On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Jim tells host Paul Jay about his youth and radicalization in the fight against apartheid. Mr. Jim is now the leader of the largest union in South Africa with 340,000 members, which has recently broken with the ANC and is calling for a return to the principles of the Freedom Charter – January 28, 2015
Workers must build a united front to implement the Freedom Charter, which includes participating in electoral politics, and fight for socialism. The workers movement can’t just be about marching, he says.
Three-part interview with Irvin Jim, leader of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) calling for a return to the principles of the Freedom Charter.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay. This is The Real News Network.
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) is in the midst of the political storm. In 2013, it broke with South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC), and in 2014 was expelled by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the largest trade union federation of South Africa.
At the center of this storm is NUMSA’s president, Irvin Jim, and he now joins us in our studio in Washington, D.C.
Thanks for joining us.
IRVIN JIM, PRESIDENT, NUMSA: Hi.
JAY: So, first of all, thank you very much for coming. And I know you’re exhausted. As you said, the people have been brutalizing you in interviews, and, unfortunately, we’re going to brutalize you a little more.
As people who watch Reality Asserts Itself knows, we start with the personal back story most often and then get into some of the current issues, and we’re going to do that with Irvin.
So start from the beginning. Where are you born in South Africa, and what is the political environment you grow up in?
JIM: Well, I’m the son of a farmworker. I grew up in the farms of Port Alfred, which is the Eastern Cape province in South Africa.
And both my parents couldn’t read and write. I’m very proud of them. Without education, they pushed me and my siblings to be able to read and write and to go to school.
JAY: Did they own their own farm or they worked on it?
JIM: Not at all. My father was a farm laborer who was exploited. I literally experienced the brutality of the farm bosses that have completely transformed South Africa.
JAY: So he worked on a big–like, what amounts to, like, a plantation of sorts?
JIM: Well, we moved from one farm to another because there was no guarantees in terms of the Land Act of 1913. Farmworkers are the most abused and exploited. You could [incompr.] build a house for you. You build your own house. When they decide that they are not happy, they’d tell you how many cars you can have. If you increase and you reach a dispute, you must go.
JAY: As you grow up, you’re living with other farmworkers, I guess, farmworker families. When do you start to really get a sense how profoundly racist the society is that you’re living in?
JIM: Well, I think just there, I mean, you wouldn’t [incompr.] any person who is a farmboy who worked for a farm owner, you wouldn’t wear a hat when you speak to the Afrikaners, who were very racist. You needed to throw away your cap. And I think for me I was conscientized at an early age, because immediately I realized that there was something wrong with the system, because I love my father a lot, and I was in solidarity with him. Of course, you couldn’t do anything.
JAY: What was the level of political consciousness at home, amongst your father’s workforce?
JIM: Well, I think at an early age my father wouldn’t accept to be defiant when he will decide to leave this farm. But I guess I was very angry, because I thought it was very important for him to challenge the farm bosses. As a result of that, I think that was instrumental to basically champion, to be a champion within the family, to move from the farms into the city life. And when I finished my–before even I finished my [matriculation (?)], I succeeded to push the family into the city center.
JAY: And what did he do then? How old are you at this time?
JIM: I was very young. And he was–at the time, he could not be able to do anything. By the time we persuaded him there, he was already old. We needed to take over the responsibility of the family.
JAY: Now, I’m assuming that you at some point joined protests. So my question is: just how old are you [crosstalk] protests?
JIM: Well, my conscientization and my activism started really not when I was at work; it started when I was still a student. I was the leader of COSAS, which was a student organization at the time. Basically the–.
JAY: At what age is this?
JIM: Look, I mean, at a very early age in COSAS. And, I mean, knowing Bantu education, the first campaigns we took was to open up schools, because we wouldn’t be allowed to–for black children, they wouldn’t be allowed to access education. As you know, the ratio is too bad in education. We will have more than 50 people packed in one class. And as a result, in a community where I grew up called Motherwell in Port Elizabeth, we had to take up campaigns to harass the Bantu education system, to basically open up more schools. And indeed we did. We opened afternoon schools. In other words, there will be two shift of classes that are taking place. Others will be during the day. Others will be at night. And we carry on with campaigns to fight that basically the [Department of Education] must open up most schools. So my conscientization started before I became a worker.
JAY: Go back to your first time you go to a public protest. How old are you?
JIM: I can’t recall. I was very young.
JAY: What? Eight? Nine?
JIM: Well, I think around 14, 15. That’s how[, anyway, (?)] in the young protest.
JAY: And are you still on the farm?
JIM: I was out of the farm. I was in and out the farm. You could not survive the farms if you would have just stayed in the farm. I survived the farm because I had to combine both my activist life to be able to bring life into the farm, but also mix it with the small Port Alfred town, which was a holiday town next to us.
JAY: And in your early activism, how dangerous is it? I would guess it’s quite dangerous to start doing public agitations.
JIM: The apartheid system was very brutal. It had no mercy. The police, the white people as we know them, were racist in character. You knew that there was a group areas act. From five o’clock up, you could go to town, but within no time you must be out of town. And that has been the life of all black people in general, Africans in particular. They come into towns to service as domestic workers, to work, and in the evening they must get out. Otherwise they get arrested.
JAY: And what do you think helped shape you, that you’re willing to not just get active, but when you start to take a leadership role, you start putting yourself in the crosshairs. You become a target.
JIM: Well, I think it was a combination of many things. I think the life that I–I grew up under very difficult conditions. Very poor. And the parents were very firm that you go to school and you must work. So I was one of the people who had to be at school, and during weekends I needed to go and basically look for a job so that I can continue with the following week. But, I mean, that include knowing that you must carry your siblings along, in relation to making sure that they can survive. And with parents who can’t read and write, that’s a huge added responsibility.
And I think my consciousness came out of the battles that we are to take with the police, who were very brutal, who were so intolerant they will actually give you five minutes to disperse in the protest. And before they can count for more than one, they are on your case–they will tear gas, they will arrest. So I’ve gone through all that.
JAY: And what are you reading at this time? Is this the books that are inspiring you or influencing the way you think?
JIM: Well, I would say that the real what really conscientized me before I began to privatize knowledge and knowledge production has been the conditions of the working class that is basically exploited, and the hard life that the black people in general, Africans in particular in South Africa, had to go through.
But also, I mean, if you must champion the struggle, I think, which we’ll continue to applaud, the Liberation Alliance led by the ANC played a very critical role in the student movement in conscientizing us. And, of course, I mean, we continue to applaud the people of the world. I mean, we survived apartheid out of four pillars of our struggle–mass mobilization, underground structures of our movement, isolation of South Africa on trade, when the movement, together with us, we’re having taken up battles challenging the regime, we convinced the whole world that apartheid was a crime against humanity. And Umkhonto we Sizwe, which was the military wing of the African National Congress, that gave us confidence that we can challenge the system.
But that didn’t just happen overnight. We had to basically be trained in the actual theater. There was both theory and practice of challenging the Boers.
JAY: You go to work in a tire factory.
JAY: You’re how old?
JIM: I was probably twenty-something, I think.
JAY: And you’re there for ten years.
JAY: And you become a union steward.
JIM: Well, I was very exposed at an early age because of my activism. When I finally arrived at work and secured the job, basically workers, they celebrated, and I couldn’t understand why they were celebrating, but they would have known my activism when I was still in the student movement. And they waited for a day when I was employed. They needed to convene a general meeting. I was extremely very embarrassed, because the company which basically employed me, I had to walk in there to explain the plight of my family, which would have been kicked out, because my father took the last money that he have to be able to afford the house in the township. And therefore I was the only one who had to save the family to have a roof. And workers were saying, look, we don’t care about that; we think that you should represent us. Actually, I refused to be a shop steward. I was elected as a trustee for take care of the provident fund in the industry. But, I mean, the following week after they elected me, they took my compromise. But I became a shop steward by default, because they forced me to take up their cases.
JAY: When apartheid falls and Mandela announces the beginning of a new society, there was a great debate at that time internally in the ANC and throughout the movement about what type of society was going to come next. Where were you when all this is being fought out, and what was your point of view at that time?
JIM: Look, I think one issue that we debated very seriously in that buildup towards Mandela’s release was the–basically, the ANC convincing us that we needed to agree that there must be–we must stop the armed struggle, something we completely–as young people, very militant, we wouldn’t accept that we should put down the arms. We felt it was important that we should take up the battles and fight, and we were confident that Umkhonto we Sizwe was ready to be able to match the Boers. But it took people like Chris Hani to basically come and engage us and convince us that there was a need to give negotiations time. And I think the movement was, at the time, facing serious challenges.
But, I mean, one of the [sticking (?)] issues was the fact that we’re all finally having to accept that, look, Madiba was to be released from prison. We all celebrated that.
But I think the real breakthrough, which we characterize as the breakthrough, was the actual election in 1994, where for the first time, black people in general, Africans in particular, voted. I think we will continue to celebrate that. But I think having celebrated that victory, we are very clear that it needed to be /pɛrə/ going, and we thought that the leadership was resolute on that. Within no time, we quickly realized that what we really secured was political power without economic power.
JAY: The argument at the time–and people that defend that still say that the alternative would have been a bloodbath, that to take on South African monopoly capitalism and to push the revolution further, it would have been such a bloodbath that it needed to go in sort of this steps to get to change. That’s the argument they gave.
JIM: I think the South African working class at the time was very mobilized. They’d had very high levels of political confidence. And I refute that. I think that we were sold a dummy, in the sense that there are those who are now writing books–and I think that there’s no longer secrecy about this. There were secret talks that took place before the actual negotiations took place, where some basically cut the deal with the enemy that there will be a negotiated settlement. And I think it has been a raw deal for the people of South Africa, in that our own vision for South Africa, which was there in the Freedom Charter, where the people of our country and [kept (?)] down in 1955 basically were clear about what kind of South Africa do they want. In 1969–.
JAY: Just very quickly, some of the main points of the Freedom Charter for people that don’t know.
JIM: Well, the Freedom Charter is about the fact that the people shall govern, that people shall share, that doors of learning and culture would be open. I want to submit that–.
JAY: Also to do with the nationalization of resources–.
JIM: Well, it basically called that the mineral wealth beneath the soil, banks and monopoly industries, shall be transferred to the ownership of the people.
In Morogoro beyond that, in 1969, again, when MK cadres and everybody was being frustrated because the people on the ground in the country were ready for struggle, but the leadership was not forthcoming in terms of taking forward that particular struggle, we ended up in the movement in 1969 in Morogoro, if anybody knows that history. The reality is that Morogoro made very serious pronouncement and resolve on what became later on the strategy and tactics of the ANC. It actually took the very firm view that, listen, we do not underestimate the [anonymity (?)] of future challenges that the ANC government would be confronted with when it is in power. But that government would have to make sure that the base of wealth of the country is restored back to the ownership of the people as a whole, not to be manipulated by individuals, be they white or black.
The reality is that indeed we have not been able to have the leadership after 1994 that used that political power to take ownership and control of the national wealth of the country, to address fundamental question of nationalization, so that we can use that political power to change power relations in society, so that the noble objective that the people are struggling for for so many years of building land [rationalism (?)], nonsexism, can be realized.
JAY: At the time, when the ANC first wins the election, comes to power, where are you then?
JIM: Well, in 1994 I was in the factory. I was working. The truth of the matter is that, I mean, the ANC, when it finally took over power, we celebrated that. And I think it’s a victory, which I’m saying we must continue to celebrate, but which we quickly have woken up, that–.
JAY: At the time, amongst your fellow workers, and then the union, is this debate being reflected there? Are you now talking about what’s next?
JIM: That debate became very serious debate in particular in 1996. You would understand that at the time there was a clear vision. Nelson Mandela challenged F.W. de Klerk before the election, caring what workers produce, which was reconstruction and development program. He says, I’ve got a plan; where is your plan?
But something funny which we started to realize: immediately we win over power when ministers were being appointed. The then general secretary of COSATU, Jay Naidoo, get appointed to serve, to champion the RDP. But his ministry was defined as minister without portfolio. We started to realize that there was something cooking. Within no time, in 1996, our icon, Nelson Mandela–which we must continue to respect and to continue to celebrate for all his sacrifices. But the reality of the situation: in 1996 he budged under pressure of rating agencies, who basically were continuously, together with the IMF and World Bank, attacking reconstruction and development plan, suggesting that the ANC need to come up with a nuanced policy. And, indeed, in 1996, without consulting anybody in the alliance, he went public to announce that /gijə/ was the new policy, without negotiating with the alliance. So it was imposed unilaterally.
JAY: So there the argument I assume Mandela and his supporters gave and would give is that the forces of the World Bank and the IMF, the forces of international capital, the forces of South African capital, were so powerful that if there had been a more radical course taken, they could have so undermined the South African economy that it would have created a kind of chaos.
JIM: Yeah, I think I would reject that. The reality of the–.
JAY: Am I correct that’s what they say?
JIM: Well, I mean, they can try and justify it. I mean, they said many things more than what you said. They say the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the front-line states we were basically losing time. Some countries, in Namibia–. There’s a lot, I mean, they are–they have written now in relation to this justification.
But, I mean, we, together with the people of our country, with all four pillars of our struggle, we have convinced people to assert that apartheid was a crime against humanity. There is absolutely no justification for the adoption of the neoliberal agenda, which was basically plunging the country into the state of chaos, as you know what /gijə/ did. It liberalized trade. It destroyed many jobs across our sectors. It removed exchange control, allowing money which the country desperately needed, against the backdrop of a system which was declared as a crime–I don’t think it would have been difficult to convince anybody that we can’t be allowing money, which South Africa need, to be invested in productive sectors of the economy, to create jobs, to be allowed to leave the country into financial speculation, into casino economy. And, I mean, we have done worse things. I mean, the reserve bank remained in private hands. They target inflation instead of targeting jobs. And there has been a complete refusal to take a very simple decision that manufacturing matters, so that if that’s the case, you can then take measures and policies that champion manufacturing and industrialization.
JAY: Okay. We only have you for a short amount of time, and I’m very unhappy about that. So we’re going to kind of, in the next segment, jump ahead to today, and next time we’ll come to South Africa and we’ll do this in a longer way.
So please join us for part two of our series of interviews with Irvin Jim on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
JAY: 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 (SACP) 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.
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. 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: 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, the 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?
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.