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?

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.