The interview was originally published on January 29, 2015. On Reality Asserts Itself: Mr. Jim, General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa, explains why his union withdrew its support for the governing African National Congress.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. This is The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And we’re continuing our series of interviews with Irvin Jim of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. Thanks for joining us again. So, in 2013, you and your colleagues–or your comrades, as you would say–make a pretty fateful decision, which is to openly break with the ANC. So what were the conditions that led you to that conclusion? ‘Cause it was not a popular decision amongst some of your trade union leadership comrades and has led to the expulsion of your union from the main trade union federation. And you probably knew this could happen. So in 2013, when you make that decision, why?
IRVIN JIM, PRESIDENT, NUMSA: To be honest, we didn’t think so.
JAY: You didn’t think COSATU would take the position [incompr.]
JIM: Yes. The federation were built over the years as a custom and practice. It has never been a bottom type of an approach in how we’d arrive at decisions and mandate; it has been from below. In other words, what it means in practice: basically, each and every union of COSATU is autonomous from the federation, [has got (?)] absolute right in its own Congress, if it is well constituted, to debate any matter. Having resolved on those matters, it takes them to the federation with a view to persuade COSATU to arrive on the similar decision in this case.
JAY: But that being said, I mean, you know better than I do a black elite has emerged that is extremely wealthy, has a lot of interest in maintaining the status quo. And a lot of the unions are tied up with that. So you knew what hellfire was coming down on you.
JIM: No. We knew that we have been contested. We knew that both in the leadership of COSATU, the current leadership, and in different affiliates, many of them have been co-opted into serving in the NEC of the ANC, in the central committee of the party, but less that we think that they can behave in a manner which basically act as pawns for the ANC and the South African Communist Party–
JAY: Go back to 2013.
JIM: –in a trade union movement which is worker-controlled.
JAY: Or so you thought. Go back to 2013. And in the meetings where you’re going to take the decision to publicly break, what–.
JIM: That’s not what drove us. What basically happened is that in the Ninth Congress of NUMSA, workers gave us a very tight mandate. They told us that you have been champions of mobilizing /ˈæstroʊvud/ for the ANC. The ANC must implement the Freedom Charter. The ANC must champion manufacturing and industrialization. The ANC must break with GEAR, which was Growth, Employment, and Redistribution strategy, which has failed, which continues to destroy jobs. So it must intervene in the economy and champion manufacturing and industrialization. It must address issues of ownership and control. It means it must take ownership of our strategic minerals, with a view to defend the current existing capacity, but also to use those minerals to build new industries and diversify. This is not to say that those who continue to benefit out of extraction of our minerals must not be able to benefit. But workers took a very firm view that we must be the first people who actually must benefit out of the jobs that must be created at the back of the minerals that the country is having. The reality is that the ANC was not prepared to do that. We pushed it. And it was clear right from the dismissal of the ANC Youth League, which basically was clear that it demanded nothing else, except to demand that they must fully implement the Freedom Charter. NUMSA as well. We champion that we need a full implementation of the Freedom Charter, which basically–.
JAY: Just to remind people quickly, yeah, the Freedom Charter essentially means the nationalization of natural resources.
JIM: Well, that’s key, including that the people shall govern, including that education must be at the center of everything else we do, including to deal with the question of the fact that there was the Land Act of 1913, where 87 percent of the land is still in the hands of a tiny white minority. And in 2004, we were basically promised, through the contract with the people which the ANC committed itself that it would halve property, it will halve unemployment, it will do away with the packet system. In other words, people would have proper infrastructure in relation to sanitation. And then 30 percent of the land would have been returned back to its rightful owners. I can tell you that less than 10 percent of the land has been returned, meaning that 87 percent of the land is still in the hands of a tiny white minority. Even the land that has been returned is completely unproductive. Nothing has been done in language of the Freedom Charter that call for a state that provides seeds and tractors–in other words, that ensured that the people can be able to till the land and be able to be productive.
JAY: Now, ANC had turned their back on the Freedom Charter right from ’94. I mean, when they, when the ANC becomes the government, they do not adopt the Freedom Charter as their program. What brought this to the head in 2013?
JIM: What is very strange, which basically led us to the decision that we took, is that in all elections, when they campaign, they campaign on the basis–they win all election, they convince workers, by saying, look, we’ll implement the Freedom Charter, which is one issue which led us to the Special National Congress in 2013. And on all the aspiration that workers felt that–you know, the Freedom Charter is not a socialist document itself. But, I mean–.
JAY: It’s pretty close.
JIM: Not really.
JAY: Nationalize–public ownership of natural resources.
JIM: Not really. Honestly, I think it is a breakthrough that would have made sure that both black and white in South Africa have got equal access to the economy, and such that the noble objective from which we would all have built from and deal with racism and everything else. But also what is very strange is the fact that the ANC itself, in its own theory, it regard the working class, both working in the factories and organize as a multi-force of the revolution. And what we rejected is that in every election, indeed, because the working class is numerical in numbers, it will return the ANC into power. But when it comes to policies that it promises this working class, it takes a right-wing turn. And we ended up in a special national Congress at a time the ANC was privatizing roads, it was bringing back privatization through the new MDP, which basically–through it they were concealing the failure, that they have failed to meet their targets, which they have promised that come 2014. It was clear that 2014 was going to come without meeting those targets, that they said they will halve poverty, unemployment, because at the time we were facing a triple crisis of poverty, unemployment, and inequalities. So the reality: we needed to go and reflect and say to workers, give us a mandate. What did we do? And indeed we did a very critical analysis in the state of the organization. Workers took resolution. And they were a watershed resolution in the interests of workers, in the interests of the revolution, it in the interests of South African working class, which we’re very proud that, as NUMSA, we’re counted among the forces which history will remain counted of being consistent, of championing a clear path. And workers resolved that, one, we shall not campaign for the ANC, which would have killed workers in Marikana, in a massacre different to others, who spoke a lot of English without science, who suggested that, look, this was not a massacre, it was every definition that people tried. They look for English. We were there. We know what happened in Bhisho, in Kwa-Langa, where massacres took place.
JAY: Just very quickly, Marikana was a place where there was a miners strike. I can’t remember. How many were killed?
JIM: More than six workers, I think. But many people died there.
JAY: Many people died, many people were wounded by the police, and it turned out that one of the people that triggered all this is now the vice-chairman of the ANC, who’s a billionaire and owned a piece of the mine.
JIM: Well, he wrote letters. There’s a commission that is underway, which we’re waiting for with the result. We hope the commission will come out very clear. Quite frankly, he is positioning himself–.
JAY: This is Ramaphosa.
JIM: Cyril Ramaphosa is positioning himself to be the next president of the country. There’s no doubt about that. Of course he represent the interests of minerals, energy, and finance complex. He is the one who basically crafted–he was chairing, was part of the people who crafted the national development plan, which maintain the status quo, which seeks to conceal all the failures of GEAR, which makes sure that white monopoly capital continues to be dominant, without championing any manufacturing and industrialization. In fact, the jobs that it is calling for, it’s office cleaning and hairdressing.
JAY: I mean, the fact that a billionaire can be vice-chairman of the party is just–it’s kind of the tip of the iceberg of how profound this new elite and how entrenched it is in the South African capital.
JIM: I think it makes things very clear that some cut the deal with capital. They have been co-opted at the expense of the working class, which is why our conference said now is the time for the working class to organize and serve as a class for itself. Of course, it can’t do it alone. It must win the middle class, the academia, the intelligentsia. And the organic intellectual that has been produced by the revolution to defend the momentary interests of the working-class by championing full the struggle to ensure that we fully realize implementation of the Freedom Charter. And workers in our special congress said we shall do that by being a catalyst for a realization of a formation of a united front and the movement for socialism, which must continue to champion the struggle for the working class and the poor.
JAY: Well, we’ll get into that part soon. When COSATU, the trade union federation–if I understand correctly, it was, like, a 15-hour debate about whether to expel NUMSA. iWhat was the argument on the other side? And how did you lose that vote? Because you have to wonder. It’s kind of so obvious where the ANC is now. I mean, Ramaphosa–. So how do you lose that? What was the argument against your position?
JIM: You mean in relation to what? In relation to our–.
JAY: Whether you would be expelled?
JIM: No, I think–.
JAY: What are they arguing, the unions in COSATU that wanted you out?
JIM: I think–or I holded some hostage of running them a workshop [sic], because we have to speak to them, to make them to realize that the decision that they were intending to take in a very subjective manner was terrible for the working class, was bad for the revolution, because South Africa is where it is as a result of two axes, the working class and the youth that have defied that, that have sacrificed to bill to the federation [sic]. COSATU has been /boʊt/ assured in the spear in the hands of workers and in the interests of the South African revolution. And we needed to make sure that they understood that this hemorrhaging and the rapture that they were championing to destroy the federation was against the interests of workers and the people of South Africa as a whole. And of course they were not listening, because they were carrying a mandate. We remain convinced that there is a core in the African National Congress that is behind NUMSA’s expansion, there is a core in the South African Communist Party, with some key people in government. The agenda is very clear. They want to turn COSATU. They still want COSATU, but they want it as a toy telephone of both the ANC and its government.
JAY: Just for people that aren’t following this story, the South African Communist Party is part of the governing alliance with ANC. So they’re more for less on the same page.
JAY: Did some unions go with you?
JIM: Well, I think that’s what they have not anticipated. They didn’t anticipate it. They thought that they will just expel NUMSA. Actually, the federation have fractured, in the sense that about seven COSATU unions, they have announced publicly that they will not participate in COSATU. We know one of another union, which would be making eight. It is its leadership that is selling out. But workers are firmly behind NUMSA and the unity of workers in South Africa. And there’s the National Union of Metalworkers who have taken a very firm view, which is supported by those unions, that we will do everything to fight, to reclaim the federation for the unity of workers. It’s after all failed when we will consider to forming a federation.
JAY: That was my next question. So are you now considering organizing a new national labor federation?
JIM: It’s not because of–look, we’re dealing with conditions not of our own choosing. One thing we shall not back off, though, is to take up the struggle to ensure that we unite South African workers, because they must continue to be a compass, because it is only the working class that is capable of carrying the revolution to its logical conclusion, because it is numerical in numbers. It is the most exploited. And if it has got a clear political organ, which is a vanguard party that raises this levels of consciousness to that of a class that exploit it, that working class can be consistent for a revolution. And we think that in South Africa there’s no better cause like a cause of building organizations of the working class that must not just represent the interests of the working class, that must champion that interest in struggle.
JAY: And at some of the critical moments when you’re home and you’re on your own and you’re thinking quietly to yourself, are there some moments when you kind of get the momentousness–. Am I saying it correctly? Momentousness. And I don’t even think that’s a word. But at any rate, the significance of what you’re doing, and the amount–I know you’re colleagues and you’re comrades, but you’re certainly the–you’re the leader here, and you’re making some very bold moves.
JIM: Well, it’s very cold in the pursuit of class struggle. You lose friends, but win friends if you look around. I think one of the fundamental challenges: that there is nothing so painful when people fail to see the reality in front of them, that in South Africa, poverty is deepening. The levels of deindustrialization that are taking place, you can go anywhere else in the world, you can look here in America, you can go to Chicago, areas that used to be industrialized, and where we have allowed jobs to be destroyed, those jobs will not come back. We think that if you were to ask us what is the huge task now, which is the task of the advanced detachment at any intersection at the point of the revolution, in different political parties that exist, in any quagmire that exist, it is always to bring to the front momentary interests of the working class. And within that, that’s the challenge that we are going to show the–that’s a challenge, why I’m here in U.S., to engage with the comrades who have been with us, who built the federation. We think that it’s time for solidarity, it’s time for a working class all over the world to appreciate that capital. It’s about greed. What drives it is not–it knows no color, no relative. What it knows is profit. And the working class, it must stand together in solidarity. And we also know that there is no body, there’s no government, there’s no trade union that control capital mobility. It move from one nation state to another. What drives that movement is about where it will maximize profits. And the class struggle should continue, therefore, on an international scale.
JAY: You have kids?
JAY: By the way, if you’re hearing music behind us, there’s an event happening not far from this studio that we’re in in D.C. So there’ll be a musical background for this interview. Some of your comrades just a few months ago were assassinated. The class struggle in South Africa is at a very high level, and it’s serious. It’s life-and-death. You’re in the leadership. You can be a target. Do you think about these things?
JIM: Well, history shall not forgive any huge movement for its wrong perception of reality. I think that society has developed between two classes, the working class and the capitalist class. I think for those who must champion the interests of the working class, you’ve got a choice–it’s a conscious decision that you take–whether you are going to serve the interests of the working class. And I think I am one of those who would be counted, who have taken side. Look, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a rocky road. Already we’ve ended the year with a planted story that I’m part of the people who are mobilizing to overthrow government. And anybody–I mean, there is growing intolerance. Democracy’s being undermined. If you speak your mind, you’re working with imperialist forces, working with CIA. We’re working with foreign agencies. But we think that we’re very clear. We’re championing the interests of the working class. Yes, there is a risk of being killed, but we can’t be preoccupied by that, because class struggle is noted in our party.
JAY: ‘Cause if you succeed–and you’re an enormous union. I don’t think I said this properly in the introduction. This is a union with 350,000 members, and you are the biggest union in South Africa. And with your allies, you’re a very potent force. If you harness the anger and frustration that exists now with what’s happened under the ANC and you realize your vision, this is globally explosive. This is–like, this is something new for the world if you guys succeed, which makes you rather a target for a lot of forces.
JIM: No, I think I’m very clear about that. I think the reason why our union has got a clear slogan that said to workers, set aside all prejudice, and you must unite, and we’ve got a vision, which is to end economic exploitation, the fact that we firmly believe that that can only happen under the leadership of the working class–and we call on our own members to join the worldwide movement of the international working class–we know that we’re dealing with capital and capitalism not locally–it is international in character. And, actually, the dominant force within capitalism, imperialism, it hates people who champion the interests of the working class. But I think, look, I mean, they can deal with me as an individual, but they won’t deal with the working class. It is numerical in numbers. And all what we need to do is to raise those levels of consciousness against the dominant interest, which is looting, basically, and squander of resources. I think we should all be prepared to leave, to advance humanity, [rather] than to advance greed. I think if they kill me into that, as long as I well articulate the interests of the working class, I think the working class will continue with the struggle. They can’t kill us all.
JAY: Okay. One more segment before Irvin has to go, and we’re going to talk about what they’re organizing now, a united front of the left of Democratic forces in South Africa, and what his vision is for the next phase of the South African revolution. So please join us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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“Irvin Jim is a South African trade union leader. He is currently the General Secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.”