04 Jan Radical Agendas #3: The Numsa Moment
By Edward Webster
The Marikana massacre of 16 August 2012 triggered a wave of strikes across South Africa, culminating in an unprecedented uprising in the rural areas of the Western Cape. It also began a process of political realignment. The dramatic entry of the Economic Freedom Front (EEF) into parliament was to become the most spectacular. But could the historic decision of Numsa in December 2013 to withdraw its logistical support for the ANC and its mandate to the union’s leadership to form a United Front and Movement for Socialism, be of more long term significance? It certainly was the popular view on the left at the time (Satgar, 2014). The “Numsa moment”, one support group boldly proclaimed, “constitutes the beginning of the end for the ANC and its ambivalence towards neo-liberalism” (Democracy from Below, December 2013).
The expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu in November 2014, followed by the expulsion of Zwelinzima Vavi in March 2015, the long-standing general-secretary, did not initially slow down enthusiasm for the Numsa moment. But the outcome of the Cosatu Special Congress in July, where Cosatu President Sidumo Dlamini seemed to win support from the carefully chosen delegates, has led to a more reflective mood. The launch of a rival pro-ANC metal union, the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa, Limusa, further complicates the narrative. The postponement of the national launch of the United Front and on-going differences in strategy, is leading to a more sober assessment of the Numsa moment.
On Turning Points
Is Marikana and the “Numsa moment” a turning point, the beginning of the ‘next liberation struggle’ or does it mark the disintegration of a once powerful labour movement? We begin our answer to this question by revisiting South Africa’s turbulent labour history and the contested nature of Numsa’s politics.
“Is Marikana and the “Numsa moment” a turning point, the beginning of the ‘next liberation struggle’ or does it mark the disintegration of a once powerful labour movement?”
In the history of South Africa, mass strikes, “trials of strength”, have crucially impacted on the relationship between political parties and social classes, leading to a realignment of politics. Three strikes can be identified as turning points. Firstly, the 1922 white mine workers strike went on for three months and brought South Africa to the brink of civil war. The outcome of the strike was a class alliance between the emerging Afrikaner nationalist movement and white labour that was to lay the foundations for modern South Africa’s apartheid labour regime.
Secondly, the 1946 African mine workers strike marks another turning point. The strike highlighted the growing urbanisation of African workers. Afrikaner nationalists used this “threat” to help them win the 1948 general elections, which they contested on a programme of white domination. Importantly, it also helped cement an alliance between black labour and African nationalism, and the formation of the Congress Alliance in 1955 between the African National Congress (ANC) and the recently formed South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU).
Thirdly, the mass strikes of black workers in Durban in 1973 marked another turning point. It took place during the high point of apartheid, at a time when it was widely believed that strike action was not possible in South Africa. The strikes were to lay the foundations for the modern labour movement, as trade unions were established in all the major metropolitan areas of South Africa.
If the 1973 strikes led to the reconfiguration of the industrial relations system and the emergence of an independent workers movement for the first time in South Africa, it was the massacre of 34 striking mine workers on 16 August 2012 at Marikana that was to call into question the sustainability of the new post-apartheid labour and political order.
A Working Class Politics?
The idea of a workers’ party has deep roots in South Africa’s post-1973 labour movement. It was first openly articulated by the predecessor of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), in a speech by general secretary Joe Foster in 1982. He argued that Fosatu’s task was to build a working –class organisation within the popular struggle to represent workers politically. The South African Communist Party (SACP) saw Foster’s speech as an attack on its ‘vanguard’ role as the historic political representative of workers. It argued that Fosatu was promoting “syndicalism”, and that “trade unions cannot be political parties.”
In the eighties a powerful shop steward movement had emerged amongst South Africa’s metal workers rooted in the idea of worker control. (Webster, 1985:231-260) They had begun, in 1981/2, to go beyond the factory floor to wider issues related to the reproduction of the workforce. These actions ranged from resistance to the demolition of shacks in Katlehong to demands for worker control over pension funds. This was to culminate in the November 1984 mass stay-away in Gauteng led by unions, students and township residents. Unions were reaching out to those sectors outside the formal proletariat and developing forms of social movement unionism. Importantly, they were turning to political answers for their members’ problems and were searching for national level political responses. But this did not entail subordination of labour organisations to the nationalist movement. “The contradictions generated by capitalist development I concluded, “had given birth to a working class politics. The central issue now confronting the organised working class is the form and content of this politics” (Ibid, 280).
“The contradictions generated by capitalist development, had given birth to a working class politics. The central issue now confronting the organised working class is the form and content of this politics.”
But this was not to be. The debate on working-class politics was overtaken in the mid-1980s by the national liberation struggle and the transition to democracy led by the African National Congress (ANC). Indeed in 1984 the South African Communist Party (SACP) shifted its hostile position towards the democratic labour movement and decided to recruit trade unionists (Forrest, 2011:459).
In December 1985 Cosatu was launched as a ‘historic compromise’ between the two dominant political traditions, the national democratic tradition, mobilizing around the Freedom Charter, and the workerist tradition of Fosatu with its emphasis on building strong shop floor structures. This merging of the two political traditions led to a furious debate inside Cosatu. Those opposed to alliance politics charged that this new political direction was “misdirected,” and that this “rush” to espouse “alliance politics” will result in a situation where years of painstaking organisational work will be swept aside and workers will again be without democratic unions (Lambert and Webster, 1988:33).
Alliance politics, and the victory of the ANC led Alliance in South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994, was to shift the focus of COSATU from workplace issues to a growing concentration on economic and industrial policy. Numsa leadership embraced what some have called strategic unionism, an engagement in tripartite structures such as Nedlac, a peak-level social dialogue forum, and the concept of “progressive competitiveness.” This involved labour adapting to global competition by developing new skills and a more strategic engagement with capital and the state. But, as Karl von Holdt demonstrated in his ethnographic study of Highveld Steel, “replacing ‘the culture of resistance’ with a ‘culture of productivity’ created an ‘organisational crisis’ in Numsa.” (Von Holdt, 2003:198) The strategy failed for a number of reasons: the process through which it was adopted, its complexity and lack of union capacity, doubts about its internal coherence, and the possibility that it could increase members’ workload and lead to job losses (Ibid, 196-202).
Numsa’s new strategy had an essentially corporatist agenda for labour. It aimed at a ‘reconstruction accord’ with the new government and participation in workplace and tripartite structures. But the idea of a separate party of workers had not died. At its fourth congress in July 1993, Numsa re-asserted the need for independence from the new government and called for the working class to develop an independent programme on how to advance to socialism. This, the congress declared, could take the form of a working class party (Forrest, 2011: 475).
The ANC’s “non-negotiable” embrace of neo-liberal economic policies in 1996 through the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, led to a direct confrontation with COSATU and sections of the SACP. This began a process of increasing marginalization of the left from the ANC and growing tensions , articulated most strongly by the COSATU General Secretary, Zwelizima Vavi, accusing the ANC leadership of being a “predatory elite”. Growing disillusionment with the ANC led to the re-emergence inside NUMSA of the idea of a workers party.
To assess the extent of support for a workers party in the broader population, we conducted a survey of a large nationally representative sample of adults between February and March 2014. (Webster and Orkin, 2014) Surprisingly, a third of South African adults definitely thought that “a new political party,” a workers’ or labour party, “will assist with current problems facing SA” (the proportion answering ‘probably not’ or ‘definitely not’ were 15% and 13%).
In 2012, a sample of Cosatu shop stewards was asked a more specific question: “If Cosatu were to form a labour party and contest national elections, would you vote for such a party?” 65% said they would. In the 2014 survey, among the fully employed 69% agreed with the question (30% said “definitely” and 39% said “maybe”).
A Workers’ Party?
Numsa has approached the question of a workers’ party with caution. Following independence, trade unions in post-colonial Africa have tended initially to submit to the ruling party that drove the liberation struggle. But growing marginalization led unions in countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe into opposition and the formation of a separate political party, which, in the case of Zambia’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy, won state power in elections.
“The existence of a relatively large industrial working class, strong civil society organizations and an independent trade union movement with a political culture of shop-floor democracy makes the survival of a workers’ party more likely.”
However, there has generally been a low level of political tolerance of political opposition in post-colonial Africa. Unlike established democracies, these new governments are engaged in the complex task of nation building. The result is a culture of “us” versus “them,” and union-backed oppositional parties have often been quickly labeled “counter-revolutionary” and “imperialist.” The union-backed Movement for Democratic Change soon became the focus of organized violence inflicted by the Zimbabwean state.
Could South Africa be a special case in post-colonial Africa? The existence of a relatively large industrial working class, strong civil society organizations and an independent trade union movement with a political culture of shop-floor democracy makes the survival of a workers’ party more likely.
What would the social base of such a party be? In the 2014, nationwide adult sample, 30% of the full-time or part-time employed would definitely support a workers’ party, rising to 40% of the unemployed. The highest expression of ‘definite’ support for the idea of a workers’ party was among the black working poor; among those with household incomes of less then R8000 a month; of primary/secondary education; and in the main working age of 18-49. By contrast, the lowest expressed ‘definite’ support for a workers’ party was among whites, Indian and coloureds alike; with household incomes of more than R8000 a month; of tertiary education; among the oldest.
This survey question indicated the size of the potential support base, and broadly identified its likely class features. But what will the form and content of a working class politics be in SA ? Is it to involve a broad workers’ party, along the lines of Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores, with links to working-class communities , academics and small farmers. Or is to be a more traditional labour party along the lines of the UK Labour Party, with close ties with organized labour? Is it to be a revitalized Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, a mirror image of the SACP; or will something distinctive emerge out of the initiative to establish a United Front (UF).
Designed to link unions to struggles in the community, a National Working Committee of the United Front was established in December 2014. Although it still remains to be formally launched nationally it has an estimated two hundred and fifty loosely affiliated social justice and environmental justice affiliates. Of particular concern are climate change and the demand for eco-socialism. However, its political direction remains uncertain: should it be openly socialist, or a broad front similar to the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the eighties; is it a step towards a worker’s party or is it an autonomous body connecting a range of community based organizations; should it engage in electoral politics or should it remain at arms-length from party politics?
Importantly, the multiple expressions of local-level militancy that emerged over the past decade is a fragmented militancy, different from the social movement unionism of the early to mid eighties. The link between the current township protests and NUMSA is tenous. Indeed the high levels of unemployment in these communities – sometimes as high as 80% – has led to conflicts – and intensified violence – between the employed who are trying to maintain collective solidarity in a strike and those who want to go to work. This emerged most dramatically in the strikes on the platinum mines in Rustenburg. The coercive tactics used to maintain solidarity, described by Chinguno as a form of “violent solidarity, “runs counter to the democratic traditions of labour (Chinguno, 2015a and 2015b: 178).
“…the multiple expressions of local-level militancy that emerged over the past decade is a fragmented militancy, different from the social movement unionism of the early to mid-eighties.”
It is important to emphasize that the new initiatives, organisational forms and sources of power are emerging on the periphery of organised labour. The strikes at Marikana were not led by a union but were the product of the self-activity of labour, as Sinwell and Mbatha (2013: 32) argue: “The agency of workers, and more specifically the independent worker’s committee, is arguably the key feature surrounding the event of the Marikana Massacre…The committee at Marikana is important in understanding the strike wave along the Rustenburg Platinum Belt where these independent organisations emerged. Industrial sociology more generally has been dominated by investigations into formalised unions…”
Labour’s dilemma in post-colonial countries is how to express its distinct working class politics in such a way that it does have a confrontation with the state or alienate itself from those who continue to support the dominant national narrative. Interestingly, the Ghana Trade Union Congress (TUC), has chosen the path of non-alignment with any specific political party. It prefers to develop its own political demands, lobby for these demands and advise its members to vote for the party that supports the GTUC’s programme. A similar approach has been adopted amongst informal worker organisations in India (Agarwala, 2013:98) Informal worker movements, Agarwala demonstrates, are most successful when operating within electoral contexts where parties compete for mass votes from the poor. She calls this competitive populism. These informal worker organisations are not attached to a particular party nor do they espouse a specific political or economic ideology. In this way they have successfully organised informal workers. As one organiser observed: “The informal sector is entering into the previously formal sector, and the formal sector is being cut in size…. We cannot differentiate between formal and informal workers, because politicians only care about getting most votes” (Cited in Agarwala, 2013: 98).
We are entering a new kind of politics, what some have come to call the “politics of precarity” where precariousness at work creates a crisis not just of job-quality but also of social reproduction (Lee and Kofman, 2012) There is, as Jennifer Chun argues, a “growing interest in a new political subject of labour…women, immigrants, people of color, low-paid service workers, precarious workers, groups that have been historically excluded from the moral and material boundaries of union membership” (Chun, 2012:40).
“We are entering a new kind of politics, what some have come to call the “politics of precarity” where precariousness at work creates a crisis not just of job-quality but also of social reproduction…”
Whether the left activists of the labour movement have the political imagination and energy to take advantage of this new terrain remains to be seen. What is clear is that the old labour order is no longer sustainable and building an alternative is going to require patient and long-term organisational work.
Edward Webster is Professor Emeritus, Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at University of Witwatersrand. He is the outgoing director of the Chris Hani Institute, an independent left think tank in Cosatu House.
Agarwala, Rina. 2013, Informal Labour, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India (New York: Cambridge University Press).
Chinguno, C (2012), Marikana and the post-apartheid workplace order,” Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP), Working Paper No.1 (April) (Johannesburg,University of the Witwatersrand).
Chinguno, C. (2015b), The shifting dynamics of the relations between institutionalisation and strike violence; a case study of Impala Platinum, Rustenburg (1982-2012), Doctoral Dissertation (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand).
Chun, J. J. (2012), “The Power of the Powerless: New Schemes and resources for organising workers in neoliberal times,” in Suzuki, K. (Ed) Cross National Comparisons of Social Movement Unionism (Berlin: Peter Lang).
Democracy from Below (2013), “The ‘NUMSA moment’ is OUR moment,” University of KwaZulu-Natal (30th November-Ist December).
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Lee, C K, and Y. Kofman (2012), “The Politics of Precarity : Views Beyond the United States,” Work and Occupations, 39 (4): 388–408.
Satgar, V (2014), “The ‘Numsa moment’ leads left renewal,“ Mail & Guardian, August 22 to 28, p. 25.
Von Holdt, K. (2003), Transition from Below: Forging Trade Unionism and workplace Change in South Africa (Scottsville; University of Natal Press).
Webster, E. (1985), Cast in a racial mould: labour process and trade unionism in the foundries (Johannesburg; Ravan Press).
Webster, E and M. Orkin (2014), “Many believe workers’ party could help solve SA’s issues,” Business Day, July 15.