This critique is offered for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) as food for thought towards unlocking Numsa’s historical task that presents possibilities for unifying the working class in struggle, increasing its confidence and steering us towards socialist revolution.
In an interview last year, Floyd Shivambu, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) Deputy President, had this to say in response to Numsa’s reluctance to build unity with them:  “What we know is that efforts to start a rival socialist or workers’ party will dwindle into insignificance and will not benefit the working class and workers whom our ideological allies claim to represent.”
It has been three years since the historic Numsa moment and it appears that the EFF leader’s claim is true. For three years we have not seen any significant mass campaigns or struggles led by Numsa, let alone grassroots mass democratic organisations emerging that have captured working class interest. What are we to make of this?
The “Numsa Moment” was hailed by socialists locally and internationally as the biggest political breakthrough in southern Africa since the late 1980s. Numsa’s special national congress held during December 2013 committed itself to fight and campaign for the most pressing political tasks confronting the working class. These included: to fight and campaign for a militant, independent and unified Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu); that would of necessity break from the Tripartite Alliance, and lead in the establishment of a new United Front (UF); that will co-ordinate struggles in the workplace and communities against neo-liberal policies, such as those contained in the African National Congress (ANC) government’s National Development Plan (NDP) and, at the same time, explore the establishment of “a movement for socialism”. The latter involved a comprehensive study of working class parties all over the world to identify elements “of what may constitute a revolutionary programme for the working class”. Importantly, Numsa’s organizational break with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) was of huge symptomatic and symbolic importance and reflected a sharper working class response to the global economic crisis and rising class tensions in South Africa.
While many socialists correctly supported Numsa’s important watershed political decisions and got directly involved in their realization, they failed at the same time to recognize the historical and current weaknesses of the union and assist in overcoming them. A combination of impressionism and overzealousness saw many socialists jumping in without critically appreciating the challenges of the period and limitations of Numsa and its leadership.
By the following year the union initiated a flurry of activities and events to implement its resolutions. This included national and international conferences and a 6-phase programme of “rolling mass action”. The latter focused too narrowly on issues and concerns of the union instead of common issues of all workers and other sections of the working class. The critical Phase 1 of the rolling mass action plan had as its main focus the Employment Tax Incentive Act, beneficiation of all strategic minerals, a ban on the export of scrap metals, etc.
These were hardly the issues that could have captured the imagination and concerns of other workers, let alone impoverished sections of the working class. It is hard to fathom why Numsa at the time did not take up the challenge of leading Cosatu’s Living Wage Campaign that, with the right approach, could have won over millions of workers in a common struggle. This could have connected directly with the struggle of the platinum mineworkers under the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and their demand for 12 500 Rand per month. Instead, soon after a five-month strike by the mineworkers, 200,000 Numsa members went on strike separately in support of their own wage demands.
This was a missed opportunity for building the UF. Moreover, the 6-phase rolling mass action programme should have been changed to ensure that issues more important to the working class, with a greater preparedness on their part to struggle around, such as for decent housing and service delivery, jobs for the unemployed, free quality education, etc. Unsurprisingly, the 6-phase programme has not seen much rolling mass action and faded into oblivion.
Overall, Numsa’s key weakness in attempts at implementing their political resolutions was that it underestimated the tasks at hand and overestimated its own strength and ability. While the fact that it claimed to be the biggest union on the continent with over 300 000 members, together with correct political decisions, presented great potential for political and organizational advances, this by itself was far from enough to accomplish what is required during this period.
Reform versus Revolution
Numsa’s biggest impediment that stood and still stands in its way of realizing revolutionary objectives is its history and culture of reformist politics. This legacy of reformism has its roots in the formation of the union in 1987 that brought together various radical and conservative trade union political tendencies and necessitated by unification compromises of the unions’ leaderships.
By the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc “socialist” regimes and the political reforms of the Apartheid government, the union had become seeped in various reformist approaches to its work that saw a shift away from the radicalism and militancy of its main predecessor, Metal and Allied Workers’ Union (MAWU), ten years earlier. By this time, the Numsa leadership from the various strands had converged around the SACP as its political home, and accepted the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) as its theoretical perspective for achieving socialism in South Africa, and the need for engaging with white monopoly capital and the state for “radical reform” that would move towards a “mixed economy”, “high skills and high wages” for workers, and an internationally competitive South African economy.
The central vehicle for achieving this by Numsa and its leadership was the Tripartite Alliance and deploying much of its top leadership into the state, including senior government posts by the likes of Alec Erwin who became the minister of trade and industry in the Mbeki cabinet that led the anti-working class neo-liberal programme. In recent years, the union and its leadership was even part of the “die for Zuma” bandwagon believing that he would lead an anti-neo-liberal ANC government and revert back to the social democratic and Keynesian Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and Freedom Charter.
While the 2013 Numsa moment marked a shift to the left by Numsa, coming on the back of ANC government defeats of Cosatu around e-tolls, labour brokers, the youth wage subsidy, the NDP and the violent state attacks of the Marikana massacre, the farmworkers’ strike and several service delivery protests, as well as the extreme levels of corruption of the state, we did not see a simultaneous fundamental shift away from the reformist politics of the union and its leadership. The union still remained committed to the Stalinist two-stage theory of socialism in the form of the NDR and views as its programme the vague and reformist Freedom Charter.
The Numsa leadership still yearns for the SACP of the era of Joe Slovo instead of bad man Blade Nzimande (current SACP General Secretary and Minister of Higher Education). And yet it was the very Slovo who led the rejection of one of the key tenets of Marxism-Leninism, namely, the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity to usher in socialism. It was the self-same Slovo who introduced neo-liberal measures of privatisation into the government’s housing policy. It was the same Slovo who proposed the “sunset clauses” during the negotiations with the Apartheid ruling class that led to the democratic counter-revolution, the results of which are all too clear to see after over 20 years of bourgeois democracy.
Illusions of restoring the capitalist economy to favour the working class
The union still believes in “transforming the economy in line with the Freedom Charter objectives” and believes that South African capitalism can be saved by “broad-based industrial development”. It still views as its road to socialism the use of the failed social democratic politics and methods of radical reform through pressurizing and “engaging the employers and the state”. These approaches are reformist efforts to transform capitalism along social democratic lines. This internationally discredited class collaborationist approach has misled working classes of other countries for decades. Not only is this view fundamentally incorrect, it is also misplaced since it seriously misunderstands where capitalism is today, that makes widespread significant material reforms in favour of the working class extremely unlikely.
Various Numsa leaders have since the early 1990s sowed this illusion, promoting and leading industrial restructuring to ensure that the South African capitalist economy can be “more competitive”. Numsa leaders like Alec Erwin and Adrienne Bird were the prime movers of this reformist approach and ended up directly serving the interest of capital within the Mbeki government.
Prospects for a return to social democratic measures are at an all-time low. Capitalism cannot be reformed in this period of advanced systemic decay. Reformism is itself an expression of the pressure of the ruling capitalist class on the working class and some of its leaders and the union should not continue to succumb to these pressures. A prime example of this phenomenon was when in the wake of the 2008–2009 economic crisis, former Cosatu General-Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, in a symbolic show of unity with white monopoly capital, jointly at a press conference with a well-known public representative of white monopoly capital in South Africa, Bobby Godsell, called on workers to accept wage freezes in order to save jobs and capitalism.
In line with its “red revolutionary character”, Numsa needed to reject and decisively break from the notion of reforming capitalism since it only serves the interests of monopoly capital and further impoverishes the working class. It cannot be reformed in this period of advanced capitalism. Continuing to hang onto this reformist illusion unnecessarily postpones the revolutionary struggle for socialism. It is only a revolutionary overthrow of the system that can resolve this crisis in favour of the working class.
A thorough political review was required
The union, together with its allies and supporters and involving rank and file members, needed to prioritise having the fullest possible political review of its history and politics. In this way it could have enabled us to learn the lessons and chart forward a revolutionary course that should have informed the mass work required for developing the UF and socialist party.
This review should also have entailed an examination of the union and its own operations and all the factors that inhibit and undermine its ability to direct a revolutionary path for building strong mass working class fighting organisations.
This includes problems such as its own bureaucratization (despite its proud legacy of “worker control”), union chauvinism and not connecting with other trade union and rank and file members and working class communities, its conservative collective bargaining arrangements, its participation in the capitalist economy through its investment company, the social distance of the union leadership from its members with the top union officials earning the salaries of senior managers and top state officials etc.
In fact, three years later and there is still very little evidence of Numsa’s own over 300 000 rank and file members having been politically inspired and stirred into action by the Numsa moment.
The current period, Numsa and the United Front
In order to give Numsa and its allies a clear idea of the tasks in relation to building the UF, the entire union and its allies, especially the rank and file, require an honest and thorough assessment of the state of class struggle and balance of class forces. This will enable us to decide on correct tactics and courses of action to achieve maximum working class unity and strong mass organisations in the process of struggle at local and national levels.
Since the Numsa moment, and still now, the mass organisations of the working class remain weak or simply non-existent. The general level of class consciousness has remained low. The “Left” is still weak – small, fragmented with limited implantation within the working class. Our trade unions are still bureaucratic and politically conservative lifeless shells, not prepared to fight and participate in broader struggles of the working class. This characterization includes the nine unions that originally allied with Numsa, with some of them still in Cosatu and others like the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU) that has joined to form a new federation.
This weak state of working class organizations exists in the context of the continued neo-liberal capitalist ascendancy after more than two decades of economic and political attacks against the working class that created new structural divisions within it.
Despite the lower middle class also being severely affected by neo-liberalism, its intelligentsia has become disconnected from the working class and disillusioned with radical politics and even shifted to right-wing and conservative politics.
This loss of this “class ally”, traditionally socially and politically close to the black working class in South Africa during the Apartheid era, has in turn had a detrimental effect on working class politics and its capacity to organize. This came on top of a huge creaming off of several layers of leaders of the mass movement from the early 1990s by the ruling class who offered them lucrative jobs in the state and companies owned by white monopoly capital.
But at the same time the capitalist system remains in deep crisis, especially since the economic collapse of 2008. Since then the ruling class has intensified neo-liberal measures against the working class internationally and in South Africa, thereby forcing more and more people to resist and to organize against the attacks on their living standards and to seek radical solutions.
This means that, unlike the 1980s in South Africa, the building material for immediately constructing a mass fighting UF did not exist in abundance and the tasks of Numsa and its allies were enormous. At the same time, the Numsa juggernaut had to be politically and organizationally re-orientated to lead and implement the tasks to build the UF and lay the basis for a socialist movement. This could only be achieved through a process of intense organized class struggle and political clarification towards revolutionary Marxism.
The state of the working class during this period can therefore be characterized by a few important features, namely;
- Increased structural divisions and atomization of the working class due to the impact of neo-liberalism and a growing insecure precariat constantly in survivalist mode;
- Low levels of class consciousness and confidence to consistently engage in class struggle;
- Weak and low levels of mass based organization;
- A waning political hegemony over the working class by the ruling tripartite alliance;
- A growing rebellion against neo-liberalism and deteriorating living and working conditions.
But despite this there has been a readiness on the part of the masses to struggle. It is the result of a build-up of frustration over many years with the impact of neo-liberal austerity measures on their lives, deteriorating living standards and disappointment with the corrupt and anti-working class ANC government who they had placed their hopes in for a better life for over two decades.
It is these factors that asserted themselved in the revolt of the platinum miners against the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) bureaucracy and the wildcat strikes of both the miners and the farmworkers during 2012-2013. They are also the underlying cause of the uninterrupted local protests in every part of the country and more recently the #FeesmustFall student movement.
Both this pent up discontent within the working class and the intensification of class antagonisms are intimately linked and were the underlying causes of the constant attacks by the ANC on Vavi and Cosatu at the time, as well as Numsa’s break with the ANC and SACP and its eventual expulsion.
Numsa’s call for a united front and a “movement for socialism” should therefore have fallen on fertile ground if serious and consistent leadership was offered. These were ideas whose time had come but a sober analysis of the overall relation of forces was required. It is within the rank-and-file of the unions that the pent up discontent runs deepest and the Numsa and UF leadership should have recognized that this section of organized workers could rub shoulders with the youth, unemployed and women who have been in the forefront of the township and village protests country-wide.
What was therefore required was a reassertion of working class political and organizational independence through mass united front campaigns around the burning questions of the day. Alas this was not to be since 2013.
Missed opportunities for building the United Front
The UF approach also meant that Numsa had to do everything in its power to remain within Cosatu and do battle with the reactionary leadership to win over the ordinary members of the other unions to join the UF around the Living Wage and other campaigns. Instead of engaging the rank and file members of the right-wing ANC supporting unions through its own rank and file, the Numsa leaders, its allies and Vavi, instead focused on confining the political battle to the Cosatu Central Executive Committee (CEC), the mainstream media and courts. It meant that from the outset in 2011, the workers of the majority of unions in Cosatu were excluded from the important political battle, isolated and disempowered. As mere spectators they did not grow politically and lacked the confidence to challenge and replace their corrupt leaders.
This is where the real battle should have been since these workers had been suffering for more than a decade under their unions’ leadership who instead of leading struggles, covertly sided with the employers for unmandated wage settlements – especially in the public sector – where they appeased their ANC government masters. Only during the last phase when it became clear that Numsa would be expelled and Vavi dismissed, did the leaders convene shop-steward council meetings to engage the rank and file about some of the issues - and even then the unions on the other side were excluded.
For the Numsa leaders and their allies in the Cosatu CEC at the time, the old union adage of, what you don’t win on the battlefield will not be won in the boardroom, seemingly did not apply.
The crisis and immediate possibilities for the mass UF
Why could Numsa and the myriad of smaller left formations that initially formed the “United Front” not have entered into a principled united front agreement with the EFF around common political goals? This would have enabled Numsa and other union members connecting with thousands of militant black working class youth in common struggles and opened up revolutionary possibilities. Instead the thousands of EFF members are mere spectators to their leaders’ parliamentary shenanigans and occasional letting off of steam in mass marches. With such a mass united front in struggle, both the EFF and Numsa leaders’ anti-white monopoly capital rhetoric could have been tested and advanced.
In conclusion, there can be no doubt that the main tenets of the Numsa moment, i.e. the struggle for working class unity (the UF), for a revolutionary and socialist workers´ government, and the creation of a revolutionary socialist or workers’ party (the movement for socialism) remain relevant. They are interrelated and interdependent aspects of the same process: the self-emancipation and liberation of the working class. However, Numsa has not come close to achieving any of the formations it committed itself to in its 2013 congress political resolutions. This, despite many opportunities presented during the past three years.
Opportunities for the Numsa omment to live up to the challenge
The student protest movement that unfolded over the past year signaled the beginning of the end for the ANC regime. Notwithstanding the weaknesses and crudity of their methods, by directing their demands towards national government and activating a national movement, the students have demonstrated tremendous political tenacity. The rest of the working class has taken notice and has drawn this lesson. In future we are likely to see local communities that have engaged in hundreds of militant local struggles around “service delivery” for over a decade, seeking unity with each other and building a national resistance movement similar to the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s. This prospect needs conscious intervention and support in order to be realized and currently only Numsa, its allies and the EFF offer this possibility.
The world and South Africa are experiencing deep and widespread socio-economic and political crises and the situation has degenerated beyond barbarism, especially for the working class and poor. Inequality, the concentration of wealth and poverty are at unprecedented levels. The resultant class conflicts have produced wars, extreme violence, terror and suffering by a rampant western imperialism led by the US, without any alternative revolutionary working class resistance and political leadership.
The challenges to the working class abound – with, on the one hand, US imperialism setting up military bases in all the regions of the African continent and elsewhere and, at the same time, within the trade union movement conservative social democracy dominates. South Africa and many countries in the region are faced with political crises, with all the governments of the traditional nationalist parties having lost credibility after years of corruption and repression. However, no revolutionary alternatives exist for the masses to belong to and pursue the struggle in line with their historic interests and mission.
The stakes here are high, with the ANC government facing a crisis and implosion. Their hold over the state has increasingly come under threat. In the context of an economy still overwhelmingly dominated by white monopoly capital and the state being the main instrument of wealth accumulation for the ANC aligned new black section of the bourgeoisie, they will resort to extreme measures to hold onto state power. It is not coincidental that the discredited Zuma presidency has ensured that the state security cluster is led by his most trusted allies.
Failing a mass revolutionary response supported by strong organization, working class resistance and opposition will be vulnerable to violent repression by the ANC government. Time is not on our side. The need for a genuine mass united front and revolutionary socialist movement or party is even greater now than in 2013 and cannot be postponed.
Despite its shortcomings, Numsa and the Numsa moment remain the only real short-term prospect in South Africa for the struggle to form a mass socialist alternative in the process of struggle in response to the crisis and the right-wing backlash that it represents, pregnant with dangers to the working class on all fronts. The union needs to recognize that the real mass working class united front is on the horizon to challenge neo-liberalism and our rulers. It needs to connect with the student movement and local working class struggles to ensure real revolutionary achievement and realise the full potential of the Numsa moment. For this to happen, its ordinary members will need to drive tectonic shifts in its politics, organizational culture and orientation towards the masses, a genuine united front, a mass working class party and socialist revolution.
* Martin Jansen is the director and editor of Workers’ World Media Productions. He wrote this article in his personal capacity.
 Amandla Magazine, Issue No. 42 October 2015, p16.