On 18 December 2007, delegates to the annual conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) inflicted a humiliating defeat on South-African president Thabo Mbeki, by voting him out of his position as leader of the party. Instead, his ex-deputy, Jacob Zuma, was elected leader of the ANC by two votes to one.
This event is significant for two reasons. Firstly, because Mbeki owes his state presidential position to the backing of the ANC and, after this vote, like Mbeki before him, Zuma will be in the best position to get himself endorsed as the next ANC presidential candidate (Mbeki's term will end after the 2009 parliamentary elections). And secondly, because of the fact that Zuma was voted in despite his record of corruption - which says a lot about Mbeki's discredit in his own party.
It should be recalled that South Africa has been virtually a one-party state since 1994. In the pre-1994 years, the ANC had already managed to absorb most of the anti-apartheid currents. For a long time, the leading circles and memberships of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) had been tightly intertwined with those of the ANC. This provided the basis for the ANC-dominated tripartite alliance between the three organisations, led to victory by Nelson Mandela in the country's first non-racial election, in 1994. More recently, the ANC increased its monopoly position further by absorbing the New National Party - a revamped version of the old Afrikaner National Party which ruled over the apartheid state - after the 2004 elections. The tripartite alliance gained overwhelming majorities in each of the next 2 parliamentary elections so far held. Meanwhile, the ruling circles of the ANC have become a closed arena, in which the policies of the state machinery are decided upon, together with government appointments at every level.
Given a chance, however, the membership of the ANC can reflect, to a certain extent, the opinion of the population and this is what seems to have happened with the 4,000 delegates who attended this conference.
Of course, the vote which took place at that conference partly reflected a bitter factional fight within the ANC leadership. The fact that the delegates did not only dispense of Mbeki but also relegated all the top national executive committee members who belong to his inner circle, is probably an expression of this factional fight. So, among others, the ex-party chair "Terror" Lekota lost his NEC seat, while Trevor Manuel, the current Finance Minister, who had come first in the previous NEC election, came only 57th this time, although he still made it onto the 86-member committee. On the other hand, the notorious 71-year old Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was allowed to make a comeback to the NEC, by winning the highest vote of all this time round...
As to Zuma's victory, it must be said that the delegates were not given much of a choice since he was the only candidate against Mbeki - so, it was more a victory by default.
Indeed, there was nothing to choose politically between the two candidates. Both are 65 year-old ANC "veterans" who played relatively minor parts in the struggle against apartheid when they were young men. Mbeki spent 6 safe years studying economics at Sussex University in Britain, (producing a thesis on "Location of industry in Ghana and Nigeria"!), then occupied various top desk positions in the ANC leadership-in-exile. As to the apparently "affable" Zuma, he later became part of the ANC intelligence unit, responsible for rooting out spies and notoriously, those who dared to disagree with the "party line" in the ranks of the ANC's armed wing.
Once the ANC came to power, Mbeki and Zuma were both assured of a political career. It was Mbeki that Mandela selected as his successor, in 1999, largely due to his image as a "diplomat" in the imperialist capitals. However, Zuma shared Mbeki's political good fortune since he was his deputy president until 2005 - when he had to resign due to corruption charges linked to an arms deal involving the French company Thalès, not to mention other scandals in which he was subsequently embroiled. In any case, during those 6 years in which Zuma was in office with Mbeki, no-one heard him criticising the policies which were implemented.
In other words, by voting for Zuma the 60% of delegates who elected him as ANC leader cannot have had the illusion that they were voting for a different political course - they can only have used this means to express their rejection of Mbeki's government policies and to distance themselves from his unpopularity
This internal party election was given a high profile in Britain, because there is a large shareholder interest at stake. Among the OECD countries, Britain is the largest single investor in South Africa and its largest trading partner. Just 15 months before the next general election (due in April 2009), the ousting of Mbeki and his faction from the leadership of the ANC is worrying British shareholders, judging from the business press. These shareholders would like to be assured that Zuma will look after their interests as well as Mbeki has. However, if they do need to worry about something, it is not about Zuma, who has gone out of his way to reassure them. As a veteran ANC activist told the Financial Times, "people think Zuma will make changes, but nothing will change, it will be as bad." Which says it all.
Mbeki's failed balance sheet
Ironically, the World Bank has praised Mbeki's handling of the South African economy, pointing to the past 4 years of sustained growth - an average of around 5% per annum, compared to 2-3% in the previous 5 years.
It does not matter to them, of course, that this has not made even a tiny dent on the huge unemployment rate. According to trade union federation, Cosatu, the number of unemployed actually rose from 4.28m in 2006 to 4.34m in 2007. And being part of government, Cosatu is unlikely to over-estimate the jobless count!
This means that at least 38.3% of the potential workforce has no job. Two thirds of the unemployed are under the age of 35 and 50% of these have never had paid work. South Africa's unemployment rate is the highest among the so-called "middle-income countries".
There is, however, an ever-growing "informal sector" - which is included in the employment statistics and makes up 20% of the "workforce in work"! Here, for instance, one finds people who collect and "recycle" rubbish off the dumps to try to scrape a living. Worse, these desperate individuals, a hallmark of the poverty-stricken urban slums of the Third World, are even hailed as smart "entrepreneurs"!
The biggest increase in jobs "created", is in the so-called "tertiary sector" in retail and services, in other words, jobs which are casual and low paid. In the meantime, good, permanent jobs continue to disappear, with only fewer, bad, temp jobs to replace them. Of course, one can make that point about the job situation in Britain. Only in South Africa the context is that every other adult you meet has no formal employment!
Mbeki has been making all kinds of assurances that the situation is bound to improve soon. All three of the economic "plans" put forward by governments so far have been based on the idea that growth would have to take place first, before redistribution of income and public spending, on any decent scale, would be possible. The latest of these plans, called "Asgi-SA" (accelerated and shared growth initiative...), which has replaced "GEAR" (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), is supposed to begin to redress some of the imbalance by spending on infrastructure and public services, at least - but this has become an emergency anyway, due to acute deterioration. The main objective of this, however, is not to redistribute to the poor by improving the infrastructure they use, let alone by creating new ones. In fact, its objective is only to prepare for the 2010 Soccer World Cup and prevent potential investors from being frightened away.
The total costs of the 2010 projects is estimated to go up to £1.5bn (although no-one knows how high the real cost will be since this figure has been re-evaluated upwards several times already). These have produced a construction mini-boom, due to projects like numerous sports stadiums, as well as an underground railway (the so-called "Gautrain", costing an additional £1.8bn), linking Johannesburg, Pretoria and Oliver Tambo International Airport. However, this mini-boom will not do much to reduce unemployment, because 60% of the construction jobs are on a casual basis.
Even under the "GEAR" economic plan, it was envisaged that jobs would only be created once a 6% growth target was hit, and this is still the case today. So according to Mbeki, the jobs are on their way! The plan is that by 2014, and with 6% growth, unemployment will have halved...so, just wait another 7 years and there will be "only" 1 in 4 workers unemployed, instead of one in 2, provided, that is, that the economy grows!
They are called "black diamonds"
On the other hand, there are those lucky enough, or well-connected enough, to come under the magic spotlight of BEE (or B-B BEE) - broad-based black economic empowerment. This is the policy launched by the government in 1994 to make up for the previous century of white privilege, but which has really only benefited the "chosen few". They are sometimes referred to as "Mbeki's children", since he famously spoke out in favour of getting rich and not being ashamed of it at a business forum in 1999: "I would like to urge, very strongly, that we abandon our embarrassment about the possibility of the emergence of successful and therefore prosperous owners of productive property and think and act in a manner consistent with a realistic response to the real world".
Today, the government boasts that BEE is no longer elitist and is working, at last. Companies are supposedly appointing more and more black managers and doing their subcontracting from black companies under the B-B BEE rules - which legislated on so-called "preferential procurement" from black-run companies. So this May, a reports originating from the University of the Witwatersrand and from Cape Town University, both claimed that the size of the black middle class is now growing at a rate of 30% a year. Also in May, a Businessmap report sponsored by the British High Commission was published on the same subject, asserting that there was significant growth of a black middle class, thanks to BEE initiatives - even though there was surprisingly little data to support this claim! Indeed BEE is widely lampooned, so allusions to honey pots, stings and buzzes and bee-all's abound, whenever the issue raises its head.
Companies are meant to recruit black people to their highest level of management. Of course, in the public sector this is already the case. But in the private sector, in the top 50 listed companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) only 28% of executive directors are black, with 66% white and 6% from other ethnic groups. The Commission on Employment Equity reported that in 2005/6, 40% of recruits into "senior management" were black or mixed race. The other 60% were white - even though whites make up less than 10% of the population!
Another BEE initiative has been the recent issue of shares for sale to black people only, by the government, in the cell-phone company MTN and in the state-oil company, Sasol - said to be a great success because the MTN issue was 13% oversubscribed! Obviously, selling people shares is meant to give them a stake in the system - or so Mbeki & Co think! Meanwhile the capitalists remain in control and BEE really means black only around the edges. There is room for only a few more to benefit, in addition to the original BEE beneficiaries like Ramaphosa, Sexwale, and Phosa - and that is why they are nick-named "black diamonds", because they are rare.
In the meantime, the inequality gap between managers and workers is widening. It is said that the average worker would have to work 273 years to earn what the average chief executive is paid annually (R4.5m-8m or £300,000-£600,000 compared to R29,861 - or £2,297 annually - for a worker who qualifies for the minimum wage)!
What is more, the majority of the population has been experiencing a real fall in its standard of living during these years of so-called "growth". In other words the only thing that has been growing for the working class is the cost of living. In the run-up to last year's 28-day public sector strike in June, the unions worked out that food prices had risen by 18% over the year. The cost of cooking oil had gone up by 21.9%, bread by 9.2% and maize meal by 31.5%. By August, the price of milk had increased, over a mere three months by 32.6%! Then bread and maize meal went up by another 10%!
Over the year transport costs went up by 13% and will no doubt keep rising because of the increasing price of oil. School fees have gone up an average of 12% (beyond primary school, education is not free), costs of municipal services and clothing by 9%. In fact Eskom, the state-owned electricity provider, has just announced that it "has" to increase prices by 12% to provide much needed investment.
Even for those lucky enough to have a decent job, wages have lagged behind inflation and price rises. As to the others, already many just could not afford to pay for electricity and other necessities even before these price increases!
Mbeki and his mates in business may well claim that the South African economy is in great shape, but the crisis in South Africa's electricity supply is as good an indicator as any that this is pure nonsense.
The government has proved entirely unable to maintain the national grid, let alone expand electricity supply to cover all the new homes (1.2m), shopping malls and other buildings which have appeared during the past 13 years. So every day the electricity supply is officially switched off for one or two hours (but often much longer) - to "save" energy. As for the new stadiums being built for the football World Cup, they will not be threatened by this derelict infrastructure as they will have their own electricity generators. The R25.5bn underground "Gautrain" will presumably have its own dedicated power supply, too.
In other words, Mbeki's "affluent" economy only means that profits and the exploitation of the working class are on the increase.
An unexpected and very solid strike
Given the continued rise in the cost of living, it is hardly surprising that the government's 5.3% pay offer to public sector workers last April was met with a strike. It surprised the government, however, and even more so when it carried on for a full 28 days. Not that Mbeki and his ministers took it lying down. They used every dirty trick in the book in order to break the strike. It was declared illegal, strikers were attacked, organisers were arrested and thousands of strikers were dismissed - including 5,000 nurses at one point, who were told that they were "not allowed" to strike due to being considered "essential workers". In fact, during this period, many cases went to court in order to define who was an "essential worker" and who was not - including at one point, a case brought against police who wanted to join the strike!
The workers involved were mainly health/hospital workers and teachers, as well as other workers in education, black and white, organised in 17 unions. The largest of these unions is the Public Service Association, (207,000 members) independent, white-dominated and certainly not known for its militancy. Two unions affiliated to Cosatu (and therefore linked to the ANC) were also involved, with the others either affiliated to the old Black Consciousness union federation, Nactu, or to Fedusa, which includes revamped multiracial unions, which came out of some of the white unions from the apartheid days.
The unions presented a united front against Gertrude Fraser-Moleketsi, the public service minister, pointing out that their wages were lagging behind official inflation by 11.9% and demanding at least a 12% pay increase. If the government did not offer what workers wanted, the unions threatened an indefinite strike. Which is what happened - after the statutory 30-day "cooling off" period, during which the offer was increased to 6.5%.
Cleaners and security workers, the lowest paid in the sector - some 30,000 workers - were getting paid around R37,000 a year (£52/week). This obviously did not allow them to make a bare living! For nurses, entry-level pay was £5,846 per annum (£112/week). To judge what this means it may be worth knowing that a loaf of bread costs between 40 and 60p, a pound of maize meal costs 18p, a litre of milk costs 70p, a litre of cooking oil costs 80p and a pound of mincemeat costs £3.80. In other words the cost of basic necessities in South Africa is comparable to that in Britain (with the exception of housing and energy costs, which are lower) - yet the minimum wage is less than 1/4 of its British counterpart!
On top of the issue of low wages, are the appalling working conditions, both of which have been fuelling the brain drain of nurses and other professionals. The nurse to patient ratio in KwaZulu-Natal is between 1:40 and 1:60 - when the World health Organisation's recommendation is 4:1. Nearly one third of all civil service posts remain vacant so that nurses increasingly also have to do the jobs of porters and janitors. Out of 191,000 nurses registered in South Africa, fewer than 120,000 are currently working in the profession. It is thought that up to 40,000 have gone abroad. And this, in the context of an HIV pandemic - with an estimated 5.4m out of a population of 44m living with HIV/AIDS and only around 360,000 on anti-retroviral treatment.
By 1 June 2007, the all-out indefinite strike had begun, involving between 600,000 and 800,000 teachers and health workers at any one time! On 3 June, the government announced that the strike was "crippling service delivery". Threats to sack striking health workers in essential services were made and then carried out. Police intervened at a number of schools and hospitals. In Durban, outside Addington Hospital, police used a stun grenade to disperse striking health workers and 12 were arrested, charged with "contravening the Public Gatherings Act and violating an interdict issued by the Labour Court stopping employees in essential services from downing tools".
Stun grenades were also fired at striking health workers at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town. The government resorted to dismissal notices for 5,000 nurses and other health workers and began to use the army medical corps to break strikes in some hospitals. As for the schools, in most provinces the strike was 85-90% solid.
Within another week, the miners, metalworkers, and municipal workers unions' announced they were considering sympathy action, and a one-day sympathy strike was called for 13 June. Municipalities went to court to try to prevent local government workers from joining the sympathy strike and at the last minute the Cosatu-affiliated miners' union, the NUM and the metalworkers' union said they did not have "enough time" to organise their sympathy action and pulled out. But the municipal workers won their court case and went out on the 13th, as did taxi-drivers, as well as many other workers. 43 marches were held around the country, with huge banners and placards (eg. "Gertrude - you are the weakest link - KOObye!") and a number of city centres were completely blocked for the day. The government said "only" 70,000 had joined the public service workers that day, while the union leaders claimed 600,000. But it was obviously a success.
The strike was still pretty solid after 3 weeks. So at this point the pay offer was upped to 7.25% and the government emphasised that it was really offering a package - with increases on health insurance (there is no free "NHS" in sickness-stricken South Africa!) and housing allowances, as well as an increase in the pay scales for the lowest grade workers, increases in shift allowances and "danger money".
By the end of the following week, on the 29 June, exactly 28 days after the strike had started, the pay offer was increased by another quarter percent to 7.5% and the strike was called off.
In effect, if all the allowances were taken into account, the lowest paid were getting an 18% increase and the highest paid 9.4%. All the dismissal notices were withdrawn and the pay deductions for the strike were agreed to be taken out of workers' wages at a rate of 4 days per month, rather than all at once.
This was not the result which the workers wanted and one can question whether the potential power of the strikers was used to the full, given that, all along, they remained dependant on union machineries over which they had no control. But the strikers certainly gained, not only a higher pay rise, but the experience of their collective action and solidarity which, since this is only a one-year deal, could well be relaunched, if they decide to fight again in a year's time.
Maybe a significant feature of this strike was that it was not controlled by the governmental union confederation Cosatu. Also, for the first time in the post-apartheid era, this strike brought workers to join ranks together, regardless of section and regardless of colour.
Waking of the sleeping giant?
Within a few months another sleeping giant seemed to be waking up - the huge battalions of the mineworkers. It tends to be forgotten that there is such a huge potential force still working in the mines in South Africa and that these workers were the spearhead of every significant fight against apartheid and exploitation - from the first miners' strike in 1946, through 1987.
It is true that, since 1994 the mining industry has more or less been in consistent decline. Many jobs have been cut over the past 13 years and many of the engineering functions have been subcontracted and mechanised - resulting in a cut in the number of permanent and the hiring of workers on temporary contracts.
That said, the mining sector as a whole employs directly 458,600 workers, according to the Chamber of Mines 2006 report. Another 152,800 workers are employed in associated industries. This means that, taking all dependents into account, around 5m people subsist on mine workers wages.
Since the rise in the price of gold on the world market, there is supposedly a new gold rush on, and gold is reaching record prices for the first time in decades. As a result South African mining companies which already mine gold at the world's greatest depths are looking to go even deeper, all the more so because, apparently, the deeper miners go, the richer the ore they can recover. As a result, 9 mines employing 60,000 workers, which were (supposedly) in the red in 2005, are now in profit thanks to mining deeper - and that is all that matters to the mine-owners and their shareholders.
So, Gold Fields, the second biggest producer after AngloGold Ashanti, announced in October 2007, that it was about to set a new record by digging more than 4,120m at its Driefontein mine. Never mind the fact that, the previous month, in this very same mine, a worker had been killed by a tremor at 3,000m below surface. Never mind either the fact that the deeper the mine, the more difficult it is to ensure effective emergency help in case of accident and the more the likelihood of rock falls, gas, flooding - not to mention the unbearable heat. In October 2007, 3,200 miners were trapped at 1.500m below surface, in a mine belonging to another gold company, called Harmony. It took 3 days to rescue the trapped men. How long would the rescue operation have taken and would it have been successful, had these miners been trapped at more than 4,000m instead? But then, for the gold bosses, workers are infinitely expendable!
Of the 119 workers killed in South African mines last year, 113 of them died in gold mines. In fact the rates of injuries and fatalities in the South African mining industry are even higher than in China - even though a large proportion of Chinese mines are totally unregulated. According to the NUM, the total injury rate per million hours worked in 2007 - in gold mines - was 6.9 and the death rate was 0.34. This latter figure is to be compared with a death rate of 0.26 in China and 0.18 in the US.
For once - and after a long silence - the NUM decided at the end of last year to organise a protest against the mine bosses' consistent refusal to ensure safety in the mines. As the NUM News wrote, "Mines continue to push production targets at the expense of ordinary workers. While the Mine Health and Safety Act says everyone has the right to refuse to do dangerous work, those who refuse get fired for dereliction of duty and insubordination. Mining houses want to mine deeper as concepts such as ultra-deep mining are coined; CONOPS is the norm. The Director of Public Prosecutions has not yet prosecuted any single person" [CONOPS involves continuous operations which, in the case of Harmony gold mines, for instance, means that mines operate for 353 days a year instead of the standard 273 days, resulting in a 25% increase in extraction and a 5-8% cut in cost per ton!].
On 4 December 2007, the NUM called a one-day national strike to protest against the death toll in mines. It involved at least 250,000 miners was and effectively closed down most platinum and gold mines and at least 65% of coal mines. Workers held rallies all over the country, many marched through the streets of Johannesburg to the Chamber of Mines Headquarters and in addition to the slogan on safety, there were placards demanding a living wage. The protest only lasted one day, but it was certainly impressive and a powerful indication of the potential strength of the mineworkers. However, for the NUM leadership, all this strike and demonstration were really intended to achieve was to show the bargaining strength of the NUM, possibly to demonstrate the support of the mineworkers for the union, but certainly nothing else.
In fact, on 27 November, the Chamber of Mines had already, signed a deal with the NUM which "agreed" to their national protest! This signed document was also full of pledges to "do better" on mine safety. But of course it means nothing - or very little - when it comes to what really happens underground in each mine.
What is more, one has to wonder what the NUM leadership has been up to over the past few years, since it has been signing CONOPS agreements with companies like Harmony - which has had these in place since 2004.
That said, one of the arguments that is being used by the Cosatu leadership - and quoted in an interview to the British Financial Times in December 2007 - is that it was a "mistake" for Cosatu to "allow" mechanisation in the mines and elsewhere in industry and that more labour intensive operations would have meant a higher employment rate. This line of reasoning is probably par for the course coming from the bureaucratic leadership of the South African unions today. It can be compared to Arthur Scargill's slogan "coal, not dole", which led British mineworkers into an isolated and catastrophic rearguard battle against Thatcher, back in 1984-1985. To all intents and purposes, it proposes to relegate generations of miners to dark, hot and dangerous conditions in deep pits, instead of arguing for other, clean, safe, and healthy jobs for every redundant miner - something that the capitalist class, taken collectively, would find the means to afford and organise, if it was faced with the threat of a determined mobilisation from a large enough section of the working class.
Squaring the circle to avoid rocking the boat
The increasing discredit of Mbeki's anti-working class policies and the frustration that these policies have generated among workers - as was reflected by the various demonstrations of militancy which took place in 2007 - probably helped prompt the Cosatu and SACP leaderships to distance themselves from Mbeki. They must have felt that by failing to do this, they would be taking the risk of losing part of their support in the working class - and therefore part of their leverage within the tripartite alliance, since it is precisely their support among workers which makes them useful auxiliaries to the ANC pro-business policies.
The problem for the Cosatu and SACP leadership, however, is to find a way of distancing themselves implicitly from the policies carried out in government by the ANC, without dissociating themselves from the alliance's official policy, as such.
In fact, this is an old problem for Cosatu and the SACP, a problem which is as old as the tripartite alliance itself. Firstly, they cannot afford to risk priming a chain reaction in the working class by taking a position which, because it is too openly opposed to the government's policy, may appear as an alternative. Secondly, they have to take into account the existence, in and around the ANC leadership, of characters who dream of the day when the ANC will be able to go it alone, without having to make allowances to fellow travellers as "distasteful" as these "communists" of the SACP (even if the SACP leaders have long forgotten the real meaning of this word) and these "working class trade-unionists" of Cosatu (even if the Cosatu leaders seem to feel more comfortable as "partners" of the bosses than as organisers of the struggles of the working class).
In their past attempts to square this circle, the Cosatu/SACP have resorted to various forms of factional struggles within the ANC, together or separately, but visibly enough to let it be known that there were disagreements and on which side of the disagreements they were. It seems that they have resorted once again to the same tactics this time round. By refusing their support to Mbeki, they appear to be opposing his policies - as if these were in any way at odds with ANC policy! But by lending their support to Zuma, they endorse someone who belongs to the ANC fold, is perfectly acceptable to the ANC apparatus and represents the same political orientation of the ANC that Mbeki has been implementing in office.
Those who had been hoping that the SACP and Cosatu leaderships would adopt "a plague on both your houses" position in the ANC leadership election were, therefore, disappointed. Instead they heard both organisations refraining from making any substantial criticism against Zuma and even some trade-union leaders portraying Zuma as the candidate "for the poor"!
None of this should come as a surprise, of course. The aim of these organisations was never to rock the boat of capitalism. But after 13 years in office, their leading circles have acquired a taste for the perks attached to running the errands of the capitalist class. This has also affected the unions, sometimes right down to the workplace level - which is hardly surprising after the repeated purges of dissenters organised since 1994.
The Workers' Party - a vital necessity
This situation raises, once again, like everywhere else in the world, the necessity for a party which represents the political interests of the working class - a party which, in particular, is capable of, and determined to lead the working class in its struggles against its capitalist enemies, but also against its false reformist "friends".
This necessity was already raised years ago, back in the days of the struggle against apartheid, by activists who reacted against the crass nationalism of the ANC and its rejection of the specific social interests of the working class - both of which were duly endorsed by the SACP. From the first trade-union explosion, in the first half of the 1970s, to the end of apartheid, in the early 1990s, the need to build a Workers' Party as opposed to the kind of cross-class alliance promoted by the nationalists, was the subject of heated polemics among a whole generation of activists, in particular among those who built the new trade unions which emerged, in very tough circumstances, during the large-scale struggles of that period.
The unprecedented level of mobilisation and politicisation which prevailed, for long periods at a time, in the working class ghettos, could have provided the necessary conditions for the emergence of this Workers' Party. However, the SACP was determined to prevent any kind of organised challenge to the ANC from within the ranks of the working class. It waged a vicious campaign against those who defended the idea of the Workers' Party - the "workerists" as the SACP activists called them, using a term which was meant to be derogatory. In the end, the SACP/ANC imposed their terms, largely thanks to their influence among the unemployed youth who were used to police the townships and paralyse (or eliminate, if necessary) any political dissent. And no Workers' Party came out of this long period of intense mobilisation, not even in an embryonic state.
The irony was that those who had defended the idea of a Workers' Party were vindicated by the course of events, when the South African working class proved itself as the decisive force in bringing down apartheid.
After the first strike wave of the early 1970s, the Soweto explosion of 1976 and a long series of other more limited clashes, another huge working class mobilisation had taken place, starting from the early 1980s, and gathering pace throughout the decade. This time the state's repression failed to slow down the rising tide of the movement. This was the period when, in a matter of four years, through a long series of strikes in which workers had to confront the repressive machinery of the racist state, union membership went past the million mark, reaching the point when it included almost half of the black working class.
At this point, nothing seemed to be capable of containing the mobilisation of the working class. It had reached a point where it could become a real threat for the profits of South African capitalists as well as imperialist companies operating in South Africa. By its very momentum, this mobilisation also threatened to become an inspiration and an example for the working classes of the surrounding African countries. And it was for all these reasons that the main representatives of the South African capitalist class and its leading politicians decided, under the auspices (and probably the pressure, also) of the western imperialist powers, to organise jointly with the ANC, SACP and Cosatu, the orderly dismantling of apartheid.
Having precipitated the fall of apartheid by its mobilisation, the working class was deprived of any role in the subsequent course of events. This was not because it had no role to play, quite the opposite. It was because it had no party representing its political interests and, therefore, capable of making the most of its mobilisation to shape the construction of the new South Africa according to the interests of the poor masses. As a result, the tripartite alliance concocted a new South Africa which was open for big business and in which the black working class soon realised that, while the institutional apartheid of the past had been rubbed out, not much had changed in the social apartheid which they had always known. The balance-sheet of Mbeki's presidency is only the latest illustration of this reality.
Today, therefore, the problem of ridding society of this social apartheid remains. And to achieve this, nothing but a Workers' Party will do. Only such a party can lead the massive mobilisation of a determined working class, confident in its capacity to change the world. The existence of such a party will be decisive for the future of the South African working class, because without it, it will have no means to build up its collective strength into a weapon against capital, capable of shaping society according to its social interests.
A cause for optimism is that, at least, there is still a whole generation of experienced working class activists who are familiar with this issue of the Workers' Party. If some of these activists decided to participate in building such a party and to help the younger activists with their experience; if the need for such a party, as a voice for the working class, independent from any other capitalist or nationalist forces, started to be asserted clearly in front of workers, even if only on a small scale in the beginning; then, despite the inevitable obstacles that it will have to overcome, not least of which the hostility of the union bureaucracy, the construction of the Workers' Party will have made a good start. And with a bit of luck, the South African working class may be able to achieve the victory which was within its reach 13 years ago, before it loses all memory of this past experience.