NUMSA: ‘The Key to True Liberation is Working-Class Unity’

On this International Workers’ Day the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) is reflecting on the gains and the battles which the working class have fought since the dark days of Apartheid. Today, we are marking this historic day against a backdrop of almost three decades of the neoliberal capitalist dispensation in South Africa. The Black and African working class fought and died to destroy the racist and oppressive Apartheid system, which stripped black people of their humanity and their dignity. Apartheid justified the theft of land which was stolen by colonizers who set up a battery of laws, including the infamous 1913 Land Act which dehumanized and stripped black people of their citizenship by taking their land, and which relegated them to a lower status and class in the land of their birth.

The rights which we have today are as a result of the almighty struggle which was fought by the working class in all spheres of South African society, including battles on the shop floor, and in communities all over the country. Men and women stood up against the Apartheid system and were arrested, jailed, exiled and tortured. Many disappeared, and many more died in the struggle to destroy this evil, oppressive system, in the hope that the end of Apartheid, would result in genuine freedom and equality for all.

But that is unfortunately not the case today. Twenty-eight years after the first democratic elections catapulted the ANC into power, the working class in South Africa continues to be dominated by white supremacy. The Black and African working class are languishing in crippling poverty, in poorly developed townships and informal settlements all over the country. Access to quality education and healthcare remains an unattainable dream for the masses because the governing ANC has used its power to increase the power of a tiny capitalist minority, at the expense of the working-class majority. This is why we do not have much to celebrate as workers on Workers’ Day.

State of the Nation

In December 2021 the Central Committee (CC) of the union met to deliberate and debate on the state of the nation, as well as burning issues affecting the working class and NUMSA members in particular. The CC was an opportunity for the union to analyze and understand the terrain of struggle which we are operating in, and to define a path forward in dealing with challenges facing workers and their families. NUMSA President, comrade Andrew Chirwa opened the CC with the following quote taken from Vladimir Lenin’s pamphlet What is to be done?

“We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies and are under their almost constant fire. We have combined voluntarily, precisely for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not to retreat into the adjacent marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation.”

As we celebrate Workers’ Day today, these words describing the conditions facing the Russian working class (in 1901), are quite similar to what we are experiencing today, more than 120 years after they were published. Today one can say that the working class is “surrounded on all sides by enemies” and the attacks against it are relentless.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has made Exploitation the New Normal

There is no debate about how devastating the COVID-19 pandemic has been on the economy and on the lives of ordinary people. The virus has killed over 5 million people worldwide and over one hundred thousand in South Africa, and the numbers continue to climb every day. The union suffered many losses through the deaths of some of its members and leaders within the organization. At the same time the lockdowns meant that many sectors were unable to operate resulting in business rescue, liquidations and in some cases, closure.

But that was not the case for all companies in all sectors. Some, did very well during the pandemic, and they opportunistically used the pandemic as a way to reverse the gains that workers had made, by changing the conditions of employment through down variation. We found ourselves flooded with notices of restructuring and retrenchments as companies sought to deepen their profits by taking benefits away from workers and reducing their salaries. The pandemic has normalized exploitation. We see this reflected in the new terms of employment, which, in some cases are imposed on workers. And the justification which has been used to implement these draconian measures is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During wage talks in the engineering sector held under the auspices of the Metals and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC) in 2020, we signed a “Standstill Agreement” which allowed employers to keep conditions the same and we agreed not to demand an increase in the engineering sector for that year. We did this in response to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic where the uncertainty created by the situation, meant we had to make sacrifices for the industry. However, we were vigilant enough out of our working-class ideological perspective to realize that the capitalist class never wastes any crisis as an opportunity to make money and maximize profits.

That is why NUMSA was prepared to challenge the engineering sector employers and bosses during wage talks the following year. We called on them to make the necessary wage improvements for workers in the engineering sector. When they maintained an anti-worker, anti-union stance, refusing to make a meaningful offer, and with the backing of our members, we embarked on a militant, national strike. This forced the bosses to settle with us on no less than 6 per cent for a period of three years. The agreement we signed with Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA) to settle the strike was groundbreaking because we secured an above inflation increase during a pandemic.

The Triple Challenge of Unemployment, Inequality and Poverty is a Threat to Us All

In South Africa the richest 10% of the population own more than 85% of household wealth. Time magazine reported on research done by the World Inequality Lab Data which found that, “While Black South Africans have outnumbered Whites in the richest 10% of the population for about 7 years, the gap between South Africa’s richest and poorest hasn’t narrowed as the decline in racial inequality has been driven almost entirely by a surge in the top Black incomes rather than increased wealth for the poorest.”

Under the leadership of the governing ANC, we have become the most unequal society on earth, and the report found that wealth inequality has not decreased since the end of Apartheid. The article goes onto say the ownership patterns of the economy continue to benefit the white minority as it did under Apartheid, “3,500 adults owning more than the poorest 32 million people in the country of 60 million.” Basically a tiny minority continues to control the wealth whilst it is surrounded by a sea of poverty.

This has been exacerbated by the high rate of joblessness and unemployment. The expanded definition of unemployment is now at a staggering 46 per cent. Some of these are graduates, and by far the majority are the youth and black women in particular. The fact that almost half the population is sitting at home instead of working, is an indictment against this government which stubbornly holds onto failed macro-economic policies, which are not stimulating economic growth and thus keep failing to create jobs. At the same time, we are still feeling the effects of the investment strike by big business. Corporate South Africa is sitting on more than 1-trillion rand in cash reserves and they are investing a pittance back into the South African economy.

Austerity Measures and Corruption are Deepening the Crisis for Workers and their Families

The ANC government took the senseless decision to impose an austerity budget during a pandemic and slashed public and social spending. It did so, even though objective evidence suggested that the masses cannot take any more cutbacks. In last year’s budget, National Treasury announced it would cut a whopping R50.3-billion from the healthcare budget over three years. Benefits for workers in the public sector have been steadily eroded over the years in the name of “trimming the fat” and reducing the so-called public sector wage bill. But members of parliament remain insulated from any cutbacks. At the same time, there is rampant corruption and cronyism which has resulted in some politicians fattening and lining their own stomachs through looting.

Former President Jacob Zuma has been found by the Zondo Commission of Enquiry as an enabler of State Capture by allowing the looting of billions from State-Owned Enterprises (SOE) through the Gupta family. President Cyril Ramaphosa was an integral part of the Jacob Zuma administration as his deputy. Ramaphosa claimed that his administration would bring in a “New Dawn” and he would clean up corruption. But what we have seen under his leadership is the continuation of massive theft, this time it was the looting of COVID-19 funds. There is no “New Dawn” because the culture of selfishness and greed continues within the governing party. That is why NUMSA will never take sides in ANC factional battles because the governing party refuses to drive an agenda for the working class.

ANC Government has Destroyed Jobs

Thousands of jobs have been shed because of governments restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises for the benefit of the private sector. One need only examine the case of SAA to see how wasteful and destructive the entire process was. An amount of R10.5-billion was allocated to capitalize the airline as part of business rescue. At the same time over R200-million was spent, most of it was pocketed by the practitioners, lawyers and consultants, whilst ordinary workers suffered for many months without any salaries. At the end of the process more than three thousand direct jobs had been shed, and SAA which alone provided 40,000 jobs along the value chain prior to business rescue, is now a shadow of its former self. We are told it has been sold to a private equity partner but the deal is shrouded in mystery, and strangely, not a single cent has been exchanged as yet for the sale.

Eskom is another case in point where governments renewable energy program with the Independent Power Producers (IPP) is violating all the principles of a Just Transition. Coal fired power stations will be shut down to make way for privately owned renewable energy companies and the CSIR has confirmed that at least one hundred thousand jobs will be lost as a result of this, in the province of Mpumalanga. Government has not designed a Social Plan for this province in order to prevent this looming disaster. NUMSA has always said we need an energy mix and that the transition must be affordable, and it must allow for workers and the community to become beneficiaries by becoming owners of these companies through co-operatives. The result must be cheap, reliable electricity for all.

However, this is not possible under this ANC government. Instead, we are paying more for electricity, and we are bedeviled by frequent loadshedding and rolling blackouts because Eskom does not have capacity. The high cost of energy is in part due to corrupt bloated coal contracts which have never been re-negotiated, and the high cost of IPPs. Eskom has pointed out during the NERSA hearings, that about R70-billion of its total revenue requirement of R279-billion is just for the cost of buying electricity from independent power producers (IPPs).

All of these factors have deepened the suffering of workers and their families. The working class and the poor of this country have reached breaking point. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that such a situation is unsustainable and it fostered the perfect environment to provoke social unrest, riots and political instability which we experienced in July last year. NUMSA has been warning for years that mass uprisings were looming. Service delivery protests take place daily in our communities to reflect the growing dissatisfaction which the masses are feeling about their living conditions. But for decades, their pleas for genuine transformation have been ignored.

ANC Lacks the Courage to take up the Fight to Transform the Lives of the Majority

But perhaps the greatest failure of the ANC was its refusal to nationalize the land and the minerals of this country. It rejected the demands of the Freedom Charter and offered it up as a sacrifice on the altar of capitalism. Capitalism as a system has never succeeded in dealing decisively with inequality. It is a system designed to benefit the few who are very wealthy at the expense of the majority of people. For years the ‘trickle-down’ theory was used to hoodwink the masses into believing that eventually, the crumbs from the super-rich, will trickle down to them and improve their conditions. But one would need much more than these crumbs to fundamentally alter power relations.

What is needed is a government which is intentional about using its power to affirm and empower the Black and African working class, instead of bending over backwards to satisfy the whims of white monopoly capital. It requires boldness and courage to implement a radical nationalization program which is the only pathway to transforming the economy in a meaningful way. We have had more than two decades of neoliberal economic policy and it has succeeded only in doubling the wealth of the billionaire class.

What is to be Done?

This is the question that Lenin posed over one hundred years ago. It is more than just a question, Lenin is articulating a program of action which at its core, is based on uniting the working class around a common vision. Central to this is an organized, conscious working class, which is committed to fighting for its own interests. The key to achieving this is unity. Lenin goes on to say:

“And now some among us begin to cry out: Let us go into the marsh! And when we begin to shame them, they retort: What backward people you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to invite you to take a better road! Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are ‘free’ to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning toward the marsh!”

The marsh represents the last two decades of ANC capitalist reformist rule which has led to the creation of what some have called, a sanitized, neo-Apartheid state. Black people have political power, the right to vote and the Bill of Rights, which are the fundamental rights of all people and are enshrined in the constitution. Apartheid and its laws have been outlawed, but it’s racist structure has remained intact because overall, it is the white minority which continues to benefit. There are a handful of members of the black elite which have begun to penetrate the billionaire class, but overall, the Apartheid faultlines are still there. The majority of black people still live in dehumanizing conditions in the townships, they are denied quality education and healthcare, and our children still drown in pit latrines.

We do not have the luxury of folding our arms in the face of such an unrelenting attack on our humanity and personhood. In the case of NUMSA, we took a historic decision to make a permanent break with the ANC and the alliance in 2013. We did what no other trade union has done in history, and we gave birth to a political party to advance the interest of the majority of people, called the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP). We did this because we have a duty to unite the working class. Only a united working class can succeed in resisting the power of capital. We want a permanent end to the suffering of workers and their families. We want a South Africa based on genuine equality for all, not just a wealthy few. The demands of the working class are fair, and what we are fighting for is for an improved quality of life for the creators of wealth.

The working class of this country made huge sacrifices to end Apartheid and they did so because they hoped to experience fundamental change in their lives. We have a duty to complete the mission that the liberation movement set out to achieve. Only this time, the ultimate goal is the establishment of a truly democratic socialist society, which will benefit all of us.

We are inspired by the words of the revolutionary Fidel Castro who said, “No thieves, no traitors, no interventionists! This time, the revolution is for real!” •

The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) is the biggest metal workers trade union -