At the Center of a Storm - Irvin Jim on RAI (pt 3/3)

This interview was originally released on January 30, 2015. On Reality Asserts Itself: Workers must build a united front to implement the Freedom Charter, which includes participating in electoral politics; the workers’ movement can’t just be about marching, says Mr. Jim, General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. It’s Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay. And we’re continuing our series of interviews with the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the largest union in South Africa–about 350,000 members–that has broken with the ANC and been expelled because of that from COSATU, the trade union federation. And this is part three, so if you haven’t watched part one and two, well, you probably should. So let’s pick it up from here. So, in the last year or so, especially since you were expelled from COSATU, you have been developing, essentially, a United Front. You’ve been very involved in developing international contacts. So tell us a little bit about what this broad front is. You have, I think, some kind of preliminary committee to establish a United Front, which sounds like you’re heading towards participating in elections. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s part of my question. What’s your vision for the next stage of things?

IRVIN JIM, PRESIDENT, NUMSA: Well, I think I’ve already raised the fact that, yes, we have launched the United Front in December 2014. The real mission with the interim committee is to have a final launch that will take place in April. From where we stand, the United Front must take up working-class struggles. As you know, as a result of deepening poverty, unemployment, and inequality, South Africa have become an international capital of service-delivery protest. And we see the United Front basically championing [shop floors (?)] linking up, with NUMSA being part, championing shop floor struggle, linking them up with community struggles, to make sure that the working class is really mobilized and it takes up the campaign and challenge the neoliberal agenda. It makes sure that the Freedom Charter is being implemented, the struggle for jobs. And that struggle is in the best interests of many young people who finishes school, who can’t be absorbed by the labor market because [of] the neoliberal policies that are being pushed. Of course, NUMSA have also taken a very firm stance that the working class need its political organ, and therefore by March will take a final decision, who have been actually inviting people internationally, who have been taking international trips, to begin to explore what’s the nature of the political organ of the working class that we need, because the South African Communist Party, which was to be the hope, which was to–sharpened contradiction in the interest of the working class raising its levels of consciousness, has basically been swallowed by the state.

JAY: So your tactics involve more militant strike struggles, supporting minors and others that are taking on some of the more conservative unions that are trying to restrain those struggles, mass protest. But as you say, at some point you’ve got to deal with the question the politics of this. There has to be an electoral strategy. It can’t just be don’t support the ANC.

JIM: Well, I think in their /əˈmideɪt/ there’s nothing stopping the United Front. Of course, I’m not taking the decisions for them. There’s nothing that stop the United Front, once it is launched, to basically begin to prepare and look at the state of the local state. In 2016, there’s local government elections coming. You don’t need to form a political party to actually take a decision that in a particular local municipality you will support particular candidates whom you know that they have got the interests of the working class. So, in 2016 the United Front can basically, in a targeted fashion, target particular municipalities and contest those particular local municipalities. And, of course, by March this year it would have been very clear which direction we’re taking in relation [to] what’s the nature and form of the political party that we want to crystallize. Of course, NUMSA will not turn itself into a political party. It remains a trade union. But it will continue to be a catalyst for both the realization of the United Front and the movement for socialism.

JAY: What’s the nature of mass media in South Africa, and how has it been reporting on NUMSA and this struggle?

JIM: Well, I must say that you’ve got very progressive journalists, in my view, who are literally seeking to ensure that they report. But I think of late we have noticed where basically institutions like the public broadcaster and various–.


JIM: There is some slowly coming up of closing of the space by government and those who have got power of influence to deal with progressive journalists. And I think we need to defend the democratic space. That include looking for alternatives, forms of media to challenge what is likely to be–I mean, as I was saying to you, as we’re ending the year, there was a story planted that we want to overthrow government. And we think that is a sign of dictatorship in the making. If such a propaganda continues, within no time we will find ourselves with dictatorship in our hands.

JAY: Yeah, and then you start that to have antiterrorist laws used against–.

JIM: That’s the issue.

JAY: Do you get on South African public television? It’s SABC, correct? [incompr.] sort of like at the level of a BBC. It’s a major broadcaster.

JIM: It is a major broadcast that of late–.

JAY: Do you get on it?

JIM: Well, we do, but of late we are beginning to notice that they choose what to cover. And we can see that journalist are progressive, but there is a closure of space.

JAY: Is there a debate over whether to participate in electoral politics or not within your of movement?

JIM: Well, working class cannot just be about marching. Championing working class interests can’t just be about marching. We are seriously interested in beginning to look as to–the real reason why we have been part of the African National Congress, the reason why we swell the ranks: we have deployed so many cadres to use every site of power to continue to champion the interest of the working class. For instance, if the South African Communist Party, which is parliament, was using the fact that they’re in parliament in order to expose the limits of capitalism, there would be nothing wrong with that. If they were linking the struggles in the streets and basically take platforms in parliament to continue to advance the interests of the working class, yes, we think there is a huge vacuum, which is why we do need an alternative for the working class, not just to run to parliament, but fast to mobilize the working class. And if a decision is taken at some point to contest elections, we should be able to combine those two. In other words, the working class interests must be championed in all sites of power in society.

JAY: So when you look forward to what your vision of society, the next stage, will be–and let’s assume, one form or another, there’s going to be electoral politics–how do you implement the Freedom Charter? I mean, the Freedom Charter has wonderful principles. But to actually execute on them can be rather difficult. If you look at the Latin American experience, Chávez and others had somewhat similar principles, but it’s been a damn difficult thing to execute them.

JIM: Look, that’s not my experience. I think we have a situation where we have engaged, as a result of the politics in South Africa, with all interested people who have invested in South Africa or still got an interest to invest. When we explain the fact that South Africa’s future is not true super exploitation of black and African labor by paying them excavation wages, sweat to the bottom [sic]–and also it’s about making sure that both black and white have got equal access into the economy if you want to change power relations in society. I mean, we do not come across with capital that is hostile. And, also, why should we be expecting capital, which is about maximizing profit, that they must even make policy that must be in the interest of the working-class, why there’s no decisive intervention by the state on behalf of the people as long as there’s rational–that those who want to invest their money, they can guarantee that they will get their returns? Look, from where we’re sitting, we think that there’s no crisis in the implementation of the Freedom Charter, because everybody, both black and white, can understand that the doors of learning and culture must be open for everybody. The minute I’ll work banks and monopoly industries, why must not they not be transferred to the ownership of the people?

JAY: Well, if you say everyone can understand, there’s some–the people that currently own them may not understand.

JIM: Okay. The first thing is that those minerals are our own national endowment. So we don’t need to ask permission from anyone. Maybe you could begin to grapple with the banks, but just to take ownership of your minerals and to say, look, we will beneficiate them and you will embark on research and develop capacity to build industries and so forth. I mean, any economy that is to develop, it must create jobs. It must have buying power. And that’s when you can think about economic good. If you continue with the direction which destroyed jobs, how do you think that capital must come and invest in a sea of poverty, when in fact what you need is security gate, is self-imposed prison, not to think outside this box and not to think outside the box of what everybody have defined for us. And the scarecrow that if you nationalize, then you will be chasing investors, I mean, from our we stand, we don’t think that investors are people who come from heaven. We think that these are the people who would have exploited workers anywhere else in the world. Having made more money, they then decide, where do we deploy these resources? Of course they will always want to move from high cost to low cost in order to satisfy their greed. So capital can be directed if there is a political will.

JAY: Some of the people that you’re going to terrify are vice chairmen of the ANC. We have people in government that have tremendous investment and tremendous wealth now in natural resources and some of the other areas you’re talking about.

JIM: To be honest, I don’t expect Cyril Ramaphosa to approve nationalization. I think that is unthinkable, because basically he will be nationalizing his own interests if we were to do that, is greatest directly conflicted, which is why we think that the working-class must organize itself as a class to champion class struggle. And I don’t think these people need to approve that, and I don’t think that–I think these are individuals who have been courted by capital to speak on their behalf to maintain the status quo, and I don’t think that capital, because it will be taking that path, they will think that it should threaten their own interest, because I think if the bulk of South Africans can have equal access to the economy, racism, and all other social ills that are associated with the current status quo will fall away and South Africa will be a better place for everybody to come and to invest.

JAY: Now, let’s say you win a national government sometime in the next five, six years (I don’t know how long it will take), where would you start, in terms of what would you do next?

JIM: Look, I mean, those questions I wouldn’t want to jump on, because we will just be–already people are ipanicking just by this debate, and they also will not want to wake them up, which municipality we will target if we would decide to do so. So, yeah, it’s a strategic question.

JAY: Okay. What’s the level of discussion and debate inside your union in terms of these kinds of issues? How much education goes on? How much are ordinary workers involved in the conversation?

JIM: I think one of the resolution that is not reported about, which workers took in the special national congress in 2013, was the adoption of a service charter. iWorkers don’t join the union because the general secretary is Irvin Jim. They don’t care about that. Workers join a union because that union can defend their gains, can improve their conditioning. In other words, there’s no replacement for quality service for members. And delivering quality service is to master a nexus between workers in the shop floor and shop stewards who are the bedrock of our own organization. If there’s one thing that we are deploying resources to is to champion quality service to our members. And as a result, we have got an organization that is run on the basis of debate and discussion and democratic centralism. Once decisions are taken, they are binding to everybody in the organization. From where we are, despite all the attacks, we’ve got workers united as a rock behind their own decision, including their own leadership, and we take comfort to that.

JAY: And in terms of the shop floor, the struggles right now, are you involved in any strike struggles right now? Like, on that whole level of fight, what’s going on?

JIM: We will have negotiations. Again, last year we had the strike in the engineering sector, which lasted for more than three weeks. We want to review long strikes. So we hope capital can wake up that in 2016, they must know that there’s another round of negotiations. What are they doing now? They must stop being lazy–and then complains about strikes. We think that it’s time for [CEOs to stand (?)] together with us, to begin to plan, to make sure that when it is that time, that the three agreement will come to an end, which would have a settlement that constitute a living wage for our own members. We think that we have told CEOs of companies in relation to that. And, of course, our work in the shop floor is an everyday, we’re taking workers into–workers in /daoʊbə/, where we sit and plan, we call to the bosses to make their own presentation, so that we can be able to know what do the bosses and what our members think. And I think that’s the role of a union that’s continuous.

JAY: You’re not shy about saying the vision is a socialist South Africa, correct?

JIM: [incompr.]

JAY: You’re not shy about saying that your vision for South Africa in the future is a socialist South Africa.

JIM: Well, socialism is the future. Capitalism has no solutions for problems that confront humanity. We’re very clear about that.

JAY: So what is that–I know you can’t get too detailed, but what does that look like, do you think, in–I don’t know when you’re able to achieve it, but what does it look like?

JIM: Well, which is why we are not hamstrung by -ism. We’re very clear. But in the [immediate (?)], we need to fight for full implementation of the Freedom Charter. But, I mean, basically we think that those who produces wealth should be able–I mean, the contradiction in society is about who own and control the social surplus. The reality of the situation: if a worker works 7.5 hours on a day, within one and a half-hour under capitalism he is paid what is due to him. The rest [of the hours (?)] are given free to the bosses. That’s what we call labor surplus value. And that’s exploitation. You know, if you need to end exploitation–that should be the endgame. And our view is that the social surplus that the working-class produces must be redistributed among those work it, and in the best interests of society, and to advance humanity, rather than to advance greed. Of course you can’t build socialism in one country. The reason why we continue to promote worker-to-worker contact, union-to-union contact, is to appreciate that we need to be internationalistic in character, in championing those particular struggles.

JAY: Alright. Well, thanks for joining us.

JIM: Thank you very much.

JAY: And thank you for joining 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.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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