It has taken more than 20 years for the dominant current of South Africa’s labour movement to begin to emerge from stasis resulting from its embeddedness within the ruling political block led by the African National Congress. The massacre of mineworkers at Marikana and the subsequent organisational implosion of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are emblematic of the desire by COSATU workers to find an alternative voice, on the one hand, and of the determination of tripartite leaders to maintain their hegemonic position in the labour movement, on the other. It therefore natural that many left-leaning activists will find the NUMSA’s rebellion against the ANC, the SACP and the conservative block within COSATU a welcome development to be applauded and celebrated. After all, many of them have long argued that the “swelling the ranks of the ANC” approach does not, and will not work. Like them, I find it so refreshing to see NUMSA activists and their allies show up ANC, SACP and some COSATU leaders for being shallow, dishonest and, in some cases, irredeemably corrupt.
Having said that, I find some of the celebratory support for the wave of militant mobilisation, whether in the form of AMCU or NUMSA, unhelpful and myopic. It is not good enough to stand on the sidelines and cheer the new wave of activist unionism. We should also help them think through the pitfalls they will face along the way and some of the implications of the decisions they take. I think it is extremely shortsighted any union, NUMSA included, to make an individual (Vavi) the focus of their campaign just as it was for Cosatu to give unconditional support for Zuma in 2005. After all, Vavi is not an angel in the current contestation. There are many who will say that he is getting a dose of the medicine that he administered on many of his opponents in the past.
The general thrust of the campaign for socialism is attractive. But all we have at present at present are slogans and dogma. In the absence of detail and political clarity it is very easy for a well-meaning campaign to be hijacked by demagogues and charlatans who thrive in conditions of political and confusion and absence of clarity.
The reality of the current situation is that COSATU has collapsed. Whatever remains of it will be a shadow of the former ‘giant’ whose birth Cyril Ramaphosa so eloquently proclaimed in December 1985. Anything that is to take its place will have to break the mould and adopt a new paradigm. In some respects NUMSA is doing this, for example by moving organizing towards value chains. But even here, it is not clear if the goal is to have one super general union. I also find their brand of Marxism archaic and often crude. A basic reading of Marx’s biographies will show any reader that he would have opposed many of the strategic choices being made by invoking his name. After all, it was Marx himself who once chastised his son-in-law, Paul Larfargue, for being too Marxist than Marx himself.
I fully agree that the decision by NUMSA to break from the ANC and also its call for COSATU to break from the Alliance will go down as a turning point in the history of the South African working class. I would have included the ‘Polokwane moment’ as important point on the timeline that has been unfolding since 1999. I have long argued that many on the Left outside of the Alliance underplayed the importance of the Left inside the Alliance replacing Mbeki with Zuma. What I am more circumspect about is Benjamin’s implicit assertion that the NUMSA moment represents a more generalised change in political consciousness. We don’t yet fully know how this move has gone down at the rank and file level who make up the bulk of NUMSA’s 340,000 members. Call me an old fashioned empiricist but we need to hear more of their voice and those in and around the Alliance, in COSATU and the SACP. Whilst Jim and others are no longer welcome in the SACP, we should not underestimate the continuing importance of the SACP leadership acting as a political glue to hold the Alliance together, particularly the trade unions through the structures of COSATU. The failure of FOSATU during apartheid was to build an independent working class party. The NUMSA leadership have prioritised this as an urgent ask. It will nonetheless still prove a formidable one.
To a long-time labour watcher, likening Numsa’s resolutions to the 1973 ‘Durban moment’ is jarring. On reflection, Fogel may have a point–but it is hardly sure that these decisions will do for workers what the 1973 strikes did.
For the first time, a major Cosatu union–the country’s biggest–has broken with the ANC alliance and is talking openly about an alternative. This could reshape electoral politics–if Numsa does form a party and it wins 10 percent or more, the ANC could lose its majority. And so there is a chance that Numsa will be the catalyst for ending the ANC’s electoral dominance by 2019–obviously a watershed event.
But there are many ‘ifs’ attached. Numsa may not opt for a party, preferring a civil society alliance: its post-conference declaration was not overly enthusiastic about entering party politics. And if it does choose a party, winning 10% may be difficult: Numsa clearly suspects that many of its members still favor the ANC – why else say that they are free to campaign for it as long as they do this in their own time? – and it could be right. We are in uncharted territory and so we don’t know whether most union members are ready to ditch the governing party.
Numsa’s move may also do much more to change national politics than to improve worker leverage. Even if it does end the ANC’s majority, will that mean more influence for working people? Might it not simply trigger a new alliance across current party lines of interests unsympathetic to worker needs?
This is not an argument against Numsa’s position. Workers cannot remain within a nationalist alliance forever if they want their interests taken seriously. But organised workers are nowhere near a majority in this society and building a winning coalition of workers and the poor will be a long task with uncertain prospects.
Numsa’s decision may, therefore, yet enter history as a trigger to later possibilities rather than an immediate advance for worker interests.
In an address given to COSATU in September 2006, then Deputy-President Jacob Zuma said:
We can also never forget the role of trade unions in reviving our struggle during the 1972-73 Durban strikes. The strikes had a major impact in the revival of internal mass resistance to apartheid in the 1970′s. These strikes were led by amongst others, cadres who carried the political influence, of the revolutionary trade union federation, SACTU. This indicates the correctness of the approach of political revolutionary trade union movements, as distinguished from those union movements that concern themselves only with factory floor issues.
Like Benjamin Fogel, Zuma regarded the “Durban Moment” as the touchstone for the contribution of the workers’ movement to the liberation of South Africa. Unlike Fogel, however, in the interest of consolidating a nationalist interpretation of the history of the ANC-labor alliance, Zuma effectively wrote out of history the “workerist” perspective that did so much to shape South African trade unionism between 1973 and 1985.
Over the fifteen years I have been travelling to South Africa, on every visit I seem to encounter friends on the left who are sure that this is the moment that sections of COSATU will decide they have had their fill of a neo-liberal program dressed up in radical rhetoric, and will break with the ANC and the Alliance to form the nucleus of a workers’ party. While I have always shared their hopes, I have usually greeted these claims with skepticism. But I think this time might be different, in part because of my own reading of the history of the South African labour movement.
To put it concisely, NUMSA’s search for an alternative labour politics builds on a long tradition of workers’ control, shopfloor democracy, and struggle unionism that independent unions like its predecessor—MAWU—built during the 1970s. Denigrated then by the SACP and its allies in the ANC as “workerism” (meaning economism), this tradition never really went away, even while its most powerful vehicle, FOSATU, was absorbed into COSATU in the 1980s and then the Alliance after liberation.
Then, as now, the ANC and the SACP demanded that the labour movement subordinate what were regarded as its sectoral interests to the larger needs of the Struggle, the Transition, or the National Democratic Revolution. Then, as now, workers were expected to modify shopfloor militancy in the interest of larger strategic political goals. Then, as now, shopfloor democracy, the power of shopstewards who remained closely knit with comrades in the workplace, and the tradition of report-back and workers’ control, were expected to take a back seat to national-level collective bargaining, a growing class of union office-holders, and a labour federation that grew closer to management than to workers, replacing democracy with labour bureaucracy.
I do not want to exaggerate the degree to which this was the case immediately in 1985, with the formation of COSATU, a federation in which the power of shopfloor democracy remained, at least at first, quite strong. Because it was so central to the birth of the new unions in the 1970s, “Workerism” has remained a powerful, if buried, tendency within the South African labour movement to this day; the conflict on the Platinum Belt represents its rushing to the surface, like a dormant volcano coming to life. The effort on the part of the ANC and the SACP to suppress and overcome this tendency has been a long, drawn out struggle, and one hardly to unique to South Africa. Wherever working-class movements have joined with a national bourgeoisie in a revolutionary process, they have found that for them the struggle continues after liberation, and their former allies become their antagonists, if not their masters. The question is usually this: how long it will take the working class to see the writing on the wall? Marikana, it seems, was the revelation.