The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) announced on Monday that it is severing ties with the tripartite alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU, the trade union federation. It also announced that it is setting up its socialist "United Front" on 13-16 December this year.
"We decided to break with the alliance and we resolved to form a United Front and explore the possibility for socialism in South Africa," Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said in a statement on Monday. This decision is in line with the union's 2013 special congress resolutions in which it resolved not to support the ANC in the May elections.
In its statement on Monday NUMSA also gave the reasons for the crisis in COSATU:
‘’It is important to understand the significance of the socialist orientation, traditions and socialist orientated revolutionary culture of Cosatu because the crisis in Cosatu today is in fact about whether or not Cosatu should continue to be a socialist trade union federation or it should simply become a yellow capitalist federation of the workers or a labour desk of the bourgeoisie.
‘’It is evidently clear that those within Cosatu that have been advocating the idea of a rupture in Cosatu are correct. There is an irreconcilable rupture among the leaders of Cosatu! In our view, this rupture in Cosatu is between forces of capitalism and forces of socialism, among the leaders of Cosatu. We make this correct statement confidently because we have seen how in the CEC some now argue why we should not be campaigning against e-tolling, why we must not honour and execute the Cosatu resolution and policy of nationalisation of the commanding heights of the South African economy, why we must support the ANC even as we all can see that neoliberalism is alive and well during the Zuma leadership, and ultimately today, some leaders are quite comfortable with GEAR which is now called the NDP.
‘’The rupture in Cosatu is between those who want to give capitalism a human face through some slow gradualist capitalist reforms and those who believe that we must, in a radical fashion, undo the continuation of capitalism and colonialism of a special type in South Africa and their evil effects which have placed more than half of the population in extreme poverty by demanding the radical and immediate implementation of the Freedom Charter.
“Inevitably, the rupture in Cosatu is between those who want to see a radical and thoroughgoing implementation of the Freedom Charter, thus a rejection of the GEAR that the NDP is, and those who are consciously or unconsciously defending South African capitalism and imperialism by defending the NDP and not openly supporting the implementation of the Freedom Charter, especially its nationalisation demands.’’
NUMSA is now on the verge of expulsion from COSATU. However, NUMSA remains defiant, and Jim explained: ‘’ We are adamant that our expulsion from Cosatu has been a well-coordinated and political attempt by the ANC/SACP faction, to weaken, isolate and destroy NUMSA and its leadership because of our socialist revolutionary character. This faction seeks to undermine our Special National Congress (SNC) resolutions, which resolutions are firmly enshrined in COSATU resolutions and policies(…)They hate Numsa because we take a clear, unequivocal position against their class interests. This is not just a question of ideology. It is a question of clear material interests.’’
NUMSA’s general secretary also said on Monday that they will institute legal actions against COSATU to force it to hold a special congress before the end of 2014 ‘’in order to resolve all the matters that are now killing COSATU.’’ The COSATU president, S’dumo Dlamini is in open breach of the federation’s constitution for not holding the congress.
The reason for not having a congress is clear. At the moment the leadership of COSATU is dominated by the right wing of the movement. However a congress where the membership would have a voice would swing the pendulum to the left. Dlamini has been doing his best to keep the battle inside the CEC, a structure that reflects the past balance of forces, not the real situation on the ground. The reason is obvious enough - that the right wing is most likely to lose at any elective delegated congress.
The mood on the shop floors is very radical. In the eyes of the ranks of COSATU, Dlamini and his clique is part of the same rotten and corrupt group which is at the helm of the ANC and the SACP. They have nothing to offer the workers who are looking for a complete break with the status quo.
The announcement on Monday was a result of the drama that unfolded at COSATU's central executive committee last week (21-23 October) where the threat of NUMSA'S expulsion hovered over the proceedings. In the days leading up to the CEC meeting, leaks in the media by right wing elements of the federation revealed that NUMSA's expulsion was "inevitable" at the meeting. Many, including COSATU general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, called it the most important meeting of the federation's 30 year history. There was also talk of suspending Vavi again.
At the top of the agenda was the ANC task team’s report on the mediation process that has been ongoing since April to try to ‘’heal the rift’’ in the federation. The task team met with the national leaders of COSATU and individual unions over the last four months. But the expectation that the ANC could play a ‘’mediating’’ role in the crisis in COSATU is a farce. The reformist ANC leaders are not independent of this process, but active members of the COSATU right-wing. In fact, the crisis has its origins in the ANC itself and has been reflected in one way or the other throughout the tri-partite alliance.
What was even more farcical was that the task team was led by Cyril Ramaphosa, a bourgeois politician who has been at the helm of the capitalist offensive against the working class over the last period, raking in billions of Rands in the process. In fact he sat on the board of Lonmin as a director and actively participated in the Marikana massacre of 16 August 2012 where dozens of workers were brutally killed by the police who acted on behalf of the mine owners. The idea that this man can be impartial of the class struggle and the battles inside COSATU is the height of naivety.
The ANC intervened in the battles inside COSATU just before the May general elections and offered to ‘’mediate’’ in the crisis for fear that a split would be detrimental to the elections. A high-level task team was set up and managed to get the CEC to agree to a “cessation of hostilities’’ pending the outcome of the “mediation’’ process.
The three day meeting revealed a federation at war with itself. The report of the ANC did not say anything new, nor did it reveal the root causes behind the crisis. It stated that there are two factions in COSATU around the general secretary Zwelizima Vavi and the president of COSATU, S’dumo Dlamini. But then it went on to blame NUMSA for being unresponsive while ignoring the role of the right wing. Not surprisingly, the report could not find any solutions to the problems other than calling for “fair processes’’. The main aim of the report was thus all too obvious; to clear the Dlamini clique who has been maneuvering and sabotaging COSATU and to put the blame “fairly” on both sides.
At the same time the right wing launched an attack against NUMSA which they are attempting to expel from COSATU. Whatever happens from now on, one thing is clear: events have gone beyond the point of no return. The tripartite alliance remains in name only and has now lost its biggest union.
The type of manoeuvring that they right wing has resorted to has nothing in common traditions of the working class which has always been characterised by the broadest democratic discussions followed by unity in action. It is clear that the right wing would rather push out the biggest union of COSATU, thus dividing the working class, than to risk losing power within the federation.
Besides a struggle in the courts, NUMSA must prepare a political struggle within the ranks of COSATU to defend itself and change the right-wing leadership. A campaign within all the unions of COSATU based on a revolutionary Socialist programme would receive a huge echo. Faced with the mobilisation of the ranks, the right wing would not stand a chance. The right wing wants to push NUMSA to leave COSATU leaving many of the unions within the hands of the right wing so as to divide the working class.
Still, if NUMSA is expelled or otherwise pushed out of COSATU the problems would not disappear. Whether inside the federation or outside, the task remains the same – to orientate the organisation towards the ranks of the tripartite alliance and to wage a political struggle to win them over to a revolutionary socialist programme.
The root cause of the crisis inside the mass organisations is the capitalist policies that have been pursued by the ANC governments over the last two decades. While a small layer in or connected to the ANC top have become millionaires, the mass of the population – a majority of which support the Alliance - has seen unchanged or worse conditions. This has caused the fracturing of the movement on class lines and all the organisations of the Alliance have been thrown into crisis.
By putting forward radical demands such as the nationalisation of the the commanding heights of the Economy, and by leading very militant national struggles, NUMSA has become a massive pole of attraction for many workers. Thus the organisation has grown to 350,000 members, becoming the largest union ever to have existed in South Africa.
The complete degeneration of the South African Communist Party has also meant that an enormous political vacuum has opened up on the left. A vacuum that NUMSA has partially filled.
Before the events of last week, NUMSA had already started setting up local United Front structures around the country including in Buffalo City in East London, Diepkloof and Emndeni in Soweto, Emalasheni and in Germiston. The aim of these structures are to unite and coordinate the hundreds of struggles of communities and workers and give them a more organized expression. NUMSA announced that national structures will be launched in December.
For the whole of the last year, the union has been running Marxist education courses for its members. It has held a symposium of left movements from around the world and has attempted to learn the lessons from left parties in Latin America with the aim of setting up a ‘’Movement for Socialism’’ which is expected to be established in March or April 2015 and which is set to participate in the 2016 local elections.
These events and the rise of NUMSA over the last period represent the biggest realignment of South African politics for the last two decades. What we are witnessing is not merely the internal bureaucratic struggles within the COSATU leadership, but the breaking up of the Liberation movement on class lines.
Within the ANC there are two incompatible trends. On the one side we have the bourgeoisie represented by Ramaphosa, Nzimande, Zuma and the like. And on the other side we have the workers, the poor and the dispossessed youth. The split by NUMSA and the likely setting up of a workers party would serve to clarify the class lines and highlight the opposite interests of the bourgeois and the working class. This would be a big step forward for the South African working class which is drawing advanced revolutionary conclusions.