Birth pangs of a new South African worker’s party

With considerable pain and after a long gestation it seems that a new workers’ party is being born in South Africa.

Members of Numsa at a protest in Durban in September 2010. (Photo: Getty)

The National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) appears on the verge of splitting away from the African National Congress. As the largest affiliate of the main trade union movement – Cosatu – this would be a heavy blow for the party, which will rely heavily on the unions during next year’s general election. The metalworkers represent some 291,000 workers out of the Cosatu’s 2.2 million strong Cosatu membership.

The issue is to be debated at a Numsa special congress, scheduled for 13 - 16 of December. The ANC is clearly deeply worried by the prospect. The unions have been linked to the party since 1986, and form a bedrock of the ANC’s relationship with the organised working class. In a remarkably frank statement the party’s General Secretary, Gwede Mantashe made plain his concerns.

Organisationally, the alliance remains the home of the progressive forces in South Africa. Both the right wing and the ultra-left are on the ascendency and attack our movement relentlessly. The re-emergence of the old debate about forming a workers' party in Cosatu, led by Numsa as it was the case in the 1980s, demonstrates the shift in the balance of forces in the federation. The congress movement is under siege in the federation more intensely than in the country in general. Those who want to collapse the alliance have nothing to lose, hence the determination we see we trying in to split Cosatu.

Ominously, Mantashe went on to accuse those who contemplated these measures of acting in the interests of unnamed “international forces opposed to our movement".

At the heart of this complex relationship is the Tripartite Alliance, which includes the small and once influential South African Communist Party. Although the ANC leads the Alliance, it is meant to consult its partners before implementing major policy changes.

This relationship has become increasingly sour. The union movement criticised the ANC at its 2012 Congress for moving to the right and accused it of only turning to its Alliance partners at moments of crisis: “The Alliance lurches between good coordination and unity, to dysfunctionality; and only sees the need to meet when there is a crisis.” 

The unions kept up a barrage of criticism of government policy and of the corruption that is now endemic within the ANC administration. With general elections due to take place next year, President Jacob Zuma decided to act. The general secretary of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi found himself suspended from his post, despite his considerable popularity within the labour movement.

Vavi had left himself vulnerable by having a dalliance with a member of Cosatu staff and for allegedly taking some dubious financial decisions. But few – including Vavi himself - believed he would have been suspended. Since losing his job, Vavi has kept up a barrage of criticism of the ANC-led alliance, accusing sections of the leadership of acting on behalf of “neo-liberalist South African capitalism.”

In these remarks Vavi was echoing a warning by the union movement from as long ago as 1982. The unions attempted to learn from the mistakes of the 1950s when the ANC was perceived to have used its then union partners as a battering ram in its fight with the government. The unions fell apart, and as they were painfully rebuilt in the 1970s the movement was determined not to make the mistakes of the past. 

In a carefully phrased warning, Joe Foster, the then union leader, declared that while it was important to work with the ANC, the movement had to preserve its independence:

It is, therefore, essential that workers must strive to build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are part of the wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to protect and further worker interests and to ensure that the popular movement is not hijacked by elements who will in the end have no option but to turn against their worker supporters.

In the 1980s, as the fight against apartheid intensified, the unions abandoned their caution, and forged closer links with the ANC. But neither the unions nor the party ever forgot these concerns; hence Mantashe’s reference to the 1980s.

Much now depends on what the metalworkers decide when they meet in December. It seems likely that Numsa will take things slowly. Forming a new party does not happen overnight, especially since the union will attempt to bring about a “coalition of the Left” including some of South Africa’s vibrant civic organisations. The union may decide to remain neutral at the next election,  leaving its members to decide on whom to vote for.

Certainly they will have no end of options. South Africa has some 200 political parties. Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters are attempting to win votes on the left, in competition with the tiny Workers and Socialist Party.  But both are likely to gain relatively small followings. A genuinely popular left wing party, led by a popular figure like Zwelinzima Vavi, would change the political landscape. As one leading commentator put it: “there's always an element of fear about what storms, uncertainty and chaos the uncharted territory could bring. Fasten your seatbelts, South Africa.”