15 July 2014
Many believe workers’ party could help solve SA’s issues
The existence of a large industrial working class, strong civil society organisations and an independent trade union movement makes the survival of a workers’ party in SA more likely, write Edward Webster and Mark Orkin
A THIRD of South African adults definitely think that "a new political party, a workers’ or labour party, will assist with current problems facing SA". This emerges from a large nationally representative sample of adults of all races between February and March this year. A further 39% answered "maybe" to this question. (The proportions answering "probably not" or "definitely not" were 15% and 13%.)
The data is drawn from an Ipsos national survey of 3,730 respondents aged 15 and older. The percentages are based on the 83% of the sample that answered the question.
The idea of a workers’ party has deep roots in SA’s post-1973 labour movement. It was first openly articulated by the predecessor of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), in a speech by general secretary Joe Foster in 1982. He argued that Fosatu’s task was to build a working-class organisation within the popular struggle to represent workers politically. The South African Communist Party (SACP) saw Foster’s speech as an attack on its "vanguard" role as the historic political representative of workers. It argued that "trade unions cannot be political parties".
This debate on working-class politics was overtaken in the mid-1980s by the national liberation struggle and the transition to democracy led by the African National Congress (ANC). But the idea of a separate party for workers has not died, as unions such as the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) recently shifted from qualified support for the ANC and the SACP to growing disillusionment with the ruling party. This culminated in a special Numsa congress decision in December last year, mandating the union’s leadership to form a United Front and Movement for Socialism to advance working-class struggles.
In 2012, a sample of Cosatu shop stewards was asked a more specified question: "If Cosatu were to form a labour party and contest national elections, would you vote for such a party?" And 65% said they would. In the present survey, among the fully employed, 69% agreed with the question (30% said "definitely" and 39% "maybe"). But it should be noted that the 2012 question was put to shop stewards rather than the adult population at large, and did not differentiate between "definitely" and "maybe".
Numsa has approached the question of a workers’ party with caution. Following independence, trade unions in post-colonial Africa have tended initially to submit to the ruling party that drove the liberation struggle. But growing marginalisation led unions in countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe into opposition and the formation of a separate political party, which, in the case of Zambia’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy, won state power in elections.
However, there has generally been a low level of tolerance of political opposition in post-colonial Africa. Unlike established democracies, post-colonial African countries are engaged in the complex task of nation building. The result is a culture of "us" versus "them", and union-backed oppositional parties have often been quickly labelled "counter-revolutionary" and "imperialist". The union-backed Movement for Democratic Change soon became the focus of organised violence inflicted by the Zimbabwean state.
Could SA be a special case in post-colonial Africa? The existence of a relatively large industrial working class, strong civil society organisations and an independent trade union movement with a political culture of shop-floor democracy makes the survival of a workers’ party more likely.
What would the social base of such a party be? In the present, nationwide adult sample, 30% of the full-time or part-time employed would definitely support a workers’ party, rising to 40% of the unemployed. Definite support for a workers’ party was highest among the largest educational category, those with primary or secondary schooling (34%), followed by those with tertiary education (29%), compared with about 40% for the better-educated categories.
Definite support for a workers’ party was 35%-39% in households with a monthly income of up to R8,000; and dropped to 29% for the two highest income categories, more than R8,000 and more than R12,000 a month. The pattern for the widely used living standards measure (LSM) shows a clear gradient, with definite support for a workers’ party increasing from 23% through 33%-43% as one moves downwards from LSM8-10 through LSM5-7 to LSM1-4.
Definite support among adults aged 18 to 49 was about 35%. It was lower at the extremes: 29% among the oldest, 50-plus, and 11% among those aged 15 to 17.
Among provinces, definite support is far highest in North West (54%), followed by Limpopo and the Free State (about 39%). At the other extreme, the Western Cape was the lowest, at 18%. The other provinces were in the 28%-34% range.
If one considers "definite" plus "maybe" answers, support for a workers’ party is still highest in North West, at 91%. Six other provinces are in the 72%-75% range, headed by Gauteng. The lowest are the Eastern Cape and Western Cape, at 67% and 55%.
The language results tend to follow the provincial pattern. Among black people, the highest definite support was among speakers of Pedi, Sotho and Tswana (43%) — in other words, in the northerly provinces; but not much less among Zulu speakers (39%).
The big drop was among Xhosa speakers (28%). English and Afrikaans speakers were at 23% and 17%, of course containing a mix of race groups.
Among black respondents, 37% would definitely support a workers’ party, followed by 21% of coloureds and 20% of Indians. It is noteworthy that 17% of whites would definitely support a workers’ party (and a further 39% said "maybe"), suggesting appreciable support for a more "class-based" politics focusing on socioeconomic issues rather than race.
In summary: the highest expression of "definite" support for the idea of a workers’ party is among blacks; among those with household incomes of less than R8,000 a month; in LSMs 1-4; of primary/secondary education; and in the main working-age range of 18-49.
By contrast, the lowest expressed "definite" support for a workers’ party is among whites, Indians and coloureds alike; with household incomes of more than R8,000 a month; LSMs 8-10; of tertiary education; and among the youngest or oldest.
This survey question has indicated the size of the potential support base for a workers’ party, and the analysis has broadly identified its likely demographic features. But what will be the form and content of working-class politics in SA?
Is it to involve a broad workers’ party, along the lines of Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores, with links to working-class communities, academics and small farmers? Or is it to be a more traditional labour party along the lines of the UK Labour Party, with close ties with organised labour? Is it to be a revitalised Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, a mirror image of the SACP; or will it embrace the traditions of social democracy? If the latter, will it be a radical version of social democracy — a third-world socialist democracy?
• Webster is professor emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Orkin is visiting professor in the Wits School of Government.