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.

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.”
 

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

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp
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Meet Jorge Sharp, the rising star of Chile’s left who beat right-wingers to running its second city

The 31-year-old human rights lawyer says he is inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative politics as he takes the fight to the Chilean establishment.

Bearded, with shaggy hair, chinos and a plaid shirt, 31-year-old Jorge Sharp does not look like your typical mayor elect. But that does nothing to stop him speaking with the conviction of one.

“Look, Chile is a country that solely operates centrally, as one unit,” he says. “It is not a federal country – the concentration of state functions is very compact. In reality, most of the power is in Santiago. There are many limitations when it comes to introducing significant changes [in local areas].”

In October, Sharp upset Chile’s political status quo by defeating establishment rivals in the mayoral election of Valparaíso, the second city of South America’s first OECD country. He is taking office today.

Often compared to Podemos in Spain, Sharp’s win was significant – not only as yet another example of voters turning against mainstream politics – because it denied Chilean right-wing candidates another seat during local elections that saw them sweep to power across the country.

As the results rolled in, Conservative politicians had managed to snatch dozens of seats from the country’s centre-left coalition, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Sitting in one of Valparaíso’s many bohemian cafes, Sharp accepts the comparison with Podemos gracefully but is keen to make sure that Chile’s new “autonomous left” movement is seen as distinct.

“What we are doing in Chile is a process that is difficult to compare with other emerging political movements in the world,” he says. “We are a distinct political group and we are a modern force for the left. We are a left that is distinct in our own country and that is different to the left in Spain, in Bolivia, and in Venezuela.”

Sharp’s Autonomous Left movement is not so much a party rather than a group of affiliated individuals who want to change Chilean politics for good. Considering its relatively small size, the so-called Aut Left experienced degrees of success in October.

Chilean voters may have punished Bachelet – also Chile’s first female leader – and her coalition after a number of corruption scandals, but they did not turn against left-wing politics completely. Where they had options, many Chileans voted for newer, younger and independent left-wing candidates. 

“We only had nine candidates and we won three of the races – in Punta Arenas, Antofagasta and Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago,” he says. “We hope that the experience here will help us to articulate a national message for all of Chile.”


Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp

For Sharp, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit movement are due to people fed up – on a global scale – with their respective countries’ mainstream political parties or candidates. Given that assumption, how would he describe the cause of his own election success?

“The problem in Chile, and also for the people in Valparaíso, is that the resources go to very few people,” he says. “It was a vote to live better, to live differently. Our project for social policy is one that is more sufficient for all the people. It’s a return to democracy, to break the electoral status quo.”   

Sharp – like many – believes that the United States’ Democrat party missed out by passing up the opportunity to break with the status quo and choose Bernie Sanders over the chosen nominee Hillary Clinton. “They would have been better off with Sanders than Clinton,” he believes. 

“The [people] in the US are living through a deep economic crisis. These were the right conditions for Trump. The people weren’t looking for the candidate from the banks or Wall Street, not the ‘establishment’ candidate. The way forward was Sanders.”

Turning to other 2016 geo-political events, he claims Brexit was a case of Britons “looking for an answer to crises” about identity. Elsewhere in South America, the tactics of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe – who led the “No” vote campaign against peace with the Farc – were “fundamentally undemocratic”.

In the future, Sharp hopes that he and the rest of the Autonomous Left will be better-prepared to take power in higher offices, in order to further reform social policy and politics in Chile.

“For these elections, we weren't unified enough,” he concedes. “For 2017 [when national elections take place], we will have one list of parliamentary candidates and one presidential candidate.”

And while Sharp clearly sympathises with other left-wing movements in countries throughout the world, this is not a call for a unified approach to take on the rise of the right.

“Every country has its own path,” he finishes. “There is no single correct path. What we need to do [in Chile] is articulate a force that’s outside the political mainstream.”

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.