Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Farewell to an African revolutionary

BONGANI MKHUNGO, who died last week in Durban, is a sad loss to the workers of southern Africa, and to the international movement for socialism. When I met him in London he seemed a quiet, unassuming man, who listened carefully to what comrades said, though sometimes he could not resist a twinkle and quietly shaking with laughter. When he spoke it was to ask a pertinent question, or to talk from experience. In fact, Bongani was a significant figure, someone who had led workers in the most difficult material and political conditions, learning his politics along the way, and more than once receiving death threats to himself and his family,

His time in England cannot have been easy, relying on what rough jobs he could get here and occasional hospitality. while worrying how to get help to those left at home, and his children's education. I remember a rally outside Belmarsh prison, a rainy Sunday afternoon, and Bongani standing patiently with neither a coat nor decent footwear, just incongruous flip-flops. But then life had never been easy.

He was born in 1954, in a Zulu village, brought up in a round mud hut with not enough land for the family to live off. His father had to go off to work in Durban, and then died in 1968. For Bongani that meant an end to schooling (his favourite subject was history) and a trek to town, where he had to find a job and somewhere to live, and get a permit. He was at the Dunlop factory when strikes swept through the city, in 1973, and became a general strike, with crowds of workers marching around chanting Zulu war slogans and threatening management. The government set up a commission which recommended legalising trade unions, hoping to make the struggle safer.

The workers organised, the Metal and Allied Workers' Union entering Bongani's industry, and it was during the strike in the British Tyre and Rubber Company(BTR) Samcol in 1988 that Bongani first came to Britain, with a union delegation seeking support from British workers. Staying with Bob Myers, a Trotskyist shop steward in Manchester, Bongani had long discussions with him, and the pair found they were reaching similar views about workers struggle and leadership. Bob was part of that majority in the Workers Revolutionary Party which had ousted Gerry Healy's corrupt leadership and was trying to re-establish the movement, on principled relations with workers' and democratic struggles internationally.

In South Africa, the white regime had tried to shore itself up by winning the Indian and Coloured sections to its side, while the banned African National Congress encouraged a United Democratic Front (UDF) to counter this. Trades unionists like Bongani meanwhile had spread their organising energy from the workplace into the township communities, where they needed to achieve unity between the workers and youth, to fight for decent living conditions and education, and to counter the divisive activity of Inkatha. Moses Mayekiso, the metalworkers' leader, was jailed by the Apartheid regime, and trade unionists were targeted for violence. So both the UDF and the trade unionists were ostensibly fighting for democratic rights, and yet they came from different directions, and went about it differently. Here's Bongani on this period:

'We had tried to organise township committees. The problem was that the UDF came to every meeting just to tell the workers what to do. This discouraged people.

'This was repeated after Nelson Mandela's release in February 1990. Again the youth were fighting with the police. Many people were being killed. The UDF didn't know what to do. I proposed that we should call a general meeting of the township. Ten thousand people came to it. I felt that the UDF speeches were just window-dressing. They weren't going to do anything.

'I called for discipline among the youth and said they must stop 'necklacing' anybody they felt like killing. I said we needed a defence committee to unite the workers with the youth. So I organised a workshop for some of the leading people, to discuss how we were going to form our structures. None of the UDF people came. I explained how we should organise at every level, with accountability of committees. We wanted to stop people just acting on their own. The youth were pleased about this organisation. We divided the township into areas and started to organise. It was very effective.UDF leaders came to the township and said that this structure was very wrong, becuse nothing was under the UDF's control. They managed to break it all up.

'One year our union held its general meeting near Durban. It was not only union members who attended the rally in the stadium. Lots of youth came too. Because of what the unions had done in 1984 the youth gave great support to the workers' activities. They would come with banners and shout for socialism, even though most of them were UDF supporters.

'I was one of the marshals trying to get .everyone into the rally without trouble. Already in the morning we had a confrontation with the police, who tried to stop people singing as thev marched into the stadium. We had the rally — then, as people were leaving, the police opened fire. I saw one of our stewards hit. We carried him away. Everyone was running to get away.

'The next morning I was called from work to the mortuary to identify bodies, I didn't recognise anyone. But I was given names, and back at work someone knew that one of those names was a young man who had been at our rally. So our shop stewards met.

'We said that we must do something because this young man was killed attending our rally. We went to see his family and told them that the workers wanted to arrange the funeral. They agreed. we returned to the factory and collected money.

'As we were going back to the family we met a man from the UDF He said that they must arrange the funeral as the young man was their member. We told him: 'No. That youth was killed participating with the workers'. We went to the family and they agreed with us. So we organised the luneral. Many of the workers came and I gave the funeral speech. I talked about the struggle of the working class for socialism.'
(from Revolutionary Times, Revolutionary Lives Index Books, 1997.

When a conference was held in Budapest to form the Workers International (for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International), Bongani and other workers who attended from South Africa faced a witch-hunt on their return, with tales alleging that the South African government had paid their fares, and so on. In fact, it was the ANC and its allies in the South African Communist Party and top union leaders who were preparing to take their places in government and boardrooms, with appropriate salaries. Stalinism might have been collapsing in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but it persevered with its methods of smearing opponents in the labour movement, and not just in South Africa.

Today in the "new" South Africa, though Apartheid has gone, workers in the factories and mines, and poor people in the townships and squatter camps are still fighting exploitation and poverty, and with the ANC and its allies in government, more people are ready to talk about, and work for, a left-wing alternative. It is to this ferment that Bongani Mkhungo returned with some enthusiasm. That his life should have been cut so short at this time is tragic, for him and his family, but also for the workers' movement. We can be confident however, as Bongani would have been, that from the new generations coming into struggle we shall see more like him emerging.

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