Workers' Power and the crisis of leadership

Nimrod Sejake writing in Inqaba ya Basebenzi, the journal of the Marxist Workers' Tendency of the African National Congress, No. 12 Nov. 1983 - Feb. 1984.

It was from my organising work on the Reef that I came to see the enormous power of the working class. During those days African trade unions were not recognised and strikes by African workers were illegal. But this was no barrier to the workers, if they were properly organised.

Our motto in the Iron and Steel Union was that we should never go to an employer with our demands unless we know our power, and that power was to be found only when the workers were fully organised with an understanding of how to go about a strike.

Then they can beat the employers in their own field. Even though there are laws which are barriers, the workers break them, and with intent. Even if the police are called in they cannot put into effect their powers because the workers can make their powers ineffective.

Through our union experience we understood that only when you face the employers from a position of strength can you change society in South Africa. And if this was done all over the country, with clear sense of direction, no power can impede the forward march of the working class.

White workers

There is an important thing that we learned in the Iron and Steel Union. We said to the black workers when they went on strike to talk with white workers and tell them why we are striking. They should explain that we are underpaid, discriminated against as a nation and oppressed as a class. He laws dehumanise us, and make us mere chattels of society.

Look, we would say to the white workers, you have the law on your side, you have people you elect to of to the parliament to legislate, and they legislate against us. You do skilled work, but according to the law we are not allowed to do it.

Our struggle is not only about wages, but it is a political question. We want to destroy the laws in this country, to make it fit for workers of all races. And we are showing today that we can stop this factory. We said this, for example, in the strikes at African lamps and at Phoenix Foundry.

"As you can see," the African workers said to the white workers, "we stopped management from doing anything. We are the bosses today. You can see you are being told to go home and not work precisely because of our power. We can make you redundant" - this is the word the workers used.

We were aware that the racist regime gets a great deal of support from white workers. But we wanted to break down this granite wall. We were saying to the white workers, look, we want to show you we can penetrate the barriers put before us, we can pull them down and make the laws ineffective.

As a result, during these strikes, some white workers began to say: "Look, if you succeed, we are going to succeed as well". Many of them voiced the correct view that there is really no difference between black labour and white labour; we should all be striking for workers' rights. White workers say this behind closed doors because they know the repercussions.

As far as my experiences show, the social support the regime is enjoying from the white workers can be broken if the African workers are strongly organised along the correct lines.


Often what the state and the employers think is impossible is made possible by the working class! Let me give the example of huge concerns like ISCOR. It was said in the 1950s to be impossible to enter ISCOR, because it was always guarded. These large state concerns are guarded precisely because if the workers could get a grip on the, and stop production, the capitalists would be greatly affected.

But that impossibility as again proved by the workers to be a paper tiger. Through the workers I entered ISCOR in Van der Bijl Park. I organised the workers there first, not by going to the factory, but by going to their homes. Through tem the other worker could be brought into the movement.

Another strategy was making feasts or tea parties in the locations - where we would meet and discuss. Through that I organised to go in and distribute leaflets. It is such a huge concern that you would not know which side of it you entered and which side you came out, unless you were lead by the people working there.

So I took leaflets in a suitcase from Jo'burg. At the bus stop a worker was there to guide me. Inside the plant the workers showed me there we could unpack the bundles of leaflets. Before I knew it, other workers were placing them in vantage points for workers coming in on the next shift to find them. Then, when they knew the bus was about to leave, they led me out to it and I left the place.

Here again the mighty power of the working class demonstrates itself. Not only is it a power as far as stopping work is concerned, but because the understanding, the creativity, the grasp of strategy and tactics of the workers is so powerful, one they are properly organised there is noting to fear in South Africa. In fact anywhere in the world that the workers are properly organised with an understanding of their tasks, they have nothing to fear.

So all these and many other experiences convince me that through the power of the working class it is possible to bring SA to a standstill, and overthrow that powerful regime. What we have to do first is to organise the workers. Then we shall be facing battle from a position of power, where we can tell the employers there are two things existing here - you own the means of production, but we own the labour-power, and if you don't agree, we fold our hands and your industry will be paralysed.

I came to see that the power of the working class was so enormous that even if you compared it with the police, the army, the air force, the prisons and magistrates court and judges, etc. - that all the power cannot stand in the way of the struggle of the working class to overthrow the state. The power lies in the working class, if it is organised and given a direction, and that direction can only be found in Marxism.


Marxism is a scientific theory, based on the experience of the working class. That is why fro the workers Marxism s easily accepted, because their lives prove it - their hard lives, cruel oppression, brutal handling in the factory, in the locations, at home - with low wages, high rents and high prices.

From this angle the worker understand theory. And when revolution comes they grasp in a day what would otherwise take years to grasp. In the Iron and Steel Union we used to say that the very thing that is called law in South Africa is illegal, that there is no 'law' as far as Africans were concerned, because the majority of the people take no part in making it, but it is made by the capitalists to oppress the workers.

The only answer to that is for the workers to organise to take political power into their own hands with the specific aim of ending capitalism and achieving socialism. That is what Inqaba is saying: the workers must build the trade unions and transform the ANC. I support this view to the hilt.

Because, in the 1950s I already found, unfortunately, that this was not the position taken by the leadership of SACFTU, or of the ANC, or of the South African Communist Party. They did not have confidence in the power of the working class.

As an example, I will mention a time when I had organised nine metal factories along the Rand, with the aim that when the workers came out on strike, they would all come out simultaneously. When they were all organised and ready I went to the SACTU leadership to make sure of their support for the action. There would be a lightening strike spreading along the Rand - and factories where the workers had experience of strike action like Africa Lamps, Phoenix Foundry and Benoni Foundry were ready tom come out in support.

In Iron and Steel we saw this as a great step forward for the trade union movement. But the SACTU leaders told me (and I am quoting them): "Nimrod, that is too much!"

Or again, there was the time in 1958 when the ANC called off a tremendous three-day strike on the first day! Called it off! I remember buying a newspaper and seeing the headline: "Secretary General of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, calls off strike." I was furious. Because, at that time, we were on bail from the treason Trial, and one of the conditions was that we did not attend meetings or organise in any way. But, nevertheless, we had risked organising the workers to make the strike a success.

Crisis of Leadership

The leadership of the movement was lagging far behind, out of touch with developments. That is why I support Inqaba because the present situation requires a journal like this which puts forward clearly the manner in which the struggle in South Africa must be handed. We lacked that in the 1950s.

Inqaba puts forward a theory and a strategy which can guide the working class movement in the struggle for power something the ANC leadership has not done - something we can say the South African Communist Party has failed to do. I say "failed" because time and time again it has been advised by workers to change its methods and has failed to do so.

The Communist Party leaders still refuse to put forward that the task of the working class will be to take power in the revolution that is coming in South Africa. These leaders have put forward the position that we must struggle for a bourgeois democracy in South Africa - and the South African Communist Party has said over and over again that we must wait until getting that before struggling to overthrow capitalism.

Workers want democratic rights of course. When in Europe I see I can stand right next to a policeman and sell a socialist newspaper, and he doesn't turn a hair, it amazes me. The workers in Europe have struggled for and won these rights - although the capitalists are now trying to whittle them away. And I think: "If the workers in SA had those rights just for a month, or even 24 hours, what would they begin to do with them."

But the point is: it will take a revolution in South Africa - a revolution made by the power of the working class - to achieve full democratic rights. And I ask: when the workers in South Africa push back the state to that point, why should they stop there?

Why should they stop just because their leaders are then scrambling for positions in the bosses parliament? The workers will then have the power to take over the factories and mines and so on, and to take on and destroy the bosses' state. That is what they will demand that their leaders carry through.

I came to the conclusion in the 1950s that we were faced with a crisis of leadership. Subsequently I have discovered that the reasons for this crisis were explained by the Russian Marxist, Trotsky.

Trotsky had already explained that in Russia the basic problems of the masses could not be solved unless the working class took power. It is the same in South Africa - race discrimination even cannot be ended short of that. It was proved in Russia when the working class came to power in 1917 under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, headed by Lenin and Trotsky.

Later Trotsky also explained how the workers' democracy which came into existence in the Soviet Union was crushed by the coming to power of Stalin and the bureaucracy- how this led to the degeneration of the workers' state and the degeneration of the Communist International, so that Communist Parties no longer stood for the interests of the working class internationally.

Today it is more clear than ever that the working class can change society, if it is organised with the correct policy and leadership. The concept is held by people outside South Africa and even inside that the regime cannot be conquered. But the working class is proving today that it can remove it: soften it up first and then destroy it. This is happening through the workers, not through the so-called 'armed struggle'.

Armed Struggle

One thing I must make explicitly clear. You can change nothing in space outside the influence of force. You can't move anything say, from this table to that table, unless you use force.

To change society from one state to another, like we want to do in South Africa; to remove racism and establish democracy, to remove capitalism and build socialism - we need force. And that force in my conviction is in the working class.

It is a question of the workers using force and violence in their proper place. There will come a stage when, to eliminate a highly-armed regime like the South African regime, the workers will have to be ready militarily, trained themselves. That is inevitable. The Russian workers in the October Revolution were not empty-handed - they organised themselves in an armed workers' force.

In anticipation of such a situation, the workers must be prepared. The ruling class must find that they cannot spread their army all over the country, because the workers are organised everywhere. Then, when we are physically attacked in any area of the country, we will be able to hit back and they will find they can no longer control us.

In the 1960s the ANC made me 'political commissar' in the camps in Tanzania. My task was to provide political education for the workers there. I call them workers because many of them had been trade unionists and, even though they were militarily trained, they still had the standpoint of workers, to overthrow the South African regime and capitalism.

I put the position among these comrades that only the working class could overthrow the state because who else could do it in isolation from the workers. Therefore trained people infiltrated into the country should not start to initiate battles, because they would only be exposing themselves in front of a powerful regular army which would just destroy you if it discovered you.

The proper thing to do, I said, when you enter the country is to organise the workers - and, through them, the masses as a whole - and to explain that only the organised working class had the power to defeat the state. And to prepare, only, for when it would be effective to use arms. The guerrilla methods put forward by the ANC leadership do nothing more than frighten the enemy from time to time.

Later on I have been to China. I have seen the cave in Yenan which was Mao's home and command centre in the guerilla war in China. The situation in our country is quite different. It is a very industrialised country, where there is no real force of opposition other than the working class. The method of guerilla war is not the method of working class struggle.

After a time in Tanzania the ANC leadership told me that I should no longer teach Marxism. In fact the person who initiated this was none other than the late Moses Kotane, then the General secretary of the South African Communist Party.

It astounded me that when he said we must teach instead the 'African image'. This is ludicrous. Right back in the Communist manifesto it was explained that "All hitherto existing history is the history of class struggle." Of course national oppression is central in South Africa, but that does not make the struggle against it any less a class struggle.

Because I would not accept the position of the leadership, it was decided to get rid of me. I was removed from the camps, and the Tanzanian government gave me seven days to leave the country! I heard later that at the Morogoro conference, ANC comrades asked, "Why did Sejake leave the ANC?", and the leadership said, "He just left…just like that" - which is a thing serious comrades do not believe to this day.

After that I was for a time in the Pan African Congress, because the youth there were keen to study Marxism. But the same crisis revealed itself: the nationalist leadership felt threatened by working class ideas, and I was expelled.

When I look back now to the 1950s I see that the major problem was that we, the workers, who supported and built the ANC, did not control it. Even SACTU was under the control of middle class ANC leaders, rather than the other way around. Everywhere the working class movement has - must have - two arms: "an industrial arm and a political arm" as the great Irish Marxist, James Connolly, once said. Both these arms are necessary. They go together. The one without the other will not succeed.

The workers, on their own account, have rebuilt a powerful trade union movement in our country- more powerful than we ever had in the 1950s. This is a tremendous achievement, even though there is still a long way to go in organising the unorganised workers.

I have been inspired by the workers organised in the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), who have taken forward with courage and success the work which we began in the 1950s. I regard myself as a member of MAWU.

These achievements must never be compromised or sacrificed. It is now vital that they are taken forward in creating a new united trade union federation, to strengthen our ability to organise and to use the strike weapon, very intensively, all over the country. Wherever there is a working concern, a factory, anywhere in the country, there is the revolution - provided the working class is organised and knows its power.

At the same time I agree fully with Inqaba when it says that the trade unions should join and play their part in the United Democratic Front (UDF), transform the UDF into a mass working class movement, able to give a lead to all the oppressed - and to white workers too.

The laws of history work in peculiar ways. In the 1950s, the workers turned to the ANC as the political organisation which they felt it was necessary to support and strengthen. Today we se the response which just the launching of the UDF gained from the unorganised and many others.

This is because workers saw here a sign of the ANC reborn in the country, a sign of the return of nation wide organisation around the Freedom Charter.

It is true that the leadership of the UDF as was the case with the ANC, in the 1950s (and is still the case today), is in the hands of the middle class. But the workers must go into the UDF - and later into the ANC when it returns openly to South Africa - no to bow down to the leaders' policies, their hesitations and twists and turns, but to transform the UDF and transform the AMC.

I appeal particularly to the workers in MAWU, the union to which I belong, to press this task on their leaders and on the leaders of FOSATU and all unions. It is only by the workers going into the UDF at every level, in an organised and united way, that we can get rid off the influence of the middle class leadership.

We must simply tell them openly that they must accept the programme of the working class or else it is time they left their positions. There is no problem in that. If the organised working class can take on the big bosses and the state, there is no problem in dealing with individuals who are an obstacle to the movement.

This is in the interests of the majority of the middle class too. Only the working class can liberate them from their oppression by racism and capitalism - by overthrowing the state and taking power. The majority of the middle class will follow a determined lead from the workers.

History will not allow us to postpone this task while we sort out merely our own 'trade union affairs'. In fact by transforming the UDF we will strengthen the whole workers' movement, the trade unions too.

With the UDF under working class leadership, campaigning for demands like a minimum wage, it will win the enthusiastic support of many of the most oppressed whoa re still unorganised. On the other hand, if the trade union movement remains divided on the question of the UDF, this can become a barrier to forming the strongest possible trade union unity in action.

But because from my experience I am confident in the power and the understanding of the workers, I am sure we are bound to succeed in building our two arms; the industrial arm and the political arm.

The success will be so tremendous and vibrant that it will shake the whole of this globe! The South African regime is one of the worst in the world, and if the African working class understand and apply Marxist theory correctly they will give some meat to the working class of the world and gain tremendous support.

I have found that Europe, and the whole of the capitalist West, is no longer what we thought it was. Conditions are getting worse, in every country, because of the grip of capitalism. Therefore the workers are struggling against it.

So workers in South Africa should not look at the West simply as a place from which imperialism exploits them, without anybody struggling to put a stop to this. Struggle is going on!

But I have also found the same crisis of leadership of the workers' movement. Take Ireland, for example: the Labour Party is in a coalition government with a capitalist party that has nothing in common with the workers. It is like the SACP calling for 'an alliance of all classes' - how can workers be in alliance with their bosses?

Or take the example of Britain, where the Labour Party leadership has been trying to expel Marxists. It reminds me of the action taken by the ANC leadership against me. But I find in these countries a growing enthusiasm for Marxist ideas, especially among the youth and young workers, but among older workers also. Recently I went to a Young Workers' Assembly organised by the British Labour Party Young Socialists, where I heard many youth and others speaking.

Some were real youngsters, even one 'small boy' (I use this with no disrespect) whose speech made me feel that at his age I had no idea of struggle. This is because of the change that is taking place in the working class today. In Soweto, too, four-year-old children are confronting the police.

It's the development of a new period in the world. We have reached the stage of the advent of world revolution. I can see this is no longer a theory. It is a reality. I can safely say that world revolution is approaching the doorsteps of the homes where we live and the sooner we wake up to the occasion the better.

Articles by or about Nimrod