This is a lightly edited version of a speech given to an international meeting held on 1 February under the banner: Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and All Anti-Imperialist Freedom Fighters! Speakers included Abu-Jamal (via a recorded statement), Angela Davis and a number of trade unionists.
Around the world, imperialism – with its dehumanisation and brute violence – has allowed for a small minority to permanently accumulate wealth at the expense of the masses of our people. In recent years, women and men have been killed – from Afghanistan and Iraq to South Africa and the prison archipelago of the US. In the last two years the 10 richest capitalists have doubled their wealth. In this context, our only option is to recommit ourselves to international solidarity as one of our union’s core pillars.
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) represents over 350 000 metalworkers. As a Marxist-Leninist trade union, we are are honoured to be part of the global action calling for the immediate release of Mumia Abu-Jamal and all other anti-racist and anti-imperialist freedom fighters who are languishing in prisons.
We cannot defeat our capitalist oppressors without the unity of the working class. It is our revolutionary duty to raise the levels of consciousness among the oppressed and to organise the working class as a class for itself. Without this kind of collective organisation and consciousness, the working class will not be able to develop and drive an agenda in its own interests and transform society in a meaningful way.
During the long hard years of apartheid, international solidarity from the progressive formations around the world helped to support and amplify the struggles of the Black and African working class in South Africa. The pressure that was placed on various countries to impose sanctions on the racist regime played an important role in the defeat of the apartheid state.
Today, our union remains committed to the principles of internationalism and solidarity. Figures like Mumia Abu-Jamal, who stood up for the rights of Black people in America, and Julian Assange, who exposed the horrors of the American war machine, are our allies in struggle. We stand firm in their defence.
We understand the continued dehumanisation of Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners within the context of the long struggle for Black liberation in America, a struggle that goes back to the days of slavery. It is a damning indictment against American freedom that today members of the Black Panther Party are still in jail for life, for fighting for the rights of Black people. We must never forget that the US became a global superpower via the genocide of the indigenous people and the labour of enslaved African people.
The struggle of the civil rights movement in the 1960s captured the imagination of the world. Figures like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X became global icons. Both moved towards socialist ideas towards the end of their lives. But the system that the movement was struggling against continues today.
The fact is that in America today a Black man is always already guilty in the eyes of the police. So many innocent people have been murdered – people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Despite the huge mobilisations against racist police violence in 2014, beginning with the uprising in Ferguson, and again in 2020, the killings continue, day after day.
This ongoing state murder shows that the system of racial capitalism has not yet been defeated, and that it continues to brutalise the Black working class in the US, and in countries around the world that remain subordinated to US imperialism.
Here in South Africa where we have political power the working class does not have economic power and the deep framework and foundations of the apartheid system have not been uprooted. This is why the masses of our Black and African people continue to languish in poverty while a small group of white monopoly capitalists continue to get rich. It is also why the police continue to kill working class Black and African people with impunity.
Our comrades in Abahlali baseMjondolo who struggle for land, housing and dignity in South Africa’s shack settlements are currently being imprisoned in the name of the continued sanctification of private property. In all essential respects the colonial status of the Black majority has remained in place. What has essentially happened is that we have updated our oppressive system with new administrators.
Power is in solidarity
The lesson from our experience is that Black political power on its own is not enough to bring down entrenched systems of oppression. What is required is the organised power of the working class and a clear ideological commitment to full emancipation.
Today the enemy of the working class around the world is this brutal capitalist system. It is always racist in character. It emerged from the system of slavery in the United States and the Caribbean and today its victims remain overwhelmingly Black and brown people of the world.
The entire system is geared towards protecting the ill-gotten wealth of the elite. This is why people like Mumia and Julian are treated as “public enemy number one” by monopoly capitalists and the states that serve their interests. We must never forget that these people are willing to destroy the world and its people to continue the expansion of their imperialist power and capitalist interests.
The exploitation of the majority that makes the few rich is always enforced by violence. In South Africa, dozens of workers have been wounded or have died at the hands of the police for simply expressing their constitutional right to protest. This is because the police, just like our courts, serve the interest of the elite.
We are not alone in our experiences. Everywhere the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. Capitalism is in crisis all over the world. The attacks on the global working class are unrelenting. So too is resistance. Our hearts sing as we see American workers challenging the dominance that capital exercises over the rights of workers. We have received the news of how workers at Amazon have resisted shocking ill-treatment, and the courage of the workers who participated in the recent John Deere strike.
Our power lies in our unity, unity without regard to borders. Our antidote to the attempts by imperialism to divide us along ethnic, gender, “tribal”, racial and national lines is true internationalism and solidarity among all those in the world who are exploited and oppressed. We do not forget that when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels concluded the Communist Manifesto on 21 February 1848, they demanded that: “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose except your chains…” The only path to our collective liberation is to unite the working class against our common enemy, which is this evil capitalist system in its imperialist stage.
Therefore, we could not keep silent when we heard about the plights of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Julian Assange and, at home in South Africa, the persecuted members of Abahlali baseMjondolo. We have been supporting the call for justice for Mumia since 2016. We will continue to express solidarity with him. It is clear that he is innocent and has been framed by the corrupt and racist justice system in the US. It is our duty to say something and to do what we can to lend our voice to demand justice for him.
As Numsa, we demand Abu-Jamal’s immediate and unconditional release. It is the responsibility of all genuine revolutionaries to defend the defenceless all over the world. And Abu-Jamal, Assange, the Abahlali baseMjondolo comrades and all political prisoners deserve to be defended – from the US to South Africa.
At the same time, it is our shared responsibility to organise and mobilise the working class wherever we find ourselves. In our own way as Numsa we have done so. Besides the battles we wage in the workplace, we have been instrumental in the creation of a genuinely socialist and worker-controlled political party, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party.
Through this vehicle we are working to raise the levels of consciousness on the ground, and we are deepening the work of international solidarity. Our aim is to put socialism back on the map in South Africa. This is crucial because if there is to be genuine change in our society, then we must unite and fight to remove this inhumane capitalist system from the world. We must all recommit ourselves to the work of mobilising and organising all those oppressed by the greedy, racist, imperialist, capitalist system as a central part of the struggle to build a society that advances humanity.
Jim is the general secretary of Numsa.