The upcoming debate on whether to leave the alliance will be a watershed moment for the union.
The resolutions of the thousand-plus delegates attending the special congress of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) next week could end up in history books as being the first real harbinger of a radically different South Africa.
It will be the first time ever that an organised workers’ congress of this size, representing more than 320 000 industrial workers, will meet to decide on the most fundamental question facing the liberation movement for a century: In whose interests is the struggle? The rich or the poor? The 1%, or the 99%? The capitalists or the workers?
The workers who will decide are representatives of the largest, most militant and most experienced trade unions in the country. Numsa is organised in all the key sectors of the industrial economy, including the sophisticated, foreign-owned motor manufacturing sector. If the labour movement had an equivalent meeting to a gathering of the “captains of industry”, a Numsa congress could well fit the bill.
Numsa workers are steeped in a long tradition of building their unity and organisation in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. Trade unions for black workers were illegal when metalworkers first organised themselves, and Numsa (and its direct descendants) fought countless recognition battles to sink its roots in the industry.
In the 1980s, there was the months-long BTR Sarmcol strike, the six-week auto strike, the occupation of the Mercedes-Benz plant in East London for R2-an-hour wages, the national metal industry strikes and the 13-week Goodyear disinvestment strike, to mention just a few landmarks on the road to the Numsa of today.
Countless metalworkers have literally given their lives in the struggle to build the union and free South Africa from apartheid. Numsa members on the East Rand and in KwaZulu-Natal were the backbone of resistance when Inkatha vigilantes were unleashed on the democratic movement in the early 1990s. Many local, regional and national leaders of the liberation struggle were drawn from the ranks of the union of John Gomomo and Mthuthuzeli Tom.
The union was able to survive and grow in such circumstances only because of its strong factory floor structures and its commitment to worker democracy.
More than any other union in the Cosatu federation, Numsa could always be relied upon to be at the forefront of the many national stayaways and solidarity actions called by Cosatu over the years.
The issue of whether to support an independent worker party or the ANC alliance has been on Numsa’s agenda since the day it was born 26 years ago. Until now, the ANC alliance has been supported by the resolution of the majority in Numsa. Next week, the union is revisiting its decision. Like the Marikana and other mineworkers who left the National Union of Mineworkers to join the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), many Numsa workers feel betrayed. The trust they had in the ANC alliance has been broken. They are meeting to decide whether it is better to be single than to stay in what they perceive to be an abusive relationship.
The hegemony of the ANC-South African Communist Party-Cosatu alliance as a liberation vehicle for the poor has been broken. Many rank- and-file activists, especially since the Marikana massacre last year, believe that the alliance is the biggest obstacle to pro-poor policies.
Amcu’s inroads into the mining industry, taken together with the formation on the left of the ANC of the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), indicate a major realignment may be under way.
These developments are more significant than any on the left in South Africa since the SACP was formed after the Russian Revolution. There have been socialists outside the SACP since the 1920s, but they’ve always been in the minority in the liberation movement. Now, things may change.
Numsa’s influence will be massive if the workers resolve to go their own way. It can be a catalyst for uniting tens of thousands of activists and millions of people in a pro-poor workers’ party. The union’s discussion documents for next week’s congress talk of the implementation of a socialist Freedom Charter. The programmes of the EFF, Wasp and the DLF, to take just the major political formations on the left as an example, all fit with that conception.
At the heart of the Freedom Charter, in the section on nationalisation, lies buried the key question: whether or not to abolish private property. The exponents, like Numsa, of a strictly socialist Freedom Charter interpret the clause at the very least to be in favour of nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, while the current ANC-SACP leadership’s interpretation is firmly against interfering in private property in any way.
This is the key issue facing workers and the country as a whole. The delegates’ decisions, including and especially whether to launch a new workers’ party, has the potential to change South Africa in a radical way.
Dirk Hartford was the first head of Cosatu Media and editor of Cosatu News in the 1980s. He now works as a freelance journalist.