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?

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.