Rumour has it that in 1994 some leading trade union organisers in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) gave the African National Congress (ANC) a ten year deadline to introduce serious social democratic reforms.
Ten years passed a decade ago, but now it seems the deadline may have passed politically as well. One of the largest and best organised unions in South Africa, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has dissociated itself from the ANC-South African Communist Party (SACP)-COSATU alliance.
In December 2013 at a special national congress (attended by 1,200 delegates) NUMSA declared that “the working class cannot any longer see the ANC or the SACP as its class allies in any meaningful sense”. It resolved not to campaign for the ANC or the SACP or support them financially in next election. It also withheld its 800,000 Rand monthly subscription to COSATU.
The model of labour representation that has dominated South Africa over the last decade, based on the tripartite Alliance of the ANC, SACP, and COSATU, is now under threat. It is more than a year since the South African police killed 34 strikers in Marikana platinum mine, owned by Lonmin, a British company, with Cyril Ramaphosa, Deputy President of the ANC and former leader of the mineworkers’ union as an executive on its Board.
In the last year industrial actions have also targeted other parts of the mining sector, including the world’s largest platinum producer, Amplat. Both the Marikana and Amplat strikes were organised by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), a union formed in 1999, which is in open and sometimes deadly conflict with the COSATU- affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). There has also been major internal unrest in other COSATU unions.
The fast-flowing current of dissent within the labour movement poses the most serious challenge yet to the neo-liberal policies pursued by the government and to the corruption rife among political and some business leaders. These divisions have been reflected within COSATU itself. The President Sidumo Dlamini (supported by the NUM and the SACP) has been challenged by the General Secretary Zwelenzima Vavi (supported by NUMSA). Vavi criticised the diversion of public funds to the President Jacob Zuma’s private home, but he himself has been accused of rape of a COSATU employee and has been placed by the COSATU leadership on special leave. NUMSA has called for a national congress of COSATU to reinstate Vavi to office.
The SACP seems to be as powerful as ever within the ANC. It has held key offices in the government and was a firm supporter of Jacob Zuma, at the December 2012 ANC Conference.
Leading figures in the ANC, SACP and COSATU wasted no time before denouncing NUMSA’s decision to withdraw support from the ANC and establish an independent workers’ party. They predictably accused it of ultra-leftism and of betraying the “founding fathers of COSATU”. This is rather facile given the historical hostility of the ANC leadership, the SACP, and the SACP’s trade-union wing to the “founding fathers” and mothers of COSATU and its predecessor FOSATU in the in the 1980s. A quick look at the SACP paper African Communist will reveal that the Party condemned the independent, non-racial unions for “workerism”, “reformism”, “economism” and all manner of worse sins.
NUMSA was also accused of “flirting” with two recently-formed radical groupings, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP).
However, NUMSA seems wisely to have kept its distance, wary of the EFF’s internal military command structure, its support for nationalisation but without mention of workers’ control, and its commitment to anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism without mention of socialism.
NUMSA is a well-established union with a strong and proven record of workers’ control. It has traditionally shown a somewhat syndicalist slant, which may be reinforced by what it sees as opportunist advances on the part of untested left-wing political groupings. It declares itself particularly disturbed by the “commander in chief” of the EFF and former ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, whom it describes as a “tenderpreneur”, a director of companies that work for the government on the basis of tenders.
Nonetheless NUMSA plans to establish a new “united front” with various political groupings and trade union organisations (like AMCU) to co-ordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities in a similar way to the United Democratic Front in the 1980s, and to oppose the neoliberal policies of the government’s National Development Plan. The aim is apparently to form an independent labour party by 2015 and contest elections in 2019.
This aim echoes a perspective Workers’ Liberty’s predecessor, Socialist Organiser, put forward in the late 1980s before FOSATU became COSATU and joined up with the ANC and SACP.
The union is going to convene a conference on socialism next year and commission an international study on the formation of working-class parties, such as those in Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Greece. The union will not endorse any political party in 2014 but of course will not stop its members from campaigning for any party.
NUMSA still holds to the Freedom Charter (formulated in 1955) as the basis for the united front it envisages. This is based on the supposition that the Freedom Charter stands for a fundamental transformation of property relations in South Africa. This stance takes a rosy view of the past, but it makes sense in terms of rooting the union in the established tradition of the national liberation movement.
In fact, what the union has done is take a huge step forward in setting up an independent political wing of the labour movement.
Although full of dangers as well as possibilities, this is greatly to be welcomed by socialists and democrats and offers a ray of light not just to the South African but to the African working class. Solidarity to NUMSA! Solidarity to its courageous action!
• Robert Fine is the co-author of Beyond Apartheid: Labour and Liberation in South Africa (London: Pluto, 1990)