protest Democratic Left Front supporters on a Black Lives Matter protest organised by the United Front on 18 March 2015

South African socialist and anti-apartheid activist Trevor Ngwane is interviewed by Susan Newman

Susan Newman: Could you tell me about the political situation in South Africa? What have been the conditions for the organising of the United Front?

Trevor Ngwane: In South Africa, what’s happening is that we have a government of national liberation led by the African National Congress, the party of the late president Nelson Mandela. But there’s growing frustration among working class people, including the lower middle class, and sometimes even the bourgeoisie, who see the ANC as incompetent, but in particular because of what is viewed as the government serving the interests of the rich and not the poor. There is a phrase here saying, “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer”. Now, when we look at the state, it started, in 1996 when the ANC adopted a neoliberal programme. This was problematic.

Under apartheid, black people and the working class in general suffered hard economic conditions. They expected some improvement but neoliberalism tended to make things worse. Today, what we see happening are hundreds and thousands of community projects; individual communities, people living in shack settlements and township residents rising up, revolting, and demanding services such as water and electricity.

We get students at universities crying out for funding; they don’t have money to fund their university education. We also get strikes. In 2007 (and again in 2010), we had the biggest public sector strike involving almost all the unions across the spectrum. Of course, the latest was the massacre in Marikana in 2012 when 34 striking miners were shot dead for demanding a living wage. At the moment, the working class is very unhappy with the ANC government.

SN: What has been the response of the working class since 2012?

TN: Well, the community protests, although they are happening everywhere at a very high rate (the police put them at 10,000 per year, although I think that is a bit of an exaggeration), tend to be fragmented in the sense that they involve just one or two communities; they don’t happen at the same time. When it comes to the trade union movement, the failure of the unions, especially the biggest trade union federation COSATU, to lead a fight back has created a lot of contradiction leading to disintegration.

In fact, after Marikana – Marikana was a turning point; it was the last straw that broke the camel’s back – we saw the biggest union in South Africa, the National Union of Metal Workers South Africa (NUMSA), breaking out of the Alliance of the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party which is like a hegemonic block in South Africa.

In any case, Marikana itself, that strike was called by workers themselves against the wishes and advice of their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which at that time was biggest union in COSATU. But NUM had got so close to the bosses that it was neglecting the interests of the workers. The strike itself was an expression of ordinary workers’ disaffection and dissatisfaction with what was going on.

So basically, we have NUMSA breaking out of the Alliance, we have the NUM disintegrating, and most recently we’ve had the general secretary of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi, being fired in an unprecedented move, because he was opposed to the biggest union (NUMSA) being expelled from the federation.

SN: Can you tell me how the United Front was formed?

TN: NUMSA, in its special congress held in December 2013, said that, in light of the national election in 2014, they would not support the ANC anymore. Secondly, they said that they are going to explore finding a political alternative because the South African Communist Party had sold out to capital. They wanted to create a workers’ party and a step towards that would be to form a united front which would unite all struggles of the working class and communities in South Africa.

SN: Can you tell me something about how these groups have come together and how successful that has been?

TN: When NUMSA broke out of The Alliance it was tantamount to a political earthquake in South Africa. Many organisations on the left, many grass roots organisations, even non-governmental organisations, were quite impressed and they found hope that, at last, here was a solution to their problems. When NUMSA made the call to form a united front, many people responded. Some were organisations and movements that were already active, others were community based organisations, left political groups, even church based groups and also student organisations; a wide and broad range.  At the moment the United Front claims that it has 290 member organisations.

SN: You’ve mentioned that the United Front was formed out of a common dissatisfaction with the ruling class. Does the UF have a clear aim and strategy moving forward?

TN: I would say that the problem might be with the leadership of the United Front but certainly the mood on the ground is one of frustration and anger. There is a search for solutions. For example, there is a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which was formed by the president of the ANC Youth League who only formed it when he got expelled from the ANC. Within four months of forming that party, it was able to win six per cent of the vote, beating most other opposition political parties and becoming number three in parliament. Clearly people on the ground are yearning for a political alternative.

But just to be critical of the United Front, because I am involved in it and it’s pluralistic so there is a lot of debate, I think there is caution and slow movement. For example, we are having debates on whether we should adopt socialism, whether we should have left political groups or left parties. There is real caution on the part of leadership. But in every conference I have attended, the grassroots want a bolder move forward. They would like the process of the Front to be united with the process of the workers’ party so that things are clear.

I think the EFF are getting support because they are talking about power; they are talking about how to get back the wealth; they’re talking about struggle. The United front are only talking about struggle, not power, not getting back the wealth.

SN: Have there been any activities of the UF other than meetings and conferences?

TN: There have been. For example, they had marches and demonstrations on budget day in March this year where they were opposed to the neoliberal austerity budget that the finance minister came up with. There have been demonstrations against the energy crisis. We have a problem with electricity here where we have load-shedding, black-outs due to mishandling of the electricity supply and its use by big corporations.

SN: What do you see as the main challenges in organising in the UF?

TN:  It’s a struggle over what will be the political platform, which means what the program should be. Since NUMSA is leading the process – although they are good enough to allow other voices, and state that they don’t want to dominate (and we do want them to lead it) – they are coming up with what a leader in the UF called ‘museum pieces’.

For example, they want the Freedom Charter but the Freedom Charter is a program of the ANC. But the question is, if the Freedom Charter failed for the ANC, why would it succeed in this new movement?

They are shy of socialism; they are not so happy with political groups participating despite the fact that it is the political groups that are doing more work. As you know, people on the left are hard workers; they do a lot in writing documents, pamphlets, attending meetings. So, there are problems like that.

There is this question of the relationship of the Front to the proposal by NUMSA of a workers’ party. So the tendency is to become cautious and emphasising the line of division between the project of the party and the project of the United Front. They are separate projects but we should be emphasising continuity.

SN: What are the levels of organisation in the UF and how are they connected to each other?

TN: The ambition is to have a Front that covers the whole of the country. What has happened is an attempt to launch provincial structures of the United Front in each of the nine provinces. Below that, the provinces are divided into regions. For example Gauteng is the heartland of industry here. It’s a province with about nine million people. We have five regions including Johannesburg, East Rand and Pretoria. Within those regions, they want each community and each organisation to be represented.

At the moment, the only trade unions are NUMSA and an independent trade union called GIWUSA. We don’t really have unions participating, so it’s mostly community based, youth and women’s groups and LGBTI groups.

SN: How widespread is this? Do you have a sense of UF coverage across the country?

TN: I think they’ve got good coverage but I would say that they’ve covered about half of the country. They’ve covered Gauteng, Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Free State. They are in all the provinces, but I would say that in terms of the structure they have launched, they’ve done half.

SN: The United Democratic Front was the last major united front in South Africa. Could you tell me what are the differences and continuities between the UDF and the UF today?

TN: I would say that the difference is in the political conjuncture. During the UDF days we had a problem of apartheid. Everyone was against apartheid. The world was against apartheid; we had international support. The target and the issues were crystal clear. The UDF was formed in 1983 to bring together existing struggles on the ground. The labour movement was quite strong at the time. There was a working class movement. COSATU was formed in 1985. This was an era of strikes at a time when unions were illegal. Black workers were joining the unions in their tens of thousands. There was a very strong spirit of collective defiance. There was a progressive working class tradition.

Today, we face a situation where the working class, although it’s angry, has lost its confidence in its own power to change history. There’s too much, what I call, substitution. People are told that they didn’t liberate themselves; they were liberated by Mandela; they were liberated by the ANC. So we get new parties like the EFF that promise that they are going to liberate the people and, in a way, adding to the problem of lack of confidence.

Remember, the apartheid regime was a formidable and brutal regime. They had death squads. They killed people. But they couldn’t win. At one stage they arrested almost every activist but the movement continued because it was a movement. It was a movement behind one vision, of a different society without apartheid and without inequality. I think that is what we lack. Many of the unions are still inside COSATU. Many of the youth organisations are still looking to the ANC.

The dream of socialism has been trampled upon so it’s hard for people to imagine an alternative. So this is the job ahead of the United Front. This is why I am very critical of the failure to raise a socialist vision. It is as if we don’t have an alternative future to present.

SN: What can we in the UK learn from South Africa’s experience of resistance and movement building?

TN: We need a strong tradition of grassroots control; a strong tradition of, what I can call, self-organisation; and seriously, we need an alternative vision because I don’t think that the austerity policies of the UK government are isolated, it’s happening throughout the world. There’s a global economic crisis; capitalism hasn’t got a solution and in fact, as we can see in Greece, the only thing they can offer is more hardship, more poverty, more debt.

Capitalism itself is in crisis so it means, as Marx said, the CEOs of the world, government leaders, have now become personifications of capital. They no longer have any control. They speak for capital. They are just meant to trample on our rights willy nilly. They did that in Greece until a left party took over and then now they are turning the screws on that left party. It’s harder in countries such as the US where socialism is a swear word as it is in Eastern Europe.

This is a battle that we have to fight on the left.  We have to find ways to get out the message that capitalism is not the way forward, it has nothing to offer, and what it has to offer is barbarism and we need to create a different kind of society. Syriza tried a bit with its new slogans but I think it should have used that momentum to explicitly call for socialism or to make it clear that we want a system where the whole of Western Europe, the whole world actually, has to unite.

During the days of apartheid, we got a lot of strength and support from international solidarity and I think that the anti-apartheid movement was one of the greatest solidarity movements in history. I think that we can do the same for Greece and stand behind Greece against austerity and say that no country should be taken over by the bankers, and build an international anti-austerity movement. We are watching closely from Africa. We are interested and want you to succeed.

Trevor Ngwane


Trevor Ngwane is a member of the Socialist Group, an affiliate of the Democratic Left Front and United Front.