[For more on NUMSA, click HERE. For more on South Africa, click HERE.]
By Leonard Gentle
January 28, 2014 -- SACSIS -- The decision of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa
(NUMSA) to cut ties with the African National Congress (ANC) has
received poor analysis. Comment has tended to focus on the possibility
of a new political party in 2019 or whether all this means that
suspended general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) Zwelinzima Vavi will get his job back.
The greater significance
of the biggest trade union in the country throwing in its lot with a
growing movement in opposition to the neoliberal order, and thus to the
left of the ANC, rather than the line up to the right is being missed.
This very week NUMSA is holding a national political school, which
culminates in an “expo” of forces of resistance, to which activists and
communities that have been active in service delivery struggles, have
been invited. This is part of NUMSA’s declared commitment to what it
calls a “united front” from below.
In discussing the events unleashed by the Marikana massacre, some of us have been
declaring that the seeds of a new movement have been sown. But equipped
only with the notions of political parties, trade unions and other such
organisational forms, commentators have been ill equipped to grapple
with the meaning of this notion of a movement.
Movements in motion
We have lived for the past 20 odd-years with the marginalisation of
ordinary people from any power over their own lives. For at least half
those years millions of people were not active in campaigns and in
contesting the quality of their lives, as they gave the ANC (the party
that had stood at the head of the liberation movement) a chance to
express in legislation and in practice what people had envisioned from
that movement. In practice, the anti-apartheid movement was laid to
rest. Politics therefore became the exclusive terrain of political
parties, particularly those represented in parliament. And parliament
replaced the streets, factories and communities where political parties
were expected to earn their credibility.
The people, as political agents in a broad mass movement, were replaced
by the individual voter participating in secret at the ballot box once
every five years. Occasional flare-ups or disputes were settled through
the courts. The press conference replaced the mass rally as the means
whereby politicians talked to the people. Journalistic comment and media
reports therefore only knew about political parties and their press
This is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. Globally this passive
citizenry has, until now, been the stuff of the political terrain in all
countries for nearly 30 years. The last three decades were also the
years of the triumph of neoliberal capitalism and the biggest attacks
on the living standards of ordinary people since World War I.
Neoliberalism relies on the passivity of ordinary people and the
complicity of all political parties that have confined politics to the
world of the ballot box and the press conference. But South Africa had
an active mass movement until the 1980s, so our neoliberalism would
have to await the triumph of an ANC de-linked from that mass movement --
transformed in its own language from a ”liberation movement to a
Our trade unions also evolved from a labour movement seeking broader
social transformation to a set of trade unions indulging in collective
bargaining within the range prescribed by labour relations law. They too
would have their parliamentary officers tracking new labour laws and
the press conference replacing the factory general meetings and the mass
rallies of their constituencies.
So the movement was replaced by a party and the party by its leadership
and the leadership by a few individuals. And political comment has
become obsessed with the cult of individuals. We have even lost the
language to distinguish between a movement, parties, organisations and
For the past 10 years we have had community protests in every township
across the country. But because these did not fit the mould of political
parties and press conferences, they did not make the media. And where
commentators reflected on these it was only, until recently, as
instances of “unrest” and criminality.
A movement is not the same as a party, although parties may seek
hegemony within a movement. A movement is also not the same as an
organisation, although myriads of organisations, large and small, may
make up a movement. Sometimes commentators failing to understand this
notion of a movement call acts of popular resistance, which make up a
movement, “spontaneous” because they cannot identify well-known leaders.
Thereby denying the agency of ordinary people and their capacity for
tactical and strategic acumen.
The movement that grew to a peak in the 1980s was one that had a number
of features. First, there was a common enemy that unified the
movement. That enemy was apartheid and all the associated 1970s reforms
that the government tried, which were seen as mere attempts at
prolonging apartheid. Second, all localised struggles against this or
that instance of injustice were seen as code for resisting apartheid. So local struggles fed into the national movement. All reforms were
rejected and institutions boycotted. This was not because this or that
organisation issued such an instruction, but because the movement had
established this as its prerogative. This sometimes meant that even a
small organisation could call for a march or a boycott way beyond its
actual organisational capacity because such a call corresponded with the
mood of the movement.
The ANC had sunk deep roots in the 1950s movement and its status was
cemented after going into exile. But the ANC did not “organise” the
movement, let alone prescribe what people should do. When the ANC
contemplated some tactical turn, which went against the tenets of the
movement, it had to tread warily and try very hard to persuade the
movement, and the outcome wasn’t guaranteed.
By definition a movement is heterogeneous, comprising such a range of
experiences and organisational forms that no party or single
organisation can encompass that range. The mass movement of the 1980s
recognised the ANC as having the leading role, but the ANC was by no
means the only political force, and when people joined the ANC they
brought all these different tendencies and experiences to the ANC and
made it what ANC-apologists love to call today, a “broad church”.
Which is why the Marikana massacre was such a historic moment. It signalled that the
ANC is no longer a “broad church” but a party of the very rich – those
whose interests must be defended, violently, if necessary. In so doing,
it freed activists from any further illusions of transforming the ANC
into the movement it was in the 1980s. It meant that all the local
struggles in communities of the past 15 years and all the workplace
struggles that broke out after Marikana no longer look to the ANC and
its allies for strength. They look to themselves.
It now means that any development in the political or labour sphere will
be measured against the rising tide of a movement, which no longer
looks to the ANC or any of the parties in parliament, or any labour desk
in the tripartite National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) for any hope of a better future.
Even Julius Malema has
recognised this - giving up his career as a chicken farmer to start a
new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which speaks,
opportunistically, the language of this new movement. This is what the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU)
is discovering now. Workers swamped its ranks because it wasn’t the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Now
workers want AMCU to be part of a new movement and to be a broad
church. And AMCU is simply not equipped to be so.
The aftermath of Marikana also revealed that the Congress of South
African Trade Unions (COSATU) stood outside and in opposition to this
new movement. Such a position for a federation that once had deep roots
in the working class was surely going to precipitate tensions within its
The anti-Mbeki forces unravel
So, to the NUMSA Special National Congress of December 2013 and its decisions.
Most comment has without fail reduced this to the decision not to back
the ANC in the 2014 elections and largely to ascribe this to the
suspension of Vavi. This makes for facile comment and for easy but false
resolution. All COSATU needs to do is reinstate Vavi and the war will
This may well be the position of those COSATU affiliates who have
championed a special congress to review Vavi’s suspension. But, like
Malema’s EFF, the background events to the NUMSA fight in COSATU can be
traced to the make-up of disgruntled forces that overthrew Thabo Mbeki as ANC president.
The South African Communist Party (SACP), COSATU and the ANC Youth
League (ANCYL) were a coterie of conspirators who made a pact with Jacob
Zuma that in return for seats at the table of the state, they would
champion a deeply flawed individual into the highest office.
Mbeki had had no truck with those for whom the state was merely a
vehicle for private wealth projects and lost little time dealing with
Zuma, his own deputy president, who was caught doing precisely this. But
this opened the door for a layer of disgruntled elements -- some with
their own agendas of seeking a state for rentier capitalism and others
with political axes to grind. These forces rallied together behind the
SACP, COSATU and the ANCYL to drive Mbeki out after making a Faustian
pact with Zuma.
And what did the Zuma project deliver? Cabinet positions for individual
COSATU, SACP and ANCYL leaders and a veritable culture of cronyism and
looting of the state. Then the ladder of advancement was whisked away
and when Malema over-reached himself, he was expelled … and so the
erstwhile-unified forces of disgruntlement unravelled.
Meanwhile throughout the Mbeki years the victims of his neoliberalism --
the new working class of urban and rural poor, the youth and the
unemployed -- have been in increasing revolt, a revolt of
service delivery protests carried out beneath the radar of middle-class
public opinion. The system of labour relations and compliant trade
unions kept a lid on the rising dissatisfaction in the industrial sphere
until the revolts spilled over into the communities surrounding the
platinum mines in the North West and found a disgraced NUM incapable of
having any moral authority to police the dissent. And then came
Of all the conspirators, the SACP is most distant from struggles and
cannot fathom an independent existence outside the state. The SACP has
nowhere else to go except to act as the Rottweiler of the Zuma regime,
turning first on Malema and then on COSATU. Vavi’s sexual power games
may have provided the ammunition but it was the SACP that turned on its
ex-ally. But instead of kowtowing to the SACP line, Marikana has also
emboldened a NUMSA leadership to contemplate mutiny.
NUMSA has always been the left critic within COSATU. Its roots can be
found in the traditions of the independent socialism of the Federation of South African Trade unions (FOSATU) and the
Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), which precede the formation of
COSATU -- a tradition to the left of the SACP and long castigated as
“workerism” by the SACP and the ANC since the 1980s.
Not that NUMSA was ever politically monolithic. Its leadership cadre
make up was always an entente between a political group located within
the Eastern Cape SACP, an old independent socialist layer coming from
the Witwatersrand region and a layer of syndicalist policy technocrats. This
entente made NUMSA unique within COSATU and saw it campaign for a
Workers’ Charter in 1987 and for COSATU to break with the tripartite
alliance in 1993. Already in the run-up to the ANC’s 2009 Polokwane conference there were moves within COSATU to discipline NUMSA for not
being enthusiastic enough backers of the Zuma project.
And unlike the public sector unions that dominate COSATU (from whence
its Zuma-loyal president, Sdumo Dlamini, comes) and where the membership
is a new middle class of white-collar workers, NUMSA still has the
blue-collar workers of its militant days in the steel and engineering
companies of the Witwatersrand, KwaZulu-Natal and the Vaal.
With the break-up of the old Zuma alliance, it is therefore not
surprising that it is NUMSA that has responded in the way that it has.
It is also significant that NUMSA members took their decisions at a special
congress preceded by a process of political discussion and democratic
debate from their locals and regions.
Obsessed by the forthcoming 2014 general elections and with only a
short-term understanding of politics, the media have struggled to
understand the NUMSA developments. So it’s either about making up an
alliance with EFF (you see they’re all left wing, so they must be
together) or it’s all about personalities like Vavi (where NUMSA’s
initiative is viewed as little more than a ploy to save Vavi’s career).
If we’re only looking at the 2014 general elections or if we examine
this situation only through the lens of trade unionism, then we miss the
significance of the NUMSA split entirely.
All great parties in the world, conservative or progressive, came about
as outcomes of long-gestating social movements. The US Democrats can
trace their roots to small farmers of the South resisting the freeing of
slaves and the struggles of the Civil War, while the Republicans were
the party of the northern industrialists. The British Labour Party has a
social movement lineage going back to the Chartist movement of the 19th
century and emerged out of struggles by trade unions to find an
electoral voice. The ANC outgrew its elite roots amongst chiefs and
“educate natives” to head up a mass anti-apartheid movement since the
For years many have bemoaned the fact that the quality of South Africa’s democracy is hampered by the absence of a political alternative to the
left of the ANC. All the political parties in parliament support the
quest of South African corporations to be internationally competitive
while endorsing the neoliberal GEAR economic program and the privatisation of public services. All base
themselves on the flawed compromises that established the constitutional
order at Kempton Park.
For long now that absence has been seen as rectifiable simply by conjuring up a left party to fill the gap.
After the Marikana massacre and its subsequent strike wave, there was much talk about
the seeds of a new movement being sown. The significance of the NUMSA
initiative is precisely that it takes forward this narrative. Why?
Because it states unequivocally that the future of South Africa lies in a
movement to the left of the ANC and, by seeking to find common cause
with township activists and militant workers on the platinum belt who
have been struggling for the past decade, it is an implicit
acknowledgement that a new movement is already underway.
This does not mean that there will not be difficulties, as NUMSA seeks
to find space within this new movement. For one, NUMSA has not yet begun
to reflect politically on the sources of the ANC’s shift to becoming a
neoliberal party and even mistakenly takes the National Development Plan as that
Rubicon-crossing moment, rather than the compromises at Kempton Park or
GEAR. For another, it hasn’t yet done an assessment of the
appropriateness of the trade union form in the context of the changing
working class under neoliberalism. Rather, it seeks to keep the union
form, but merely organise workers within the “pipeline” of manufacture.
Nevertheless, NUMSA’s commitment to a movement for socialism is
appropriate as is the idea of a “united front” from below, understood as
a program of joint campaigns with other movements and community
groups rather than a political party. It seeks to start the process by
convening a political school, which creates spaces for social movements
to participate. This may overcome a long-standing weakness whereby
working-class communities have been struggling, while unionised workers
have been dormant. In doing so, it offers the possibility that the
nearly 10-year revolt of the poor may be complemented by an industrial
partner and so help to forge such a national movement worthy of that
[Leonard Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research
and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational
materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.]