by Philip Ferguson
Most workers and unionists would be horrified by the police shooting dead of 34 striking miners at the Lonmin mine in South Africa. This sort of brutality is usually associated with right-wing dictatorships in the Third World, not supposedly progressive forces of liberation like the African National Congress. While we certainly haven’t seen this level of state brutality in New Zealand outside of the Land Wars of the early-mid 1800s, there are some important connections and lessons for politics here which can be drawn from events in South Africa and the role played by the ANC.
One of the central problems for workers in South Africa is the intertwining of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, whose members make up a core section of the ANC membership and leadership.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, new militant unions emerged in the working class, most especially among black workers. These unions played a major role in challenging the apartheid regime and making the country ungovernable as long as that system remained. At the same time, the SACP, under the pressure of the mass movement, shifted leftwards to more radical positions than were usually associated with pro-Moscow parties of the time. Many of the radicalising workers and union organisers therefore joined the SACP and ANC, which they saw as the main political organisations confronting the regime. The SACP’s nearly-defunct union fronts were merged with the new unions and COSATU was formed. In this process, the SACP manoeuvred successfully to get a grip, if not stranglehold, on union positions.
The Eastern European regimes, which the SACP so admired, collapsed at the end of the 1980s, followed soon after by the Soviet Union. At the same time, powerful sections of the South African capitalist class had come to the conclusion that apartheid was no longer the necessary political form for capital accumulation there and that the longer it continued to be imposed the greater were the chances that the struggle against apartheid would develop into a struggle against capitalism per se. So they stepped up contact and negotiations with the ANC and SACP leaderships. Apartheid would go, black South Africans would be given the vote and the ANC be allowed to become the government provided capitalist business was protected. These two factors – the collapse of the SACP’s model of socialism and the prospect of power in a post-apartheid (but still capitalist) South Africa – ensured the conversion of the SACP-ANC to the maintenance of capitalism. The market, not the Freedom Charter, would shape the ‘new’ South Africa.
Indeed, the SACP-ANC went further than this. For instance, the old apartheid-era Nationalist Party was not a thoroughly free market party. It maintained a sizeable state sector, partly to buy the support of white workers. But the capitalist class by the 1990s required at least the partial dismantlement of the state sector and a more market-driven economy. The ANC was a much more suitable instrument for imposing market reforms; it was more of a blank canvas in terms of economic policy and it had the kind of mass support that would enable it to stymie opposition to such reforms. In this it was somewhat like the fourth Labour government in New Zealand, which was far more suited to the ruthless anti-working class measures necessary to restore capitalist profitability than the Muldoon government which preceded it.
Moreover, a layer of SACP, ANC and even former COSATU leaders have converted themselves into very wealthy capitalists. All in the name of ‘black empowerment’. Perhaps the most outstanding example is Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa was originally a militant union leader in the 1980s. As the apartheid era drew to a close he realised there was big money to be made by unscrupulous chancers. He converted his experience as a union activist into an attractive CV for private business who were looking for black figures to help manage and exploit the black working class in the new era. And who better for that role than someone who had been a militant unionist himself and knew all the tactics and thought processes of militant workers. Ramaphosa was able to turn his old militant CV to such personal advantage that he was son a multi-millionaire. Today he is one of the owners of the Lonmin mine, among other businesses.
This is a somewhat similar process to the development of the Labour Party here into a party for managing capitalism. Like the ANC, the Labour Party once had a significant layer of union militants, although by the time it was formed Labour’s trade union contingent had already ceased being very militant. The defeat of the radical unions in New Zealand in 1913 led a section of the militants to turn to parliamentary action and they united with more conservative forces to form the Labour Party in 1916. Former militants became respectable bourgeois politicians; indeed, because they themselves had once been militants they were particularly good at dealing with and undermining working class activists who remained radical and continued to struggle against the system.
Just as the ANC, including its SACP component, saved South African capitalism in the 1990s, the NZ Labour Party saved capitalism here in the 1930s Depression era. Under the first Labour government the rate of exploitation of workers was actually stepped up, the capitalist economy was centralised, planned more and made more efficient during WW2, and the trade union movement was generally brought more into the clasp of the tentacles of the state apparatus and therefore became less able to represent the independent class interests of workers. Not surprisingly, by the time the first Labour government lost power in 1949, the capitalists had a greater share of national income than they had when Labour had first come to power in 1935.
In the 1980s, New Zealand capitalism was in serious difficulties again. Indeed, the economy faced freezing up altogether and the National Party, under Muldoon’s leadership, were not willing or able to impose the drastic economic reforms at the expense of the working class which were necessary to shore up capitalist profitability. The capitalists turned to Labour, which won power in 1984 and began implementing a set of economic reforms which benefited the bosses and drove down the incomes, real wages and living standards of workers. As with the ANC in South Africa, Labour politicians had built up significant links with the local ruling class. And as in South Africa, leading Labour politicians here soon cropped up on the boards of companies that had acquired chunks of the old state sector.
In South Africa COSATU, the SACP and the ANC constitute the ‘Tripartite Alliance’. This Alliance was central to ending apartheid, but it is also central to the maintenance of the brutal exploitation and oppression of the working class. This is strikingly similar to the case in this country. The ability of the Labour governments to save capitalism twice over in New Zealand was, like the ability of the ANC to pursue ruthless market-oriented economic policies in South Africa, dependent on a special relationship with the trade union movement. This was a two-way relationship – the leaders of Labour (and the ANC) told the union leaders who were attached to them what to do and the union leaders said “yessir” and acted as conduits for Labour and the ANC’s capitalist policies into the union movement. Far from acting as independent organisations of the working class, the attached unions became subordinated to Labour and the ANC and their capitalist managerialism. They became useless as organisations of the working class – indeed, worse than useless because they functioned as barriers to block working class resistance to the attacks on rights and living standards.
While there are thus strong similarities between the ANC and the Labour Party here, there is another important connection to be made. This is the centrality of class. While the ANC was a multi-racial movement, it was unable to move beyond the idea that the political form taken by the overall system in South Africa, a form based on ‘race’. This made the shift to focusing on ‘black empowerment’ within the existing economic system, and simply enriching a small layer of blacks at the expense of the exploited and oppressed masses, a logical development. In New Zealand, a similar process has taken place with the emergence of Maori capitalism. Because Maori are not by far the largest ethnic group in New Zealand, the way blacks are in South Africa, Maori capitalism is still relatively modest compared to the wealth and power of the new black bourgeoisie in South Africa. However the economic-political trend is similar, as is the ideology used to justify it. In New Zealand the term is tino rangatiratanga; in South Africa, it’s black empowerment.
Both terms have served to politically disarm and confuse much of the left. If class is the key denominator, then what is needed is class politics not ‘race’-based politics. Class politics, moreover, does not mean lowest common denominator issues of a few bucks more in the pay packet. Workers can no more achieve liberation through economistic politics than Maori can achieve it through cultural or political nationalism. Class politics means the politics the working class needs to free itself. And if class-based politics is accepted as the way forward, then how and why is a separate kind of politics based on ‘race’ needed? At best, it is confusing. More often, however, it is misleading and disorienting.
Just as black empowerment has been the ideology under which a black bourgeoisie has been created in South Africa so tino rangatiratanga has been the ideology around which Maori capitalism has crystallised. Radicals need to demystify both and develop a broad and revolutionary class politics, a politics centred on the concept of the working class as the universal class and therefore a politics interested in, and able to advance, the emancipation of all the oppressed and exploited.
Further reading: Labour: a bosses’ party