South Africa: NUMSA cuts political ties with ANC

The South African metal workers union, NUMSA held its much awaited special national congress in Boksburg from 17-20 December to discuss its future and, by implication, the future of the entire South African labour movement after a long period of infighting in the labour federation COSATU and fierce class struggle in South African society. This was the first time ever that the union has had to hold a special congress and signifies the extent to which relations in COSATU and the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, COSATU, and SACP) have deteriorated.

Numsa logoNumsa is South Africa's largest union with 338,718 members which are among the most advanced layers of the working class. These workers are some of the most militant and most experienced trade unionists and workers in the country. The results of this congress were therefore eagerly awaited by broad sections of South African society. This interest was reflected in the intense media coverage of the congress and the number of impromptu press conferences throughout the week.

The significance of the congress was well articulated by Walter Theledi, the secretary of the municipal workers union, SAMWU when he wrote:  "The Special Congress is also taking place when our beloved Federation COSATU is in the midst of a paralysing and divisive crisis. A crisis we believe is a result of the struggle of contending class forces. At its sharpest, the struggle in COSATU is between those who want to see COSATU as a clear independent and unambiguous champion of the working class and the poor, and those who prefer COSATU to be reduced to nothing more than a glorified labour desk.

"We believe the continuing attacks on Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi are little more than an attempt to curtail the power of our Federation, and to render it powerless. The pushing through recently of E-Tolls and youth subsidies and the public marginalisation of COSATU are indicative of what will happen if we allow COSATU to be diverted away from its historic task of building working class power for socialism.

"We know that our NUMSA comrades are not ones to walk away from the class struggle, and that they will fight with all of their might to preserve the independence and fighting spirit of COSATU. We know they will continue to work alongside SAMWU and other unions to fight the divisiveness that is currently blighting our movement!"

And the statement concluded:  "At this time, a united and powerful COSATU is an absolute necessity. In all of the sectors where we are organised, there are moves to marginalise workers and to roll back the gains of the past. There are attempts to make sure that workers do not have an independent voice, but are instead represented by those who are not accountable. At the heart of the socialist transformation of our country must be the organised working class, and not just those claiming to represent them! Workers must not sub-contract their power to others, but be a central player in the unfolding class struggle."

The congress was held to discuss among others, the state of the Tripartite Alliance, NUMSA's support for the ANC in next year's national elections, the situation within COSATU and a service charter on how the union could better represent its ranks which have seen explosive growth in the last period.


Before we give the report on the congress it is worth looking at the background to which all this is playing out. At bottom the conflict within COSATU as a union federation, and also within the Tripartite Alliance is in essence a battle of contending class forces that have been building up for decades.

In fact NUMSA has produced a document called “Ideological Reflections and Responses to Some of the Recent Attacks"   which is one of the most significant documents produced by any of the workers' organisations since 1994. It is well worth quoting some of the points at length because it captures the background to the current state of affairs in the Tripartite Alliance and is an attempt to provide a class based analysis. The document states:

1. The working class is under siege from the forces of capitalism. These forces are within and outside of the movement. Inside the movement, capitalist forces are pushing for the open adoption of neoliberal policies, advance a deliberate petit-bourgeois and revisionist interpretation of the Freedom Charter, and are extremely intolerant of even an iota of criticism of the state.

2. The forces of capitalism within the movement seek to stifle workers' discontent. The working class is restless because of the continued dominance in South Africa by the white monopoly capitalist class. Since the 1970's and before 1994, white monopoly capitalism suffered from the long-term structural crisis of falling profitability.

3. The de-industrialisation of the Western-oriented parts of the global economy, accelerated by the rise of neo-liberalism which encouraged financial speculation in the early 1980's to this day, led to a massive decline in the demand for raw minerals. This global process, coupled with the rising tide of the anti-apartheid liberation struggle within and outside of South Africa, gave further impetus to the already existing structural profitability crisis in the South African economy.

4. By 1994, white monopoly capitalism had managed to co-opt the leading cadre of the national liberation movement and schooled it in orthodox neoliberal economics. This leading cadre, which came to be known as "The Class of 1996", spearheaded a package of policies that called for the reduced role of the state in the economy, a two-tier labour market, trade liberalisation, financial market de-regulation such as the dismantling of exchange controls, etc. In addition, the state had to reduce corporate taxes on white monopoly capital.

5. From a class point of view all these policies summed up to: a) weakening the power of organised workers through casualisation and outsourcing and intensification of the rate of exploitation, b) reducing state expenditure on the basic needs of the working class in an attempt to balance the budget, c) an increase in unemployment and further de-industrialisation, because of the massive inflow of imports, d) massive outflow of profits, including the dual-listing of major conglomerates, resulting in low levels of saving and investment, which translated into low levels of economic growth, e) a policy of high interest rates to attract profits from flowing out of the country, but which further discouraged investment in the real sector and therefore encouraged financial speculation.

6. The only salvation for the economy to raise its levels of growth came from the global commodity boom in the early 2000s, which was fuelled by the rise of China, India and Brazil. Despite the global upswing, the South African economy continued to suffer from the age-old structural problem of being mineral export dependent.

7. In 2009, in just one year, the economy shed almost 1 million jobs. The manufacturing sector remains small and continues to decline relative to the whole economy. The South African white monopoly capitalist state, whilst continuing to sustain the white complex, is completely incapable of resolving the structural crisis of Colonialism of a Special Type.

This incapacity, such as poor service delivery to the working class, is itself a result of the state's function to aid capitalist profitability by restraining expenditure. If ever there is spending, such spending is in a way that ensures that profits are accumulated in capitalist pockets through tenders or public debt.

8. Once again, the white monopoly capitalist class, which now has internationalised its ownership because of dual-listing here at home and abroad, has appealed to its leading cadre in the national liberation movement. The appeal is for the leading cadre of the national liberation movement to administer a second round of neoliberal reforms, to restore profitability and investor confidence. The appeal is for the leading cadre of the national liberation movement to prevail over its allies in COSATU, to persuade COSATU to be reasonable, to make workers understand that because the global economy is in a crisis, belts must be tightened and labour-power must be cheapened.

9. White monopoly capital proposes a number of areas that need to be re-examined, a) a review of the tax system to see if nothing can be done to further reduce corporate taxes and to increase the tax burden on the working class and the petit-bourgeoisie, b) to balance the budget, the state must cut back on expenditure on public sector wages, c) to manage the working class, state officials must announce progressive-sounding budget allocations but must not spend as much, decrying chronic under-spending in every budget speech,

10. In relation to the labour market: a) to cheapen labour-power directly, review aspects of the labour relations act, such as extension of probation periods, lowering of entry-level wages for young people, provide youth employment incentives, etc., e) to open new avenues for private investment, liberalise the electricity, transport and telecommunications by unbundling Eskom, Transnet and Telkom and promote private-public-partnerships, as we have seen with e-tolls. For more details and more proposals to restore profitability, consult the NDP.

11. Such is the brief political economy context within which we operate. The on-going cyclical crisis of capitalism is embedded in the long-term structural crisis of colonial capitalism in this country. As we have mentioned repeatedly, this long-term structural crisis cannot and will not be resolved unless the basic wealth of our country is transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole through first and foremost, the nationalisation of the mines, banks and other monopoly industries and through an active industrial and trade policy to control other industry to assist in the well-being of the people.

12. The political disarray that afflicts the trade union movement occurs in this context, a context where: a) there is growing mass impatience about the continued dominance of white monopoly capitalism, b) the national liberation movement has failed to transfer the wealth of this country to its people and instead, has allowed our country's wealth to be transferred abroad, c) white monopoly capital and global capitalism are in the midst of a profitability crisis. The main strategic line of attack that has been adopted by the capitalist class is to shift the burden of the crisis to the working class by weakening the political coherence and blunting the ideological clarity of working class organisations.

13. We have boldly maintained that at the heart of the crisis in COSATU are two opposing forces: the forces of capitalism and the forces socialism. The capitalist forces within the Federation seek to make workers to understand and tolerate the continuation of white monopoly capitalist domination, by accepting elements of the neoliberal NDP.

The socialist forces seek to mobilise the working class to break the power of white monopoly capitalism through the implementation of the Freedom Charter as historically understood by the working class.

14. It is also within this context that we should understand the recent speeches by senior leaders of the Alliance that are aimed at NUMSA. As we have always maintained, NUMSA is an unashamedly a socialist union, guided by Marxism-Leninism. We are convinced that the recent attacks on NUMSA by senior leaders of the Alliance, in the context where COSATU is in a state of paralysis, cannot be understood outside the on-going conflict between the working class and the capitalist class both within and outside of the Alliance.


The NUMSA congress was preceded by various attempts by the right wing faction within the Tripartite Alliance to cause confusion in the union with the aim of isolating the union's leadership from its ranks.

One example is the open letter that SACP leadership wrote to the congress delegates one day before the start of the congress. The writing of this letter by one of the leading members of the SACP will go down as one of the most infamous incidents in the history of the Communist Party. In the letter, ironically called: “Don’t gamble with the unity of COSATU! Let us not walk away from the struggle for the heart and soul of our movement and our national democratic revolution”, the SACP leadership proceeded to launch slanderous and desperate attacks on NUMSA's secretary, Irvin Jim.

First of all the only people who have "gambled with the unity of COSATU” are these Communist Party leading members who have uncritically joined a government that has implemented capitalist policies in the interests of Capital and against the interests of the working class. The letter proceeded to accuse the general secretary of NUMSA of wanting to place suspended COSATU general secretary Vavi as the deputy president of the ANC (and the country) and that Jim has ambitions of being COSATU's general secretary. The letter states that the failure of Jim to achieve these ambitions is the reason why he wanted to split COSATU and lead a breakaway faction!

This was a nasty and underhanded attack by the SACP leading members in the worst traditions of the Stalin school of falsification. There is no drop of Marxist analysis to be seen anywhere - only slander and character assassination and shows graphically to what extent the SACP leadership has deteriorated. This was Stalinist poison at its worst.

The idea that the task of the South African working class is to “fight for the heart and soul of our movement” is not wrong in itself, but is precisely the opposite of what the leadership of the SACP has been doing. Instead of fighting for working class policies within the Alliance, they have provided the right wing capitalist leadership of the ANC and the government with a left “socialist” cover and attacked all those who opposed them from a working class perspective. As for the “national democratic revolution”, this is no more than a Stalinist fig-leaf for their defence of the capitalist policies of the government. Let us be clear! What we have in South Africa is not a “national democratic revolution” which has steered a bit off its course, but rather a government pursuing openly capitalist policies in the interest of Capital. There are some national and democratic tasks still to be fulfilled in South Africa (land reform being the main one), but these cannot be separated from the socialist tasks of the revolution and can only be fulfilled by the working class coming to power and expropriating the capitalist class.

The attempt of the SACP leaders to sow confusion has failed dismally in its aims. On the first day and throughout the rest of the congress there was an incredible sense of unity and a feeling of contempt for cliques in the workers' movement. This was shown by the fact that the 1200 NUMSA delegates only took 15 minutes to vote unanimously to keep the current leadership in place and to elect the new president of the union unopposed after the previous president, Cedric Gina resigned before the congress.

The new president, Andrew Chirwa, in his opening speech, accused COSATU of being used by right-wing capitalists to fight against the socialist revolution, and he said a party to protect workers was needed because the SACP could no longer be trusted. These words were a direct result of the SACP leaders' attack on NUMSA.

Chirwa lashed out at the SACP leaders, especially Nzimande who wants to establish an inquiry into the booing incident of President Zuma during the memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela:  "The SACP now wants to spend resources to find out who was leading the booing. That is the analysis we are given [under Nzimande's leadership]. Instead of the SACP asking what gave rise to the booing, they are asking for a tribunal. We are opposed to communists who are giving a left-wing cover to a neoliberal agenda in a capitalist state," said Chirwa.

He accused the alliance - between the ANC, SA Communist Party, and Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) - of being toothless and of appearing only when it was election time. He also accused COSATU president Sidumo Dlamini of elevating himself above the trade union federation by not convening a special COSATU congress. He expressed very clearly what type of COSATU NUMSA wants when he said:  “As Numsa, we've openly stated that we stand for nothing short of a campaigning, militant, revolutionary, anti–capitalist, anti–imperialist Cosatu."

Referring to the scandal over the alleged R206 million upgrade to Zuma's private residence at Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal, Chirwa asked:  "Should we not ask our own President Jacob Zuma, who benefited from this saga, to resign in the interest of the poor?”  “Must we not ask that he resigns to preserve the legacy of Nelson Mandela? This Nkandla saga is an indictment on poor people swimming in poverty, who are told that the state does not have enough resources to deliver,” he said.

He was cheered as he made the call for Numsa to consider calling on Zuma to resign.

After that, Chirwa called for companies like Sasol, Telkom, Acelor Mittal, the Reserve Bank of South Africa and the mines to be nationalized without compensation, as it is written in the Freedom Charter.

After Chirwa's speech and after the NUMSA leadership was re-elected, it was the turn of Irvin Jim to address the congress. He immediately started where the NUMSA president left off by staying:  "A decision must be taken about where we go from here if we do not get the Cosatu that we want,” he said  “Cosatu is fatally paralysed... as if it has been knocked by a big a truck."  “The state of the working class is in shambles, the working class is leaderless,” he added.

Jim correctly stated the reason for the SACP's attack by saying that there was a move to try and suspend the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) from Cosatu before the trade union federation held its special congress. This would then give the right wing faction uncontested control of the labour federation.

He gave the SACP leadership a tongue lashing by saying: "The party has clearly taken a decision to do whatever it can to try to divide Numsa in the build-up to our special congress,” he said. “The relationship has degenerated to the lowest levels in our history as a union.”

The day was ended by watching a video recording of the massacre of mineworkers at Marikana last year.

The second day of the congress started with a fundraising drive for the victims of Marikana and a pledge to support the families financially. Then the 1200 delegates went into closed commissions to debate the six discussion documents and to decide on resolutions for the congress. In the evening the congress was also address by suspended COSATU secretary Vavi who also lambasted the ruling ANC government and the SACP leadership.


In the resolutions the union has stated that the ANC and SACP have protected the capitalist system and that this has led to the de-industrialisation of the economy. The final turning point was the Marikana massacre of 16 August 2012. According to NUMSA this graphically showed that the ANC government is solely acting in the interest of the capitalist class.

In an historical decision the metal workers have resolved not to support the ruling ANC, or any other political party in the 2014 general elections neither financially or by campaigning. “The time for looking for an alternative has arrived," said Irvin Jim. He said Numsa would lead a new united front by campaigning for other mass organisations and unions to break with the Tripartite Alliance. "The task of this front will be to fight for the implementation of the freedom charter and to be the organisational weapon against neo-liberal policies such as the NDP [National Development Plan]," he said.

Furthermore, the union has formally called for President Zuma   to resign with immediate effect.  "The congress called on President Jacob Zuma to resign with immediate effect because of his administration's pursuit of neo-liberal policies, such as the NDP [National Development Plan], e-tolls, labour brokers... and the track record of his administration which is steeped in corruption, patronage and nepotism," said NUMSA's secretary Jim.

NUMSA has also called for an immediate convening of a special congress of COSATU without delay. This decision of NUMSA will have far-reaching consequences. Other unions are now likely to follow suit, meaning that the ANC can no longer take the support of any union for granted. It will reverberate through the Tripartite Alliance further deepening the turbulence in all mass organisations like the ANC and the SACP.

The decisions taken by the NUMSA congress reflect the enormous anger which has been accumulated from below, not only in the recent years under the Zuma government, but going all the way back to the end of Apartheid.

At the same time there is also a strong element of frustration and impatience, and we know that impatience can be a bad counsellor. The immediate impact of not supporting the ANC or any other political party in the 2014 election is that the largest union in the country will not have a political voice one way or the other.

We have argued in the past that the battle should be taken into the ANC. NUMSA has over 300,000 members, a big majority of whom are members and supporters of the ANC. NUMSA members are not alone in their outrage at the capitalist policies of the ANC leadership. The booing of president Zuma at Mandela’s memorial is just an indication of that fact. The wave of expulsions in the ANC Youth League is another. There are many more. If a serious battle was launched inside the ANC for socialist policies it would certainly win a large proportion, if not a majority of the organisation, certainly of its rank and file. Even if such a battle proved to be unsuccessful, then NUMSA could walk away taking with it much larger forces in the setting up of a socialist party.

The same, even more, can be said of the SACP. NUMSA shop stewards and cadres are overwhelmingly members and supporters of the SACP. If they waged a battle against the right wing Cronin-Nzimande leadership, they would probably win.

There is certainly a battle being waged within the workers movement and more widely in the mass democratic movement, but the decisions of the NUMSA congress seem to be indicating a desire to avoid that struggle. The same can be said for the decision to suspend payment of fees to COSATU until the special congress is convened. Rather than putting pressure on the right wing leadership of COSATU, this can be provide the perfect excuse to Dlamini to suspend or even expel NUMSA from the federation. The decision to broaden the scope of NUMSA, so that it can recruit workers in industries currently being covered by other COSATU affiliates can also be used in the same way. It does reflect a desire to organise workers on the basis of class-struggle militant trade unionism, which is healthy, but at the same time it brings NUMSA into a collision course with other unions, rather than allowing it to link with like-minded activists in those same unions.  

The SACP is accusing NUMSA of having its own faction in COSATU. This is a lie. As a matter of fact, it is the right wing of the union (with the backing of the SACP leaders) which is acting in a factional way. What NUMSA should have done is precisely to organise a socialist revolutionary tendency within all organisations of the movement together with other like-minded militants. This would mean the setting up of socialist caucuses within all unions, and the waging of a serious struggle for genuine socialist policies within the SACP and the ANC.

Whichever way things develop in the next few days and months from an organisational point of view, one thing is clear: a large proportion of the South African working class masses and the poor have already drawn a clear balance-sheet of the 20 years since the abolition of Apartheid. Formal democratic rights under capitalism do not solve any of the fundamental problems of housing, jobs, land, education, etc. The struggle is for the socialist revolution as the only way to achieve genuine liberation.

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