When, in December 2013, the special national congress of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) resolved that the union “must lead in the establishment of a new united front that will co-ordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s”, no road map was provided.
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The union was simply convinced of the necessity to bring together the battalions fighting retrenchments and short time on the factory floor, and the troops involved in “service delivery protests” in the townships. What was clear to the 1 300 delegates at the special congress was that the working class – employed and unemployed – can’t rely on political and economic elites to improve its plight.
A year later we have learnt that to build a mass movement, which is what forming a united front is all about, is to embark on a journey on a long and winding road with many stops on the way. The preparatory assembly for the United Front held on December 13 and 14 last year is one stop along the way. There are more steps ahead.
The first stop after the decision was made in 2013 was a 10-day political school, held in January 2014. The school brought together 171 Numsa activists from across the country. There were discussions on what we meant by “building a united front”. On the last two days of the school, close to 100 community activists from 13 different sectors – from land and food sovereignty campaigners to health movement activists, gay and lesbian groups to solidarity economy projects, immigrant communities to unemployed movements – joined the Numsa contingent in what was dubbed a “Resistance Expo”.
The next stop was a campaign against youth unemployment and the recently passed Employment Tax Incentive Act. This campaign culminated in a one-day strike on March 19. The key lesson from this campaign was that the front could not be built through national campaigns and strikes only. The task was to build embryonic united front structures in different townships around local issues. At the time of the December 2014 assembly, four provincial structures had been launched and 25 embryonic township-based ones were active.
The union also had an international symposium of left parties and movements to which it invited 27 international guests from 17 countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Uruguay and Venezuela. In many of these countries fronts had emerged to overcome fragmentation and to unite the opposition.
Throughout this journey Numsa has to learn and unlearn many things. Two of the most important lessons that we have learnt are that the front that we are building must be a creation of today’s generation and that, although there may be no road map, it is vital to know the destination.
What is required is to take one step at a time. Although lessons can be gleaned from our own history and experiences of other countries, the script must be written in our own language. Although the congress said we must build a front “similar to the UDF of the 1980s”, we are the first to acknowledge that today’s conditions are different from those of the 1980s.
Fragmented by casualisation and informalisation, today’s working class is not the same as that of the 1980s. We are also building a united front at a time where there are representative political parties: a situation that did not exist in the 1980s.
We also acknowledge that every country has a unique history, its unique symbols, traditions and struggle mythologies. There are also differences in the level of economic development, differences in class structure and differences in the balance of class forces.
Therefore, we need no carbon copies or cut-and-paste solutions.
Dinga Sikwebu is Numsa’s United Front co-ordinator and member of the front’s national working committee.