Numsa's bid to mobilise 'socialist movement' raises tensions

Numsa members marched on Nedlac in Rosebank on Wednesday. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Numsa members marched on Nedlac in Rosebank on Wednesday. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

When Brian Musaringa, a representative of South Africa's migrant and refugee community, took the podium on Wednesday in front of a red-clad crowd aligned with the National Union and Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the high spirits that earlier prevailed seemed to subside. 

There was almost complete silence from the crowd several thousand strong as he took the microphone. Two small groups near the front of the crowd were the exception: they made dismissive hand movements and called for him to sit back down.  

He spoke only in English.
"We are not here out of our own choice," he said to a non-responsive audience. He spoke of economic oppression and the fact that people like him were in South Africa as a result of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. "Mugabe is an associate of the oppressors!" he shouted. 

A murmur rippled over the crowd. Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), visibly situated centre front, began to wave their arms and shout their disagreement. Musaringa quickly shifted his rhetoric. Refugees and migrants were in favour of democracy, he said. He made a few general comments and then resorted to shouting "Amandla!" which managed to elicit the traditional "Awethu!" from most of the crowd. 

Afterwards, Musaringa leaned on his crutches as he told the Mail & Guardian what happened. "I had to change my programme when I saw the EFF," he said. "Those are Mugabe's boys." 

'Foreigners must not lead us'
Later, Brian Kola, a Ward 14 EFF leader wearing an embroidered red beret and party T-shirt, shook his head. "These people must stay away from the socialist movement," he said. "We are not saying they must go home, but these foreigners must not lead us in South Africa."

This tension is just one of the many that will likely be faced by Numsa as it tries to mobilise trade unions, political parties, community groups and youth formations as the precursor to a "socialist movement" spoken of by the union earlier this month.

Wednesday's demonstration, a march held in seven cities across South Africa, was Numsa's first public attempt to do so. Johannesburg's march from Zoo Lake to the Nedlac buildings in Rosebank involved the coming together of several such clusters.

Most numerous were those wearing Numsa-branded T-shirts and berets. But also present was a noticeable contingent of the EFF; members of the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp); members of the Democratic Left Front (DLF), a community-based movement operating in the eastern and southern parts of Johannesburg; Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM), a campaign aimed at mobilising South Africans to use electricity wisely; members of the General Workers Union of South Africa (Gwusa) and the Zimbabwe Youth Wing, amongst others. 

Highlighting youth unemployment
Officially, the demonstration was held to "highlight the issue of youth unemployment and demand real solutions to the problem." Specifically, the Employment Tax Incentive Act, of which the Youth Wage Subsidy forms a part, was raised, with Numsa publishing nine reasons why it objected to the Act on the Monday before the march.

But while concern about unemployment was a definite recurring theme for the protesters, the reasons they chose to attend varied greatly. And many had no views at all on the subsidy or the Act.

"I came here today because I want our government to change," said Siviwe Makaula, a member of the EFF. Makaula came to Johannesburg 10 years ago looking for work as a boilermaker. He has been employed for one year in the past decade. He, his wife and two children aged six and three, all rely on his mother's old age grant for survival. 

"I think [EFF leader Julius] Malema will change things … that's why I joined the EFF. He goes straight to the shacks; he comes there and he makes promises. He promises job opportunities, free food and the building of RDP houses. With him, corruption will end." 

Does Makaula have an opinion on the youth wage subsidy? "Not really, no," he said. 

'White people must give our children jobs'
Margaret Mothibedi, an elderly member of Operation Khanyisa Movement said she had come to the rally because "the white people must give our children jobs". 

"They are not working. I pay for eight of them with my grant of R1 300. It is just enough to pay for food. I can't pay for rent and water [as well]." 

Mothibedi and her friends couldn't explain what the Democratic Left Front was, although they all wore the community organisation's free-issue T-shirts. 

A deteriorating standard of living is what brought Raymond Nyathi, a member of the Germiston branch of Numsa, to the event. "My life is no longer like it was before," he said. "We no longer have leaders in the country. 

"It seems as if this government is running fast to the greatest fall. They don't think about the people who voted them in. Workers are under dictatorship from the ANC."

For the Zimbabwe Youth Wing's Musaringa, the rally merely provided a platform to have his party's views heard. "We need South Africans to know and understand the reason of our immigration in this country," he said. He shares views with some of the other groups present, such as the need to promote real jobs for the youth, but on other issues, such as the merits of Robert Mugabe, the parties at the rally are "divided". 

Nevertheless, despite their differences, the common desire for a strong socialist push in the country seemed enough to keep this group cohesive – at least for the day.  

"What brings us here is responding to the call of the united front of Numsa," said Mduduzi Makhubu, a member of the DLF from Soweto. Numsa had not only invited the DLF to join the rally, but included their input in sketching out the agenda and speakers for the day, he said. 

As Numsa continues to collaborate with other civic and labour forces, "the issues of community and labour will come together. It's a powerful combination," said Makhubu. 

Just like marriage
But Makhubu cannot predict whether relations between the groups will remain so positive. "It's like a marriage. It's always happy when it starts. We only hope it continues this way."   

Wasp presidential candidate Moses Mayekiso told the M&G: "This rally is about the needs, aspirations and expectations of the working class. It unites the working class in communities, in the factories, and everywhere where the working class is congregated. 

"This is a precursor to the front that we believe is going to be a socialist front, and also towards the socialist movement in South Africa. Wasp is a socialist organisation, and we have to unite with other left organisations to push for change in South Africa."

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

Client Media Releases

SA political parties talk foreign policy
Barloworld announces new group structure
Should I stay or should I grow?
Use Microsoft's eDiscovery for non-Office 365 data sources