced workers to take unpaid leave or use normal leave days to compensate the employees. The lockdown timeframes were clearly based initially on the number of annual leave days, never on science and epidemiological predictions for the viral pandemic. It is clear again that the ruling class intends to force workers to pay for the current public health crisis. This is exposed by the widespread measures of forcing workers to take loans against their future earnings and pensions, now that they have exhausted the 21 annual leave days.
Greedy capitalists take advantage of the exemptions granted to businesses to force workers into working in unsafe conditions. In essential and frontline sectors, many are being compelled to work without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), lack of proper sanitation and without possibility of safe physical distancing.
In the health sector, the situation is dire and healthcare workers have experienced growing rates of infection. At Netcare’s St Augustine hospital, 47 staff members testified to the catastrophic human cost and treasonous implications of the government pandering to big business and the private health industry. The infections are a damning indictment on the refusal by the government to act decisively in protecting healthcare workers. The state has also failed to mobilize South Africa’s vast resources and industrial capacity against the pandemic.
Nationalization of private healthcare, pharmaceutical, chemical and textile industries could stop these blatantly reckless pursuits of profiteering of private companies like NETCARE. It could ensure proper safety for infected workers and patients in private hospitals and clinics, where bosses are cutting corners in safety measures to save costs. The government could also repurpose chemical and textile factories for mass production of sanitizers, masks, gloves and other protective clothing that is essential in these times. The ANC government is not taking these measures because they refuse to upset capitalist interests in these industries.
Failing to act decisively to mobilise the resources in the grips of big corporations, the ANC government has instead opted for military and authoritarian measures. That the lockdown even became necessary in the first place is the direct result of the neoliberal austerity programmes. A system of governance that has left many living in the horrendous squalor of overcrowded townships, informal settlements and shacks, countless homeless on the streets, and a crippled public healthcare. Overloaded taxis, busses and trains as the main method of transport for the majority, in addition to too few hospital beds and ventilators and staff to treat those suffering acute respiratory complications, has become a deadly formula in this pandemic.
The deployment of 24 389-strong security forces, including the military and police, had nothing to do with conducting education, testing and caring for those infected by the virus. It was for a ruthless imposition of strict curfews in conditions where many cannot afford them. These curfews and regulations are violently enforced on masses of people whose communities have been subject to extreme conditions of neglect that the ANC has either created or perpetuated in the past 25 years. Many are extremely vulnerable to starvation and hunger, lack physical and mental health support, suffer from various addictions, and many other social ills.
In a country with 7,6 million HIV positive cases (2018 data), higher TB infection rates than most of the world, and other comorbidities, these conditions are like fuel for Covid-19 to sweep the entire country with a trail of devastation and death. The workers’ movement must be clear that the criminal responsibility for these terrifying prospects and conditions, as well as the gross human right violations and economic repercussions of the lockdown to avert them, lies squarely with the ANC. The working class must refuse to conceal this and should not shoulder any part of the responsibility. Preparations for emergencies are not done during emergencies themselves, but in advance. Through decisions to cut spending on public health, housing and other services over decades, the ANC left South Africa disarmed and defenseless against Covid-19 and future inevitable pandemics.
Sweeping arrests, shootings, beatings, use of teargas, water bombs, and humiliating people by forcing them to swim in the mud, crawl and frog jump on the streets have been widely reported in the mainstream and social media. These are but some of the brutalities which in a short time have revealed the violent nature of the securitized response by the state through its police and military forces. In the first seven days of the security deployment 2000 people were jailed, four people fatally wounded and many more injured. In spite of widespread publications of blatant excessive use of force, brutality and violence, along with false reassurances by Ramaphosa, only a few cases are currently investigated by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.
The real approach of the state is revealed by the heads of security forces, the ministers and heads of police and the army. Besides the usual ‘shoot to kill’ policy of police minister Bheki Cele, the head of military, Solly Shokwe made it clear to his troops that: “there are those who speak of human rights, All of us must enjoy our human rights. But human life is more important than individual human rights. You are out there to protect human lives and those who threaten human lives must be dealt with”.
Working class organising for solidarity and struggle
The occupations and abuses by the police and military are not just the foolishness of the forces, and their irresponsible “skop en donner” style military training, as the bourgeois media and apologists like to argue. They also represent cynical attempts of the ANC government to intimidate the working class into submission and fear. They further serve as a rehearsal for open class warfare, in anticipation of the struggle and resistance to the draconian lockdown, and impending brutal austerity against the working class.
Many working class activists have already demonstrated the possibility of independent organizing, mass education on the need for self-isolation and social distancing, co-operation in testings, and other measures to contain the pandemic without the use of military force. These, along with popular education in personal hygiene, and provision of sanitizers, food and other supplies, have been proving far more effective in enforcing public health measures, discipline and restricting movement. These have only been on a modest scale, but so successful that the military itself is forced to imitate them in their widely publicized postures to pacify middle class public opinion and working class anger and resistance.
Neighborhood and solidarity committees are springing up everywhere in spontaneous acts of the working class solidarity and opposition to the violence of the state security forces. This represents a modest but important outline for the independent working class and left alternative to the repressive state apparatus, punitive lockdowns and quarantines. WASP advocated and actively supported these from the onset.
Through our cadres actively participating in the emerging Covid-19 Coalitions and in trade unions, WASP is relentlessly campaigning for trade union solidarity and development of community organizing into a politically conscious and co-ordinated national network of street and regional committees. Instead of the charity, voluntarism and substitutionalism of the NGOs and petit-bourgeois left, we campaign for developing the current Covid-19 Coalitions to focus strategically on organizing genuine solidarity. This can be done through building and co-ordinating grassroots and working class community organization.
Not only is this vital as part of broader movement building, but it is essential for developing a political programme of immediate demands and action to fight for relief from the state. The demand and action for relief has to include state provision of food, water, decent housing for the homeless, mass testing and quality public healthcare for all, as well as guarantee of wages for workers under curfews, adequate basic income and social grants.
This must be linked to organizing in on-going community struggles around service delivery and job creation. We must put pressure on organized labour, not only by lobbying trade union leaders, but most importantly, by supporting workers on the frontlines of the class struggle. These workers should be organized to build a rank and file opposition to the bureaucratization and capitulation to the patriotic propaganda by the trade union left in SAFTU. In the trade union right wing, found mainly in COSATU and FEDUSA, workers must resist the class collaboration that feeds the anti-democratic authoritarianism, austerity, and reckless pursuits of profits at the expense of the public and workers’ health.
WASP and its predecessor, the Democratic Socialist Movement, have demonstrated how this is possible through the role it played in building Amaberete against labour-broking in the post-office, the National Strike Committee during the 2012 Mineworkers strikes, and #OutSourcingMustFall in the immediate aftermath of the #FeesMustFall in Universities. All these are instructive examples of successful mass rank and file movements that circumvent the sabotage and bureaucratic opposition of official trade unions against workers struggles. Our interventions in these struggles, in GIWUSA and in the Metal and Electrical Workers Union of SA (NACTU Affiliate) before them, have shown how these rank and file movements can also lay an important foundation for the revitalization and rebuilding of the trade union movement, based on workers militancy and a fighting strategy.
A raging class war
Far from being blackmailed, intimidated and cowed into submission like the trade union leadership, workers have been resisting against the brutal determination of the bosses. The capitalist class is pushing to sacrifice public and workers’ health for profiteering and unscrupulous attempts to exploit the pandemic to carry-out restructurings, pay cuts, worsening conditions, and other cruel class aims. Radical rhetoric, posturing and grandstanding of NEHAWU, DENOSA and PSA leadership is a distorted expression of the boiling discontent of the rank and file members in the essential services.
Healthcare workers are angry at the orders to continue work and treatment of Covid-19 patients without adequate protection. In addition the government has stabbed them in the back with budget cuts on public services over decades, including breaking of the three-year collective agreement. Above all, healthcare and public service workers are furious at the capitulation of NEHAWU to the pressure from the ANC to call-off strike action, combined with the failure of all public service unions to lift a finger in protest against the unilateral withdrawal from the 2020/1 wage increases in the collective agreement.
International opposition from below
Public service and healthcare workers in this country are not alone in their anger. Internationally, workers in many industries have shown the determination to fight back. Consciousness has evidently grown to the extent that the public can admit that these essential workers have been some of the most undervalued workers in society. However, this has not yet developed into mass support for workers taking direct action for better working conditions. Due to the extreme propaganda pushed by the ruling class – that “we are all in the same boat” and must set class divisions aside to fight the pandemic – workers have had to act without public support, and even in defiance of trade union leadership who are under tremendous pressure to close ranks with the bourgeois governments and the bosses.
In Wuhan, China where the Covid-19 first broke out, working class people protested against opportunistic price increases and profiteering out of the crisis. Many more across China opposed the covering up, detention of whistleblowers, and disastrous initial response of the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship to the Covid-19 outbreak.
In Italy workers took to the streets and trade unions called a general strike, which was only called off after workers won crucial concessions from the state to shut most of the industries to contain the spread.
Across the globe strikes have broken over lack of protective equipment, for support of people in lockdown, wages for workers under lockdown and other measures such as those in Brazil, Australia,Ireland and other countries. Workers are also fighting back against lay-offs and job losses. These industrial actions in the USA have been followed by mass uprisings in major cities under the #BlackLivesMatter banner in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Our international comrades in Socialist Alternative are at the forefront of linking the organised labour movement to the current protests, successfully pushing union rank and file to take a stand.
Class struggle sharpened by pandemic conditions
Armed with class perspectives and understanding that the pandemic does not suspend class struggle but accentuates it, WASP members have taken their place amongst the vanguard of the workers resisting against bosses in pharmaceutical, retail and healthcare sectors. These workers saw through the hypocrisy of the bourgeois propaganda from the onset, and are fighting in the raging class war in many essential workplaces.
Since the State of National Disaster was declared, WASP comrades supported, through work in GIWUSA, strikes in Adcock Ingram, L’Oreal and Clover, amongst others. Some of these strikes were victorious and forced management to concede to workers’ demands.
Through our student wing, Socialist Youth Movement, WASP also supported a strike by University of Johannesburg students doing practicals in various hospitals and clinics without protective gear. The University management released the students until adequate protection can be offered. These workers were not alone to organize and resist marching orders in the healthcare sector. WASP is supporting them in their process to organize into NUPSAW, a public service affiliate of SAFTU.
Doctors, nurses and support staff in Welkom, Port Elizabeth, Durban hospitals and many other places went on strike over provision of transport and lack of surgical masks, gloves and sanitizers. Nurses at Bongani Regional hospital in Welkom took strike action over provision of transport. They were confronted with rubber bullets and stun grenades from police, injuring several nurses. In Port Elizabeth, support staff at Livingstone hospital struck over lack of PPE, whilst in Dora Ngiza hospital they were joined by doctors and nurses. In Durban and other KZN hospitals, including St Augustine, workers protested lack of adequate protection. In Cape Town, Tygerberg Hospital staff have been protesting the lack of PPE as well.
Emergency workers across the country also joined in strikes and a go-slow. In Greys hospital, Pietermaritzburg, ambulance drivers refused to attend Covid-19 patients without adequate protection. Emergency workers in Ekurhuleni have engaged in a go-slow, refusing assignments without protection and working equipment.
The strikes are not limited to traditional workplaces. There were strikes by taxi drivers in Port Elizabeth and coordinated hunger strikes by inmates across the country’s prisons. Both cases forced concessions from the government. These included amendments of restrictions for passenger loads demanded by taxi drivers, improved protective measures and reduction of overcrowding through granting early parole for thousands of inmates jailed for non-violent crimes.
Unless the government continues to make concessions, localized workplace actions can rapidly develop into a generalized strike movement. Threats and intimidations have not silenced workers who are fighting for their lives. Municipal unions, SAMWU, DEMAWUSA, and others, called on workers in emergency services to stay away unless provided with protective gear. HOSPERSA and PSA advised its members in hospitals and clinics to report at work but ‘down tools’ if no equipment, including PPE including surgical masks, gloves and overalls, and sanitizers, are adequately provided.
NUPSAW is currently threatening to take strike action to protest the lack of PPE for prosecutors who continue to attend urgent applications in courts.
Months of lockdown conditions have made the importance of workers in food production, retail, healthcare and pharmaceutical, transport and other frontline industries clearer than ever before. These are the workers leading the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and keeping society running.
The bourgeois governments’ desperate attempts to contain the pandemic have served to vindicate the fundamental contributions of Karl Marx on a historic scale. According to Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx was the first to discover and elaborate that society at its core is an organization of the production of the means of subsistence – food, clothing, shelter, etc. Further, he discovered that under capitalism this productive activity is organized not only to produce use-values (goods and services), but primarily, a surplus value (source of profits). The latter is done by exploitation of the workers, who are made to work for more than they get paid, thereby creating growing wealth. The capitalists expropriate this wealth through institutionalized violence – the legal framework of wage slavery and the repressive apparatuses of the state (the police, military, courts) are created to uphold it.
As the bourgeois class try to force as many workers to continue production, whilst sheltering themselves as far as possible, they’re inadvertently compelled to acknowledge the significance of these workers. Most of these workers are ordinarily undervalued, with many precariously employed and underpaid for the essential work they do. The desperate actions of the capitalists therefore unintentionally reveal the importance of these workers, as the real producers of goods and services sustaining society. The cruel logic of their current position and actions also demonstrate that the billionaires, highly paid corporate directors, parliamentarians, and other sections of the ruling elite who are currently hiding in self-preservation, are in fact useless to society.
The awakening consciousness of the workers’ and public opinion – although with varying views and understanding – to the importance of their jobs and role in society has given workers enormous confidence and some public support, demonstrated in the unprecedented level of public recognition and appreciation. Many of these workers have started to demand permanent contracts and payment proportionate to the significance of their work and risks involved. In Transpharm and other workplaces, workers have already won hazard pay and demands are becoming bolder every day.
In both large companies like Clover and Adcock Ingram and smaller ones, worker action has generally been spontaneous, informal and generally isolated to one shift and/or workplace. This is definitely bound to change. Unsurprisingly, the abruptness of the outbreak combined with the rapid spread of Covid-19 had a stunning effect over the majority of the working class – including its vanguard. Workers were understandably caught off guard: terrorized by the unknown perils of the virus, and disoriented by bourgeois propaganda and measures. However, the strikes and stay-aways taking place now are sowing the seeds of the class war, which can only grow in intensity and scope as the crisis deepens. Here and abroad, worsening working conditions in the wake of the economic fallout from the quarantines and disruption of industrial activity will serve as fuel to the growing resistance.
Potential for elements of revolution and counter-revolution
However, the poor organisation, political fragmentation, and general lowered consciousness of the working class as a consequence of the desperation of enduring horrendous living conditions can manifest in divisive ways. It is almost certain that the increase in unemployment and deepening inequality, will lead to xenophobia and anti-migrant mob violence and looting, if the workers movement does not respond promptly and adequately. This is already fueled by the xenophobic attitudes reflected in the ANC government’s pandering to South African owned business and calous neglect of desperate refugees and undocumented workers in the informal sector in need of aid.
The historic processes being sketched out here will in no way be a straight forward, linear progression and steady in tempo. It is going to be a complicated conjuncture, combining advances in revolutionary tendencies with partial retreats, and setbacks. The social collapse may even fuel counter-revolutionary elements. All these contradictory and complementary features will develop in rapid successions, characterized by extremely sharp twists and turns in the political situation, for which the working class must be prepared.
Although the shape, form and location cannot be foretold, we can boldly predict that the fundamental process is that of the growing anti-capitalist, working class movement leading to mass upheavals – the scale and scope of which we have not seen in recent times. The rhythm of class struggle will be decisive in how fast mass political consciousness develops, and this will certainly push the trade union movement to the left. But the trade union leadership, and SAFTU in particular, can also play a crucial role in accelerating the development of political consciousness, and consequently the path class struggle takes.
In the 2008/9 Great Recession, the mass organisations of the working class were formally led by the political leadership committed to putting down the revolt, as was evident in its collaboration in the bloody massacre of the mineworkers’ years in Marikana. The situation is completely different today. The COSATU bureaucracy, and through it the SACP leadership, is too weak to play the role it did in the past. The erosion of its political credibility and authority after years of betrayals, its shameful treachery in Marikana, the purging of its left wing and massive splits have wounded it beyond repair in its current political form.
The crucial role of SAFTU
SAFTU has the potential to be a politically left point of reference for workers looking for a fighting alternative, despite its leadership’s failure to give guidance so far. A well-planned propaganda and agitational strategy and active campaigning to support workers’ struggles for PPE, transport and hazard pay, as well as intervening in working class community organizing to enhance and politicize solidarity initiatives, can position SAFTU as the political leadership of the impending mass uprisings. In spite of restrictions on movement, and necessary social distancing, there are opportunities for organizing. Creative ways of protesting including online meetings, and strikes, stay-aways. With precautionary measures, mass demonstrations in streets where it is absolutely vital is also possible.
The working class has a long way to go in rebuilding its mass organizations in communities, but service delivery protests and on-going organizing for solidarity in response to Covid-19 pandemic has prepared the ground. They provide foundations for the rapid development of a national civic movement that can unite communities and link with organized labour and youth radicalized by #FeesMustFall, actions against climate change, and feminist movements across schools and campuses. SAFTU can greatly assist this process through a General Strike action and reviving the Working Class Summit to build for one.
A clear fighting plan to build for a General Strike
SAFTU should organize a General Strike to unify working class resistance in workplaces and communities against lack of PPEs, job losses, non-payment of wages, and for provision of water, food, and adequate social grants, etc. to communities. However, a call for a general strike lacking the analysis of the state of the workers’ movement, and strategies for organizing and building for it during lockdown and social isolation, is not helpful.
Currently trade unions are paralysed by the curfews, lack of skills to organize online and, most importantly, lack of class-independent and fighting perspectives for the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to rebuild carefully – but urgently – as the situation demands. A programme of rolling mass actions based on different themes and political demands, organized on provincial and sector basis, combining online protests, lunchtime demonstrations and pickets in workplaces across the country, can serve to raise the sights of the workers and provide the basis for renewed trade union organizing across the country.
Protests should target South African Airways, hospitals, and mining corporations such as Marula in Sekhukhune on issues of retrenchments, PPEs, and for recklessly spreading Covid-19 in poor working class communities. These are only a few examples.
These actions will be important in mobilizing towards national days of action, testing the mood and readiness for an all-out general strike in weeks or months to come. The rage of caregivers, teachers and communities over the decision to reopen schools provides an excellent opportunity for SAFTU to launch a campaign for the first national day of action including caregiver and teachers’ pickets outside schools, online solidarity strikes, learner stay-aways and class boycotts.
For a revolutionary strategy
To unite the working class however is primarily the question of an analysis and perspective corresponding and correctly estimating the objective historical process, and forging a political programme that responds to it. Unfortunately the trade union leadership, including SAFTU, is left wanting on this important matter. A legacy of Stalinism, which still lurks at the union bureaucracy, means in spite of the organizational rupture with SACP, SAFTU is facing the twin problem of right-wing opportunism and ultra-left-wing sectarianism. These tendencies contradict but also complement each in reality.
A faction in NUMSA and SAFTU are masquerading as revolutionary purity, where ultra-left sectarianism is manifesting itself in a refusal to engage and support working class struggles that do not fit neatly into their narrow “workerism”. In essence these (in)actions with regards to movements against corruption, climate change, gender based violence, and others only serve to weaken and isolate the workers’ movement. It is also used to justify opportunistic bureaucratic maneuverings, lobbying of varying gangs of the ANC and traitorous class collaboration.
The majority of SAFTU leadership have uncritically accepted the social reformist ideas inspired mainly by left academics in universities and NGOs. These ideas are equally incapable of consistently putting forward independent fighting class alternatives and a political strategy to build the labour movement and unite the working class into a mighty revolutionary force.
It is clear from statements released by SAFTU leadership that they believe there is no breaking with capitalism as a system, but effectively want to reform it from neoliberalism towards a welfare state. Beside the current material conditions lacking any grounds for sustained reforms, this reformism forgets its own history. The social reforms of the past were a byproduct of revolutionary mass movements and were wrested from the ruling class through bitter class struggles – not by means of civil and polite petitions to ministers.
To rebuild and unite the working class, we need a revolutionary transitional programme, based on immediate demands that can raise the masses to struggle. It requires a clear revolutionary strategy to transform society towards a socialist alternative to do away with the current crises of capitalism and imperialism. To see through this programme and win a socialist society requires that the working class build a mass political party to oppose the ruling class. It must unite within its ranks the best layers of organized labour, emerging civic movements fighting for service delivery and organizing solidarity for those under lockdown, climate change and women’s movements, youth, and communities battling unemployment.
Organise left opposition to the trade union bureaucracy
The current paralysis in the trade union movement clearly shows that this is not the task that can be left to the trade union bureaucracy. The revolutionary left must actively orientate and organize the militant layers of the trade union rank and file and organizers into an opposition organized around a fighting programme with socialist policies. It must fight for workers’ control and democracy to ensure the rank and file of the trade union movement is able to hold its leadership accountable to the advancement of the fighting strategy, union policies, and ultimately to defeat collaborationist tendencies.
Workers and Socialist Party is building its trade union fractions across the trade union movement and will be using these to actively assist in this task of organizing and uniting socialists and the Left in the trade unions.
For further perspectives on COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis in South Africa, check out NOW IS THE TIME FOR REVOLUTION, NOT REFORMISM
Teachers, support workers, and communities should decide how and when schools open
Statement by WASP
In response to the ministerial announcement by Angie Motshekga that schools will reopen from 1 June, a majority of existing teacher unions SADTU, NAPTOSA, PEU, NATU, and SAOU, have released a joint statement instructing their members to not enter schools that are unsafe. According to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), all school staff are expected to report to duty on 25 May.
Capitalism at the root of crisis in education
South Africa’s education system is in crisis at all levels – from early childhood development to higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how our public sector institutions have been gutted through under investment, privatisation, and neglect. However, the root of this crisis is the capitalist system. The ANC’s wholehearted embrace of capitalism and the adoption of a neoliberal agenda in all spheres, including education, has eroded any hope that they will provide quality education for the vast majority.
We have a two-tier public school system, made up of fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools. In addition to this there are “independent” (private) schools, some of which also receive state funding. The state funding for schools is based on a quintile system that has been proven through multiple years of research to be completely inadequate in assessing the needs of schools. It has served to further entrench poverty in schools that serve poor and working class communities, and protect the wealth of schools in the top tier.
In 21.4% of public schools, there are more than 36 learners to an educator according to the 2019 EMIS School Realities report. Overcrowding of classrooms has severe impacts on both teachers, who cannot give individual attention to learners and struggle with classroom management and workloads, as well as the learners, who can fall through the cracks as learning difficulties, mental and physical health issues go unnoticed. Currently more than half of learners starting in Gr R do not make it to Gr 12.
Ultimately this same government has shown its complete disregard for the lives of the people it supposedly serves: it took the drowning of a learner in a pit latrine, and another learner killed by the collapsing walls of one, for the government to commit to eradicating the remaining 3800+ pit latrines still in our schools. Enacting austerity budgets over decades has resulted in schools that have no running water, a lack of heating and electricity, insufficient classrooms, crumbling infrastructure, burgeoning unemployment amongst qualified teachers, and lack of resources for teaching and learning generally.
Not safe for staff and learners
In these existing conditions, combined with increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the push to reopen schools is all the more reckless. It exposes just how divorced the decision-makers in the DBE and the Provincial Departments of Education (PDEs) are from the reality schools face daily. Teachers, support workers, parents, guardians and learners however know better, and they are rightfully frightened at the prospect of reopening schools.
Without an immediate increase in budget and staffing, the empty reassurance that class sizes will be smaller in the DBE’s approach to reopen schools has no real meaning to workers in education, who are acutely aware of the shortcomings in our schools. However, an even bigger question is where will the PPE and sanitary measures come from, when our very hospitals are struggling to secure the same?
Schools as a capitalist tool
Those supporting and even pushing for the reopening of schools reveal clearly that schools under a capitalist system are not primarily for learning to take place. Many say schools must reopen because parents must go to work, children rely on schools for feeding schemes, and that the budget cannot afford a suspended academic year. Schools, just like workplaces, are arenas of class struggle – they are a valuable tool for the capitalist class. In this respect they primarily provide childcare services so that bosses can demand longer hours from the workers they exploit for profits. Additionally, schools provide the skills for an efficient and educated workforce, where the vast majority is trained to serve the ever-increasing wealth of the rich, instead of nurturing individual talents and skills.
For the working class, schools provide essential social interaction between peers and teachers to equip them with an understanding of the world and natural environment, and vital skills to meet human needs on a sustainable basis. Contrary to the class prejudices against teachers and learners in poor schools spewed by Helen Zille and her racist crowd, education is vital to the working class. Our predecessors fought and won it as a right through brutal class struggle on the foundations of ending child labour. The academic freedom for critical thinking and inquiry about capitalism, how to organise against it, and other progressive elements of the education system exist because of concessions made by the bosses and the ruling class. In South Africa these were wrestled as part of the struggle against bantu education and the apartheid regime.
To ensure that schools become primarily centres for teaching and learning, instead of shouldering the social burdens created by the capitalist system, we have to make bold demands that take us forward and address the root causes of poverty and inequality. Although fears about lack of feeding schemes for some of the most vulnerable in our society are understandable, this pandemic has shown us that we must demand and struggle for a humane post-COVID-19 world. We cannot settle for “working with what we have”.
Build for a National Stay Away
WASP supports the call for a stay away by the teachers’ unions. We call on all unions and union federations to support and adopt this important call. WASP will also be campaigning for communities and parents/guardians to keep learners away from schools. Where possible we will organise pickets outside schools and utilize other creative methods to protest this decision and show solidarity. We are calling on SAFTU and the Working Class Summit to make a call and organise for a National Stay Away on the 1st of June 2020. There is a groundswell of support for this action amongst workers and communities. If successful, this can serve as a basis for a General Strike to unite the struggle against reopening of schools with struggles in other industries for PPEs, against job losses and in communities battling COVID-19.
Months of patient engagement and advice from unions, education and health experts, parents, guardians and learners, has not convinced this government to address the current crisis scientifically. Instead, it is determined to risk the lives of school-based workers, learners, and their communities – effectively the whole of South Africa.
The DBE and the PDEs have forced workers in the education sector to take direct action in the form of a stay away. This action must be supported by the communities that they serve. Such working class solidarity and united action has the potential to not only halt the reopening of schools in order to save lives, but change our dysfunctional education system completely.
Struggle for a better education system
We can win real gains by demanding the following as well:
- The immediate construction of new schools and classrooms to accommodate class sizes not exceeding 20 learners to pandemic-proof schools, as well as updating and installing quality sanitation at all schools. Mass investment in a true public works programme with workers employed on full public sector salaries and benefits. No tenderpreneurs!
- Mass employment of currently unemployed qualified teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes.
- Utilize the time schools are closed to further train and develop all education staff, and overhaul the inflexible curriculum. Unemployed teachers and trained graduates must be employed on full public sector salaries and benefits to immediately work on translation and development of teaching and learning materials that facilitate home language instruction at all levels of basic education.
- Employment of sufficient support staff: cleaners, maintenance workers, lab assistants, tech assistants, admin etc. on a permanent basis with full salaries and benefits.
- Permanent provision of dedicated school transport that can accommodate social distancing and be sanitized regularly.
- Employment of at least one nurse, one social worker and one counsellor for every school, depending on the size of the school. Physical and psychological wellbeing are essential for learning and teaching to take place.
- Full time, insourced security stationed at schools at all times to prevent the immense vandalisation taking place.
- Free workplace or community-based childcare for all who are working.
- No person should go hungry when schools are closed – sufficient food and basic necessities to be distributed to all communities and households in need immediately and after the pandemic.
- Nationalise all private schools, abolish the fee and no-fee system in public schools. All school funding to be centralized and distributed according to need. All school facilities (fields, sports halls, auditoriums, etc) to be shared between all schools as needed. This system must be overseen by a committee democratically elected from school workers, parents and guardians, and student representatives. Full-time administrators must be paid the average salary of a skilled worker, and must be open to recall at any time.
In order to win these demands and more, we must fight for the nationalisation of the mines, large-scale agriculture, banks, pharmaceutical companies, and other big businesses. These must be put under democratic control and management by workers and communities. When production is planned according to the needs of the many, not the profits of the few elites, we can ensure schools and the communities they serve have all the resources they need. Bold demands such as these lay a foundation for building a more equal and quality education system in South Africa. They also address broader socio-economic issues, such as unemployment and precarious employment, and can serve as a transitional bridge towards a socialist society free from exploitation.
International and working class solidarity
In the past three years we have witnessed workers in education rise up against austerity measures across the world. The crisis of capitalism in our schools is the same all over the world: overworked teachers, under resourced and overcrowded schools. #RedForEd in Arizona, USA started with a 75 000 strong teacher strike, which prompted and inspired more industrial action across the US.
Across the world last year, there have been similar nation-wide teachers’ strikes, in places like New Zealand and Zimbabwe. In the UK, schools are set to reopen on June 1st as well, with unions calling on education workers not to report to duty. We fully support our comrades across the world resisting the push from capitalist governments who shamelessly throw the working class under the bus. We further call for cross-border solidarity between all workers resisting the bosses’ greed during this pandemic. The working class, and our struggle for socialism, is international.
It should be up to workers at schools, both teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as the parents and guardians of learners to decide whether the schools in South Africa can safely be reopened. All schools must have an SRC elected by learners, which must also have input in all aspects of reopening of schools. Workers in all industries have to be the decision-makers on the so-called “reopening” of the economy. We cannot put that decision into the hands of a government that is heavily influenced by the interests of big business and their profits, instead of the lives and wellbeing of the majority.
Statement by WASP
In 1894, socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote an article on the origins of May Day . It stated: “The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands.”
The working class in South Africa will once again be joining workers the world over in commemorating May Day, an international workers day, as they have done every year on the 1st of May, for over a century. This year, May Day will be commemorated in the midst of great difficulties and under restrictions not seen since the collapse of apartheid in 1994. The curfews and prohibitions of public gatherings mean that we are likely to have a May Day without the mass demonstrations and rallies that have become part of the proud tradition of the working class and the trade union movement the world over.
May Day during the COVID-19 pandemic
The challenges facing the workers movement this May Day, however, are fundamentally different to those imposed by previous regimes. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented both the capitalist system and the working class with grave challenges. Under capitalism, the pandemic has aggravated the economic recession due to lockdown restrictions, which have shut down the commanding heights of the economy and virtually halted international trade – a driving force of both the world and the South African economies. Ramaphosa’s plan has laid bare the class programme of the ANC government in this crisis. The state is bailing out the bosses with the plundering of the public treasury, and offering only pitiful relief for the working class impoverished by brutal austerity of the whole neoliberal period. It is clear that the state is offloading the burden of the pandemic and economic crises onto the working class.
The cruel intentions of the ruling class are exemplified in its stubborn refusal to redirect the productive capacity of society for production of essentials in the fight to combat the spread of the pandemic ando combat hunger. Internationally, the bosses and their running dogs in government refuse to protect workers from infections and the economic devastation of brutal lockdown conditions. We face major escalation in lay-offs, worsening of working conditions, widespread non-payment of workers, and imposition of compulsory leave days to make up for the shutdowns of industries. The opportunistic use of the pandemic to carry out evictions of entrenched land occupations of the landless urban poor, mass retrenchments of EPWP, SAA and many workers, as well as the wrecking of the collective bargaining agreement in the public sector, is a crime against the working class. Even more cruel is the treatment of the heroic healthcare workers who remain on the frontline in spite of this cowardly backstabbing and lack of protective equipment. On publication of this article, 328 healthcare workers have already been infected.
This criminal maneuvering of the ruling class exposes the call for a ‘patriotic national front’ as the calculated deception it is. It also crystallizes the political calculations behind a capitalist strategy for a militarized lockdown. The working class and labour movement need their own strategy. We must respond to the massive lay-offs, business closures, chronic shortage of PPE and the inadequate preventative measures put in place by the capitalist state.
International Workers’ Day has its origins in the struggle for an 8-hour work day. Today we are faced with a deep crisis in the economy. The Treasury estimates a 6,4% contraction in the economy and job losses ranging from 3 to 7 million on top of an existing catastrophic level of 10,3 million unemployed. In these circumstances, May Day acquires ever greater relevance and renewed meaning. The possibilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution bringing more automation of jobs in a context of growing poverty and inequality, imbue the demand for ‘shared work for all’ with greater urgency. This lockdown has vindicated our analysis that individuals do not need to work 45+ hour days for society to run. The trade union movement must put on the agenda a demand for a reduced working week without loss of income so that jobs can be guaranteed for all. A system where technological innovation spells misery for the majority due to impending job losses is a sick system and should be done away with. WASP has always campaigned for a 30-hour work week. We think this May Day the trade union movement should launch this call. A reduced work week also allows the working class much needed leisure time – to spend on further education, skills development, personal growth, family and social needs.
Furthermore, the transition to Post-COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns present the opportunity for a Green New Deal along a socialist programme. This will combat Climate Change and can retrain millions of workers whose industries will not survive this combined pandemic and economic crisis. Capitalism is incapable of making this transition on its own, perhaps more in this country than anywhere else. The crushing political domination of South African capitalism by vested interests in the ‘mineral-energy complex’ means that nothing less than a revolutionary mass movement of the working class and youth, armed with a programme to liquidate capitalism and transform the economy on a socialist basis, can carry out such a green revolution.
The trade union movement, COSATU, SAFTU, FEDUSA and NACTU should use this May Day to boldly put forward this revolutionary agenda and orient the whole working class for the class war that will prove essential to advancing it.
A Fighting Strategy
In the light of urgent challenges facing the workers in healthcare and across the economy, WASP believes that the trade union movement should also use this May Day to develop campaigns for:
- The provision of PPE including repurposing of factories for production of protective gear, masks and sanitizers; provision of safe transport as well as hazard allowance for essential workers. .
- The enforcement of the Public Sector Collective Bargaining Council Agreement. All trade union federations to join the COSATU dispute in the bargaining council and build a United Public Service Workers Front to organize a Public Sector Strike if resolution is not reached.
- The end to outsourcing and a fight for permanent employment of all precarious workers of decent wages especially community healthcare, agriculture, food industry and retail and other frontline industries.
- Rolling mass action and organized occupations to fight job losses in SAA, EDCON, EPWP, in mining and across the economy,
- An end to militarized operations and anti-democratic authoritarian measures violating the rights to organize and protest. Solidarity action, food distribution and essential services as well as enforcement of social distancing in working class communities must be done through independent working class organization.
- A general strike to unite the whole working class in the struggle for these demands as well as to ensure access to food, water and quality public healthcare for all.
- The nationalization of the private health industry. We must organise and struggle for all businesses under threat of liquidation to be nationalized under democratic workers’ control.
WASP will be joining virtual rallies being organized by SAFTU and COSATU. We will be using the platforms provided to campaign for these demands and a revolutionary strategy in the fight against COVID-19 and the economic storm that is rapidly forming before our eyes. We stand in solidarity with the workers and communities across the world, such as distribution and retail workers in the USA and Ireland, rent strikers internationally, healthcare workers in South Africa and Zimbabwe, who are planning and taking bold steps in strike and other protest actions to demand safe working conditions and a better world for all.
WASP fights for these demands, as part of a transitional programme towards a socialist society. We believe this is the only way to reach a world free from exploitation, where May Day will become a celebration of heroic workers. As Rosa Luxemburg concluded optimistically in her article, “when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.” We hope you take the step to get organised and join WASP or one of our international sister organisations of the International Socialist Alternative this May Day.
written by Mametlwe Sebei
The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a global public health crisis without precedence in living memory. The worldwide personal suffering and misery is incalculable: tragic loss of life, untold emotional torment and pain of survivors, terror and fear of starvation, enormous losses of income for many struggling for survival under lockdowns and curfews. The social and economic consequences of this pandemic are however only in their infant stages. Only after the lockdown, in the months and years to come, will the full scale of both economic and societal devastation become clear. This, in part, depends on the measures undertaken by the state.
On Tuesday 21 April Cyril Ramaphosa addressed people in South Africa regarding updated measures in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. In a country where austerity measures and “tightening the belt” has become everyday vocabulary, people viewed the seemingly sudden surfacing of hundreds of billions of rands in shock and awe. Where has this money been before the crisis, when the working class and poor have been crying out for relief to the “usual” crises of health, service delivery, housing, overcrowding, education and unemployment? Organised labour and progressives must take caution in praising the government for the newly announced relief measures, because, as they say, the devil is in the details. And there are many details left out in Ramaphosa’s latest presidential address.
The open letter from 76 economists
A group of “Left Economists”, in an open letter addressed to the president, estimated that South Africa can face up to 7% contraction in the GDP due to the corona crisis, which will leave many millions unemployed and hungry. Responding to the immense distress faced by many working class and poor during the ongoing lockdown and the impending economic slump, the ANC government has announced an economic and social relief package. Most of the measures echo the views penned in the open letter to the president, putting forward a range of Keynesian measures to pull the economy from the abyss.
As some of the authors of this letter are linked with the trade union movement, either directly or through “think tanks” that support trade union policy units, their ideas find resonance in the workers’ movement. We see this in media statements issued by both COSATU and SAFTU, and the recently established COVID-19 People’s Coalition (endorsed by trade unionists, working class community organisations, and NGOs). We, therefore, are compelled to respond.
WASP supports many of the proposals affirming demands of the workers’ movement and activists organizing in communities, and we believe they are worth fighting for as part of a fighting programme of emergency relief for workers and communities. It is however the underlying ideas of Keynesian economics – which boil down to measures taken to save capitalism – that pose an extreme danger and must be exposed and purged if we are to forge a revolutionary alternative to the ever increasing crises inherent in the decaying capitalist system.
Appeal to ‘reason’ and benevolence of the state
Capitalism divides society into two main classes, the capitalist (owners of capital, i.e. factories, banks, businesses) and the working class (who need to sell their labour power to survive). The tiny minority capitalist class gets its wealth from the labour power of the working class, in a constant and bitter struggle. They are supported and protected in this by state power, which works to maintain this massive robbery and thereby acts ultimately in the political service and class interests of the capitalists.
By failing to grasp, or at least openly approach government from this perspective, the authors of the letter commit a grave crime of ideological obscurantism and foster dangerous illusions in the possibilities of change, without the need to struggle. The most generous interpretation of the approach of the letter is that it petitions the government as an independent state organization capable of intervening in the struggle for the distribution of wealth, fairly in the interests of the working class – it must only be convinced through clear articulation of what is just. To be sure, Marxists and the workers’ movement do petition state power, but ought to always do so by means of demands that point to the fact that the state is an organised enemy class, which can only be won over to pro-working class reforms by means of organized power of the working class and struggle, not by humility and false flattery.
The brutal class character of the current state is obscured by the ruling class, as is its vicious anti-working class austerity against public healthcare and other essential services, which laid the foundations for the current disastrous public health crisis.
The manner in which the state is ‘dealing’ with the crisis can sow confusion and illusions in the working class about the cruel class aims of its measures, including the brutal lockdown – in which millions are starving without relief, water services and any possibility of social distancing in the overcrowded and unbearable squalor of working class and poor households. As we have said before, the shutdown of the economy and social distancing are absolutely vital and we have been involved in independent campaigns for the enforcement of the social distancing in working class communities, but we absolutely oppose restrictions of democratic and worker rights, police brutally and military intervention – which is being positioned against working class struggles now and in future.
The workers movement must therefore emphatically oppose this approach, as it blurs and obscures the class enemy and its main instrument of political power, the ANC government.
Marxist approach to state relief
Once the state is stripped of its constitutional disguise as an ‘independent’ organization expressing the ‘common’ interests of all and the ‘collective’ power of society, it is rightfully unmasked for the bloody anti-working class organization that it is. We must treat it with the class suspicion it deserves. The bourgeois ANC government does not intervene in the economy to the benefit of everyone.
From the standpoint of the working class, and by implication anyone speaking on behalf of it, every proposal for the relief and ultimate resolution of the crisis, is an arena for class struggle. The main aim is to redistribute the ‘profits’ expropriated by the capitalist class, which are essentially the unpaid wages of those who do the actual work of producing the goods and services in the economy – the workers. To put it differently, the demand for relief is a struggle for a social wage and not a beggary for charity from the benevolent state.
We should therefore always be clear when we make demands or proposals. Who will they benefit and how? Most importantly, who will pay for these measures and how should they be made to pay for it?
Who benefits from relief measures?
To contain the social and economic collapse, the authors of the letter proposed wide-ranging interventions for immediate relief and to sustain private industry. The most fundamental of these proposed measures, beside food parcels and other relief measures, are wage subsidies, tax relief, loan guarantees and quantitative easing (introducing new money into money supply) measures to stimulate spending and in this way bolster the economy.
In his 21 Apriladdress, Cyril Ramaphosa has certainly obliged them. As part of his Covid-19 economic and social relief package, he pledged ‘R500 billion bailouts’ based on measures along the lines proposed in the open letter. These include R41,6 billion in wage subsidies, R100 billion in cash payments to companies to save jobs, and R70 billion in tax relief, as well as a further established R200 billion loan guarantee facility and R80 billion in massive repo rate cuts (the interest rate at which the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) loans money to the commercial banks).
Although these measures are as comprehensive as could be expected of the state in the current capitalist framework within which they operate, the package is woefully inadequate and in no way represents any break with the neoliberal austerity programme. Not only does it fall short of the R1 trillion package COSATU proposed at NEDLAC, the package is also not really R500 billion worth of ‘stimulus’. Most of the funds are existing funds such as R40 billion from UIF, R130 billion from reprioritising an existing R1,95 trillion budget and 40% of it, R200 billion, is loan guarantees, not actual loans and/or investments. Apart from these, there are unprecedented quantitative easing measures initiated by SARB which, besides 200 basis points cuts in the repo rate to a record low of 4,25%, has unlocked R540 billion by lowering liquidity requirements for the banking industry.
WASP opposes these proposals. As the government bailout blatantly shows, these measures are not only meant for rescuing capitalism in general as was the stated aim of Keynes (after whom Keynesian economics are named), but invariably means using public funds to bail out private business. State power will be wielded to plunder the working class while bolstering big corporate profits.
Even where they appear to be bailing out workers – such as guaranteeing workers’ wages – we still oppose these measures on the basis of private ownership. As with the government measures, the authors effectively propose redirecting public money away from the essential services for the poor in order to pay wages owed by big corporations. These corporations then go on to make profits off the labour of these workers.
The working class is in effect made to pay twice: firstly, by attacks on their working conditions as many of them would not get reduced wages, and secondly, through the increasing cuts to services. To be sure, WASP is fighting for workers to be paid fully during the lockdown whether they are working or not, but we demand that the cash reserves of big corporations and dividends paid to their shareholders be used to pay workers. At most, state support should be limited to small businesses on the basis of a proven need, opening of books, and overseen by workers.
A quick glance at the package makes it clear that whilst the lion’s share of the R500 billion goes to big business, only a pittance is available to the working class and the poor. Less than R100 billion will be spent on fighting COVID-19, expanding municipal services like water, transport, etc. and emergency relief for the poor and small businesses. The same government, which has preached that small businesses and entrepreneurship are solutions to the unemployment and poverty crisis in the country, is providing only an additional R2 billion to the R100 million they spend thus far on ‘SMMEs, spaza shops and informal economy’ compared to hundreds of billions for big business.
Who pays for these measures?
Where these ‘relief’ funds come from is also telling. R130 billion will be from “reprioritizing” of the current budget – which is a nice way to describe savage cuts to spending on housing, education, and other public services essential to the working class. The remainder is to come from government managed funds like the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), Public Investment Corporation (PIC), and be raised from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and BRICS bank amongst others.
While opposing loans from the IMF, World Bank and other international financial institutions, some of the authors have in a separate letter to the Minister of Finance proposed raising funds from the PIC.
WASP argues that, without calling for nationalization of the businesses threatening job losses, this proposal, like the current government package, means risking pension funds of public servants and workers’ savings for unemployment insurance on the speculative activities on which most of these corporations will be using these funds. Most importantly, WASP opposes raiding and plundering workers funds to perpetuate private ownership of the economy and the profiteering of big corporations based on the wage slavery of the working class.
Although the authors oppose the IMF and World Bank loans, it is only on the basis that these are foreign loans that would take the money out of the economy and compromise the country’s “sovereignty”. WASP also opposes IMF and World Bank loans, but we argue that loans from local private banks are no different.
The entire banking industry operates on the basis of the same principle, no matter its national status. Foreign ownership of the debt is not the main problem. Foreign debt has been in decline recently, in addition to record outflows of R57,5 billion in sales of foreign-held bonds in 2018 in anticipation of downgrading of South African public debt to junk status. With an estimated further bond sales of R96 billion upon the downgrade, according to the market strategists Credit Agricole, foreign debt has been plunging below 40% of the country’s bonds. This has changed nothing in so far as the public debt is concerned, which has continued to skyrocket.
Instead of borrowing money, WASP argues that the government should renounce all debt except for the portion that the state owes to the savings and investments of workers and small businesses. A 99% special tax for the super wealthy will still allow Nicky Oppenheimer, and Anton Rupert, to each retain the R1 billion they offered in charity, in exchange for the remaining R99 billion of their R100 billion estates, which, along with others, can be used to compensate workers funds invested in public debt.
Quantitative Easing only aggravates the problem
Quantitative easing is also not a viable solution to the economic downturn, especially due to the crises of oversupply and overcapacity across the economy. This merely underlines the undeniable contradictions of capitalism, including its inescapable tendency for overaccumulation of capital – as inevitable under capitalism, as death is to life. Liquidity is not a factor in the current crisis. If anything, there is too much of it as a result of similar measures in the 2008/9 Great Recession. It will serve to create enormous public and private debt, in addition to the widespread and excessive speculation.
Following the 2008-9 crash, ecentral banks and treasuries the world over injected large sums of cash into the financial markets, and rolled out bailout packages like the current ones. For a whole period, quantitative easing saved big business, drove stock markets to record highs, and through hugely increased debts, the economic meltdown was pushed further down the road. But the hopes that QE will trickle into the real economy and save jobs and industries are delusional. , Because the markets were bloated then, as they are today, there was no outlet for profitable investment. This is the reason South African capitalists are hoarding R1,4 trillion cash in an investment strike and capital formation (investment in new factories, machines and equipment) stagnated. Lack of outlets for profitable investments is also the reason corporations like Pamodzi Gold used R300 million received from the IDC (State-owned bank) bailouts in 2009 to pay its shareholders and directors, before liquidating the company, leaving workers to vultures like Aurora to strip the mines of the remaining assets.
A familiar story
The working class has been down this road before. We know that it led to even bigger crises than the ones the capitalist class tried to avert.
Measures being undertaken by the government and cheered by the economists are like a medication that cures the illness by killing the patient. The Reserve Bank buying treasury bonds can, at best, be a short term measure that will resolve nothing. QE effectively means printing more money and there is no such thing as free money. That it could “work” in the US – for the profiteers and speculators, not the workers – had to do with the exceptional standing of the US dollar as international reserve currency, which means all countries holding dollar reserves subsidise US imperialism. Its value is therefore not entirely linked with the performance of the US economy. Also, the “success” of these measures are entirely relative and can only last in the short term, as cost of living skyrockets, while wages stagnate.
Printing money to hand cash to speculators can further displace the equilibrium in the financial markets and cause serious inflation. WASP does not oppose inflation like rightwing market fundamentalists. We oppose these measures because they will erode the value of workers’ wages and savings, in order to print cash for banks, speculators and other rich parasites.
Working class alternatives
As an alternative, we are fighting for the nationalization of the finance industry including commercial banks and massive private funds in the economy in order to expropriate the R1,4 trillion cash hoarded in banks by big corporations, to instead be used for a massive public works programme. It can be utilized to build decent houses, schools and classrooms to enable social distancing, clinics and hospitals, etc.
Most importantly, worker-controlled public ownership of the finance industry would allow mobilization of the vast savings and surplus capital into productive investment in agriculture and industrialization. This would enable production of adequate food, and manufacturing capacity to produce sufficient PPEs, medical equipment and public transport to combat COVID-19 and equip us against future pandemics.
Workers, as the only class with organized power at the point of production, must fight to achieve this. The working class must take over businesses threatening closure and job losses to force nationalization from below – through factory, mine and land occupations. Working in support of the education and organization of workers’ and community struggles is the pressing task of the hour for anyone yearning to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and fundamentally change society.
It should be without question that the state invests in public spending, those who argue that grants are merely creating a “dependency syndrome” are effectively saying people should be left to suffer, even when they had no hand in creating the crisis. However, we have no illusion that bailouts are sustainable. Capitalism, with profit making as its driving force, likes to play a “cross that bridge when I come to it” game, and when the crisis is over, it’s business as usual – exploitation and looting continues.
The above measures, in addition to nationalization of the other sectors of the economy under the democratic control and management of the working class would form a basis for a democratically planned economy and socialism, for which the working class must organize, unite and struggle. Workers control will make sure the economy is planned and a response to crises such as pandemics and climate change take place early and swiftly. Most importantly, responses would value the lives of everyone, and not be informed by profit motives, as we see in the reopening of economies worldwide – including Ramaphosa’s latest (23 April) announcement that South Africa will gradually reopen business, made on the same day as our highest cases of infections and deaths to date were announced.
by Phemelo Motseokae
Featured in our uManyano lwaBasebenzi publication
Capitalism works by turning everything in the world into commodities. In the sex industry – strip clubs, pornography, prostitution – commodification is extended to women’s bodies and, as such, their very beings. Commodification is also reflected in the tendency for sexual relations generally to take a transactional form, with men buying the power over women whether as wives, asides or one-night-stands. Indirectly, the images and text that dominate the media feed into this by objectifying women’s bodies and sexuality.
Many feminists today pose the question of the sex industry mostly on an individual level, focusing on the right not to be stigmatised, but to be accepted and affirmed. It is a true yet one-sided view. WASP argues that “selling sex” should not be criminal, but at the same time we say prostitution and the sex industry should be fought and abolished. Unlike in wage labour where workers create commodities using tools or their intellectual labour, prostitution turns womens’ bodies into commodities themselves. Almost universally, women in these circumstances report that their minds and feelings shut down to various degrees, which has a severe impact on their mental health. Mental health problems such as post traumatic stress and substance abuse rates are high among women who turn to prostitution in a desperate bid to survive. Vulnerable members of the LGBTQI communities are often forced into prostitution after being rejected by families and their communities. While some women report that prostitution is their choice, the vast majority of women who turn to this work are trafficked or coerced by circumstance and face brutal conditions, violent victimisation and psychological harm. Far from “empowering”, prostitution and the sex industry more broadly represent the ultimate forms of commodification and dehumanisation, and also play a role in reinforcing sexism throughout society.
We need to fight for a system where all can do fulfilling work and be full human beings. The 2008 economic recession undermined the liberal feminist notion of women’s liberation through gradual improvements within the capitalist system. Today, it is undeniable that capitalism has failed to liberate women – in fact re-creates and profits from women’s oppression. Capitalism denies healthcare, childcare and shelters for women esccaping abuse. Unpaid work, through the family unit, means a women’s time is largely spent on socially necessary tasks of caring for the old and sick, and raising children. We can socialize housework and stop burying women’s talents under tons of dishes and raising children. Women are also largely confined to precarious, low-paid jobs, creating super-profits for the bosses. It is capitalism that gains from this sexism and exploitation.
With this class perspective, we link solutions to broader economic and structural change that can free women from the narrow confines of capitalism and its ideologues.
For more info on this topic check out WASP’s 2014 Manifesto.
For further international perspective on the socialist feminist struggle, take a look at our website for the ROSA Movement.
by Rob Krause
Featured in our uManyano lwaBasebenzi publication
Climate change is rapidly approaching tipping points beyond which irreversible damage will be done to ecosystems and humans could join the list of endangered species. Climate change continues to be discussed as a technical scientific issue and as a threat of the near future, rather than a crisis produced by capitalism which impacts us today.
Like all crises of capitalism, the effects are unevenly felt based on class, oppression (race, gender) and geography – most harshly experienced in the neo-colonial world. For the workers, rural populations, the unemployed and poor communities of Southern Africa – and women in particular – the impacts of climate change are suffered every day in the life and death struggles against water shortages, crop failures and hunger.
Water and food are the most basic necessities for survival. Late 2019 saw Southern Africa’s worst drought in decades; possibly even a century. The impact is especially severe in a region heavily dependent on agriculture. An estimated minimum of 11 million people in the region are facing food shortages, as Grain production has dropped by an average of 30% – and 53% in Zimbabwe.
South Africa has been far from immune from the impacts. The Eastern Cape had the driest and hottest spring season in recorded history – with a provincial average of 30% of the usual rainfall and only 12% in Graaff-Reinet.
Water shortages are increasingly becoming part of the daily experience of working class communities in South Africa. In areas such as Sekhukhune a combination of low rainfall and wasteful water usage by mining, agribusiness and the state has resulted in an ongoing water crisis for residents. The impacts fall on women especially, who perform the bulk of unpaid domestic labour such as elderly/sick care, cleaning, cooking etc.
We already witness resistance against the capitalist policies that drive climate change by sections of the working class. In Soweto, workers are resisting water and electricity tariff increases, demanding renewable energy production. Communities in areas such as Xolobeni are resisting the imposition of mining.
The task of Marxists is to intervene in these day to day struggles, draw links between the conditions people are experiencing, the impacts of climate change and its root cause – the capitalist system which maximises profits at the expense of the needs of humanity and our planet. We must link up with the global climate strikes – upcoming on 24 April! We need united actions of all sections of the rural and urban working class – workers, youth, women, communities, the unemployed – around demands such as:
- Shift to 100% renewable and sustainable energy sources, zero emissions by 2045 without job losses – retrain all workers who need it
- No privatisation of SOEs; democratic worker control to stop carbon emissions and replace with renewable capacity at ESKOM, Sasol, SAA
- No to water and electricity tariff increases and cut-offs: the burdens of climate change and corruption must not be placed on the working class and poor
- Nationalise factories, mines, big businesses and large-scale agriculture and place under democratic worker control
- No imposition of mining on communities!
Make sure to also check out our MARXISM AND THE CHANGING CLIMATE article.
For international perspective, take a look at SOCIALISTS PROPOSE REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE TO WIN CLIMATE STRIKES from our world organisation, International Socialist Alternative !
Originally published 18. March 2020
Issue #2 of uManyano lwaBasebenzi is going to print as South Africa and the world is further engulfed in crises sparked by the Coronavirus pandemic every day. It is clear we are at the beginning of a monumental historical turning point.
Stock exchanges have woken up to reality. The Dow Jones in the US fell by 12,9% on March 16 – worse than the 1929 crash that set off the Great Depression. In Italy, markets lost 70% of their value in mere days. China recorded a 13% drop in industrial output in Jan-Feb and is set for -9% GDP “growth” in the first quarter of 2020 (its first economic contraction since 1976!). The world economy, volatile even before the pandemic, is entering recession – the question is how deep will it fall and for how long.
Globally, governments are responding with fiscal stimuli, new “quantitative easing” and slashing interest rates to boost businesses – raining money on banks rather than hospitals.
As lockdowns set in, many states try to cushion the effects on workers and small businesses, as with the suggested UIF boost in SA. It’s too early to assess the effects, but a shift towards state intervention is clear. Spain’s nationalisation of private health care will likely not be the last of these measures of self-preservation.
The ruling class suddenly claims that “we are all in the same boat” – and fear that it will be turned around by the great unwashed who provide the rowing power. They are throwing in all their tools, conjurations and cash to steady the capitalist boat, and will let millions of lives be lost in the process.
Governments and big businesses will apply shock doctrine methods to try to effect sweeping changes to get by now and to salvage a post-Corona-capitalism.
Amid the shock and fear, extraordinary powers are granted to the repressive cores of states, and restrictions on democratic rights, like the rights to assemble and to strike are introduced.
Jobs are slashed: up to 40% of China’s 300 million migrant workers have lost their incomes, 18% of US workers have lost their jobs or had hours cut. Preliminary forecasts show South Africa’s GDP could shrink by up to 7%.
For the working class in South Africa, the pandemic is a blow upon blows. It hits on top of climate change-fuelled drought and an economy already in recession. It will hammer a state set to impose unprecedented budget cuts on public services already woefully underfunded.
Ramaphosa claims that at this “greatest Thuma Mina-moment”, “we” must show “solidarity […] and compassion”. Beyond the recommended precautions everyone should take – which the working class and poor are largely unable to – what he really means is that the exploited and oppressed should bow down and be “sent” to save the profit system that knows no compassion for us; close ranks with the very people responsible for this mess, who allowed the virus to spread and rendered health care systems incapable of managing it.
Both the government and SAFTU leaders say “we” are at war against the virus. At the onset of actual wars, class lines are blurred. As wars play out however, they can expose the real challenges facing the working class, and trigger revolutionary upheaval. We must prepare for similar perspectives.
The case for public and democratically planned services and systems in health care, education, water, public transport, food distribution; for directing society’s resources to what is actually important – the case for a socialist South Africa and world – is stronger than ever.
WASP is determined to resolutely make this case and to find ways to strengthen the organisation of the working classes worldwide. Our solidarity is with the health care workers, co-workers, and neighbours; with those trapped in wars and refugee camps, with the worldwide mass uprising of 2019 put on hold (for now).
Contrary to what the SAFTU leadership apparently believes, there exists no “COVID-proof” capitalism, even if it did, it is not the worker leaders’ task to fall in line as advisors to capital on illusory “Keynesian” escape routes.
There will be a before and after Corona. As socialists, we must do all we can to ensure that the “after” is renewed, revolutionary mobilisations to replace this sick system with a society organised to care for the needs of people, not profits. That struggle starts now.
Yours in solidarity,
The uManyano Editorial Team
Stay-tuned for up-to-date analysis as the COVID19 crisis unfolds.
by Phemelo Motseokae
Part of Karl’s Korner, featured in our uManyano lwaBasebenzi publication
Warning: Spoilers Below
Hustlers (2019), a film based on a true story, gives audiences a view of the multi-billion dollar strip club industry. Similar to other enterprises under capitalism in the USA, strip clubs treat dancers as independent contractors. Strippers keep a relatively small portion of the money ‘rained’ on them during the show while club owners take a big cut. Despite ongoing and sometimes organised resistance from these workers, this status also denies them access to pension and medical benefits or even protections for injury at the workplace.
In the film, Destiny (Constance Wu), a young single parent joins a strip club, in a desperate attempt to take care of her daughter and grandmother. Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), also a single mother teaches Destiny dance skills
and takes her under her wing. In the dried-up aftermath of the 2008 recession, Destiny tries to return to stripping after a break and finds that Russian immigrants have been hired for much less pay. In her desperation, some man tricks Destiny to get slightly closer and stroke him for $300, only to leave her humiliated with $20.
Ramona comes up with a plan to earn more money and have more say over their lives. A group of these dancers use their sex appeal to drug and scam their sleazy Wall Street clients.
In the film, Ramona and Destiny remind each other of their power, financial wellness and dignity. Ramona says to Destiny, “Motherhood is an illness”. Ramona’s maternal attitude towards women gives her pleasure in robbing these men, turning her oppression into liberating revenge. When they’re finally busted, Destiny betrays Ramona in order to remain with her daughter; Ramona says again “Motherhood is an illness”. We may very well say “capitalism is an illness”. Poverty often traps us in ”moral” dilemmas. Even the idea that opening a business as a way out of poverty leads us to a contradictory binary that capitalism forces us into: sell your labour cheaply and suffer, or exploit others and succeed. In Hustlers strippers are disassociating a piece of themselves for survival, and in trying to embrace their experience and profit from it, they end up harming others.
With the pending global recession, strip clubs, prostitution and transactional sex in other forms can only be expected to rise among poor women. WASP has consistently explained that to win real freedom for all oppressed layers of society, we must link these struggles up with the mass dissatisfaction among the working class. We must struggle in solidarity for a socialist society that will bring a new social order to end this oppression once and for all.