Alexander (Alec) Erwin, is South African Minister of Minister of Public Enterprises and a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party. He is regarded as a central figure in guiding the economic policy direction of South Africa.
Born in 1948, Erwin was educated in Durban, completing his B Econ (Hons) at the University of Natal.
Erwin became active in the trade union movement at university. During the ’70s he was involved in the Institute for Industrial Education.
SACP deputy General Secretary, Jeremy Cronin has described those times.
There was a kind of left, and even perhaps marxist, hegemony in the social sciences in the english-speaking universities in the 80s, as a result of this peer group of mine, who had not got involved in the underground structures, but whom we called, dismissively quoting from Lenin, the ‘legal marxists’. They had a very important intellectual impact on South Africa, insofar as linked up then with activism, political activism, organisational activism.
A number of them moved, I reckon, to the trade union movement, which began to emerge in 1973 around the Durban strikes. That was when the first people like Alec Erwin… moved quite early on into the trade union movement. They sustained links and there were quite strong links between the university-based intellectuals of my generation who were marxists and the early cadre of the resurgent trade union movement.
Erwin is regarded as a highly influential unionist who turned the South African movement into a powerful political force.
He was general secretary in the Federation of South African Trade Unions, a forerunner of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, (COSATU) from 1979 to 1981. In 1986 Erwin became the education officer at COSATU, charged with developing trade union training programmes. From 1988 to 1993 he was national education secretary for the National Union of Metalworkers.
As COSATU’s co-ordinator of the Economic Trends Group, Erwin helped develop the union movements economic plan for South Africa, the “Industrial Strategy Project“. He was also involved in the ANC-constructed National Institute of Economic Policy.
Erwin provided input for the ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme and helped in editing the final document.
Politically Erwin was linked to the “Workerist” movement during the ’70s, a form of Marxism emphasing working class culture and power.
By 1989 he was an executive member of the ANC’s Southern Natal region. In 1990, after the unbanning of the ANC and the Communist Party, Erwin publicly joined the SACP.
Elected to Parliament in 1994 on the ANC ticket, Erwin quickly became Deputy Minister of Finance in the Government of National Unity.
In 1996 he became Minister of Trade and Industry, until 2004 when he assumed the role of Minister of Public Enterprises.
In his Ministerial roles, Erwin has been criticised by the South African Trotskyite and far left movements, including by some in the SACP for his “free market” economic policies.
However, while fellow Minister Jeff Rbede was voted off the SACP Central Committee in 2002 for supporting such policies, Erwin has remained untouched.
Erwin is apparently well regarded in financial circles and was even touted in the US Council on Foreign Affairs’ house magazine as a possible future head of the World Trade Organisation.
It is a common mistake to think that Marxists who promote “orthodox” economic policies have seen the error of their ways and have embraced capitalism.
However, modern Marxism-Leninism is now much more sophisticated than in the days of Stalin or Kruschev.
The SACP acknowledges the power of capitalism and its usefulness in producing wealth.
The Party sees itself in the “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR)phase of social transformation. Apartheid has been defeated, now is the time slowly break down the culture of the old South Africa, while trying to deliver enough economic stability to maintain control.
True socialism will only come when power is fully consolidated. In the meantime “comrades” must do as they’re told, not “rock the boat” and certainly not frighten away South Africa’s remaining productive white middle class.
I quote the SACP’s theoretical journal “African Communist“. first quarter 2002.
“The NDR requires the broad unity of a multi-class popular bloc of forces, rooted among the historically oppressed [ie, blacks] … Amongst other things, it is the responsibility of the SACP to convince working class and socialist forces of the centrality of the NDR and of its necessary multi-class character”
Alec Erwin is just the man to keep business happy, until the SACP is confident enough to declare its true intentions.