The recipe for the United Front (UF) to succeed is still missing two key ingredients, those doing the cooking believe.
First, greater commitment from its supposed sugar daddy, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), preferably expressed as a big cheque. Second, a new workers’ political party from former Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi, whether directly or as a creation of a new union federation – in turn created by Vavi.
Stir together, bake very, very rapidly, and the New Left will be in a position to significantly influence the next round of national elections.
But with both those ingredients still missing even some of the UF’s fiercest supporters admit the still technically nascent body is treading water and risks irrelevance.
“If I were not an atheist I’d be praying right now,” said one of the organisation’s leaders this week. “The UF could still become the basis for real change we need desperately. It could also still become one of those groups made up of two people and a fax machine, except today you have email.”
The leader and others involved in the UF’s formation cite a number of reasons for not wishing to speak on the record, including morale within the group, possible elections for national leadership positions and various important negotiations under way. But, speaking anonymously, several people with intimate knowledge of the formation talked about private concerns that are increasingly being discussed among themselves.
“This is something that is necessary and the time for it has come; it should be inevitable,” said one. But: “I’m not really optimistic right now.”
The United Front was to be launched nationally in December 2014, but that event was turned into a “preparatory assembly” where delegates found little to agree on except that the ANC was to blame for almost all the woes of workers and the country as a whole. It was then scheduled to launch in April, but in that month Numsa – which came up with the concept and funded the initial push for its creation – announced it would, in fact, launch at the end of June. That launch was postponed because of what was described as a lack of money.
That shortage of money stems from what some see as a fundamental conflict in Numsa, and others as the union being distracted by the ongoing struggle within labour federation Cosatu, which played out at a special congress this week.
Numsa funded the creation of the United Front, which has had various interim and steering committees since December and now has token organisations in most of the provinces.
“They invested all this money and then they stopped before the big [June] conference,” said a political academic who has been following the formation of the UF but asked not to be named because of possible ethical conflicts on work done through confidential interviews.
“When we asked people throughout Numsa why that was, some told us ‘we can’t pay for this thing if we are not going to be in charge of it’ and others said ‘now is the time we should be concentrating on being a good trade union because Cosatu is going to come for us’. I wouldn’t say there was a change of heart or anything, there were just other priorities for this union.”
While Numsa has been battling it out with Cosatu, the United Front has been largely absent from the national stage. One of its few shows of activity was headlining a protest in March outside the United States consulate in Sandton, with a confused message – part solidarity with black Americans killed by police in the US and part a show against South African xenophobia.
Another was a call in June for citizens to “jam the presidential hotline, fax, email address and post box with the message: ‘President Zuma – Pay Back the Money you owe us for your private home. Listen to us as the People!”, the phrase created by the Economic Freedom Fighters.
An anticorruption march on the Union Buildings planned for August is expected to have United Front backing, but will be led by ousted Cosatu leader Vavi, with the UF cast in a supporting role.
Yet judging by the vitriol aimed at it, the UF is considered a threat by the likes of Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, or at least their respective leaders, S’dumo Dlamini and Blade Nzimande. In the space of two days in June, Nzimande darkly hinted at the “dirty money” behind the formation of the UF, while Dlamini poetically linked the UF with an Oliver Tambo quote on the vigilant enemy and his “poisonous tongue”.
In the UF such reactions serve as inspiration and proof that the Old Left believes the New Left is rising, even if the New Left itself is concerned that it could become another incarnation of the same-old left.
“There are organisations with a long list of affiliates but no real shared ideology or programme,” said one leader. “We don’t want to be one of those.”
A good indication of whether the United Front will be a half-baked also-ran, insiders believe, will be next year’s local government elections. Although the organisation is yet to have a national meeting to make the decision, indications are that the UF will not field its own candidates, but will seek to endorse, support and campaign for independent candidates or, ideally, candidates of an as-yet nonexistent workers’ party.
That, several leaders believe, would not only energise grass-roots supporters in areas wracked by service delivery problems, but would be a good dress rehearsal for the 2019 national elections.
And it will also be something of a warning shot across the bows of the ANC alliance.
“The idea is to save this country from the forces of capitalism, right?” said one leader.
“If we can show we have a constituency and can swing the vote, that can pull everything back to the left, to the people, even if you can’t beat the ANC in the voting booth directly. For that you need a show of force.”