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.

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).

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

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser