Mzwamdile Tshofela is a chair of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) branch at the Mercedes Benz plant in East London, Eastern Cape province.
He is also a member of the global Works Council [employee-employer consultation body] for Mercedes Benz’s parent company Daimler. He spoke to Solidarity on 23-25 May during the Labour Start conference in Berlin.
S: We have heard about NUMSA calling on the Confederation of South African Unions (COSATU) to break with the ANC governing party, can you tell us a little bit about that?
MT: This is a hot debate within South African politics. In December 2013 NUMSA had a special congress to discuss six resolutions. One was about the alliance between COSATU and the ANC. What relevance did this have when the ANC is the only political pole. Another was the situation in COSATU, which is paralysed. COSATU has become the “labour desk” of the ANC, rather than a revolutionary trade union federation. It is no longer serving the interests of the workers. After the last congress of COSATU in 2012, none of resolutions that were passed were progressed.
So NUMSA also said that we need to decide what we are doing in COSATU. We resolved not to go outside COSATU, we are one of the founding members, but to fight within COSATU, to get them to follow the mandates they have been given, including trying to get a special congress to discuss the future. Out of COSATU’s 19 affiliates nine feel the same way.
According to COSATU’s constitution one third can call a special congress. A special congress could decide if the leaders are still relevant. The President is obliged to call the congress, but he has been avoiding it. We have now taken the issue to the courts.
[COSATU’s net congress is not scheduled until 2106. At the beginning of June the Executive passed a resolution which instructs affiliates to cease divisive programmes for another month, while a peace deal can be drawn up].
NUMSA has also resolved not to support the ANC in the National Assembly elections [held last month with a slight reduction in the ANC majority]. We don’t see any benefit from the ANC and its agenda. They are always adopting neo-liberal policies. The Marikana massacre has been one of the really important issues behind our decision but it is not the only issue.
The governing party has just adopted the NDP and there are two main problems with this. First it contains economic reforms. These will not generate employment in any sector, especially the manufacturing sector. The NDP also talks about labour reforms. Two particular issues concern us.
First, labour brokering [where companies contract labour brokers to provide them with and administer casual labour].
Another issue is the E-toll system (road tolls which affect workers because many have to travel long distances to get to work and already pay fuel tax, VAT and other tolls).
They also want to change the Labour Relations Law. They want to make sacking workers easier.
Such issues together with that of political corruption and nepotism, mean we have had enough.
In the event that we don’t win our position? We believe that COSATU have been a clear instruction by the ANC to get rid of us. But that is easier said than done. The minute you get rid of NUMSA, you are breaking NUMSA. It is the biggest union within COSATU. And there are nine unions who are sure to leave COSATU. They want NUMSA to leave on its own and NUMSA is not going to do that. We cannot make their life easy.
S: If you are expelled you will form a new federation? Or force them to take you back?
MT: We will try by all means to remain within COSATU. But if the environment is intolerable or we are expelled we will definitely be the catalyst in forming another federation.
We have also [passed policy] to form a “movement for socialism”. We don’t have a manifesto, but our constitution says explicitly what we stand for. NUMSA is a Marxist-Leninist orientated organisation. Originally this would have come from the South African Communist Party. But not now. The SACP has been absorbed by the ANC. We can’t be guided by these people now.
NUMSA provides many forums for discussion of politics and all the issues have been discussed for some time and thoroughly. NUMSA is a member-driven organisation. The resolutions to our congress came from below.
S: There has also been talk about the formation of a new political party. Could you say something about that?
MT: The ANC of today is not pushing the workers’ agenda but that of the dominant class. The deputy president of South Africa and the ANC [Cyril Ramaphosa] is the one that who had so many negative things to do with Marikana.
We have taken a decision to first form a united front. We cannot just be a union at plant or industry level. Because the very issues that are affecting us there are wider social issues. We need to engage everyone within society. We aim to have a conference to which we will invite all the left organisations, all also groups fighting for social justice, community organisations, everyone, even churches for that matter. The invitation will be open then there will be discussions about the party that could represent us.
There has been confusion in the media about this initiative. It is not NUMSA forming the political party. NUMSA will play a big part, our organisers will be involved, but will be only the catalyst.
Establish a United Front
From the NUMSA Congress resolution:
NUMSA will lead in the establishment of a new United Front that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the United Democratic Front of the 1980s. The task of this front will be to fight for the implementation of the Freedom Charter and to be an organisational weapon against neoliberal policies such as the NDP. For this to happen our members and shop stewards must be active on all fronts and in all struggles against neoliberal policies, whether these policies are being implemented in the workplace or in communities.
Explore establishment of a Movement for Socialism
Side by side with the establishment of the new United Front, NUMSA will explore the establishment of a Movement for Socialism as the working-class needs a political organisation committed in its policies and actions to the establishment of a socialist South Africa. NUMSA will conduct a thoroughgoing discussion on previous attempts to build socialism as well as current experiments to build socialism. We will commission an international study on the historical formation of working-class parties, including exploring different type of parties – from mass workers' parties to vanguard parties. We will look at countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Greece. We will examine their programmes with the aim of identifying elements of what may constitute a revolutionary programme for the working class .This entire process will lead to the union convening a Conference on Socialism.