Book Review- Solidarity Road - by Jan Theron


One of the gifts of the Communist tradition in South Africa was the impeccable minutes of the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU). The union was founded in 1941 under the leadership of CPSA member Ray Alexander (Rachel Simons). It was one of the main founding unions of SACTU (SA Congress of Trade Unions). Jan Theron uses the FCWU minutes as the foundation of a historical critique of the union movement in South Africa from 1976 up to about 1990. He declares his bias upfront as an active participant in this period. Thus, in part, his work is also autobiographical. There are so many activists that have been absorbed into the capitalist apparatus. Jan consciously turned away from these trappings and presents a class struggle critique of the period. Such honesty is a rarity and we hope that others will also put pen to paper to enrich the debates and struggles ahead.


As activists today we are grappling with the questions around what went wrong in 1994; how did we land up in this mess, where 3 people have the equivalent wealth that 50% of the masses have, where imperialism still dominates everything and the vast majority of the masses live in poverty in this land of plenty. Solidarity Road provides us with a record of the crucial period that preceded the political negotiated settlement. It raises a number of questions and challenges to the workers’ movement, especially at the time that some are exploring a new trade union federation around Numsa as well as the setting up of a new workers party. We explore some of the questions raised, as a contribution to the necessary debate. We present our interpretation of the book and take responsibility for any inaccurate representations thereof. Our hope is to inspire you to study the book and to take its reflections into the workers’ movement. The book carries the label “Fanele”, which sums up the essence: ‘This is a necessary book’.


We do not subscribe to the racial categories used in the book as they stem from an apartheid classification. All who are born in Africa, are African. Efforts should be made to break down such apartheid classification. However, for the sake of understanding the period, we use the terms ‘African’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’ and ‘white’, in the same context of the book, when these terms had a particular meaning and helped explain the divisions in the masses. We think the author had a similar motive in the use of the terms.


Alternative model of trade unionism

By 1976 the state had not only decimated the trade union movement through bannings and other other forms of repression, it had co-opted a decisive group of unions, while also dividing the workers’ movement on racial lines. African workers could not belong to the same unions as coloured and white workers. They had no right to strike nor any of the benefits of the registered trade unions. Overall, the bosses still had the right to dismiss, even if workers went on a ‘legal’ strike. The more privileged craft workers belonged to TUCSA (Trade Union Council of South Africa), which was notorious for siding with the bosses and the state. TUCSA was fully integrated in the state labour apparatuses. One of the biggest affiliates of TUCSA at the time was the Garment Workers Union, where wages were very low.  Although SACTU had long collapsed, the Food and Canning Workers Union, FCWU and the African Food and Canning Workers Union (AFCWU) still existed. When the state had passed legislation preventing African workers from belonging to registered unions, the union tried to bypass it by registering FCWU as a coloured workers union and set up the AFCWU as an unregistered union, with separate structures for African workers. The 2 unions then had joint meetings both at shopfloor and higher levels. In practice however, this unity was difficult to maintain as coloured workers had legal control of the union while African workers depended on solidarity and consciousness of the coloured workers for the joint control to be practiced. In 1976 a small bureaucracy was in control of the union. Racial divisions existed in the union and in the workplace. This was in part due to the coloured preference policy in the Western Cape province being enforced by the state and the bosses. Notable in the domination of the food sector were US and UK imperialist companies. The super-exploitation of the working class and the oppression of the African masses primarily benefited imperialism, who harshly enforced apartheid laws.


In the face of all these obstacles, there were, nevertheless, strong elements of workers’ control that still existed within FCWU and AFCWU. Workers in the branches controlled the union. The branches controlled their own finances and paid a percentage over to the union head office. The branches hired and fired officials. There was an annual branch general meeting at which all the members of the union could attend. The union had an annual elective Congress (they called it a Conference) at which leaders had to account. There was a strong delineation between workers and paid officials. The salaries of paid officials were close to that which members were earning. Shopstewards were able to be held to account instantly by any meeting of members at the shopfloor. At that stage they had no full time shopstewards. In fact the rise of the full-time shopsteward occurred in the larger, imperialist controlled firms, where the capitalists needed someone as a full-time controller of the conflict within the workplace. These full-time shopstewards were paid by the bosses; they did not work and they could be removed only with the permission of the bosses. FCWU would have regarded the full-time shopstewards as officials rather than workers, Thus, from their perspective, no full-time shopsteward would have been able to hold an elected position in the union, other than that of an official, such as Secretary- but even then the union would not probably have allowed it as this official was on the payroll of the bosses and not of the union. It is significant that among the first office bearers of Cosatu, Chris Dlamini was a full-time shopsteward, while Elijah Barayi was a Personal Assistant (pa) of a mining monopoly boss. A blatant breach of the principle of workers’ control. In FCWU and AFCWU, leaders had to be workers, not full-time shopstewards nor officials (except for the secretarial positions). The FCWU/AFCWU had monthly management committee meetings where the activist worker leadership and officials gave reports and effectively steered the union. These monthly meetings would have in the order of 50 workers present and provided a training ground for worker leaders as well as providing a real organ of workers’ control over the union.


Decentralised control by the branches did not in itself prevent corruption by officials and other leaders. It brought control closer to the members. The fight against corruption still required a conscious effort.


What underpinned the structures of the union was a class struggle approach. The deliberate exclusion of African workers from labour legislation also meant that whatever gains the union made, had to be through what they could gain through direct struggle against the bosses. The approach of workers’ unity in action thus reinforced a class struggle approach.  They won access for union officials among other gains. Their class struggle approach was based on strong shopfloor structures and workers’ control, direct workers’ democracy.


The union was always political. That Sactu and other organizations had been banned, meant that the union support for the ANC by 1976 had been indirect. The union used a class struggle approach to combat racial discrimination in the workplace and to fight for the principle of non-racism. Since inception there had always been a tolerance of different political beliefs of the members. There was a strong tradition that workers structures of the union was independent of political party control. This independence would be compromised by 1990.


Control by imperialist corporations of the food sector

What we learn early on is the imperialist corporations had decisive control of the food sector. This control was to become more consolidated over the years as fewer and fewer monopolies tightened their control over the sector. While workers militancy was growing and the class was starting to win significant economic and social gains, the monopolies hit back through devastating retrenchments.


As imperialism has done in other countries, their control was disguised through taking on local name brands for their companies and products. For example Del Monte controlled SAPco (SA Preserve co) while Anglo American controlled RFF (Rhodes Fruit Farm).


Thus, for us, the question of workers’ control of the food sector and even of the most basic advances on workers’ rights is tied to the working class having to confront imperialism capitalism. On the other hand, the control by imperialism of the food sector shows that the near-slave conditions on the farms was a key component of imperialist capitalist relations in South Africa.


The 1979 Fattis and Monis strike- the principle of non racism in practice

In 1979 the bosses at Fattis and Monis in Bellville, dismissed 5 coloured workers who had been at the forefront of building the union there. The bosses expected that the African workers, who formed the majority of the workforce, would do nothing. Instead, the majority of the workers came out on strike, demanding their reinstatement. The bosses responded by dismissing all of them. The strike dragged on for 7 months during which various communities and schools pledged support. The campaign to boycott Fattis and Monis products went national. The turning point came when the African traders stopped selling bread from the bakery that was linked to the company. All workers were reinstated and the union recognised. Although the workers from the company did not play a leading role in building the union, the example of a class struggle approach to breaking down artificial racial barriers at the workplace and the establishment of workers’ unity, was seen as a shining example to the rest of the working class. In our opinion, this struggle contributed to a wave of strikes, including  sit-down strikes, over the next few years. This wave of strikes not only won economic gains but began to break the barriers to discrimination at the workplace. While these strikes were economic, they were also political. The wave of strikes were, in a sense, a continuation and generalisation of the 1973 Durban strikes. These wave of strikes forced the apartheid regime to not only lift the ban on African workers belonging to registered unions but also smashed the racial categories that the regime had initially wanted to maintain. Such was the strength of the strike wave that the larger imperialist-owned companies started to concede recognition and breaking down of racial barriers on the shopfloor. The end of formal discrimination at shopfloor level was not achieved by the ANC govt nor Cosatu, but by the mass action of the organised working class. This is our conclusion from studying the text of Solidarity Road.


The role of revolutionary women in the rebirth of the workers’ movement

There were a number of women who played a leading role in building the union. We list only some of them: Ray Alexander, Miss Yon, Nellie Kilowan, Hester Adams, Liz Abrahams, Lizzie Phike, Spasie Saaiman (worker leader at Fattis & Monis), Mrs Cloete, Aletta Amon, Athalie Crawford, Virginia Engel.


Jan reports that in the period 1976 and beyond, except for one workplace, the women workers played the leading role in building shopfloor structures that were the backbone of the union.  


This strong workplace organization must have been a factor in the strong support from the Cosatu base in the Western Cape for the many general strikes/stayaways that were called in the late 1980’s. Rather interestingly, it is also reported one of the highest levels of recruitment for the ANC military wing, Mkhonto we Sizwe, came from the coloured workers in Paarl, a base of the union.


Ray Alexander

Ray played a fundamental guiding role in setting up worker controlled structures in 1941 and establishing a tradition of rigorous recording of proceedings. Forced into exile, the FCWU went into decline but somehow managed to survive. While the union was being rebuilt from 1976 onwards Jan did reach out to Ray for advice and guidance. However the rebuilding of the union was largely through the efforts of those who were inside the country.


When the internal democracy of the union was under attack from the ANC leadership Ray did not take a stand in support of the workers in the union. She chose to remain silent and accepted party discipline.


Oscar Mpetha

One of the founding members of FCWU, a strong and dedicated member of the ANC, was Oscar Mpetha. He was never afraid to disagree with any leadership, be they in the union or the ANC. To him, workers’ interests was always placed first. While others went into exile Oscar remained in the country. In 1978 when the union was being rebuilt,  Oscar was working as a watchman. The union had the good sense to offer him a role in the union and at the age of 70 he became its national organiser. He was also a community activist so when he was done with his union work he started with his community meetings. His honesty and integrity was widely sought after and he was busy until the last of his days. The state fabricated charges against him in 1980 which effectively ended his involvement in the union.


We recall that in 1988 when the ANC had spread a rumour campaign against the leaders of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement (UWM), it was to Oscar Mpetha that they turned. From his wheelchair he was still able to assist the UWM and many others.


Neil Aggett- the death of a Socialist

Neil Aggett was one of several medical doctors with a social conscience. He had no desire to serve a 2 year conscription in the apartheid army. In effect, he was on the run from the system. He worked as a volunteer organiser and then interim branch secretary of the FCWU Johannesburg branch. He did locum work for a public hospital and then every spare moment he devoted to rebuilding the union. A committed Socialist, he was sympathetic to the ANC but placed worker’s control above all else.


It was the sloppy approach of Barbara Hogan who passed on his name, along with others, to the apartheid regime (They had supposedly set her up by sending someone claiming to send details of the ANC work in the unions, to Lusaka, the then Headquarters of the exiled group). Neil, Sisa Njikelana (of Saawu) and others were arrested while on union work. He had been assisting Saawu to get a foothold in the Johannesburg area. He died in detention on the 5th Feb 1982 after a period of brutal torture at the hands of Lieutenant Steven Whitehead. Neither Whitehead nor any other policeman were brought to book at the TRC over his death. An inquest later that year blamed a fellow detainee for not reporting Aggett’s traumatised state! (The state reported his death as a suicide).  Such was the level of organization at shopfloor level, that the union called a political strike of 30 minutes for the 11th Feb 1982 from 1130 to 12 noon, to protest his death. It was reported that several other unions and workplaces also adhered to the call although it is difficult to prove the scope. Many unions, from Fosatu, to CCAWUSA, General Workers Union came to give solidarity at his funeral. Here was a white medical doctor being saluted for his role, by the organised black working class. To the worker it did not matter what label he was, only that he was a fighter, a revolutionary, that gave his life for the emancipation of the working class. The capitalists and imperialists had benefitted from the smashing of the unions. In our opinion, now that the organised might of the working class was stirring against the system itself, the capitalists began to make concessions, in order to save the system.


Premier milling bosses met with the union to offer their condolences. However they had a history of collaborating with the security police against unions and against FCWU in particular.  In our opinion, the capitalist class was beginning to reach the conclusion that in order to prevent a workers’ revolution, they had rather negotiate with the pliable leaders of the ANC- that is why the capitalists sent a delegation to Lusaka as part of seeking a way to retain exploitation but with a new face. This is what we deduce from our reading of Solidarity Road.


As an aside, we discover some of the tactics of the security police against activists. One was the inflating of a tire of a vehicle of an activist, to the point of bursting, while the pressure of others were reduced. We wonder how many activists lost their lives in road ‘accidents’ in this way. The TRC delivered no justice to these and other victims of the system.


The struggle for workers’ unity at a time of generalised working class revolt

FCWU, under leadership of Jan Theron, Oscar Mpetha, among others, played a leading role in convening meetings of various trade unions, with the aim of building a new trade union federation.


There were a number of trends within the workers’ movement at the time. 2 unions broke from the conservative TUCSA over their refusal to blame the state for Neil Aggett’s death. They (Tucsa) had also publicly disassociated themselves from the political strike on the 11th Feb 1982. This was a progressive split.


Fosatu (Federation of SA Trade unions) was sindicalist in that they restricted themselves to only economic issues at shopfloor level and refused to take up political struggles. This was to change under pressure of the rising workers’ revolt.


The General Workers Union based itself on setting up workers committees at shopfloor level while operating an advice office in support of worker organization.


Then there were the general ‘community’ unions. Many of them, like the SAAWU (SA Allied Workers Union) were aligned to the ANC. To them there was a blurring of the class lines in the union; to them officials could become President. They took their mandates from general mass meetings (where workers from different workplaces attended) and subjugated the union to the calls from the ANC leadership. These unions raised the demand that all unions not register, as a means to delay the formation of a new trade union federation. To them the formation of the UDF (United Democratic Front) and the instructions from the ANC were paramount. Several of these unions affiliated to the UDF while trying to delay the formation of a new federation.


Despite all the obstacles, in a meeting in Cape Town held over the 9-10 April 1983, a decision was reached to launch a new federation. [The UDF aligned unions withdrew from a unity feasability meeting in March 1984.- one example of delaying tactics by the ANC leaders].


Interestingly, the Anglo American bosses allowed NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) to be formed and gave them full access and rights, as a means to pre-empt the formation of a radical union on the mines. NUM did not have members on the mines at the time. This granting of access was after a meeting between Cyril Ramaphosa and Anglo American. The imperialist capitalist class realised that working with the ANC was an effective mechanism to keep the working class under control.


FCWU used strong shopfloor organization as a basis from which to advance workers’ interest and opened the structures of the union to discuss politics as well as building to take a workers’ perspective on political events. By contrast, SAAWU and other such general unions subjected the union structures to calls from the ANC. In our opinion, therefore the ANC call ‘to make the country ungovernable’ translated into mass strikes, with little or no shopfloor organization, with no workers’ control, no consideration of the balance of forces. Many times these instigated strikes resulted in mass dismissals. The result was that SAAWU and other general unions were decimated by the response of the bosses.


What was decisive in the turn for the launch of Cosatu to become a reality was the decision by the leadership of Fosatu to support the ANC.


The ANC activists formed an active minority within the unions. They had gained control of Cosatu at its launch in 1985 by a number of bureaucratic and anti-worker measures. These included insisting that only a criteria of signed up members was sufficient. If only paid up members were allowed then the weight of the ANC would have been much less. Further, key unions paraded full-time shopstewards as workers. Elijah Barayi, the first president of Cosatu was actually a personal assistant of one of the Anglo bosses who had likely become a full-time shopsteward; Chris Dlamini, the first Deputy President of Cosatu was also a full-time shopsteward at US multinational Kelloggs. Thus right from the top, the principle of workers’ control was breached. Except for the CTMWA (Cape Town Municipal Workers Association) and FCWU, all the other unions that made up Cosatu were dependent on funding from imperialism. In this sense, our conclusion is that imperialism aided the control of the new federation by the ANC. The funding of the Cosatu unions also drove and agenda towards the increased use of the courts rather than building shopfloor organization. While paying lip-service to opposing the imperialist-aligned ICFTU, often Cosatu affiliates had their legal fees paid by the ICFTU. The purchase of Cosatu house, despite the protestations of the FCWU leadership, was through imperialist funding.


From then onwards, control by the ANC in the affairs of the unions in Cosatu was the guiding factor.


[There were a number of struggles within various unions, where the voices that were critical of ANC control over the internal life of these structures, were silenced. CCAWUSA (Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union) was deliberately split and the Cosatu leaders sided with the ANC faction against the majority of the workers. ]


Those who opposed the ANC line were labelled Azapo, CIA or traitors and they were subject to harassment and rumours campaigns.


In FAWU (FCWU had since merged with SFWU-Sweet, Food and allied Workers Union, among others) the ANC minority had wanted to protect an official who had been found to be corrupt. Although, through a special FAWU Conference/Congress the official was eventually dismissed, the ANC faction consolidated its position. By the National Conference of 1989 the bureaucratisation of FAWU was far advanced. No longer would there be annual conferences- they would take place only every 2 years; only the NEC could call a special congress, the branches had their power removed. Power went to the national office bearers and the management committee had its worker base removed. Activists and other workers in the union launched the ‘campaign for democracy’ within FAWU. They launched a court proceedings which they withdrew after Cosatu mediation. After this, the FAWU leaders went back on the agreement to reinstate the branch leadership, who had been unfairly removed from their positions.


Such was the integration of Cosatu into the ANC (government in waiting) by 1990, that Cosatu had already become a new TUCSA. The attacks on the workers movement by the capitalist class from 1990 onwards continued, virtually unchallenged by Cosatu (the new TUCSA). Many ex-Cosatu leaders went into business or took up government positions. [Jay Naidoo, who had claimed at the founding Congress of Cosatu that he would never sit next to a capitalist, became a Minister of the watered ANC programme, called the RDP, Reconstruction and Development Programme. This was de facto a disguised start of an IMF Structural Adjustment Programme. Naidoo went on to become a head of a leading IT telecoms capitalist company, that gained foothold in several parts of Africa as a whole.]


Imperialism, since 1990, was in effect governing through the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance.


There were a number of struggles against the rule by the alliance. This is not touched on in the book. For example, there was the Mercedes Benz strike of 1990 when workers discovered that part of the factory was used to make military weapons for the apartheid state. These workers were dismissed and Cosatu failed to launch a defence of them. Many have died since then. Similarly in 2000 when 1346 VWSA workers went on strike against the company and Numsa imposition of their selection of full-time shopstewards and on the union signing agreements behind the workers’ backs. Hundreds of the workers have died while the rest are in destitution, after a mass dismissal in which Vavi failed to revert back to the workers on the 3rd Feb 2000, the day of the ultimatum.


The book correctly refers to the Marikana massacre of 16th August 2012, as a turning point in our struggle.


What economic gains were made through mass struggle by the working class were often weakened or destroyed by the mass retrenchments from the increasing concentration of ownership. There has been a wave of de-industrialisation worldwide.


There were times, such as 1990 and 2000  when sleep-in strikes/ factory occupations occurred. This had raised the level of class response to the mass dismissals by the capitalists, to a higher level. However, the subjugation of the working class to ANC meant that these struggles were not supported and were left to defeat.


Some questions for the working class to consider


Jan raises important questions over the principles of workers’ control and control directly in the hands of workers. These are important questions in the struggle for ultimate workers’ control over society. A key obstacle in the way of a class struggle approach has been the rise of a trade union bureaucracy. The very organizations of workers’ struggle have been turned into organs of preserving the capitalist system. How do we solve these questions? We could also have explored other examples of trade unions such as political slates of the Brazilian trade union movement under the CUT. This was where in each town all the workers of an industry set up competing political slates that there is open discussion and contest over. Even this progressive model did not prevent the rise of a union bureaucracy. The CUT proved to be the base through which the Workers’ Party ,the PT, chained the workers in Brazil to capitalist relations. The CUT had become a ‘TUCSA’ of Brazil.


The ANC and SACP as an active minority, were able to gain and retain control of what became Cosatu. In the process the federation became bureaucratised as a means of suppressing the workers’ voice and an instrument of control over the working class.


Numsa and the proposed new federation is faced with the same challenges. In order for workers’ voices to be not only heard but for real workers’ control, the model of Numsa, which is based on the Cosatu bureaucratic version, needs to change. There needs to be re-organising of structures so that there is real control by workers at plant, local and structural level. The principle of instant recall of any elected leadership is fundamental. The aligning of officials salaries and conditions to be close to that of the members is another principle. The principle of independence from the state and capital is another principle.


However, what is fundamental is the principle of free political debate in the structures of the union. The acceptance that workers have the right to freely campaign for and defend their views within the union structures. The holding of regular plant, local, regional and national meetings and limiting the terms of office bearers to one year at a time, are all considerations for turning our unions into schools of working class ideas and practice, of class struggle.


Having a democratic internal structure in the union is a mechanism of ensuring that any workers’ party that is formed would not be easily able to rule over the union and the workers. Independence of trade union structures from direct party political control needs to be ensured. This does not mean that the trade union should be apolitical. On the contrary it has to be political. What is fundamental is that the union as an organ of working class struggle needs to be protected.


Otherwise any new federation or the old ones, will remain conveyor belts to the state apparatus and continued capitalist relations.


The question of the role of full-time shopstewards also needs further debate. Activists such as Abraham Agulhas and others, were able to use the positions of full-time shopsteward to advance workers’ interest, supporting strikes and workers’ struggles. Having workers freed from full-time work in the workplace can be to the advantage of the working class. What needs to be changed is the control over the shopsteward. It should be free from management control and only workers should have the right to recall such leaders, at any time. There were times when the workers at VWSA wanted to recall John Gomomo, one- time President of Cosatu. They were not able to do so because of management and union top leadership opposition. Such privileges of protection by the bosses and union bureaucracy, should end.


When Neil Aggett gave a copy of Lenin’s What is to be done?, to Jan Theron, he showed that he was far-sighted and not as naive as Jan thought he was. It is not sufficient to build militant, democratic, workers’ control within the unions. We need to build a real, revolutionary working class party. Having a healthy revolutionary minority that is organised is essential to counter the reactionary, nationalist minority that came to hold sway in Cosatu and other unions.  


We salute Jan Theron for placing a lifetime of work under the gaze of the international working class. This was no easy task. It is a timely contribution to working class culture, our culture of resistance.


Fanele, ‘This is a necessary book’.


25.1.2017 amended 11.3.2017

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