New federation put on hold
Cosatu rival is yet to get off the ground, reports Peter Manson
South Africa’s trade union movement - already divided into several federations - has recently been further weakened, thanks to the actions of the South African Communist Party.
In 2014 the SACP - for so long the prime organising force within the Congress of South African Trade Unions and its affiliates - ensured that the 350,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the country’s largest union, was expelled for daring to renounce its previous support for the African National Congress. Numsa’s response was to call for the founding of a yet another federation, and initially this was supposed to happen on May 1.
However, it soon became clear that all that would take place would be a “Workers’ Summit” of all unions interested in (eventually) forging an organisation that would be “independent” of the ANC-SACP alliance, and this was actually convened on April 30. The Workers’ Summit would “consider the possibility of forming a new trade union federation, based on an agreement on fundamental principles and a shared orientation”.1
According to Zwelinzima Vavi - the former Cosatu general secretary, who, like Numsa, was also given the boot by the SACP-led Cosatu leadership - “we now have the possibility of having unions representing over one million workers at the Workers’ Summit next weekend”.2 That prediction, made on April 23, was backed up by Numsa, which was expecting “50 unions representing well over a million workers”, according to its April 28 statement. It stated that “up to 3,000 delegates will attend”.3
However, Numsa’s subsequent report, issued on May Day, announced that a rather more modest “1,406 representatives of 29 separate trade unions and one existing federation” were present.4 The “existing federation” is the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), which has 22 affiliates. While Nactu is inspired by the politics of black nationalism, another participant was the mainly white Solidarity - “the only Christian trade union in South Africa”.5
After Numsa itself, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which claims 180,000 members, was the largest individual union present. Amcu split from the SACP-loyal National Union of Mineworkers in protest at its constant accommodation with the mineowners in the run-up to the 2012 Marikana massacre.
But information is scarce about the representatives of any Cosatu affiliates who might have been present. Beforehand a “group of nine” Cosatu unions had declared their solidarity with Numsa, but it seems that none of them were officially represented on April 30.
Numsa’s report stated that items not discussed at the summit will be “placed on the agenda of the founding congress of the new federation”, which will be “up and running before the end of the year”. However, Cosatu itself was obviously delighted - and somewhat relieved - by the fact that things had not quite lived up to Numsa’s predictions - “the reality is that there is no federation that was formed over the weekend, and there is no federation that will be formed any time soon,” it crowed.6
However, Charlie Kimber, the Socialist Workers Party national secretary here in Britain, was greatly enthused by the Workers’ Summit. His Socialist Worker article was headlined: “Is this the birth of new power for workers in South Africa?” (May 3). The article talked about the “new and exciting possibilities for the South African left” which “emerged last weekend.”
Nor was he disturbed, it seems, by reports that Vavi - one of the two main leaders of the Workers’ Summit - had earlier this year held a meeting with Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the official opposition Democratic Alliance, which is to the right of the ANC - its origins are as a (whites-only) liberal grouping that supposedly opposed apartheid. The South African Sunday Times claimed that Maimane and Vavi met on February 1 “to discuss forming a coalition government” in an Eastern Cape municipality, “should the ANC fail to win an outright majority there” in August’s municipal elections.7 There has been talk for some time of the Numsa-sponsored United Front starting to contest elections as part of the process of creating a genuinely “independent” workers’ party, but it is disturbing, to say the least, that Vavi both confirmed he had met Maimane and did not deny the speculation about a local coalition.
Mind you, comrade Kimber’s judgement on matters of South African politics can be considered questionable - especially when you take into account his assessment of another opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. The EEF is a black nationalist formation set up by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema shortly after his expulsion from the ANC in 2012. Although Malema is a small-time capitalist who undoubtedly personally benefited from the contacts he gained under the ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ tendering process, the EFF has adopted a left populist programme, while its leaders - in their red berets - point to the evils of “white monopoly capitalism”.
But comrade Kimber states: “Meanwhile, in another sign of the growth of a left outside the ANC, nearly 40,000 people came to a mass meeting last weekend for the Economic Freedom Fighters’ local government manifesto launch.”
It is evident, however, that the EFF is not a genuine part of the left. In fact socialist journalist Terry Bell has been among those referring to it as “proto-fascist” - a description eagerly taken up by the opportunists of the SACP. And now the ANC, fully supported by the ‘official communists’, has opened a case of “high treason” against Malema following comments he made in an interview with Al Jazeera on April 25.
Even though the EFF, whose 6.35% of the vote gave it 25 MPs in the 2014 general election, is still languishing at well under 10% in various polls, Malema threatened to “remove the government through the barrel of a gun” if it does not “respond constitutionally to our demands” rather than send in the army, as was recently the case in the township of Alexandra outside Johannesburg.8
Later EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi claimed in a radio interview: “We prefer democratic and peaceful demonstrations and elections, but the ANC must not think that it’s going to rig elections, then send the army to silence us, and we’ll just go home. We will be forced to take up arms.” However, he admitted that “the EFF doesn’t have an army, the EFF doesn’t have an underground unit, doesn’t have a self-defence unit, we don’t have guns.” In other words, just another example of the EFF’s leftist rhetoric, aimed at winning over more of the ANC’s disillusioned supporters.
However, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini was pleased to lump Numsa in with the EFF - and just about everyone else who opposes the ANC: “They meet in dark corners with racist unions such as Solidarity, DA and EFF to plot against Cosatu,” he said.
Unlike Dlamini, we on the left must carefully distinguish between the various strands of the opposition. We must not fall for the EFF rhetoric, but insist that a genuine left opposition must be based on the independence of the working class, organised around its own programme.
1. My emphasis: www.numsa.org.za/article/workers-summit-may-day-2016.
2. Numsa is currently providing Vavi with office space at its Johannesburg headquarters and is also paying him a salary.
6. Cosatu statement, May 3.