Why Steven Friedman is wrong about NUMSA and the SACP - Jeremy Cronin

DGS says the Business Day columnist makes a series of missteps in seeking to pin blame on the Party for the union's expulsion from COSATU

Red Alert

Open Letter to Steven Friedman From a "Worm's Eye View" to one misstep after another

Dear Steven

I have always respected your views, going back to the 1980s and your trade union journalism, your "Worm's Eye View" column in the old Weekly Mail, and much more. True, I haven't always agreed with you, but I've admired your thoughtfulness, the sobriety of your analyses, and, above all, your commitment to encouraging democratic debate.

You have generally refused to be satisfied with the shallow mediocrity that so often parades as media commentary. So I was disappointed, not outraged, but disappointed by your column in BD Live on Wednesday, ("SACP helped push Numsa's expulsion from Cosatu" - see here)

Let's take your argument step by step.

Step One: Your first thesis is that, in expelling NUMSA, COSATU's CEC "seems to have slapped the ANC in the face: it ignored the appeal by its task team, led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, for unity." Your Step One is also your First Misstep. It was the NUMSA leadership that systematically slapped the ANC task team in the face.

They postponed meetings with the ANC task team for months. The final report of the ANC task team had critical things to say about all sides in the COSATU disputes, but it specifically called on Numsa to desist from actively breaking with the founding principle of the federation - one industry, one union. The Numsa leadership arrogantly dismissed this call, including in its statement at last week's CEC.

Your Step Two (based on Misstep One) goes as follows: if the ANC worked so hard for the unity of Cosatu, then someone else must have been egging on the expulsion. Hmmm, I wonder, who could that be? Reds under beds, is your argument. Really, Steven, I would have thought that you had outgrown that Cold War rubbish years ago.  From this second misstep you pronounce that the "ANC alliance is split on whether NUMSA should stay in COSATU". In fact, the SACP and ANC leaderships have met frequently to discuss a common approach to the challenges within COSATU, and the ANC task team has enjoyed the full support of the Party.

Your Step Three - really a series of confused little skips - seeks to buttress your argument that the SACP has been in the forefront of seeking Numsa's expulsion. Let's consider some of these misleading moves that skip ever so lightly over reality.

You say that the SACP "has issued statements denying that it was behind divisions in Cosatu" (which is true, we have, indeed, issued several statements in this regard). But then you add, as if we were prompted by a guilty conscience, that our statements denying culpability were issued "despite the fact that it [the Party] was not publicly accused of this..." On what planet have you been living?

I don't have the time or inclination to trawl up every statement by NUMSA's general secretary, Irvin Jim, or his deputy, Karl Cloete, or the NUMSA spokesperson, Castro Ngobese making precisely this allegation. You might, however, wish to check for yourself. Go to the NUMSA website (numsa.org.za) and google "SACP". You could begin, for instance, with a December 3, 2013 document ("NUMSA National Office Bearers' Statement on SACP Augmented CC Statement"). But there are dozens of NUMSA leadership statements accusing the SACP of all manner of sins, including seeking to divide COSATU.

It is, however, the NUMSA leadership that long ago pronounced COSATU as being fatally divided. See for instance their document "Ideological Reflections and Responses to some recent attacks" (NUMSA Special NEC, 15 September 2013):

"We have boldly maintained that at the heart of the crisis in COSATU are two opposing forces: the forces of capitalism and the forces socialism. The capitalist forces within the Federation seek to make workers to understand and tolerate the continuation of white monopoly capitalist domination, by accepting elements of the neoliberal NDP. The socialist forces seek to mobilise the working class to break the power of white monopoly capitalism through the implementation of the Freedom Charter as historically understood by the working class."

This is a declaration of civil war within the federation, not a constructive if critical engagement.

You say, Steven, (and this is the punch-line in your argument) that underpinning the SACP's alleged central role in driving NUMSA out of COSATU is our intolerance of any different views on the left. The Party's "attitude to NUMSA", you write, "suggests that it still sees those on the left who differ as enemies to be defeated, not critics to be debated."

Here you have precisely inverted the roles played by the SACP and the NUMSA leadership. Excuse me if I draw on a personal example. In March 2012 I took on the hot topic of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) and the e-toll debate in the SACP's on-line publication Umsebenzi Online. I agreed with COSATU and NUMSA that the whole GFIP project was seriously flawed, but differed with the COSATU position in certain respects. Irvin Jim responded robustly. Umsebenzi Online carried his response in full. (A tradition not reciprocated by any recent NUMSA publication).

Encouraged by this small engagement, in March 2013 I wrote an "Open Letter" to Irvin Jim which was also published in Umsebenzi Online. The letter began:

"Over the years you and I have had several debates. We have often differed. However, I would like to believe we`ve always agreed on at least one thing. If we are to build a vibrant socialist left in South Africa, then comradely ideological engagements (even robust ones) are a vital part of that project...neither of us has ever subscribed to the bureaucratic notion that ‘we shouldn`t air ANY of our differences in public'. When those differences are about analysing our reality and debating broad strategy and tactics, then I think we agree that we should open up robust, comradely engagement. This letter is written in that spirit." 

The next week Irvin Jim came back guns blazing. Again the SACP published his response in full, even though it was a nasty piece of ad hominem vituperative. I was labelled the self-appointed "Pope of Marxism in SA", accused of "factional manipulation from the outside", etc. etc. I have long since learned not to take these things personally. I merely cite them here as evidence against your claim that it is the SACP that is intolerant of alternative voices on the left. However, after Jim's March 2013 piece, I must admit that personally and comrades in the SACP gave up on trying to engage Jim in a constructive debate.

But this did not mean that the SACP ceased trying to build COSATU unity in and through a respect for comradely but robust debate. It was in this context that the SACP formally addressed the NUMSA delegates to their December 2013 Special Congress. In the course of the pamphlet we said:

"Trade union unity is not about the suppression of non-antagonistic differences within the working class. Throughout its history, NUMSA has been home to many shades of radical thinking. This has often been a strength of your union, not a weakness. The SACP is proud of the many outstanding communists who have been leaders and rank-and-file militants in NUMSA. But we also respect and acknowledge the co-existence of many other socialist comrades within your ranks. A vibrant and militant NUMSA in which there are contending socialist perspectives is not the primary challenge your union is facing today. Together, as communists and non-communists, let us not allow your union NUMSA to be hi-jacked, to become a pawn in a dangerous leadership gamble that has nothing to do with the interests of the working class - and everything to do with the personal ambitions of a few."

We have not abandoned this appreciation of left pluralism (nor have we abandoned our concern about Irvin Jim's agenda). At the beginning of this week the SACP PB issued a statement on the expulsion of Numsa - you might have read it? Amongst other things the statement said:

"For many months, throwing reckless insults in all directions, the NUMSA leadership has shown no inclination to seek constructive and unifying solutions to the many challenges confronting the organised working class. This was not a case of an externally manipulated witch-hunt, but a case of self-expulsion. The SACP remains committed to the struggle for working class unity, including a respect for a diversity of views amongst the organised working class and the popular masses. Let us prioritise the unity in diversity of the working class and poor in practical, on-the-ground work. Let us not elevate tactical differences amongst ourselves, while monopoly capital strengthens its exploitative grip on our country."

Dear Steven, as you can see I haven't given up on Open Letters. Perhaps, if you have the time, you might respond and I'm sure Umsebenzi Online would be happy to publish your response. I particularly hope that we can begin a thoughtful discussion around the more general challenges confronting the trade union movement in South Africa (and globally).

Best regards,

Jeremy Cronin

Jeremy Cronin is SACP Second Deputy General Secretary.

This article first appeared in Umsebenzi Online, the online journal of the SACP.

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