Crisis in MEWUSA: the DSM responds PDF Print E-mail
Trade Unions and Socialism - Trade Unions and Socialism
Sunday, 01 May 2011 08:56

Crisis in MEWUSA: the DSM responds

By the DSM Executive Committee

We stand accused…

In the run-up to the Metal and Electrical Workers Union of South Africa (MEWUSA) congress held March 18-20, members of the union’s outgoing National Executive Committee (NEC) – outgoing General Secretary Eddie Thobejane and President Dan Lengoabala – engaged in a propaganda campaign claiming that the Democratic Socialist Movement was conspiring to take over the union. This is our response.

What we really stand for

The DSM is a revolutionary socialist organisation that fights to unite the struggles of workers, poor communities, students and youth with the aim of bringing about the socialist transformation of South Africa and the world. We are the South African section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), a worldwide revolutionary party which exists in almost 50 countries. The formation of a new, socialist mass workers’ party, is, we believe, the most important task facing the working class in SA and internationally.

Wherever we have members – in trade unions, community- and student organisations – we work openly to win maximum support for our ideas through democratic debate. We actively participate in the building of the working class movement – trade unions, and the organisations of the youth, students and communities. We strive to revive the traditions of democratic workers control of unions and all working class organisations, to turn them into instruments to fight for concessions from the bosses and the state while also explaining that poverty, exploitation and oppression can only be eradicated by ending the dictatorship of the capitalist market and replacing it with workers’ democracy and socialism.

We make no secret of wanting to recruit those workers who share our ideas, not through conspiracies but by patient explanation of our ideas on theory, strategy and tactics, and testing these out in struggle.

Our record in MEWUSA

It was the DSM which encouraged the over 4000 mine workers from Murray & Roberts in Rustenburg who had been betrayed by leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) affiliate, to join MEWUSA, an affiliate of rival National Council of Unions (Nactu) to fight against their unfair dismissal. This has placed MEWUSA on the map as a champion of working class solidarity. It also opened up a whole new region and industry enabling rapid membership growth for MEWUSA whilst other unions suffered from the retrenchments escalating in the recession.

The DSM has also played a key role in the Mine Line factory occupation. As the first workers’ occupation post-Apartheid it has re-tied the historical knot between the struggles against the capitalist bosses under white minority rule and those now taking place under democracy. The occupation is acting as a beacon for other workers facing the onslaught of the bosses who are determined to make workers pay for the crisis of their system.

Our small forces within MEWUSA have begun efforts to mobilise the membership to reclaim democratic control of their union from leaders who do not support these and other key struggles. As part of these efforts we supported a range of resolutions focused on workers’ control and a fighting programme for the union as well as an alternative leadership slate, which included some of our members, at the congress.

Roots of crisis in MEWUSA

The outgoing NEC’s blatant looting of the union finances, failure to organise struggles to fight the bosses’ offensive – short-time, lay-offs, retrenchments etc – speaks volumes about how their see their role in the union movement. This is from unique to MEWUSA. This has become common practice in trade unions internationally. The basis for this lies in the ideological demoralisation of the leadership of the labour movement: their lack of an alternative to capitalism precisely when this system stands exposed as historically bankrupt. World capitalism is in its worst crisis in 80 years, with economic stagnation, social welfare cuts and mass impoverishment. Still, SA trade union leaders try to take cover behind reformism – the idea that the capitalist system can be changed step by step to end poverty and provide jobs, education, housing etc – while betraying the members with incompetence, corruption and collaboration with the bosses.


The material basis for reformism was the upswing in the capitalist economy 1950-1973. In the advanced industrialised countries the workers’ movement won significant gains such as the ‘welfare state’. Worldwide, leaders of trade unions, workers’ parties and liberation movements such as the ANC, came to believe the working class could be liberated from exploitation and oppression through gradual improvements within the framework of capitalism. But this was an exceptional period for capitalism. When the boom came to an end, the capitalist class unleashed a neo-liberal onslaught against the working class which intensified further with the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist dictatorships. Across the world, ‘Communist’, ‘Social Democratic’ and ‘Labour’ parties, trade union leaders and other left-wing formations capitulated to the capitalist ideological propaganda that ‘There Is No Alternative’ and the false claim that ‘really existing socialism’ had failed .

Unable to understand the difference between genuine socialism and its Stalinist perversion, such leaders threw out the socialist baby with the Stalinist bathwater. Unlike most trade union- and political leaders internationally, the SACP and Cosatu leadership, which uneasily dominate SA’s trade union movement, retained much of the radical rhetoric from the apartheid-era workers struggles under apartheid. This radical rhetoric was used to mask their ideological demoralization about the prospects for socialism from the workers who, at a time of the near-insurrectionary upheavals of the 1980s, had drawn the opposite conclusions from their leaders: that the struggle against apartheid was simultaneously against capitalism; that the aim of the struggle for democracy also was for socialism.

Without a revolutionary perspective for socialist transformation of society, trade union leaders are bound to confine themselves to deals with bosses and governments. In times of capitalist crisis, the veil of reformism is torn away revealing such leaders as class collaboration and strike breakers. As seen in MEWUSA, such (mis)leaders view strikes, factory occupations and mass struggles in general as disruptive nuisances to which they respond with hostility. The logic of this position is to undermine workers’ control of unions, abuse unions as stepping stones towards elevation into government positions and the corporate world. Corruption and looting of union coffers inevitably follow.


This outlook explains the actions of the outgoing NEC-clique. As the congress approached, it became clear they would cling onto their positions by fair means or foul, even at the cost of splitting the union. In a glaring admission that they had lost the confidence of their own membership, they massaged delegation sizes, upwards in regions where they hoped to get support based on ignorance of their role, downwards where their crimes were known. Certain regions were starved of resources to attend the congress. In an attempt conceal their crimes and confuse the membership into thinking that there was a power struggle between ambitious individuals, the outgoing NEC suspended, without charge, Media and Campaigns Organiser, Mametlwe Sebei and Legal Officer, Ivor Mokwena.

At the congress, clauses never adopted at any congress mysteriously appeared in the version of the constitution distributed. There were no financial reports for the last two years, no reports of the outgoing leadership, no entertaining of constitutional amendments, any resolutions or debate.

This cabal even called in the police, hired private security and bouncers (at R10 000/hour according to one of the security firms), to protect them from their own members! Resorting to the biggest crime in trade union tradition – class collaboration – the outgoing NEC invited bosses of companies where MEWUSA organises, including the Mine Line liquidator, who is determined to liquidate the company and therefore destroy workers’ jobs and livelihood, who allegedly paid for the bouncers and openly tried to bribe delegates into voting for the outgoing leadership! The congress ended inconclusively allowing the outgoing-NEC to retain office by default. Those who want a genuine democratic conference, to unite the union and to fight the bosses have had no alternative but to elect their own leadership in the interim to prevent the collapse of the union, continue to servicing members by seeking the interventions of the Labour Court.

The ex-NEC in the meantime, blinded by their determination to stay in power at all costs, are arbitrarily suspending staff, withholding travel allowances to selected organizers and holding secret meetings behind the backs of the workers. Some officials like comrade Sebei are even receiving threatening anonymous phone calls.

The socialist alternative

As we point out above, the developments in MEWUSA are not unique. Cosatu affiliates such as Popcru and CWU are deeply divided over corruption and misrepresentation of workers’ interests. While over a million jobs were lost in SA during the 2008-09 recession, not a single general strike was called! Instead union leaders place themselves at the head of struggles that break out from below only to betray them, as happened during the 2010 public sector strike. The crisis has put the leadership of all working class organisations to the test, and most, including the outgoing MEWUSA leadership, have failed.

Based on Marxist analysis of the world situation, our perspective for the period ahead is of a long economic down-turn with continued and intensified attacks on workers’ jobs and living conditions. The only way forward in this situation is to fight! Mass action is the way to combat increased casualisation, to defend jobs and wages. But there can be no lasting gains under capitalism especially during a crisis such as this one. Worker leaders need to chart a way out of this dead-end, for the socialist transformation of society. The alternative to socialism is declining living standards, division and demoralisation among workers, increased racial and gender oppression, wars and environmental destruction.

To arm itself to lead this battle, the working class needs to reclaim and rebuild its organisations. This is why the DSM supports the call for reviving the traditions of democracy and workers’ control of MEWUSA, for ending all privileges, for the right of recall, for the election of a new leadership to be held to account by these principles, and for arming the union with a fighting, socialist programme. If this is what we are accused of, we plead guilty!



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