By Laurence Coates Offensiv 385 (10th February 2000)

South Africa: Interview with Nimrod Sejake "The ANC has sold out!"

Nimrod Sejake is something of a living legend. At 79 years-old, the former leader of the metal workers' union in South Africa, is still fighting for socialism as an active member of the CWI's South African section, Socialist Alternative. I met Nimrod at his small house in White City, Soweto. The same house that the police raided early one morning in December 1956, to arrest Nimrod for "high treason". He was placed in a cell with a young lawyer by the name of Nelson Mandela!

"155 others were arrested that day" he explained, "Nelson was the only one I knew, 'Nimrod, are you here too?' he said when they brought me in". "Even before this time I was active in the trade union movement. I was a founder member of SACTU (South African Congress of Trade Unions) in 1955. I organised the workers into the union, that was my job. The employers asked me 'who is a member of your committee?', I said the whole factory are members, at that time we called our union the Non-European Iron and Steel workers' union.

"Trade union organisation has never been a picnic, but Nimrod's comrades faced severe problems for which special methods and tactics had to be improvised. "I had my differences with the ANC leadership, for not following the class struggle. They criticised me because I advocated breaking the law, which even stated that 'black workers have no right to strike'. The ANC leadership didn't back me up, they said: 'Nimrod, you must negotiate', they didn't approve of the fact that there were strikes every week in the Iron and Steel sector-that was my sector".

The trade unions played a decisive role in the struggle against apartheid, especially the formation of Cosatu in the 1980s. Today this is an incontestable fact. But South African marxists, like Nimrod, argued this many years ago while the ANC leadership placed their faith in a completely different strategy-a combination of guerilla warfare organised from camps outside the country, and international diplomacy.

Nimrod was forced to go into exile in 1962. I first met him in Liverpool, England in the 1980s when he made a visit during the famous struggle against the Thatcher government. He spent many years as a refugee in Ireland.

"I've been battling all my adult life", he told me, "When I came back to South Africa in 1992 I found that many comrades I knew had left the country or died. The ANC branches had collapsed."

Up until the early 1990s the CWI in South Africa supported the ANC and was known as the Marxist Workers' Tendency of the ANC. But the sharp rightward shift of the ANC in the 1990s led them to a total break and to raise the call for a new workers' party.

Nimrod is active in his local community Everton, in Soweto, fighting for the restoration of land which was illegally sold by the apartheid regime. He launched the Everton Forum for Reconstruction and Socialism, whose office also serves as a centre for the comrades of Socialist Alternative.

So, after over six years of ANC government, what does he think of the way things have turned out?

"It's a sell out. A straightforward sell out!", he says angrily, "The ANC's Freedom Charter states explicitly that all the mineral wealth beneath the earth belongs to the people-Nelson did away with it! It's been undemocratically thrown into the dustbin and replaced with naked capitalism, the so called GEAR programme, privatisation etc. That's a sell out! We didn't fight all those years to retain apartheid."

There are people whose life has involved far fewer sacrifices, for whom the betrayals experienced by Nimrod and his comrades would have produced cynicism. But not him! After a lifetime of struggle he and his wife live on a pension of 750 kronor a month. He still speaks enthusiastically of battles to come: "All we have to do is see to it that we organise the workers-internationally-to see to it that we bring about a socialist alternative. There's more and more talk about the need to create a workers' party-that's what's going on!"

Within days of talking to Nimrod, major class battles erupted in the country. Cosatu's leaders launched a programme of rolling strikes, threatening a general strike on 10th May. The alliance between Cosatu and the ANC - they sit together in the government - is under the most severe strains ever. President Mbeki, under orders from the stock exchange and international speculators, is attempting to impose wage restraint, attack employment rights and central bargaining. Last year saw more strikes than at any time since the ANC took power in 1994. This year could see afurther increase.

"One thing has always been in my mind," Nimrod had told me, "we will never become free without the class struggle. I've fought for fifty years with this idea in mind. The ideas of Karl Marx, our ideas, have stood the test of history. Now it's time for a new generation of youth to take up the struggle."

Articles by or about Nimrod