(part 2) South Africa and the Changing Politics of Labour

Part 2: NUMSA and the Emergence of a New Movement

NUMSA has always been the left critic within COSATU. Its roots lay in the traditions of independent socialism of FOSATU and MAWU, which precede the formation of COSATU – a tradition to the left of the SACP and long castigated as ‘workerism’ by the SACP and the ANC in the 1980s. Not that NUMSA was ever politically monolithic – its leadership cadre make-up was always an entente between a political group located within the Eastern Cape SACP, an old independent socialist layer coming from the Wits region and a layer of syndicalist policy technocrats. This entente made NUMSA unique within COSATU and saw it campaign for a Workers’ Charter in 1987 and for COSATU to break with the tripartite alliance in 1993. Already in the run-up to 2009’s Pholokwane ANC Conference there were moves within COSATU to discipline NUMSA for not being enthusiastic enough backers of the Zuma project.

[Photo: activestills/Flickr]
And unlike the public sector unions which dominate COSATU (from whence its Zuma-loyal president comes) and where the membership is a new middle class of white collar workers; NUMSA still has the blue collar workers of its militant days in the steel and engineering companies of the Witwatersrand, KZN and the Vaal.

With the break up of the old Zuma-alliance it is therefore not surprising that it’s NUMSA which has responded in the way that it has. It is also significant that NUMSA took their decisions at a Special National Congress (SNC) preceded by a process of political discussion and democratic debate from their locals and regions.

A Historic Moment

There is much optimism on the Left that a historic moment has arrived. Much of this optimism is informed by the idea that NUMSA (or COSATU?) will be launching a new party – a Workers’ Party, a Labour Party? The South African media has been quick to jump at this interpretation in a year of a General Election where everything was seen through the lenses of parliamentary politics and the possible line up of forces likely to contest the elections was clearly news-worthy. NUMSA held a Special National Congress in December 2013 and adopted resolutions that spelt out three things:

  • That it would not support the ANC in the forthcoming April General Elections, but would leave to individuals as to what they should do on the day of the elections
  • That it would build a United Front of joint campaigns with other working-class struggles
  • That it would convene a Movement for Socialism which alongside other programmes would explore and debate approaches to socialism and how to achieve this politically

In addition NUMSA also proposed to address the changing labour processes under neoliberalism by committing itself to organizing workers outside its original scope and across what it calls “the value chain.”

All of this is supposed to culminate in a decision by NUMSA in 2015 as to what it is going to do. If one can leave aside for the moment the
idea that the NUMSA leadership can simply draw up a time-table and then squeeze the actual rough and tumble of struggles into such a managerial approach, the political significance of the biggest union in the country taking such a perspective is enormous. And so commentators have been eager to dub this “The NUMSA moment” – invoking developments in the early 1970s – dubbed the “Durban Moment” – which led to the emergence of an independent trade union movement outside the fold of the official liberation movements of the day.

Journalists who have no training or knowledge about Left history or trade union procedures conflated all of this into a simple formula – NUMSA is breaking from the ANC and is about to launch a new party. They confused things to such an extent that the United Front became the name of this party, or that the Movement for Socialism would do so.

The NUMSA moment of course came after a period of infighting in COSATU after Vavi was suspended for having an affair with an administrator,
possibly favouring her for the position because of sexual reasons and possibly being implicated in misdemeanours around the sale of COSATU’s building. COSATU affiliates – including NUMSA – lined up for and against Vavi with some alleging that the suspension was due to Vavi being critical of the ANC. Nine affiliates even took the matter to court – which they won – and called for a Special COSATU National Congress to clean up the mess.

These shenanigans not only gave the story legs, and had journalists salivating over ink-stained copy, but gave credence to the idea that
possibly this was such long-expected struggle over COSATU that had
long been predicted by everyone – from liberal commentators to the independent Left.

But whereas one could forgive the journalists for their predeliction for sensation and their lack of historical and political training it is
less forgivable that this matter has excited the Left who have long looked to COSATU (and its predecessor FOSATU) as the source of a Left alternative to the ANC – since the 1970s.

Now the emergence of a Left political alternative to the ANC-SACP would be a political game changer in South Africa. But that would suppose that it is an alternative which has deep roots in the working-class and emerges from experience of active struggles and traditions of democracy and credibility across a range of strata broader than the core membership of which that formation is made up. South African history is littered with attempts at forming new parties – which have simply never outgrown the sect-like status of their genesis. A Left Party with such deep historical roots in the working-class would undeniably be different from such self-proclaimed project of a few individuals. The COSATU of the 1980s and early 1990s would undoubtedly have been an appropriate source of legitimacy for such a project.

But is COSATU in 2014 the legitimate successor to the COSATU of the 1980s and early 1990s? Is COSATU a deeply-entrenched organizer of key
sections of the working-class and a register of struggles of that class? Does it still hold sway as a moral force for broader layers of the poor and others who are not formally its members?

These questions are critical lest we confuse what would be a good idea, all things being equal, with what is actually happening today. Or what
may have been a possible configuration of forces in the 1980s and 1990s with what is the case now. Are commentators not indulging in nostalgia – confusing the glorious music of the past with elevator muzak of today?

Responses to COSATU’s Demise?

With the ongoing saga of the divisions within COSATU there is amongst many on the Left a sense that some kind of moral nadir has been reached.
COSATU, that radical voice of the organized working-class, the beacon of struggles in the 1980s and 1990s – particularly after UDF was banned in 1987 by the apartheid regime – has been reduced to a series of internecine squabbles about corruption and sexual power games.

Some might claim that the criticism that COSATU is not representative of the now largely unemployed, precariously-employed working-class is
unfair. Indeed there are countless COSATU resolutions taken at Congresses committing unions to organize casual workers, to force the
state to ban labour brokers. There are initiatives of COSATU to research and possibly even set up structures to recruit informalized workers etc. Some would even assert that what is required is the political will on the part of the industrial unions to tweek their structures and embrace new forms of organizing, which would be more appropriate for this changed working-class.

But all of these initiatives presume a kind of “managerial” approach to struggles and fail to understand how the working-class generated its various organizations, including the trade unions.

In this there are those who wish to put the issue of politics at the centre but with two divergent paths to their critique and possible
remedy. On the right, the story goes that the COSATU unions have been too political and have sacrificed workers interests for political
gain. From this side the call then goes out for unions to go ‘back to basics’ – meaning focusing on ‘pure’ collective bargaining and servicing members. On the left, on the other hand, the analysis is that COSATU has adopted the wrong politics – kowtowing to the ANC’s neoliberal policies. It’s not a problem of COSATU being too political, but not being political enough. From these quarters the answer is that if COSATU were to embrace revolutionary politics then the problem of worker disaffection would be solved.

In a sense this latter critique is valid – but it doesn’t go far enough. Unless we begin to talk about a much deeper structural analysis of the source of the trade union problem we can end up merely grafting left wing slogans on top of structures which are no longer representative of the fighting battalions of the working-class.

What does this say about the state of the trade unions in South Africa today and can we still speak of a labour movement as a social force comprising militant layers of the working-class?

NUMSA itself is caught in this conundrum – on the one hand pitching its tent on the ground of the United Front – an initiative of seeking
common ground with the hundreds of instances of existing working-class struggles in communities and workplaces. And yet it is held captive by the need to honour its obligations to save COSATU from itself. Having done so much to inspire activists with its Special Congress resolutions of December 2013 it is in danger of misreading the mood in the country amongst working-class militants as it keeps its focus on the rot in COSATU – whether Vavi gets his job back or not; whether a Special congress will be held or not; and whether the ANC’s “mediation” should be allowed to take its course or not.

In a way it is caught in a very traditional notion on the Left – that the trade unions are the very stuff of working-class life and that any hope of taking the next step toward socialism depends on privileging the trade unions as the most organized force of the working-class etc. Some continue to conflate the concept, working-class, with those in full-time jobs and that this section of the working-class is given expression by trade unions. Others who have criticized these assumptions point out that trade union densities can differ over time and that seldom have trade unions involved a majority of workers as membership.

Both perspectives however continue to privilege trade unions as the unit of analysis in understanding the behaviour of the working-class and how it may act as a social force. But is this conceptually and historically true?

The Role of Trade Unions?

It is not a given that the building of a mass working-class movement privileges trade unions.

There are no lack of instances of oppression and unfairness in contemporary society – and always when people of whatever social category experience such oppression they don’t just accept but contest this oppression. Traditional liberal perspectives give moral legitimacy to these struggles as that of competing ‘interest groups’ and seek mechanisms to allow for their mediation and resolution. The starting point for a Marxist perspective is the notion of the central role of the working-class as both a subject and object of historical development and the possibilities of social justice.

Marxists lay claim to the idea that the working-class – uniquely amongst all classes – is not just another ‘interest group’ and that in pursuing its daily interests it is compelled to shake up the whole edifice of society and open the way to revolution and human emancipation. But the working-class, in order to act in this capacity needs organization in order to act as class for itself.

Traditionally many on the Left have privileged trade unions as that exemplar of working-class organization which may play that potential role. Why? Some would argue because the trade unions organize workers as a collective at the point of production, and because trade unions as collectives of workers doing bargaining about wages and working conditions contest the social surpluses produced by the working-class and thereby contest the terms of exploitation of the working-class. In this sense trade unions objectively school workers for more radical projects of political power and social justice.

But over the course of its formation and history the working-class has thrown up a plethora of different kinds of organizations – from benefit societies, to clubs, cultural groups, co-operatives and trade unions to political parties and social movements. In no country in the world are the trade unions taken as a whole, the majority organizational expression of workers, even of the employed workers. To be sure South Africa has a relatively large trade union density – at nearly 30 per cent – but in some major industrialized countries – like the USA – this can drop to less than 6 per cent.

Nevertheless, despite this ‘numbers question’ many on the Left have argued that trade unions are unique amongst all the different forms of working-class organization in that they contest the terms of exploitation of the working-class so their social weight and significance is far greater than their numbers. But is that always historically true? That trade unions have played this role more than other organizational forms? Far from these being less about contestation of the exploitation of the working-class, some have at various times played a greater role than
trade unions in contesting that exploitation.

This is not some kind of claim that a trade union is of necessity reformist and so therefore the working-class needs a vanguard party, as Lenin’s 1901 pamphlet, What is to be Done?, is so crudely mis-represented, but an assertion from history, where the record is a mixed one.

In Britain at the turn of the 20th century, workers who had set up trade unions but had no political party set up the Labour Party. And then as the parliamentary party shifted toward the centre the trade unions – with membership greater than the Labour Party – often occupied a space to the left of the party. In Germany, however, the original Social Democratic Party preceded the trade unions, vastly exceeded them in terms of membership. There the trade unions occupied a space on the extreme right wing of the party. In Brazil in the 1980s the trade unions set up the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). When Lula came into power and shifted the PT to the Right the labour unions of the CUT were dragged rightwards with Lula. It was a social movement, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), which became more representative of the working-class.

In South Africa for the least 12 years community-based social movements have been at the forefront of working-class struggles while the trade unions have largely stuck to LRA-regulated wage struggles and generally insured labour peace. In the South Africa of the 1920s it was the ICU which was most representative of the working-class, although it was only nominally a trade union and was rather, in today’s language, a social movement of the urban and rural poor. When it was compelled to become a “proper” trade union under the advice of William Ballinger in 1929, it collapsed.

So there is no consistency in the historical record that suggests that trade unions are the primordial organizations of the working-class or that they are the ones most devoted, by their every nature to contesting the exploitation of the working-class.

And yet, despite this evidence, so many on the Left would argue the centrality of the trade unions from ‘first principles,’ from Marxist theory, because they, falsely, conclude that the exploitation of the working-class occurs ‘at the point of production.’

The notion that the exploitation of the working-class is a matter of the ‘point of production’ is a false one – at least from the perspective of Marxist theory. There has unfortunately been no lack of Left critics of capitalism who have responded to economists’ focus on relationships of exchange – as in, for instance, the notion of price being determined by the relation between supply and demand by bending the stick the other way and focusing on production and associating this with Marx. By so doing they separate what needs to be unified and thereby do disservice to Marx’s critique of classical political economy.

Marx’s critique of political economy was broad-ranging. But for our purposes let us focus on three strands. One strand was Marx’s critique of classical political economy’s labour theory of value as the idea that value is about the amount of labour time spent in production. This led to the obvious rejoinder that capitalists would favour lazy workers. Instead Marx amended this position to the notion of “socially-necessary” labour time. While labour produced value it was only possible to give expression to this process in a world of competition between capitalists for the sale of commodities which would reward the process by achieving a sale in the context of this competition – meaning that labour was only productive labour in the capitalist sense when it was able to realise value in the form of consumption/sale. So production and consumption had of necessity to be related.

A second strand is his notion of surplus value – that is the difference between the value produced (as realised in a sale) as against the value of the workers’ labour power. Increasing surplus value can be done either by extending the value creating period – what Marx called absolute surplus value or by reducing the value of workers’ labour power – relative surplus value. Capitalists exploit workers both by commanding their labour power in production and by suppressing the value of their labour power in reproduction. So the exploitation of the working-class is both about the production of value by the worker and the issue of the reproduction of the working-class. In the case of the Keynesian welfare state the cost of reproduction could be transferred onto the state rather that the individual capitalist, but under neoliberalism this has reverted, largely, to the extended families of the working-class.

A third strand was to insist on the notion of the necessary unity of the circuit of capital – from reproduction, to production and the realisation through sale/consumption. A break in this virtuous cycle is the source of crisis for capitalism.

Without this understanding – of the relation between production, reproduction and consumption we cannot understand exploitation, the working-class and capitalism itself. It is false to see the working-class as defined solely by the sphere of production. And therefore the class struggle is waged both across the whole circuit of capital and certainly both within the sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction.

So a working-class contesting its exploitation and anchoring a movement for socialism is not dependent on the existence, in some kind of a priori ‘first principles’ sense, of trade unions. This is a matter of a concrete analysis of struggles at any given time rather than a matter of ‘first principles’. What one can say is that there is a working-class movement in the making. But it is not happening through the traditional trade unions – certainly not the middle class COSATU unions, and it may not even be a trade union question, primarily.

Self-Organization and Struggle is the Key

As 2014 started, the number of community struggles increased – now almost four instances of protests per day. In almost every part of the country community activists are protesting against water cut-offs, no services and poor housing, expressing their anger that 20 years after the end of apartheid the quality of life for the poorest sections of the working-class has gotten worse.

From Mthotlung to Valhalla Park; from the North West and Limpopo to KZN and the Western Cape these struggles can no longer be dismissed by bourgeois commentators as just “service delivery protests” or “pop-corn” struggles. This is a movement – a rebellion of the poor. A movement of the unemployed, of shackdwellers and of small towns, all across the country. The striking platinum workers of AMCU standing up against the whole gamut of mine bosses; the state and the strike-breaking unions are now lined up alongside the protesting communities in Bekkersdal, Burgersfort and Siqalo reshaping South African politics and competing with the ANC for the hearts and minds of the working-class. Drawing in NUMSA and even casting a different light on the EFF because it speaks the language of this movement.

The police have responded with violence, and there are attempts by the political parties and the media to criminalize the activists in the movement but it is one that won’t go away and will continue in this fashion throughout for 2014. A movement which must still find its own political identity, but one which is already shaping the landscape of politics in South Africa.

And on the other side we have the rise of a new movement – whether by self-identification or not – of the 10 years of a revolt of the poor; of the wildcat strikes post-Marikana; of the NUMSA moment. This is a movement which has not yet self-declared, but already it confronts the neoliberal order and doesn’t seek to correct its “aberrations” or to recover the halcyon days of the rainbow nation. This is a movement which no longer blames Apartheid for the ills of today but sees the ANC as having climbed into bed with the old Apartheid beneficiaries. This is a movement which is still to develop its own ideas about political power and about what kind of political expression and programme might articulate those ideas.

The working-class community struggles of the last 10-12 years – although almost unabated – have themselves gone through ebbs and
flows. All of these phases are notable for some common features: they have been localized, they have been largely borne by the unemployed,
the youth and by women; they were led by activists who had no connection or experience with the past anti-apartheid movement
struggles and they have not forged their own unifying political identify, let alone organization. Instead it has been others who have
attempted to establish this for them by filling the leadership vacuum. In these attempts at forging a leadership on their behalf one can discern three phases.

Between 1994 to 2002 the old “left” of the Congress milieu largely ignored the struggles or dismissed them as opportunist, hostile to
the ANC etc. The first to “discover” the struggles were left wing intellectuals informed by ideas of “new social movements” and eager to see in these struggles the affirmation of their own theories.

When the struggles continued two sections of the old left stepped in. From the side of the “left” in the Congress Alliance resolutions started being passed that COSATU and/or the SACP branches should “provide leadership” – which they hardly were able to do given their social distance from these struggles. Given this distance the space was filled with the “independent Left” who had considerable experience of the anti-apartheid struggles. The zenith of this experience was the Anti-Privatization Forum in Gauteng, and to a lesser extent the TAC and the LPM. The two global meeting places in South Africa – the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in 2001 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 – provided events to round up activists and make a spectacular statement. The spectacle of a mass march to Sandton in 2002 – in direct competition with a failed ANC-COSATU counter – and a new generation of activists who had become rapidly schooled in the language of socialism proved inspiring. A smaller-scale instance – the Abahlali base Mjondolo in Durban – was similarly claimed as an iconic instance to some new left intellectuals. This continued until the Kennedy Road killings in 2009 and allegations that the intellectuals were indulging in delusions.

Yet the ongoing local struggles continued and spread across the country and a strange irony occurred – far from the heightened and more widespread struggles strengthening the official “Social Movements” – the APF, LPM, TAC, AbH etc – they declined in influence and as centres of militancy. By 2010/11 the “social movements” had collapsed and yet the community struggles actually increased in scale and intensity.

These struggles were joined in 2012 by the post-Marikana strike wave and the farmworkers’ strike. Left groups associated with what became WASP were the closest of any experienced activists to the plethora of self-organized strike committees of the platinum belt but they seemed to have diverted attention to their own political party rather than help to strengthen the strike committees and the national strike committee was largely abandoned.

Out of the Marikana massacre AMCU has taken over from NUM as the voice of workers in the strategically important platinum mining sector. Only a court order stopped the union from challenging NUM’s majority in the gold sector and having a strike there too. This is a strike however which is different from the spontaneous strike wave of 2012, which was self-organized by workers’ strike committees and was outside the framework of the traditional unions and the LRA.

But these are the workers who sowed the whirlwind that was the Marikana massacre, the inheritors of the self-organized strike committees who sparked the 2012 strike wave that drew in 100,000 workers across the country, who have joined AMCU.

AMCU, in turn, was formed by ex-NUM officials unfairly dismissed by the union, and disgruntled workers sick of NUM’s cosy, sweetheart relations with the mine bosses. Apart from this it is quite a “traditional” union, apolitical and an affiliate of NACTU.

Some commentators have bemoaned AMCU’s lack of structures and its apparent unpreparedness for a strike of these dimensions. True, AMCU was ill-equipped and its pressure on the new members to disband the strike committees and to elect shop stewards in the traditions of NUM was not what workers expected.

But its lack of structures and its ‘inexperience’ may be precisely what made it difficult for the AMCU leadership to impose a settlement on its own members. Unlike the corporate versions of events – so easily swallowed by the embedded financial journalists and the rest of the media, it was not AMCU leaders keeping workers out of work by ‘deluding’ them or making false promises. Rather it was the stubborn, uncompromising workers who held the AMCU leadership accountable and who have defied the mine bosses attempts to divide them by SMS-ing workers directly.

In the aftermath of the strike it remains to be seen whether the militant workers reform AMCU and enhance its status across the whole of mining or whether they desert AMCU and seek other union homes or even revive their own structures.

Internationally, the trade union movement has often gone through periods of stagnation and co-option only to be revived by internal rebellions against the established industrial order. Trade unions originated in Britain as “trades unions” – where the older term, “trades,” referred to the skilled trades of craftsman. The movement arose from two sources – one conservative and protective of the old guilds and craftsman resisting the hordes of newly-proletarianized, deskilled workers; the other a militant offshoot of the 19th century radical Chartist movement. The first shop stewards were factory (or “shop”)-based representatives who led a radical democratic movement against the craft unions in the late 19th century and established the modern labour movement. Similarly in the USA, the older craft-based American Federation of Labour (AFL) experienced a revolt by industrial workers in the 1920s against the sweetheart nature of the AFL and its protection of skilled white workers. These militant industrial workers – newer immigrants and many black – grouped under the Congress of Industrial Organizations – fought the labour elite and forced it into an amalgam, the AFL-CIO, which is still the USA’s trade union centre today.

So worker rebellions against “their own unions,” against the “legal framework” for collective bargaining, have a distinguished history.

So does the immanent demise of COSATU in the context of a vibrant and growing movement of community-based struggles of the working-class, the post-Marikana strike wave and the struggles of the platinum workers today, tell us to mourn the demise or celebrate the rise of new forms of organization and a new movement.

The demise of COSATU and the failures of “social movements” such as the APF, the LPM, TAC etc is not in the context of a retreating working-class or a rightward shift in the balance of forces or even a consolidation of the ANC but comes about in the context of a rising tide of struggles.

This tension between a growing movement and yet the absence of appropriate forms of organization which can unify struggles and give political voice to this growing movement, is the most significant feature of this period in 2014.

The short answer to the question: what is changing politics of the labour movement in South Africa? It is one of reconfiguration: On the one hand we have the decline, possibly terminally, of the older, industrial trade unions – chiefly COSATU and its affiliates – as a social force for change as they have largely become lower middle class formations and as their leaders become extensions of the machinery of the state. On the other hand the processes of fragmentation amongst the restructured working-class have seen the rise of a new movement of militancy in which working-class activists pursue struggles in both the sphere of production and reproduction and in new forms of self-organization that have the capacity to link these spheres of working-class life.

As yet these struggles lack some kind of unified political expression but this does not mean that these struggles have not changed the political landscape of post-apartheid South Africa indelibly. The two most well-known instances of public awareness of political shifts in South Africa – the rise of the EFF, as a force to the left of the ANC and its relative electoral success on the basis of such a left programme in the 2014 elections, and the NUMSA moment, with all its promise of a Socialist Party, are indices, products, outcomes – not driving forces – of this changing political landscape. •

Leonard Gentle is a long-time South African political activist and trade unionist, and is the retired director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG).