THE NATIONAL SHUTDOWN OF 24th August 2022 highlighted the potential of the Working Class Summit (WCS) to mobilise trade unions and community movements behind a campaign against the multiple attacks on the lives of the poor majority. In this sense, it built on the promise of the launch of the WCS in 2018, to unite movements in struggle.
Attended by approximately 1,000 delegates representing more than 140 organisations, the founding assembly of the WCS was an historic moment in the reconfiguration of Left movements in the country since the Marikana massacre. Cosatu’s expulsion of Numsa and the subsequent creation of Saftu opened the possibility of a fundamental re-organisation of the Left. Critically, it opened the way to building a radical mass movement premised on democratic grassroots organisations in workplaces and communities.
The WCS assembly offered strident criticisms of capitalism and the ruling ANC, whose policies have piled misery on the lives of the majority. But it went beyond these critiques to outline a programme of action that could form the basis of struggles. The formation of the WCS represented a recognition by various sectors of society – urban and rural workers, unemployed, women, students, LGBTIQ community – of the inter-connectedness of their respective struggles.
The national shutdown also revealed organisational and political weaknesses of the organisations and movements constituting the WCS. These were already evident at its founding. The attempt at the launch by the Numsa leadership to impose the SRWP on delegates nearly collapsed the event. Only the commitment by the majority of delegates to create unity and augment struggles across the country prevented the assembly from being derailed.
The role and troubles of Saftu
Since then Saftu has played a key role in maintaining the WCS, although many of its affiliates have not been consistently active in its meetings and campaigns. The internecine contestations between the Numsa leadership and Saftu have also had a debilitating effect on the WCS. This has also taken place in regions, where some Numsa members used bureaucratic manoeuvres to prevent WCS assemblies from discussing political programmes in preparation for a second national assembly.
The WCS also reflects the weaknesses of its constituent parts. The recent Saftu Congress acknowledged that many unions are in crisis. This is caused by a combination of relentless attacks by the ruling class and internal problems. There are a number of causes of the decline in unions: bureaucratisation, the disconnection between officials and members and the cancerous effects of investment companies. And for Cosatu, its failure to extricate itself from the machinations of elite politics, particularly manifested by its alliance with the ruling party. The prospect of building a militant union movement, based on workers’ democracy and control seemed possible at the launch of Saftu. It has apparently been stifled.
Crisis of community movements
Community movements have experienced their own crises. For many years, protests in communities against the lack of housing and basic services, among others, pointed to a rebuilding of local movements. From the late 1970s, these were the foundation upon which the anti-apartheid struggle was constructed. But these struggles have mostly remained localised, despite sporadic efforts by activists to connect regionally and nationally.
Community-based movements also operate in conditions in which the fabric of society is being torn asunder by grinding poverty, Gender Based Violence, gangsterism, police violence, hunger and the general unravelling of public services such as health and education. The daily struggle for survival makes it difficult to consider the importance of broader struggles for emancipation. These problems were amplified by the Covid pandemic, which ravaged poor communities.
Despite these enormous challenges, the WCS has maintained its position as a strategically important assembly of solidarity and possible united action.
In the short period since its launch, the WCS has organised numerous solidarity actions, such as during the Covid crisis, in support of the striking Clover workers and a Basic Income Grant, as well as against the government’s austerity programme, high unemployment, the deepening climate crisis and xenophobia. As a result, many movements continue to hope the WCS will chart a way forward to rebuild grassroots organisations and to produce the politics and programme that will mount an effective challenge to the status quo.
For this to be achieved, the problems facing the WCS need to be confronted more systematically than has been the case until now. A recent assessment of the National Shutdown, which involved scores of activists from across the country, went some way in engaging democratically on these issues. Clearly, the WCS Steering Committee, created at the launch in 2018 with the responsibility to plan a second assembly, does not have the capacity effectively to undertake this work.
The decision to convene extended steering committee meetings, with more representation from the regions, has achieved greater participation in the WCS. But it has not yet translated into more effective organisation. The WCS remains over-reliant on Saftu and despite the enormous efforts by the federation’s small staff, the work required to build the WCS and to mobilise its campaigns, as well as to organise a second assembly, has generally fallen short of expectations.
These organisational challenges are particularly evident in the crisis of funding. Again, there is acknowledgement of the dependence on donor-funding to support the activities of many movements, including the WCS. It has stripped away the culture of the liberation struggle of building and mobilising based on the resources, including finances, of the members of organisations and their supporters. The decision by the WCS to proceed with the national shutdown despite limited donor-funding was thus an important step towards rebuilding our movements by relying on our own resources.
Analysis of the shutdown
Crucially, most WCS activists agreed that the national shutdown registered, at best, uneven success. In reality, it had a minimal impact on broader society and could hardly claim to have shut down any significant part of the economy.
Several important explanations were posited for this. In a context of economic distress many people simply could not afford to lose a day’s wages and therefore opted to go to work. Organisational weaknesses also caused mobilisation for marches to be ineffectual, with important exceptions.
Where the shutdown was successful, it was primarily due to relatively strong local organisation. This was certainly the case in a few rural towns of the Western Cape, such as Bonnievale and Langeberg, where Csaawu has a strong presence and was able, at short notice, to mobilise its members and broader communities. These examples also highlight a willingness among workers to resist the onslaught by employers. There are already signs of public sector workers being increasingly determined to push ahead with their demand for a decent wage increase.
In some areas, the national shutdown was characterised by the involvement of both Saftu and Cosatu affiliates. This is probably the first time this has happened since the founding of Saftu, and it brings hope that the divisions that exist between these federations could be overcome. However, the rapprochement between them has largely occurred at leadership levels, with limited expressions of unity at the grassroots. Sustaining efforts at unity will depend on rank-and-file members of both federations uniting on common programmes of action.
Furthermore, the important but belated attention given to trade union convergence had the unintended effect of again rendering community movements as secondary participants in the shutdown. It is absolutely crucial for the WCS to continue forging unity between workplaces and communities. One example of this was the organising of shop stewards’ councils to prepare for the shutdown, in which community organisations participated.
An important criticism of the WCS’s campaign of August 24th is that a significant proportion of society is tired of the routine mobilisation of shutdowns, marches and petitions, without any meaningful gains being achieved. Protests are the lifeblood of radical movements: they engender unity of purpose, mobilise constituencies beyond the core activists and can energise and strengthen organisations. These crucial facets of protests have been in decline for some years.
Most significantly, the WCS has struggled to develop a clear political focus. The demands of the national shutdown were all important but represented a laundry list of the ills of the system. There is no shortage of grievances facing the poor. The WCS needs urgently to formulate a clear set of 3 to 5 demands that can constitute the framework for a national programme of action and behind which maximum unity of various sectors can be achieved.
This effort must be accompanied by building grassroots organisations, including, where necessary, new movements in communities and workplaces. Achieving these objectives must be led by rank-and-file members of organisations. This must be part of a democratic process to build the political foundations for a national movement of the poor majority, especially women. Such a movement can simultaneously struggle for improvements in people’s daily lives and mount a political challenge to the decrepit ideas of the political and economic elites in the 2024 national elections.
Noor Nieftagodien is the Head of the History Workshop at Wits University.