South Africa: COSATU expels metal workers over independent stance

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa members support the union's leaders.

It is arguably the most important political development of South Africa’s post-1994 era. In the early hours of November 8, South Africa’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), was expelled from South Africa’s largest union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

The political significance of NUMSA’s expulsion derives from three key, interrelated areas of impact.

ANC-led alliance

Since the formal end of apartheid in 1994, the alliance between the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU has relied heavily on maintaining a politically accomodative union leadership.

Despite many politically charged policy disagreements, wars of words over the functioning of the alliance and leadership power plays, the respective leaderships have always held the alliance to be politically sacrosanct.

Even if NUMSA’s earlier announcement that it was withdrawing electoral and political support for the ANC signalled serious trouble on this front, its expulsion confirms a definitive political rupture within the leading ranks of COSATU.

In other words, papering over the regular cracks with another “alliance summit”, trying to isolate individual union leaders via personalised innuendo and public attack, and “disciplining” troublesome unionists through suspensions and dismissals is no longer going to cut it.

At the November 9 post-expulsion press conference, NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim put it bluntly: “COSATU has become consumed by internal battles between two forces; those who continue to support the ANC and SACP with their neoliberal agenda and those who despite their understanding of the ANC as a multiclass organisation, consciously and consistently fight for an independent, militant federation.”

Already riven by their own factional battles, ANC and SACP leaders now have even more reason to fear for the future ― not only of the alliance but of the longer-term political positioning of their own parties.

When the ANC describes NUMSA’s expulsion as “tragic” and a “huge setback”, what it is really conveying is its own political insecurities and shock at the failure of its “unity building” charades.

Meanwhile, the SACP is so blinded by its own political arrogance and embeddedness within the factional bowels of the ANC and state power that all it can muster is to express its “full confidence in COSATU’s capacity to resolve whatever internal challenges it may face from time to time”.

The constructed political consensus that has, until now, succeeded in keeping the alliance limping along has been shattered. As a result, in the coming months and years, we are likely to witness the further fracturing of what is left of the alliance.

The COSATU rump will increasingly play the role of labour leaders for the intensification of ANC/SACP-driven policies designed to intensify the commodification and general privatisation of state and society.

Labour movement

The COSATU “giant” that has played such a pivotal role on South Africa’s political landscape over the past three decades has been mortally wounded by NUMSA’s expulsion.

Regardless of the bravado displayed by the “victorious” COSATU faction, the expulsion will only serve to widen the existing political, ideological and organisational divisions between themselves and rank-and-file union members.

NUMSA has stated that it intends to hold nationwide meetings to “lobby” both its and COSATU’s members to reject its expulsion while those unions who have generally supported NUMSA and opposed its expulsion have indicated that they will continue with their legal battle to force the COSATU leadership to hold a Special National Congress.

However, it is extremely improbable that these actions will, even if successful, be able to bridge the deepening chasms that now engulf COSATU.

Whatever the longer-term organisational outcomes within COSATU from the ongoing fallout of NUMSA’s expulsion, the political realities of what has happened cannot be reversed.

Just as it is impossible to turn the clock back to a time before neoliberal capitalism radically restructured the working class to meet its own needs, attempts (however well intentioned) to “return COSATU and its affiliates to … a united, militant, revolutionary, socialist, independent, worker controlled, democratic movement” are illusory.

Some of the horses have bolted from the stable. The key challenge for the labour movement is not try to return them, but to run with them onto a new terrain of political independence and relevance.

Other left forces

Almost a year ago, NUMSA decided to “lead in the establishment of a new united front that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities”. The stated task was “to fight for the implementation of the Freedom Charter and be an organisational weapon against neoliberal policies such as the National Development Plan”.

Since then, several political discussion forums, meetings and educational and practical activities focused on building this front have taken place. NUMSA recently announced the front will be formally launched next month.

Despite lingering questions about the front’s ideological orientation and organisational character, as well as the extent of political buy-in from NUMSA’s own rank-and-file members, its expulsion from COSATU now provides NUMSA the chance to more fully de-link the front from its Alliance framings.

Not only will this allow maximum political space to harmonise the widely divergent political and organisational cultures and practices of South Africa’s progressive and left forces, it can go a long way to bring together largely disconnected labour and community struggles.

It would be a politically strategic mistake for NUMSA and its existing front allies to interpret the union’s expulsion as a green light to move rapidly towards establishing a socialist political party to contest elections. Doing so would undermine the basis for unity among still ideologically and tactically disparate forces.

What NUMSA’s expulsion does give a green light to, however, is fully embracing the patient, but systematic, building of a new political movement through unity in active struggle.

It is this kind of movement that can stand as a solid foundation upon which a sustained political alternative to the ANC/SACP party machine can potentially flourish.

Just last month, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told a gathering of COSATU shop stewards that NUMSA’s expulsion would lead to a “nightmare” scenario. Elements of Vavi’s scenario might well turn out to be a “nightmare” for some, but there is a decidedly different kind of interpretation possible for others when it comes to NUMSA’s expulsion. As the union’s Irvin Jim put it, it can mark “the start of a new revolution”.

Now that’s politically significant.

[Repritned from South African Civil Society Information Service. Dale McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.]

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