Firoze Manji is the founder and former editor of Pambazuka News and now director of the Pan- African Baraza.
A!: How do you understand what is referred to as a “NUMSA moment”?
FM: First of all, I think it’s important to say that what is referred to as the “NUMSA moment ” is a moment that is making history. It surprises me that it has taken 20 years to get to the point where finally it is apparent that the left alliance with the nationalists will never deliver emancipatory freedoms. A senior activist back in 1994 described apartheid as scaffolding: when you are building a building you need to have scaffolding. But once the building is built you no longer need it and so you can take it down; now that the building is ready, the ANC can now move into it.
How can you build socialism by taking over the colonial or apartheid state? How far can you expect to carry out reforms of any substance? Certainly the experience all over the continent has been exactly the same. In the anti-colonial movement in Africa, we also took over the colonial state. We didn’t seek to transform it; we didn’t seek to smash it as Cabral said that we should. What we did was to de-racialise it, to adapt it and modernise it so that it integrated even better into the changing global economy that the US, Europe and Japan were constructing.
I think we made some very serious mistakes. The lesson from the rest of the continent was that the merging of the left into the nationalist movements, very much like what the SACP did with the ANC, was disastrous: the result was a slaughter of the left. If you look in Sudan, Egypt and many other places, the left was completely physically annihilated, locked up or terrorised into exile.
When Chris Hani was killed, I thought, my god, it’s history repeating itself. When Pio Pinto, Tom Mboya, and JM Kariuki were killed in Kenya, the nationalists eliminated the left that had failed to build an independent political base. When Hani was assassinated, I really thought that that’s what would happen here.
But the difference between South Africa and Kenya is that we in Kenya came to independence on the basis of the defeat of the mass movement, the complete annihilation of the Land Freedom Army (the “Mau Mau “) by 1955. By contrast, the working class in South Africa has not been defeated. It may be worn down over 20 years, but it hasn’t been defeated and I think that’s a very significant difference with the rest of the continent.
So I think what the NUMSA moment represents is an attempt to learn from the experience of the continent. What I tried to do in my contribution to the symposium was to point out that there have been some positive experiences; people like Amilcar Cabral really understood the nature of the state and that you have to construct that basis of the future state now.
I think NUMSA needs to be seriously looking at how we construct the future today, and not waiting for some future time. How do we encourage organisations of the masses to form their own structures of decision-making and control? The fixation of the past has been to see democracy in terms of the ballot box instead of seeing it as a process of democratisation. At the symposium, for example, the comrade from Greece provided examples of how people are organising to provide healthcare, education, even food distribution on their own in collectives. These are the beginnings of an alternative future state.
What an amazing event to have been able to open up debates, and to have discussions with shop stewards from all over the country. I think there are many things that still have to be dealt with. The first one is the extent to which the vocabulary of the past is relevant today. For example, how seriously you can take talk about a “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR). You have had your 20 years of NDR and, according to Irving Jim, you’re worse off now than in 1994.
What have we got lose to actually fight for what we really want, rather than for half-way houses? Actually, NDR was been even half-way; it’s been a bourgeois house. Given the nature of capital today, its penetration into every aspect of our lives, and the alliances of the South African bourgeoisie with the international capital, I don’t see any room for a half-way house. Surely the last 20 years has proved that.
What we saw at the symposium were industrial workers. That is great. But if a left party is to be built, then our understanding of the “working class” has to be developed. The contestation between capital and labour does not only happen on the shop floor. Capital confronts labour in all the terrains of life, whether in housing, healthcare, social reproduction, production in rural areas, what Chomsky refers to as the “precariat” – the precarious workers and populations of the reserve army of labour – and in many other ways.
If we’re to build an effective socialist movement, it has to go beyond the contestation on the shop floor. The question is, can NUMSA as a union build a political base that is broader, that understands that there has been a whole process of proletarianisation of the population?
A!: Many have theorised that even the rural-based people are actually a displaced proletariat.
FM: I think in South Africa that’s probably very much the case, but if you look in the rest of the continent, small farmers have effectively been imprisoned by the international global market. I would describe this as a process of proletarianisation. So actually the political base that we have, if we understood it right, is much, much bigger than we imagine.
In the past people would say: ‘oh, you can’t have a revolution because you have such a small working class’. But in Russia the working class was a tiny proportion of the population; same in China. But if one understands the process of proletarianisation and the alienation that is created by modern capitalism, we actually have a very large population that has an objective material interest in the socialisation of production.
The question is: Do we have the guts to actually reach for that wider base amongst the oppressed, exploited and the precariat? I think the EFF have shown that it is actually possible to reach such layers.
A!: I think NUMSA will reach that point when they have to make a decision about the role of the union and the role of the political party that is way beyond the union.
FM: And that’s where the confusion will arise. Maybe their conception of a united front is that broader element; it certainly wasn’t clear in the conference. The distinction between the party and the union is going to be important.
The problem is that this may well be difficult, since the leadership of both is likely to be the same. But let’s be clear: we can make all these comments and critiques, but this was a historical meeting, no doubt about it. And to have had the privilege of being able to participate in that is something very special for me.