The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) is South Africa’s largest trade union and the largest manufacturing union on the African continent. In the past year, it has led struggles and strikes for safer and fairer working conditions in the energy, transport and plastics sector. NUMSA also played a key role in the creation of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), which led a successful strike on April 25 that saw hundreds of thousands of workers, students, and unemployed take to the streets to demand a living wage and that the government respect workers’ constitutional right to strike.
Irvin Jim is the general secretary of NUMSA. Recently, he sat down with Peoples Dispatch to discuss the current situation in South Africa and the immense challenges that it presents, as well as the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) which was successfully registered with the electoral commission on November 3.
Peoples Dispatch: Recently, in South Africa, trade unions have been waging a number of struggles, including for a higher minimum wage, on the Eskom issue, and a strike in the plastics sector. What are the challenges you see immediately before the radical trade unions in South Africa right now?
Irvin Jim: I think we have been going through a very vicious phase. If you ask me, the working class is under siege in South Africa. I know there is a perception that we are moving out of [the time of Jacob] Zuma, whose leadership can be characterized as [associated with] the Guptas, corrupt and selfish. But I think we are getting into deeper and deeper problems. Ours has been such a setback. If we look at 1994, the people of South Africa would have said victory had been achieved and it was time of a celebration. In fact, we even characterized that period as one of democratic breakthrough. But I think it became very clear early on – and NUMSA has been consistent on this – that the western path that was chosen as a result of a negotiated compromise was a setback for the revolutionary forces in South Africa.
One of those setbacks was the fact that no revolutionary agenda was pursued. When you fail to address the fundamentals in a country that has been colonized, when you fail to address the land question, when you basically make a deal with capital and as part of that, refuse to address issues of ownership and control of the economy, it means you cannot change the power relationships in society. Thus, economic power is basically an empty shell. You are faced with two things when you abandon a vision of true liberation. Firstly, the revolution will be faced with corruption. Secondly, the revolution will be confronted by dictatorship. I think unless something is done very quickly, we could face fascism in South Africa.
Every now and then, we see xenophobia confronting us. How does this happen? Instead of dealing with real issues, the people who are the victims of and are ravaged by the brutality of the capitalist system, what do they do? They vent their anger on the weakest link. I mean what’s happening in South Africa under this so-called new dawn of Cyril Ramaphosa, is basically the worst form of Thatcherism. He is pursuing austerity measures. In other words, the country today is a facing triple crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality. It is de-industrialized.
People must keep in mind that there is no socialist revolutionary agenda that has been pursued for the past two decades. Instead, all that has been followed are the prescription dictates of the IMF, the World Bank and the rating agencies. It is their policies that have been implemented for the past two decades and these have taken the country straight into recession. We are now technically in recession. I say ‘technically’ because the performance of the economy over the last two quarters has been much weaker when compared to what it is capable of. But the working class in general, which is the majority, which is landless, which is economically marginalized – it has been in recession for the past two decades.
Instead of beginning to accept that these policies have failed, the ANC government is saying that to cure this illness, you need to follow the same prescription, and they continue with the austerity measures, the same ones that have deepened this crisis.
One thing that the Nationalist Party and the South African economy were built around, was the super exploitation of Black and African labor. The current national minimum wage we are talking about is nothing else but a way to use and to manipulate them. In 1955, at the ANC’s ‘Congress of the People’ in Kliptown, it was declared that there should be a national minimum wage. Their vision was very simple. They wanted to break the backbone of super exploitation, to do away with the colonial wage. And now, what is the ANC government introducing? The worst form of presenting to capital a platform to enable super exploitation. That is what Cyril Ramaphosa is doing. There is nothing to celebrate in this bourgeois democracy.
There one achievement of the workers was the right to strike becoming a constitutional right in South Africa. As we speak, Cyril Ramaphosa is doing everything to pass a law to take away that constitutional right to strike. So if he succeeds – and this is something we are fighting tooth and nail to stop – workers can go on strike, but if [the government] decides that it affects the economy negatively, which is the purpose of the strike, they will then have the power to stop that strike and ask the workers to go back to their jobs and hold a ballot again. Basically this is tampering with the constitutional right of workers to strike.
Then, they are privatizing. For instance let’s take the energy sector. The first battle waged successfully in the recent past was over the demand that the workers of Eskom, like any other workers, must be given an increase. This was because for the first time, the workers had been given a zero increase. The workers were asked to accept a zero increase as an increase. But we refused and said we were going to take them head on. They had to retreat then. We reached a settlement whereby an increase was given to workers. But our battle is not over.
We are being blackmailed. Sometimes, some opportunists, who are not loyal to the cause of the working class, who are co-opted by various forces to continue to plunder resources, champion privatization. For instance, we are not against moving from fossil fuels to renewable sources but we are saying there must be a just transition. You can’t say that the jobs of workers are mere statistics. In South Africa, one person not having a job affects five to six extended families. They plan to close about five power stations and connect to renewable sources. This will destroy about 92,000 jobs. We have already lost 20,000 jobs in the province that these plants are located due to the closure of Everest and Highveld Steel. Soon, it will look like a ghost province. So we are simply saying, “Listen don’t lie and say these power stations have reached the end of their life cycle. The life of these power stations can be extended to 2030.” We are saying we should extend their lifespan and together, we must embark on a discussion as to what is a just transition. And it’s not just that. We also need a socially owned renewable sector and that’s something we need to fight for too
PD: The new party, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party is launching soon. What are the immediate agenda points before it as it seeks a political transformation?
IJ: Well, you must know that launching a Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party is a declaration of war and that’s not an easy thing. But we have got democracy in South Africa. We also know that democracy is not a bag of oranges. So, we have no choice, but to start from the beginning. Launching a party is not just an idea. The party must be launched in the theatre of struggle. We are waging a struggle, we are setting up structures and we are taking up campaigns. Remember NUMSA is a union and we are very firm that it will remain a union; it will not be turned into a political party. It is a catalyst in realizing an alternative. But it is not the alternative itself.
The alternative is the party for workers, the unemployed, the youth, women, leadership and so forth. We will launch the party in the theatre of battles and struggles in the interest of the working class. If you ask me, what is its role, I would say it is mobilizing the workers and the working class that is under siege. And we can’t win this battle alone in South Africa. To win this battle, we need to join hands with for instance the people of Brazil, our comrades in Ghana, and across the world.