The expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) from labour federation Cosatu spells trouble for the ANC at the 2016 local government elections.
The workerist union’s official ousting has set off a fresh bout of discussions about what plans for a labour party, to be discussed in March, could mean for some of the country’s metros, such as in Gauteng, where support for the ANC has weakened.
Dinga Sikwebu, head of “the united front and the movement for socialism” at Numsa, has been cautious. “The question of whether we establish the party – what form it should take, who will it involve – all of that will be discussed at Numsa’s central committee in March 2015,” he told the Mail & Guardian this week.
The United Front (UF), a loose grassroots organisation that works in struggling communities, is set to launch nationally on December 13. Plans for the separate party are far more nascent, yet it has received the most attention.
Political scientist Steven Friedman points out that, whether or not a competing political party was formed, Numsa’s expulsion from Cosatu means the ANC would lose out on significant campaigning muscle.
“We are looking at the real possibility of two federations competing for Cosatu’s membership,” Friedman says. “If that happens it’s not a case of people campaigning against the ANC; it’s a case of people not having the energy to campaign for the ANC that will obviously weaken it.”
Professor Devan Pillay of the University of the Witwatersrand agrees. “Split or no split in Cosatu, there is going to be a divided vote among traditional ANC supporters, especially in the country’s metros. Young urban voters are less loyal to the ANC than in the past. A lot of those votes are up for grabs.”
If a party does launch in time for the local government election in 2016, the picture gets worse for the ANC. A workers’ party, particularly one driven by a powerful, well-organised Numsa, will likely be strongest in industrial areas.
The UF has the most traction in Ekurhuleni so far, thanks to a concentration of factories on the East Rand; five UF structures have been set up there. The structure in Katlehong meets for three hours every Sunday, Sikwebu says proudly.
Ekurhuleni is particularly significant, given the area’s historical voting patterns. In the last local government elections in 2011, support for the ANC was 61.6%. In the three years since, the support has plummeted, evinced by the voting patterns in the national election in May when only 55% of Ekurhuleni voters chose the party when casting their ballot for provincial leadership.
The Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are making inroads into the area, with 29% and 10.6% of the provincial vote in the metro. A worker-led party could tip the scales.
The Nelson Mandela Bay metro is within even closer reach. The ANC received just shy of 52% of the vote there in the 2011 local polls.
If metros were up for grabs in the 2014 national election, the ruling party may well have lost the metro. Only 48.8% of voters there chose the ANC to represent them nationally.
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim and. (Paul Botes, M&G)
Patterns shift from local to national elections, so it’s unclear whether this year’s election will set a trend for 2016. But the overall voting pattern is clear: the ANC is increasingly unpopular in the area.
The DA, the official opposition, has made the most of the ANC’s drop in support, capturing 40% of the vote in Nelson Mandela Bay in 2011.
But Port Elizabeth, the metro’s anchor, is home to a thriving automotive industry and, accordingly, a concentration of Numsa members. A workers party born out of the union would likely be strong in the area.
Of course Numsa’s primary aim is not to go it alone. “Our first prize is to get back into Cosatu,” says Sikwebu. The best-case scenario entails the union winning enough support by September 2015 to overturn its expulsion.
New Cosatu leaders sympathetic to Numsa could be elected and the union’s vision could gain ascendancy in the federation, says labour expert Professor Andries Bezuidenhout of the University of Pretoria.
Plans for a broader socialist movement and workers’ party would then gain from the combined clout of the whole of Cosatu.
But it seems a distant dream at this point and, even if it does happen, there is no guarantee that Cosatu members will be willing to transfer their deep-seated allegiances from the ANC, or welcome a workers’ party, according to Bezuidenhout’s research.
Bezuidenhout and his colleagues have conducted a survey of Cosatu members ahead of every election since 1994. Ahead of 1994, no Cosatu members surveyed thought there was a need for a workers’ party. But before the 2014 national election, 8% believed there should be one – of whom 40% were from Numsa.
Numsa itself does not dictate political allegiances for its members, according to the resolutions from its special congress in December 2013.
On the other end of the divide, support for the ANC and the alliance was 80% among the pro-President Jacob Zuma National Union of Mineworkers members surveyed.
These findings, as Bezuidenhout points out, boil down to one thing: “If they [Numsa] want a workers’ party option, they need to do a hell of a lot more work. The levels of support for it aren’t there yet.”
Toppling the ANC in any metro is going to be tough work – the party still enjoys massive support in townships.
Which is why Sikwebu keeps emphasising that Numsa is not particularly interested in the elections and is playing the long-term game.
“In politics there are what we called the twin dangers: you can have revolutionary impatience where you want to run faster or you get tail-endism, where you are slow and don’t grab opportunities … we need to strike the balance,” he says.
The question of possible coalitions is even further off. A popular question is a possible alliance between the populist EFF and a party born out of Numsa.
Numsa has made no direct overtures to the party, sparking resentment among the young EFF guns who told the M&G they support the idea of a coalition of left forces but expect better treatment from Numsa.
But the two organisations are fundamentally different.
A recent EFF policy discussion document, prepared for its coming first national conference, found that the party’s tactic of parachuting into community struggles ahead of the elections didn’t make much of an impact on their results.
The ANC was not immediately available for comment. But ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has previously been dismissive of Numsa’s decision not to campaign for the party ahead of this year’s national election, saying it was unlikely to affect the ANC’s results. But on Monday, at an ANC press briefing, Mantashe was more sombre about Numsa’s ousting.
“Will the ANC be weaker? I think it will not be as good as it was when it had a good, strong ally [in Numsa],” Mantashe said.
“We reaffirm our position that the expulsion of Numsa … is bad for Cosatu itself, it is bad for the ANC, bad for the alliance … as well as society in general.”
Déjà vu as the ghosts of a flawed alliance haunt anew
On May 9 1990 a number of delegates from trade union federation Cosatu met leaders from the ANC and the South African Communist Party, armed with five resolutions from their members. It was the birth of the tripartite alliance and Cosatu had resolved to join forces with the ANC and the SACP, despite its differences with the latter party.
The first of the resolutions was straightforward: “Each organisation is independent and will develop its own positions on various issues and campaigns.”
But in his book on that period, former Cosatu national co-ordinator Jeremy Baskin described a last-minute addition by the SACP: the recognition of the ANC as “the leader of the alliance”.
It was an add-on that was not sanctioned by the bulk of Cosatu members. The decision was always going to chafe.
By 1993, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), then the biggest affiliate in the federation, was the first to break ranks, declaring its intention to stop supporting the ANC after the critical 1994 elections.
Numsa “called for the formation of a working-class party and for Cosatu to convene a conference on socialism”, read a Weekly Mail (the Mail & Guardian’s predecessor) article in July 1993. Numsa’s strongest political competitor in Cosatu, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the SACP opposed the decision.
You’d be forgiven for having a recurring sense of déjà vu.
Numsa never quite succeeded in toeing the alliance line. In 2007, ahead of the ANC’s pivotal Polokwane conference, the alliance was dragged into the factional battles between former president Thabo Mbeki and his then deputy, Jacob Zuma.
Cosatu was increasingly alienated by Mbeki and found his economic policies abhorrent. It sided with Zuma, led by general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
But the ever-contrarian Numsa – under then general secretary Silumko Nondwangu – broke ranks with Cosatu and pushed for a nonaligned stance, even going so far as to support Mbeki.
Nondwangu came under fire for his position and rapidly lost support within his own union. He later accused Cosatu of playing a factional role at Polokwane instead of being a unifying force.
In a document prepared for a Numsa conference in 2008, Nondwangu asserted his concern that the divisions at Cosatu’s previous congress, in 2006, had nothing to do with internal differences but were linked to larger political battles.
Again, in 2014 you’d be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu.
More than 20 years since that fateful day in 1993, Numsa appears to be tired of waiting. After decades of false starts and attempts to break away from an alliance it has found increasingly stifling, its suitcases seem to be packed for real this time.