South Africa


Reflections of a Wayward Boy – plenty of excitement in the air, but no revolution in the offing

Reflections of a Wayward Boy – plenty of excitement in the air, but no revolution in the offing
Barbara and Terry Bell march for the release of SA Metalworkers Union general secretary Moses Mayekiso. (Photo: Supplied)

Radical, even revolutionary, change was in prospect. Or so I thought as, in 1991, I prepared to go home after more than quarter of a century in exile as a banned person. With hindsight, it was, I hope, my last bout of almost unbridled optimism, fuelled more by wish fulfilment than fact. I, in particular, had some hard lessons to learn.

Inspired by evidence of accountable and grassroots democracy in dealings with the Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) and the locked-out strikers of Sarmcol, I ignored nuances and complexities in the fast-developing South African trade union movement. This was probably coloured by the fact that, although I was a proclaimed internationalist, I also deeply resented my exile and continued to focus on South Africa and the dream of returning.

A deep-rooted fantasy, I think, was that South Africa would ultimately provide a truly democratic example that would kick-start the so far failed world revolution. Barbara and I now had an opportunity to play a part in this dreamed-for historical change that would eventually usher in a future of true liberty: of universal peace and prosperity.

After all, change was certainly in the air: the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet empire was fragmenting. The apartheid-supporting British premier, Margaret Thatcher, had been toppled by popular protest and mass uprisings had dislocated an apartheid system that had been effectively backed by that rival to the Soviet empire, the West, headed by the United States of America. Everything – anything – seemed possible.

Not that I had any illusions that a long, hard slog lay ahead: what was important was to decide how, most effectively, we could contribute to the coming change. And in this, we had the apparent backing of the leadership of Britain’s small, but largest revolutionary socialist grouping, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) that had played a critical and non-sectarian role in the Alex 5 campaign.

We assumed this meant some material support and advice. We were wrong. As we quite soon discovered, the SWP leadership saw this as us going to join their tiny SWP franchise operation, run from London: the SWP would call the tune to which we should dance.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Reflections of a Wayward Boy: The bitter battle to free Moses Mayekiso

By the time we became aware of this, we had also realised that we were part of one of several such franchises directed by proclaimed revolutionary groups. Among these were the Workers’ Revolutionary Party and Militant Tendency in Britain and similar, mainly “Fourth International” and “Trotskyist” groups based in Brussels and Paris. All tended to see the potential for imminent change in South Africa and, apparently oblivious to their own structures, criticised, with justification, the SA Communist Party (SACP) as a mere tool of Soviet policy.

Using what was rapidly developing into the internet, I could settle in Cape Town and continue editing the London-based Africa Analysis every fortnight. This would provide sufficient income while we did what we could for the coming change. “We should start a model school,” said Barbara, who took a much longer view and was much less optimistic about the prospect of imminent change.

But I was informed in no uncertain terms that this was an “easy option”. The priority, said Tony Cliff, founder and intellectual head of the SWP, “is to build the alternative, the revolutionary organisation”. All the rest would follow. The SWP would provide full support as they already were to a small group in Johannesburg.

I took this not as an instruction, but as sound advice with the promise of unencumbered backing. So instead of early-learning equipment, we spent our reserves on a photocopier and hundreds of books dealing with history and politics, many of which had been banned in South Africa. Our bookselling and pamphleteering would provide income and the scaffolding for the construction of a revolutionary organisation held together by democratic debate and discussion at regular meetings.

We also had contact with what had become the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) where Moses Mayekiso of Mawu was now general secretary. But he had been persuaded by the SACP general secretary, Chris Hani, to join that party “in order to change it from within”.

It was the same argument Hani gave me as a member of what had then become the tiny, SWP-supported International Socialists South Africa (ISSA). I rejected this as “naive” and suggested Hani should join us. He laughed.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Reflections of a Wayward Boy: Squatting on Hampstead Heath

But it soon became obvious that, while there was plenty of excitement in the air, there was no revolution in the offing. Deals were being done and the situation was much more complex. The damage inflicted by centuries of racism, capped by more than 40 years of the vicious and crippling social engineering of apartheid, meant we had much to learn if we hoped to influence workers and students to build a socialist alternative.

This view was reinforced when I made a brief visit to the then Transkei “homeland” and met, in particular, Dumisa Ntsebeza, but also General Bantu Holomisa and students from the local university.

What did seem imperative as we started recruiting a few members, was that all decisions regarding the group should be made democratically. But such decisions were often contrary to the “advice” from the SWP whose slogan was “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism”.

To which we ended up adding “nor London” to Washington and Moscow. That was after “Terry Bell and 22 others” were expelled for refusing to accept a diktat that ISSA should become a party with a Johannesburg-based central committee that seemed to comprise mainly white, English-speaking university students or graduates.

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As a result, an International Socialist Movement (ISM) with a student wing at the University of the Western Cape was established. Barbara and I, every month, also produced a 16-page, photocopied Revolutionary Socialist (RS) newspaper. We would continue to sow the seeds of radical, democratic transformation summed up by our slogan for the 1994 election: “Vote ANC, but build a socialist alternative.”

Although we continued until 2006 to produce the monthly RS (until our aged photocopier finally collapsed) by 1996 it had become clear that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), with significant SACP influence, was committed to an ANC-led alliance headed towards, in economic terms, “neoliberalism”. One last effort to oppose this appeared to be the September Commission set up by Cosatu to look into the future of trade unions.

I drafted an 11-page submission to the commission and appended support from the ISM, the socialist students of the University of the Western Cape and the Combined Staff Association of the University of Durban Westville. It was not even tabled, being dismissed as “too radical” without any reasons given.

Yet the conclusions of that submission 26 years ago are today again at the forefront of debate: Cosatu and the ANC-led alliance and investment companies.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Reflections of a Wayward Boy: Setting up the primary division of Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College – chronicle of an ANC decline foretold

The submission noted that it was “essential that Cosatu extricates itself from the ANC-led tripartite alliance and disentangles itself from the compromises and contradictions it is already involved with”. Regarding investment companies, the conclusion stated that they “have no place in a trade union movement; they are merely vehicles which assist in the incorporation of a bureaucratic layer within the movement at the expense of the membership”.

It all seemed so futile, debating facts within a minute bubble. And this at a time when the trade union movement was a major player in society.

Peter Bruce, appointed as editor of the newly launched Business Report supplement in the Independent Newspapers Group, appreciated this. He suggested I write a weekly Inside Labour column for his new publication.

I agreed – and 25 years, five books, two journalism awards, being sacked and sued unsuccessfully for defamation by Independent Newspapers – I am still producing the column. DM


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