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Militant Tendency sends shivers through South Africa

The group expelled from the UK Labour Party by Neil Kinnock in 1983 has surprising echoes in a row erupting in South Africa's ANC.

Jacob Zuma is attempting to secure re-election
Jacob Zuma is attempting to secure re-election as the leader of a disillusioned ANC. Photograph: Getty Images

In the wake of the Marikana massacre, in which 34 miners were mowed down by police, South African politics has been thrown into a maelstrom. The African National Congress and its allies in the governing tripartite alliance – the unions of Cosatu and the South African Communist Party – have realised that they are badly out of touch. Research by Cosatu found that 60 per cent of its members were not satisfied with how their unions ability to secure them better wages.

Miners in the platinum-rich Rustenberg area live in the most squalid of conditions. They are far removed from the leadership of the ANC, whose homes are to be found in Johannesburg’s most leafy suburbs.

Into the vacuum has stepped a new party, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM). Rallying disaffected miners in the gold and platinum industries, they have been roundly criticised by the ANC and its allies. Some attacked the DSM as a “counter revolutionary movement.” They were described as “hooligans” and accused of encouraging miners to pelt union officials, including the Cosatu leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, with rocks.

“We …were told that before we arrived, this woman from the Socialist Democratic Movement had already addressed those workers, and said they must not listen to the general secretary of Cosatu," complained the National Union of Mineworkers regional coordinator Madoda Sambatha.

“This woman” is the DSM spokeswoman, Liv Shange. A Swede, who arrived in South Africa nine years ago, she is pictured addressing thousands of miners through a loudhailer, her blond hair shining in the sun.

“The allegations that we are encouraging anyone to violence is baseless,” she told New Statesman by phone. “On the contrary we argued against the use of force during the strikes, at a time when workers who were being accused of being scabs were being killed.”

Shange says the ANC and the unions have lost touch with ordinary workers.

“We argue for a new workers party to challenge the government, and we are getting massive support for this programme,” she claims.

Certainly the DSM has the ANC leadership worried, but what is this party? An indication of its politics comes from its website, under the title: “What we stand for”. Heading its list of objectives is the following:

- Build a mass workers party on a socialist programme

- Nationalise top-five JSE (Johannesburg Stock Exchange) companies, the Reserve Bank and commercial banks under democratic worker control and management. Compensation only on basis of proven need.

These words will have a familiar ring for anyone who followed the British left in the 1970s and 80s. Their echo of the Militant Tendency is no mistake. DSM is the South African wing of Militant’s latest incarnation, the Committee for a Workers’ International, based in Britain. Its general secretary is Peter Taaffe, purged from the Labour Party by Neil Kinnock in 1983. This Trotskyist movement now claims to have affiliates in 35 countries.

It is not the first time they have confronted the ANC. In the 1970s a group of South African students who had been working to rebuild the black trade unions, Paula Ensor, Dave Hemson, Martin Legassick and Rob Petersen came to Britain (pdf). Paula Ensor became secretary to John Gaetsewe, the general secretary of the ANC’s trade union wing, SACTU. Rob Petersen became editor of the SACTU newspaper.

Differences with the ANC leadership emerged over the tactics of the unions, and in 1979 they were expelled. Protesting that this was undemocratic, they founded a group called the “Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC.”*

They returned to South Africa, but as is the way with Trotskyist movements, the group splintered in the 1990’s. Some, like Martin Legassick are today members of another group (Democratic Left Front). Liv Shange says the DSM has a working relationship with this movement, but that they have their differences.

As disillusionment with the ANC has set in, a range of left wing groupings have emerged. Some, like Abahlali baseMjondolo grew out of a grassroots movement in the squatter camps around Durban. Other grouping look more like bolt-holes.

One – "Forces for Change" - has apparently been initiated by expelled ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, and his supporters. They deny being behind the initiative, but it is widely believed that they are preparing a safe refuge in case President Jacob Zuma is re-elected ANC leader at the party’s December conference, and they remain excluded from the ANC for the foreseeable future.

While all this is taking place, the ANC’s own branches have been voting on whom to support at the Mangaung conference. The betting at present is that President Zuma will re-emerge at the head of his party, and may not even face a challenger.

The question is whether his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, thinks he has sufficient support to go for the top job. This has been frequently suggested, but as Zuma’s support grows this looks increasingly unlikely.

Rather, it may be that Motlanthe is outsted as ANC deputy president, and replaced with multi-millionaire and former miners leader, Cyril Ramaphosa. There is much to play for in the next few weeks.

* Hemson et al, ʻRevivalʼ, SADET, Road to Democracy, VOL 2, 298. Sithole interview with Petersen, 5/9/2003; South Africa: The Workersʼ Movement, SACTU and the ANC: A Struggle for Marxist Policies (London: Cambridgeheath Press, 1980).