The decision of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) to cut ties with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been badly analysed.
Comment has tended to focus on the possibility of a new political party in 2019, or whether suspended general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) Zwelinzima Vavi will get his job back.
But 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, is being missed.
For the past 20 years since the formal end of apartheid, we have lived 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 around the quality of their lives. They gave the ANC (the party that had stood at the head of the liberation movement) a chance to express in law and in practice what people had wanted from the end of apartheid.
In practice, the anti-apartheid movement was laid to rest. Politics became the exclusive terrain of political parties, particularly those represented in parliament. Parliament replaced the streets, factories and communities as the place political parties were expected to earn their credibility.
The people, as political agents in a broad mass movement, were replaced by the individual voter taking part 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.
Neoliberalism relies on the passivity of ordinary people and the complicity of major political parties. But South Africa had an active mass movement, so neoliberalism had to wait for the ANC to be de-linked from the mass movement ― transformed, as it described it, from a “liberation movement to a political party”.
Trade unions also evolved from seeking broader social transformation to being restricted to collective bargaining in a framework prescribed by labour relations law.
The movement was replaced by a party and the party by a few leaders. Political comment has become obsessed with the cult of individuals.
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 parties and press conferences, they did not make the media.
And where commentators reflected on these, it was only, until recently, as cases of “unrest” and criminality.
A movement is not the same as a party or a group, although many groups, large and small, may make up a movement. Sometimes commentators fail to understand this, where they cannot identify well-known leaders. Thereby, they deny the agency of ordinary people and their capacity for tactical and strategic acumen.
The movement that grew to a peak in the 1980s had many features. First, there was a common enemy that unified the movement. That enemy was 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.
The ANC had sunk deep roots in the movement. But the ANC did not “organise” the movement, let alone prescribe what people should do.
When the ANC contemplated some tactical turn, it had to try very hard to persuade the movement and the outcome wasn’t guaranteed.
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. When people joined the ANC, they brought many different tendencies and experiences to the ANC. This is what made the ANC, as ANC-apologists love to call it today, a “broad church”.
This is why the 2012 Marikana massacre, in which more than 30 striking miners were shot dead by police, 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 needed. In so doing, it freed activists from any further illusions of transforming the ANC into the movement it was in the '80s.
It meant that all struggles that break out after Marikana no longer look to the ANC and its allies for strength. They look to themselves.
It means that any development in the political or labour sphere will be measured against the rising tide of a movement that no longer looks to the ANC, or any of the parties in parliament.
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 always going to cause tensions in its ranks.
So, the NUMSA Special National Congress in December voted not to back the ANC in elections this year. This has largely been put down to the suspension of Vavi as COSATU general secretary.
By this view, all COSATU needs to do is reinstate Vavi and the war will be over.
This may well be the position of those COSATU affiliates who have championed a special congress to review Vavi’s suspension. But 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 Mbeki's successor, the deeply flawed Jacob Zuma, in return for seats at the table of the state.
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.
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 growing revolt.
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. And then came Marikana.
NUMSA has always been the left critic within COSATU. Its roots can be found in the traditions of independent socialism in the Federation of South African Trade unions (FOSATU) and the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), which precede the formation of COSATU.
With the break-up of the old Zuma alliance, it is not surprising that it is NUMSA that has responded the way 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.
Obsessed by this year's general elections and with only a short-term understanding of politics, the media have struggled to understand the NUMSA developments. So it is either viewed as being about making up an alliance with other opposition groups, or about personalities such as Vavi, where NUMSA’s initiative is viewed as little more than a ploy to save his career.
But this misses the significance of the NUMSA split entirely.
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 parties in parliament support the quest of South African corporations to be internationally competitive while endorsing the neoliberal economic policies and the privatisation of public services.
But after the Marikana massacre and the 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.
This is because it states unequivocally that the future of South Africa lies in a movement to the left of the ANC. 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 there won't be difficulties. For one thing, NUMSA has not yet begun to reflect politically on the sources of the ANC’s shift to becoming a neoliberal party.
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 take part.
This may overcome a long-standing weakness whereby working-class communities have been struggling while unionised workers have not.
In doing so, it offers the possibility that the nearly 10-year revolt of the poor may be complemented by an industrial partner ― and help forge a national movement worthy of that cause.
[Leonard Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group, an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions. Read more about debates around NUMSA and South Africa's left at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]