Political Watch

NUMSA drama a new phase in a changing political landscape


The present disintegration of the post-1994 political-labour alliance in South Africa is a repeat of a pattern across post-colonial Africa and again a number of side issues and by-products are coming into play.

It may not be the biggest direct challenge to the ANC's political dominance to date, but it is by far the most significant. It reflects a far deeper ideologically- and policy-driven schism than the arguably more faction- and personality-driven earlier ones. It nonetheless compliments and dovetails with the previous fractures.

A number of issues stand out:

• the continuing post-liberation disintegration of the ANC-led broad church alliance;

• the resultant further reshaping of the political landscape and rise of the far left;

• the manifestation of the role and influence of the SACP within the alliance;

• COSATU being politically 'purified' and made more manageable, yet still in a paradoxical relationship with the ANC; and

• the growing dominance of COSATU’s public sector unions in a diabolical partnership with their employer.

Political realignment

The expulsion probably is a culmination of the mammoth months-long battle for dominance between NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) on the one hand and the ruling Tripartite Alliance of COSATU (Congress of SA Trade Unions) and its political masters in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC on the other. But the fight is far from over.

NUMSA joins a growing list of dissidents that have parted ways with the ANC and now operate mostly left of it. It includes the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), and various shack-dwellers’ movements.

As predicted, the biggest emerging challenge to the ANC, come both the 2016 municipal elections and 2019 general election, is from the left. That, together with the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), could make serious inroads into ANC rule at all three levels of government.

Within the internal political dynamics of the alliance a narrow, short-term view of NUMSA’s expulsion suggests victory for the hidden hand of the SACP – the dominant Zuma-led faction in the ANC – and their surrogates in COSATU led by federation president Sdumo Dlamini.

Longer-term analysis suggests they have strengthened the rising far left movement that will increasingly challenge alliance hegemony and dominance.

Although NUMSA professes that it is still contemplating its options, and may challenge its expulsion, it is forging ahead with plans to launch a “national united front” in December. It will also consolidate its work for setting up a “Movement for Socialism” at its March 2015 central committee meeting.

The besieged COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, also facing expulsion has distanced himself from the NUMSA expulsion and might yet be offered a national organising role in this context. NUMSA may also still launch a political party in time for the 2016 municipal elections.

With NUMSA keeping its options open, the EFF already in parliament, AMCU operating independently, seven other COSATU affiliated unions showing solidarity with NUMSA, the thus far politically independent National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) and the proliferation of shack dwellers’ movements in the mix, a wide range of new political permutations are possible.

COSATU’s soul

Coming from a strong Workerist orientation prior to COSATU’s formation in 1985, NUMSA was never a comfortable fit politically or ideologically in a federation under SACP and ANC political and ideological direction.

In the 1980s, in a witch-hunt largely SACP-driven, the ANC expelled many Worke rists, among them many well-known activists today operating outside the alliance. From a liberation struggle point of view and to strengthen worker power against the apartheid regime and the business sector, it was deemed the right strategy by NUMSA to, with other metal and engineering sector unions, join in the 1985 launch of COSATU.

Their different political wiring would, however, amplify the tensions that emerged years later after the common enemy of apartheid disappeared and the political dynamics in post-liberation South Africa were changing radically.

NUMSA, like the rest of COSATU, played a significant role in the largely SACP-instigated ousting of former president Thabo Mbeki because of his allegedly neo-liberal, market-friendly policies. The SACP termed his Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy the “class project of 1996”.

They deemed it treason by Mbeki, something for which they never forgave him. Mbeki was distancing himself and the ANC increasingly from the SACP.

In December 2007, two weeks before the ANC national conference where Mbeki was replaced with Zuma as president, the SACP issued a Red Alert in which it attacked Mbeki’s policies and quoted Mbeki as saying in a 1995 interview that “…the ANC itself would split into its component ideological parts – a liberal democratic party, a social democratic party”. According to the SACP, Mbeki thought that it would happen within five years or so. The ANC, he said, was a multi-class and multi-ideological formation, a reality necessitated by the struggle against apartheid which was now over.

NUMSA went along with the attack on and removal of Mbeki, but when to its mind nothing seemed to change after Mbeki’s removal it turned against President Jacob Zuma. It accused him, the ANC and the SACP of paying only lip service to radical transformation and the Freedom Charter; not advancing the rights and interests of workers; not doing enough to create jobs and fight poverty; pandering to business and a corrupt and wealthy new business-political elite while ignoring the plight of the masses.

It was particularly scathing of the SACP which it said had succumbed to the lure of positions and benefits. However, within its historical Workerist context the SACP was always going to be a natural enemy.

The illfeelings were amply reciprocated by the SACP. It saw NUMSA and its criticism, backed by a strong organisation, financial clout and charismatic leadership as a distracting threat to the ANC’s redrafted doctrine of “radical economic transformation” as adopted the ANC’s 2012 national conference.

The SACP has a substantial stake in this doctrine as a vehicle of its long-term socialist project. When it became clear that NUMSA could possibly take control of COSATU at a special national congress by removing the current COSATU leadership, most of whom are also senior SACP functionaries, NUMSA had to be cast out.

Communists led the onslaught on NUMSA. NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim singled out Gwede Mantashe (ANC secretary general and SACP central committee and Politburo member), Blade Nzimande (SACP general secretary), Frans Baleni (National Union of Mineworkers general secretary and SACP central committee member) and Sidumo Dlamini (COSATU president and SACP central committee and Politburo member) as being responsible for NUMSA’s expulsion.

Disintegration of the alliance

Although not as quickly as he foresaw it, Mbeki’s prediction of the ANC and the alliance by extension splitting into its component parts, started happening since 1996.  That year the ANC expeled Bantu Holomisa, who formed the United Democratic Movement (UDM).

In the wake of Mbeki’s ousting there was a large scale exodus from the ANC and the launch of the Congress of the People (COPE). Although it started with a big bang, pulled 1.3-million centrist middleclass votes in the 2009 elections, it has since fizzled away, following a destructive internal leadership battle.

Next followed the expulsion of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and others, who established the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). This party, like COPE before, pulled over a million votes in the general election in May this year, mostly among centre-left urban working class voters and informal settlement dwellers. Both COPE and the EFF demonstrated that the ANC was vulnerable in the political centre and to the left.

The NUMSA expulsion took the gradual disintegration of the Alliance in the post-liberation era to a new level and could seriously escalate it. For one, COSATU is now dominated by public sector unions accounting for more than 50% of its membership, causing a serious conflict or interest within the governing alliance.

The current round of public sector wage negotiations could trigger further serious tensions in the alliance.

Furthermore, some the seven unions which declared solidarity with NUMSA, might still follow it out of COSATU – cutting it effectively in half and robbing it of much of its political and labour clout. These unions have already suspended their participation in COSATU’s national leadership structures.

Announcing this move Food and Allied Workers Union president Atwell Nazo said: "We are fighting for the soul of our own federation ... which is Cosatu.”

However, with NUMSA’s expulsion it may well be that an even bigger fight, for the soul of South Africa itself, may have been launched.


by Stef Terblanche

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