Can fledgling Saftu unite the left?


With the newly formed South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) divided on whether to unite the country’s leftist organisations through a workers’ party, its campaign to oust the ANC may be the only common ground it finds among socialist forces.

Saftu’s launch was marked by a power struggle between top leaders over whether it should be allied to a workers’ party planned by metalworkers union Numsa, or retain its independence and avoid a potential walkout by dozens of smaller unions.

Saftu was launched last week with 24 affiliates and about 700 000 members, two years after Numsa’s expulsion and Zwelinzima Vavi’s dismissal from its rival federation, Cosatu. It’s being hailed by those in its ranks as the new home for the working class.

At the end of the founding congress, Saftu elected its president, Mac Chabalala, from Numsa, and Vavi as its general secretary. The deputy presidents and treasurer were elected from smaller unions.

The congress delayed resolving tension by opting to “explore” the possibility of being allied to a workers’ party in future. For now, it would remain independent of political parties. This is despite Numsa’s effort to position the new federation as anti-ANC and socialist in the run-up to the congress, as a precursor to its workers’ party. A member of its interim steering committee said the compromise reached sought to reassure the smaller affiliates, wary of Numsa’s influence on the federation as its biggest affiliate.

“If Numsa dominates the leadership and political direction, the smaller unions say it will be another workers’ party and United Front project, and they’ll walk out. If that happens, we’re basically dead in the water,” the senior official said.

Saftu’s campaign against the ANC and the government is one of the only areas where there is broad consensus. It already has a working relationship with civil society and now also an endorsement from the country’s second-biggest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The congress had a fairly large representation of civil society movements. The Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, Section27, the direct employment campaign #OutsourcingMustFall and the free education movement #FeesMustFall were all in attendance.

The presence of these organisations signalled hope for attempts to coalesce leftist groupings into one coherent force, despite differences in ideology. Unlike Saftu, the civic groups have not publicly endorsed socialism.

After three days of deliberation on Saftu’s ideology and its primary tasks, it was resolved to campaign for the nationalisation of banks and mines, the implementation of the national health insurance scheme and to convene an education crisis summit.

The apparent willingness of civil society to co-operate with Saftu follows the establishment of the Unite Against Corruption (UAC) movement led by Vavi and Numsa’s United Front, a precursor to a “revolutionary workers’ party” meant to fight for the abolishment of capitalism.

The UAC co-ordinated marches to the Union Buildings against state corruption, and the United Front held a summit on the electricity crisis caused by blackouts last year.

But the unity is fragile. The UAC has close links to the Save South Africa movement, which includes many chief executives who seek to oust President Jacob Zuma. The United Front seems set against the constituency linked to Vavi and Save South Africa.

The tension between Vavi and Numsa’s general secretary, Irvin Jim, was evident at the congress. The pair contradicted each other over whether Saftu should pronounce its ideological position and take a political stance, with Jim at one point rising to tell delegates that “Vavi is out of order”.

But they do agree on the need to oust the ANC from government because the succession battle has no hope of rescuing the “revolutionary” soul of the liberation movement.

This intention is shared by the civic groups and popular grassroots movements as well as political parties that endorsed Saftu’s founding congress.

But a host of other left-leaning parties remain outside Saftu’s fold and have adopted opposing stances towards the civic groups and unions affiliated to the federation.

These include the ANC-allied South African Communist Party, the Pan Africanist Congress and the Black First Land First party.

In the absence of an agreement on whether to start a workers’ party and form an alliance, or the support of the established leftist parties, a campaign to oust the ANC from government may be its best chance for unity the leftist forces.

But much will depend on whether Saftu can build a strong power base on the shop floor. This will be tested as its affiliates apply for recognition status in their respective industries.

The list of Saftu’s affiliates that hold seats at bargaining councils includes South Africa’s biggest union Numsa, the Food and Allied Workers Union, the National Transport Movement and the South African Policing Union.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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