About 30 international guests and 120 shop stewards from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) met over August 7 to 10 in Johannesburg to discuss building a new, left alternative to the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
This challenge to the ANC by the country’s largest trade union, with more than 440,000 members, has caused shockwaves throughout the country. An August 6 Times Live article said the process was “likely to lead to the birth of a workers' party that will eventually challenge [the ANC] for power”.
The many dangers and challenges NUMSA faces was graphically illustrated by the murder of three of its shop stewards on the eve of the symposium.
That NUMSA’s call has received so much attention can be explained by the reality of South African society 20 years after the fall of apartheid.
When the ANC swept into power in 1994, it did so as the party that had successfully led the anti-apartheid struggle.
Many believed an ANC government would implement the goals set out in the Freedom Charter, which calls for radical economic and political measures.
Drafted in 1955 by the Congress of the Peoples, the charter’s mission was summed up in its opening demand: “The People Shall Govern!”
Since then, the charter has served to bind together the Tripartite Alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
However, after 20 years of ANC rule, South Africa remains a long way from the vision set out in the Freedom Charter.
The ANC has presided over dual transition processes, neither of which has been successfully completed.
One is the transition towards a post-apartheid political democracy. Important strides have been taken in dismantling segregation, but NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim listed many ways in which South Africa has actually moved further away from the original vision of the Freedom Charter since 1994.
For example, he said that far from sharing the country’s wealth, the ANC-led South Africa is more unequal today than in 1994.
Life expectancy dropped from 62 years of age in 1992 to 52 in 2004, only climbing back to 58 by 2012. The gap between Blacks and whites still an astonishing difference of 23 years — 48 for Blacks compared to 71 for whites.
In terms of workers' rights, Jim noted that while apartheid laws have been abolished, studies showed that “being African reduces the odds of being employed by 90%, in comparison to being white”.
Jim also pointed to figures that show white employees earn four times more than African employees on average.
The ANC came to power at the peak of neoliberalism’s global supremacy. Rather than challenge neoliberalism, South Africa’s new rulers agreed to terms imposed by big business and the International Monetary Fund.
“The negotiated settlement,” said Jim, “was one of a neoliberal capitalist transition, carried out largely behind closed doors.”
The Freedom Charter proposed nationalising the mines and banks, but the ANC further entrenched the economy’s dependency on mineral exports, while facilitating the rise of a powerful finance sector.
At the same time, the manufacturing sector suffered de-industrialisation. The result was the loss of more than 620,000 manufacturing jobs between 1995-2008. In 2009 alone, 1 million jobs were lost across the economy.
Yet the working class never suffered the type of defeat that accompanied the implementation of neoliberalism globally.
Strike levels remained relatively constant throughout the '90s. Strikes rose dramatically from 2005 onwards, reaching levels greater than any other country.
In parallel, there has been a surge in community protests, mainly over access to basic services and jobs. As a result, South Africa has the highest rate of protests per capita of any country, being dubbed “protest capital of the world”.
Tensions between a growing nexus of mining and financial economic elites and the new ANC state managers, on the one hand, and rising discontent from below on the other, exploded into tragedy at Marikana in 2012.
State security forces gunned down 34 workers from a local platinum mine run by Lonmin, in a bid to end the month-long strike. For many, Marikana brought everything wrong with post-apartheid South Africa into sharp relief.
Despite the huge wealth generated by the country’s platinum belt, responsible for 80% of the world’s supply of the precious metal, workers still laboured in deadly conditions for low wages.
When workers fought back, they not only had to confront the company, but also the ANC government.
However, workers maintained their strike and ultimately won a substantial pay rise.
These events triggered a new wave of strikes across various sectors.
The next year, South Africa registered its highest level of strike incidents yet.
All this has contributed to a rising sentiment among activists that conditions exist for building a left-wing, working-class alternative to the ANC.
In response, delegates to NUMSA's 2013 congress decided it should establish a “united front” to coordinate struggles in the workplace and communities. The aim was to revive the fight to implement the Freedom Charter.
Delegates also called on COSATU to break the Tripartite Alliance.
NUMSA also decided to explore creating a political group “committed in its policies and actions to the establishment of a Socialist South Africa”.
This included a proposal to study different types of left-wing parties ― “from mass workers parties to vanguard parties” ― with particular attention being paid to those new experiences in countries such as “Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, [and] Greece.”
The international symposium brought together 28 party activists, trade unionists and social movement activists from 17 countries.
Those present included representatives from the Movement Towards Socialism (Bolivia), Country Alliance (Ecuador), Movement of Landless Rural Workers (Brazil), Syriza (Greece), The Left (Germany) and the Korean Metal Workers Union.
Discussion included what attitude a new party should take towards elections and government, how it should go about “raising consciousness”, and which classes and social forces the party should include in its ranks.
Another issue had to do with the role of trade unions in politics. The general consensus, certainly among NUMSA leaders, was that NUMSA would always be a trade union, acting as a “shield and spear” in the hands of workers.
Nevertheless, this was not counterposed to it playing the role of “catalyst” for a new party.
However, the challenges and obstacles it faces were also apparent.
The details of the murders of the three NUMSA shop stewards have not been fully clarified, but NUMSA activists were in no doubt it was part of a concerted campaign against the dissident union.
They also believe this is connected to a bid by forces, notably the pro-government SACP, to form a new, ANC-aligned metalworkers' union to undermine NUMSA.
Another challenge will be dealing with disputes within COSATU, particularly over NUMSA’s push for a special congress to discuss its alliance with the ANC. This has led to talk of expelling NUMSA, COSATU’s largest affiliate.
NUMSA also faces the challenge of how to relate to potential allies.
One question is NUMSA’s relationship with COSATU’s rival, the National Council of Trade Unions. Its largest affiliate, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), played a key role in the Marikana dispute.
AMCU has become the biggest union in the platinum mining sector, and is seen by many as a powerful symbol of resistance to the ANC government. Any attempts at NUMSA-AMCU unity are sure to stoke tensions with COSATU.
Then there is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new political force established by former ANC youth leaders expelled from the party. The EFF declined an invitation to take part in the symposium.
Set up one year before the May elections, the EFF became the third-largest political force in the country. It won 6.4% of the vote on a platform of nationalising the mines and banks, and opposing ANC corruption.
Most of the EFF’s support came from disenchanted youth and workers, particular in the platinum belt.
Perhaps the biggest challenge however, will be how any new party involves the ever-growing numbers of grassroots workplace and community activists, who, while fed up with the ANC, are yet to find a political home.
The ANC continues to loom large in South African politics, in no small part because of its historic legacy as the party that defeated apartheid. Yet, growing numbers are questioning whether the party remains a useful vehicle for advancing change.
Despite winning the May elections with 62% of the vote, its share of support in terms of the overall voting population (including those who abstain or do not register) has fallen from 54% in 1994 to 35% in May.
NUMSA faces the challenge of uniting with grassroots worker and community leaders as a stepping-stone to tap into broader social discontent. This is in the context of an unequal relationship between a large trade union and small, disparate local community groups.
Any new party will have to deal with the existence of different left tendencies, each with their own particular ideology and discourse that, in many cases, reflect different experiences and practice.
NUMSA is at the heart of a new process of left re-composition. Its ability to navigate this difficult terrain will play an important role in determining whether the new liberation forces that have emerged are capable of transforming discontent into social change.
[A version of this article appeared at teleSUR English.]