South Africa

Born in post-Marikana anger, Workers & Socialist Party enters SA politics

By Mandy De Waal 25 March 2013

SA's new socialist party is entering the political fray with fighting nationalist talk and promises to get rid of ‘fat cats’. Away from the political arena, in communities where the poor and unemployed are being shafted by government-linked tenderpreneurs, WASP could deliver a nasty sting to the ANC. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Government’s ‘expanded Public Works programme’ was set to create millions of jobs for the unemployed, but the spokesperson of a new socialist labour party being formed in South Africa, Mametlwe Sebei, says the workers who participate in these employment projects are ‘grave diggers’ for the ruling party.

“You can only marvel at the ruling party which has created its own grave diggers in the working class. In the streets people say that the ANC has organised its own grave diggers – the people who work in the government’s community work projects that earn as little as R500 or R1,000 a month,” says Sebei.

The spokesperson for the Workers & Socialist Party (WASP) – set to register with the Independent Electoral Commission within days and which intends to contest the 2014 general elections – says that on Monday 25 March 2013, the socialist party will lead a march of disgruntled workers engaged by government in Carletonville.

“The people we have been organising with to build support for this party are those people engaged in the government’s community work programmes. These people are the fodder for the elite who benefit from the government’s work programmes and tenders; they are the people who are being trampled on as the ANC builds a middle class loyal to it,” Sebei says.

The WASP spokesperson believes that instead of creating jobs, the ruling party is creating opportunities for exploitation and that at a local level this employment scheme sets up a dynamic where tenderpreneurs are abusing cheap local labour to get rich. “It is amazing – the ANC has literally created a system whereby it is digging its own grave,” says Sebei.

This new party, which aims to represent the political aspirations of the working class and the poor, was launched on Friday 22 March 2013 in a packed community hall in Pretoria. The event was meant to be a media conference, but was filled to the brim with wildcat strike committee members, trade unionists, community activists, crisis committee members, community workers and a couple of high-ranking international politicians of the socialist persuasion. Sebei tells Daily Maverick people walked for hours to attend the launch of the party, and spilled beyond the hall’s doors out onto a nearby field.

The WASP spokesman says that the ANC no longer represents the poor or the working class, and stresses that this socialist party is “an idea whose time has come”. But beyond smart slogans, populist talk of nationalisation, and a promise to get rid of ‘fat cats’ – could a local labour party get meaningful traction?

Sebei is adamant that WASP will be differentiated clearly from other parties. “We will not be a party for the working class, but rather a party of the working class, who will say how this party will be run. We are building organising structures and branches in mines and at workplaces and communities over and above the (strike) crisis committees we have been involved with, in order to pin down conscious political support,” Sebei states.

“Look, it is too early to say what real traction we could achieve,” says the man representing the party that aims to get a million signatories when it launches on 16 August 2013, the date that will mark the first commemoration of the Marikana massacre. “We realise that the process of organising mass support is going to be difficult because the working class has been let down for far too long. But we have politics of a different type,” he says.

WASP is essentially a product of Marikana – a terrifying moment that saw South Africa’s government point a legion of deadly firepower at striking mine workers on Thursday 16 August 2013, and pull the trigger.

“The Democratic Socialist Movement had been negotiating with the mines for some time, but when the strikes began at Lonmin and Impala, and when the Marikana massacre took place, whatever illusions people had about the class character of the ANC were shattered. That’s when the search for a real alternative to the ANC became much sharper and intensified amongst the working class,” says Sebei, who pegs Marikana as a turning point for the political sentiment of much of SA’s working class.

WASP calls Marikana “the most significant event in the politics of SA since 1994” and claims that the event “exposed the betrayal of the working class and masses of SA by all sections of the Tripartite Alliance”. The party’s pamphlets read: “Marikana was premeditated and could not have proceeded without the authorisation of the ANC government”.

Says Sebei: “After Marikana we had discussions with the workers’ committees of striking mines and discussed the political direction of these committees. A broad decision was made to discuss the possibility of forming a new political party once the strikes were over.” In December 2012 members from working committees sat together with the Democratic Socialist Movement and it was decided that WASP would be formed.

Sebei says there’s no leadership per se, because the socialist party is being led by a co-ordinating committee comprised of strike committees, workers in community work programmes, workers from the transport industry, wildcat strike leaders, activists and students. There are also members of the working class from the North West, Free State, Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

“The results of previous general elections show that more people are abstaining from voting, and this is because the ANC no longer represents the poor or the working class,” says Sebei. “WASP presents those who traditionally voted for the ANC, but now abstain, with a viable alternative, and we have a strong following amongst mine workers, community workers, and transport workers,” says Sebei, who underscores that WASP will not be breaking bread with Cosatu, whom it views as an enemy of the working class.

“Surveys of Cosatu’s rank and file tell their own story. Even in 1998, when the first survey was published, over 30% of shop stewards at the time were in favour of breaking alliance with the ANC,” says Sebei, adding that these numbers have likely increased – although there is no available data to back this up.

The Sunday Independent reports that Cosatu’s internal dynamics has shifted significantly towards an ANC-aligned bias. “The character of Cosatu has changed – public service sector unions now account for half the federation’s members. And more than one out of every five members describe themselves as managers or professionals, and another 13% are clerical workers, according to the workers’ survey prepared ahead of Cosatu’s congress in September,” the Indy article reads.

“By some accounts, these public sector unions are moving to assert themselves and their way of doing things: political negotiations, particularly within the tripartite alliance, and through negotiating forums like the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), rather than street protests as were seen over the Gauteng e-tolls, at public hearings on the Eskom tariff hikes and over farmworkers’ daily wage demands in the Western Cape. Such protests, alongside increasingly violent, bloody and lethal service delivery demonstrations, have embarrassed the government.”

In the 2012 Cosatu survey, 70% of members surveyed said the federation should stay in the tripartite alliance (which includes the ANC and the SACP), while 23% wanted to abandon the alliance, which shows the effect public sector unions are having on Cosatu. Interestingly enough, the same survey shows the Julius Malema enjoyed significant regard amongst workers surveyed. He was ranked the 3rd most popular leader polled, after Nelson Mandela, who enjoyed the most support, and Jacob Zuma, whose support appeared to be waning marginally.

Could WASP’s populist nationalisation rhetoric be a mass-market crowd-pleaser? “What has the ANC economic policy done over the past 18 years or so?” asks Sebei. “The investment that SA has brought in has been parasitic or has left this country as quickly and easily as it has come in, but without creating jobs or developing this country. This is parasitic investment because it has limited the capacity for growth and job creation without really building the manufacturing sector. In the mining sector people are taking billions out the country that could go towards developing other sectors, or to housing and education,” he says, adding that the type of investment the government attracts is the same that “created the global economic crisis”.

“The people who are scared of the talk of nationalisation, if anything they have only wreaked havoc with our economy and undermined the capacity of this economy to develop, not only in SA but the world over. They have precipitated the global economic crisis, and that is why we are saying that society and the working class now needs to take control of the economy.

“We believe the only solution is for the working class to take control of the economy. This country has tremendous wealth, enough to speak to the demands and aspirations of working class people,” states Sebei.

Easily said, but how would one practically nationalise, for example, a bank?

The WASP spokesperson explains that said bank would become government property through “an adjustment of ownership”, which would render it “under democratic control of the working class”. Sebei explains that nationalised entities (like banks and mines) would be run like parastatals, but without becoming “havens where elites are enriched”. In this socialist paradigm, “non-capitalist trade unions”, the government and the working class form a tripartite alliance of sorts that directs the economy, and profits don’t go to shareholders but to education, housing and health care.

It is early days, but WASP’s economic policy still sounds big on slogans but shy of the real cogs that turn a country’s fortunes. The rhetoric might inspire mineworkers and farm labourers, but will it find popular support beyond that?

Regardless, the socialist party’s real potency might be proved away from electioneering rhetoric, in the workplaces where breadwinners are being stiffed by labour brokers hired by provincial or local governments. At the beginning of March, the socialists waged war for contract workers employed by labour brokers contracted to the Tshwane Metro, and won their case.

Fighting for the “grave diggers” who are being exploited by greedy tenderpreneurs getting fat off local government is where the ANC’s dying, and where WASP might deliver a punishing sting. DM

Read more:

  • Wildcat strike movement may birth new political party in Daily Maverick
  • Wasp needs more organisation: analyst on IOL
  • Download the 2012 Cosatu Workers’ Survey
  • Tshwane Metro workers fight for their jobs at the Democratic Socialist Movement’s site

Main photo: Striking Lonmin miners gathered to have a meeting to discuss the deaths of their colleagues two days previously. Wonderkop, Marikana, North West Province. August 18, 2012. Photo Greg Marinovich


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