Don’t mobilize, organize

To rebuild, the South African left must realize that there are no shortcuts to power.

COSATU march in Johannesburg. Image credit Dinky Mkhize via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

In August 2022, 600 activists representing more than one hundred movements packed into a Johannesburg hall for the first meeting in several years of the Working Class Summit (WCS), revealing welcome signs of life on the South African Left. The WCS’ main convener is the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), which has been going through a bruising internecine struggle for the several years, pitting its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and most of its smaller unions against the leadership of its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

In an attempt to impose its own derelict “vanguard” party over the federation, NUMSA leader Irvin Jim has been sabotaging the WCS. But this project hit a snag when Jim’s faction failed to secure a leadership majority at SAFTU’s Congress last May. The WCS leaders seized the opening. In just a few months—and after years of virus-induced stagnation in civic spaces—they pulled off a highly successful meeting, drawing in activists from every part of the country. The WCS meeting gave vent to the mounting hardships facing working people in South Africa and laid the groundwork for rebuilding networks across the fractured landscape of the Left.

But after this very promising start, the WCS committed a major unforced error. It immediately threw all its energies, and considerable resources, into trying to organize a national shutdown, planned for just a few weeks after the meeting concluded.  The shutdown was meant to be an opportunity for working class people to show their anger at rising inflation, spiraling crime, and rolling blackouts. But no more than 5,000 people across all of South Africa’s major cities heeded the call to demonstrate. By the standards of South African movements, that figure is diminutive. It is around 0.001 percent of the combined membership of SAFTU and COSATU, which called for a parallel shutdown the same day.

The matter was made worse by the lofty language used in the call to action—which evoked the imagery of a general strike. Almost nothing was actually shut down however. Unless you physically crossed paths with the handful of demonstrators that day, you wouldn’t have been any wiser about plans to paralyze the national economy. The actual disruption caused, and the costs inflicted on elites—presumably the main objectives here—were therefore negligible.

Roger Etkind, editor of Amandla Magazine,  has keenly analyzed the problems underlying this poor outcome. Years of corruption scandals, internal squabbling, and a persisting failure to represent the general interests of working class people have depleted public sympathy for the union movement—the backbone of the WCS.  The paltry turnout served only to broadcast these problems to the world, turning the shutdown into a demonstration of weakness, rather than the show of strength it was meant to be.

Even with ten times as many people on the street, it’s hard to see how the shutdown would have contributed to developing the WCS process. The first problem is that it wasn’t embedded in any longer-term campaign of ongoing, cumulative actions that could build popular momentum behind key demands. And even if it had been, it’s not likely that the WCS would’ve been able to use such a campaign effectively as a tool of organizationbuilding because it presently lacks structures, program, and centralized leadership.

At a more discursive level, the impact of the shutdown was dampened by a failure to develop a clear message that was both positive and political. Rather than targeting an absentee government and a profiteering capitalist class for passing on the costs of the crisis to workers, and hammering on a few key slogans (for price controls!), the protest made “the cost of living” into its main enemy.

The mobilizing model

August’s flop—the latest in a string of attempted “general strikes”—is symptomatic of a deeper problem in the South African Left, which can be summarized as a hyper-focus on mobilizing at the expense of organizing. I’m using those words in the sense popularized in recent years by the US movement guru Jane McAlevey. Mobilizing is when a movement activates and energizes its base, turning supporters out to visible actions that exercise leverage or demonstrate popular support. Organizing in contrast is fundamentally about expanding that base.

It typically happens in “bounded constituencies”—workplaces, places of worship, or neighborhoods. Organizers seek to implant the movement in these constituencies by steadily growing its ranks: finding people who aren’t current supporters, listening attentively to their grievances and persuading them that collective action offers the only real solution. The most effective way to do this is by identifying and winning over the organic leaders that already exist within the constituency—people that are most trusted and deferred to by their coworkers and neighbors. It’s these people that have the capacity to really anchor the movement by becoming its standard bearers on the ground and by using their personal networks to scale up and solidify its support.

Any successful movement employs a judicious combination of these two tactics. The mobilizing model, however, makes mobilizing the centerpiece of the movement’s power strategy in a way that displaces organizing. It tends to reduce the life of the movement to rallies and meetings attended by a self-selecting group of dedicated supporters. But even this dedicated core participates only minimally in formulating and executing strategies. The mobilizing model concentrates power in the hands of staffers and professional activists who “direct, manipulate, and control the mobilization” and hence who come to see themselves, rather than ordinary people, as the key agents of change.

In No Shortcuts, McAlevey traces the mobilizing model’s rise to dominance in US civil society. Parts of this story would be familiar to the South African Left: its central thread is the de-radicalization and bureaucratization of the labor movement over the post-War period.

The effects of this have been dire. Nowhere has the mobilizing model been able to replicate even a fraction of the successes achieved when deep organizing was the guiding maxim of labor.

Don’t just mobilize, organize

For McAlevey, it is the history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that best exemplifies what an alternative may look like. The CIO’s brand of industrial, non-racial, bottom-up organizing drove the labor surge that catalyzed the New Deal order.  A vast historical literature that she cites shows that its success hinged on a core of dedicated leftist organizers, who had a strong ideological and moral commitment to routing power in shop floor leaders and turning unions into instruments of class struggle.

But she could have picked from any number of cases to illustrate the point. McAlevey has become its most eloquent proponent, but the organizing approach is not her invention, nor is it an original creation of the US left. Its principles are to be found at work almost everywhere socialists have built lasting organs of power. That’s because its validity derives from certain basic facts about capitalism as a social system.

Under capitalism, the two sides of the class struggle fight with very different power resources. Elites control institutions, the media, the economy. Working people have only numbers on their side. But the structural forces of capitalism alone don’t grant us those numbers. No amount of misery inflicted by the market will guarantee that workers respond through collective action. That’s because there are always other, individualist, means of resisting and getting by that don’t incur the same risks and sacrifices.

It’s for this reason that we need not simply organization, but democratic organization. Only by showing ordinary people the power they themselves possess, and making them masters of their own quest for justice, can we build the cultures of militancy and solidarity needed to weather the ebbs and flows of the political process.

Democracy is power, and the Left rarely gets far unless it realizes this.

The South African Left has been no exception. Indeed the labor movement here was midwifed by a political tendency that was particularly extreme in the extent to which it stressed organizing over mobilizing.

To be sure: it was a dramatic episode of spontaneous mobilization that kicked off the political sequence leading to the rebirth of organized labor during Apartheid. The “Durban moment” of 1973 (a series of labor strikes by underpaid black workers) illustrates why mass mobilization is integral to any project aimed at consolidating popular power. After decades of quiescence, militant, wildcat action by tens of thousands of workers fired the political imagination of ordinary South Africans, alerted activists to the power that had been accumulating on shop floors in rapidly industrializing zones of the economy, and forced significant concessions from employers.

But this history also shows that, detached from deep organization, the gains from mobilizing are usually ephemeral. Employers responded with a vigorous co-option campaign, setting up “toothless” liaison committees to subvert worker-led initiatives. By 1975 the number of person-days lost to strikes had fallen to a tenth of its high watermark the previous year.

Organizers responded with a strategy that effectively inverted the “political unionism” of the ANC-aligned SACTU—the previously dominant force in black trade unionism which operated from the early 1950s until its functional demise a decade or so later. Political unionism tethered workers’ struggles to the national liberation movement. While not at all the same thing, it had certain things in common with the mobilizing model: in particular a mistrust of the ability of ordinary people to become masters of their own fate, and consequently an unwillingness to locate control of the movement in shop floor structures.

Like in the mobilizing model, workers were deployed as fodder for campaigns that were not their own, in this case orchestrated by party functionaries rather than professional staffers. “Because [the ANC] needed a mass workers movement,” Steven Friedman recorded, “SACTU tried to become one before it was ready: it threw its meager resources into a campaign to build numbers not strength.” Reckless acts of defiance provoked repression on a scale that the organization couldn’t withstand, leading to its decimation.

Heeding the lessons from this, the post-1973 generation eschewed political action and direct ties to liberation parties. They adopted an approach that was shopfloor-centric, organizing around workplace grievances rather than political demands. And they used democracy as a defensive tool. A movement reliant on charismatic leaders or outsider activists would be constantly vulnerable to decapitation by the authoritarian state. To survive, it had to be rooted in ordinary workers and capable of constantly re-generating new activists.

These strategies paid off. Unions sprouted and gradually expanded throughout the latter half of the 1970s. In 1979, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was formed, with worker control enshrined into its constitution and baked into its political identity.

Mistakenly in my view, FOSATU turned the tactical expedient of political independence into a principle. But this stance was soon overtaken by events on the ground. Community mobilization against Apartheid revived rapidly from the early 1980s and organic ties between neighborhood and shop steward committees proliferated. With that grew bottom-up pressure for unions to get more directly involved in political struggles.

These budding alliances were put to their most trying test in the massive Vaal stay-away of 1984, involving around half a million workers—by the far the strongest such action in the 35 years that stay-aways had been used as a political weapon. Decisive to its success were the ironclad shop floor structures painstakingly assembled by FOSATU unions over the previous decade. It was above all the labor movement’s ability to orchestrate, again and again, the mass withdrawal of labor from the economy that fractured the ruling coalition and brought down the Apartheid regime.

A lost tradition

The tragedy of the South African labor movement today is its failure to keep alive these traditions of worker democracy and social movement unionism in a political environment transformed by democracy and globalization. That story is too contorted to fully unpack here, but at its center was the union’s unhealthy entanglement with the party that has sat in power for the entirety of the democratic period.

Its failure to maintain organizational and political autonomy meant not only that COSATU was unable to resist the ANC’s drift to the right, but that it became an accomplice to the giant systems of rent-seeking that eventually engulfed the ruling party. The first casualties of this were the traditions of democratic organizing that had brought the labor movement to life and seen it through its toughest battles.

Similar dynamics played out elsewhere in the society. While seeking to envelope them deeper within its own ranks, the ANC demobilized the neighborhood-based networks that had been so effective in rendering the Apartheid system ungovernable. Intense organizing continued as the ruling party looked to implant itself in every township and village in the country—but clientelism, rather than participant-democracy, became its modal form.

For a period it looked like the contempt the ANC elite showed to its own supporters might blow up in its face. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the rapid rise of so-called new social movements (NSMs) which took up a vigorous fight against the neoliberalization of social policy. These became the focal point of a broader independent Left forming outside the Tripartite Alliance, and attracted huge excitement from activists and movement scholars around the world. But by the late 2000s they were a spent force, virtually all ceasing to exist or becoming NGO-ized.

Their failure again shows the limits of mobilizing divorced from organizing. With one very important exception, none of the NSMs gave any adequate attention to developing strong constituency-based structures manned by organic leaders. Their focus was on high visibility demonstrations: “numbers over strength,” quantity over quality of support. The tens of thousands that turned out to protest at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 is often celebrated as the apogee of the NSM era. But this time, the “Joburg moment” changed nothing whatsoever.

In a few instances, this orientation derived from the same factors it did in the US. Certain NSMs linked up quickly with big donors, hired full time staffers and then embraced highly legalistic strategies. But most had no corporate ties and no professional staffers to speak of. They arose organically in poor communities, often led by ‘struggle veterans’ who worked on a volunteer basis. Rather than institutional pressure, their gravitation to the mobilizing model is better explained by contextual factors.

The reality was that deep organizing was made incredibly difficult by the pervading hegemony of the ANC Alliance. Most of the organic leaders one might have hoped to recruit in the constituencies in which NSMs had a presence already had a political home in the ANC. They could be convinced to engage in protests around service delivery because such actions were and are seen as an entirely legitimate means of effectuating pressure within the broad church of the Congress movement. But convincing them to switch ultimate allegiances was another matter. Pressing the point, and making campaigns too overtly anti-ANC, risked alienating supporters. Movements were forced to fudge the politics while elevating the issues and this foreclosed strategies focused on cadre building.

Moreover, the same factors that made organizing hard, made mobilizing easier. NSMs were able to call forth impressively sized demonstrations without the prior investment in deep organizing in large part because organizational infrastructures already existed. Civil society was still relatively dense at the time NSMs got going, a legacy of the scale of popular mobilization during Apartheid’s end phase.

We might even be able to explain the whole NSM cycle in this way. They arose when post-liberation civil infrastructures were strong and while the Right within the ANC was ascendent. And they declined as those infrastructures weakened and as the ANC Left re-asserted itself in the campaign against Thabo Mbeki’s “1996 class project,” thus narrowing the space for autonomous politics within ANC-adjacent civil society.

Mobilizing strategies were thus a product of tough circumstances. It might even be that popular devotion to the ANC was so obdurate a fact of the political environment that different strategies would not have yielded any better result.

A new vision

The real concern is that this experience—of large-scale mobilizing without organizing—has entrenched certain views on the Left which have only deepened the hyperfocus on mobilizing, at a time when the strategic environment is shifting. I’m speaking here of a widespread, if generally unspoken, belief that deep organizing is not necessary because it has already been done. Owing to their heroic vanquishing of Apartheid, the South African masses are seen as inherently politicized and radical.

In this context the primary task of the Left is not to gradually build out its ranks by reaching new people and patiently showing them the value of collective action. It’s to win the hearts and minds of the existing radical populace whose efforts to affect change are straightjacketed by the illusions they continue to harbor in the ANC.

For that objective, mobilizing seems more promising than organizing. The latter may bring to our banner a new workplace or a new community here or there. But a well-placed campaign – perhaps a national shutdown – with the right message at the right time, might finally carve through the ANC’s ideological defenses and dispel the false consciousness enchaining masses. It might even detonate South Africa’s long-awaited “Tunisia moment,” forcing a reckoning between the ANC and its much-maligned base.

Sadly, this view is simply wrong about the political temperament of the South African working class. Undoubtedly there are strong cultures of resistance, stemming from the liberation struggle, that remain alive in working class communities, providing a rich vein into which radicals might tap. And there is tremendous discontent in the population bred by the liberal order’s failure to change material realities. But absent organization these things count for little. And the sad fact is that left wing organization has been in monotonic decline for the last two decades while it’s the populists and the pseudo-left that are capitalizing most effectively on social distemper.

The effects of the mobilizing approach have thus mirrored those in the US. Activity on the Left gets confined to an ever-shrinking pool of hardcore activists and their dedicated supporters who turn up to protest after protest, rally after rally, never with any lasting gains achieved. Meanwhile the Left is slowly uprooted from its social bases, growing more insular and more disoriented in the process.

To break out of this cycle we need to change tack and make constituency based organizing once again the bedrock of our power strategy. Instead of devoting all of our energies to wildly over ambitious demonstrations that threaten no one and only reveal our own weaknesses, we need a strategy for reconstructing movements from the ground up. Protests, strikes, even the occasional shutdown, will still play an integral part in this, but they need to be woven into a vision of building strength through deep support in core constituencies.

The challenge we face is that the WCS summit is formed mainly from two currents, one of which (the trade union Left) has long since forgotten its tradition of deep organizing and the other of which (the independent Left) never really had one. Strong leadership will be needed to transform the political culture of the movement.

But more is required: the WCS itself will have to become something it currently isn’t. The front model is an organizational form far better suited to a mobilizing approach. The only way it could really work is if its constituent movements are capable on their own terms of carrying out the organizing work needed to make the campaigns of the steering committee effectual. But movements of that kind don’t exist any more in South Africa. That’s a big part of why both the Democratic Left Front and the United Front, forerunners of a kind to the WCS, got nowhere. The front model actually prevents us from seeing this by perpetuating illusions about the real strength of the movements on which its strategies rely—movements which are never accountable to a general membership or even a central leadership.

For SAFTU, the WCS was intended to be a stepping stone to a new party. It might be better for us to leap over it entirely.

Further Reading

Beyond the boundary

South African cricket is currently the subject of TRC-style hearings into the racism and nepotism in the game. It makes for riveting TV, but focuses too much on individual instances of racism and discrimination.