The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

South Africa:
NUMSA, from Red Union to Red Party?

Feb 22, 2015

The following article originally appeared in the Class Struggle magazine (issue 104, Spring 2015) of the British revolutionary group, Workers Fight.

The expulsion of the 338,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA), from the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) on November 7, 2014 was no surprise. Commentators had been talking about potential rifts in COSATU for months, if not years. But a formal break such as this, in the official working class movement, was still a shock when it actually happened.

The more general political ramifications are significant. The union federation has participated in the governing of the country as the third component of the tripartite alliance. For the past 20 years it has been an integral part of the two political parties it partners with – i.e., the South African Communist Party (SACP) and African National Congress (ANC). It has now split.

In fact, NUMSA is the largest and most combative of the 18 unions in the 2.2 million-strong confederation. It is a self-proclaimed “red” union “according to the principles of MarxismLeninism” and has the official support of 7 or 8 other COSATU-affiliated unions. Along with NUMSA, this makes a total of just under one million workers who now fall into the camp of open disagreement with the COSATU leadership.

But NUMSA also has the moral support of hundreds of thousands of workers who feel let down by their union leaderships as well as by the ANC. It can almost certainly count on the solidarity of the 50,000 mineworkers who joined the Associated Mining and Construction Union (AMCU), even before the 2012 massacre of the striking platinum mineworkers at Marikana in 2012 – because of their betrayal by the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers. Then there is the seldom-mentioned, but longstanding rival union federation known as NACTU, of which AMCU is a member, which was founded back in 1985, which also expresses its solidarity with NUMSA.

So the questions have thus to be asked: Why would COSATU leaders decide to excommunicate NUMSA under such circumstances? Can they get away with it? And what will the consequences be for the South African working class?

Cutting Loose from the ANC

The main reason for the expulsion was, of course, NUMSA’s decision to break with the ANC, at its special delegate conference on December 20, 2013. This was just 4 months before the 2014 general election and just 15 days after the death of ANC icon, Nelson Mandela.

NUMSA’s spokespersons cited their reasons as the 2012 massacre of striking Lonmin platinum miners at Marikana, the corruption scandals, what they call the “neoliberal” economic policy, among many other “steps too far” taken by the ANC – and ultimately, the fact that as far as the NUMSA delegates were concerned, the party had long abandoned the commitments of the 1955 “Freedom Charter”, the nationalist, reformist program of the antiapartheid national liberation movement.

Of course, the Freedom Charter is hardly a revolutionary charter for a “red socialist union”, which is what NUMSA claims to be. But as its spokespersons point out, even many of the achievable objectives of the Charter within a capitalist framework, have not even begun to be tackled.

Ironically, the ANC made a pledge this year, since it is the Charter’s 60th anniversary, to renew its commitment to carrying out these aims. And despite the limits set by this wishy-washy charter itself, it would still have a very long way to go!

For instance, in the 20 years of ANC rule only 7% of the land has been returned from private white ownership – to quote the Charter: “to share among those who work it”! Certainly, people do not have the “right to occupy land wherever they choose,” which is why “illegal” land occupations have been taking place again over the recent period. There is no minimum wage; labor brokers (private employment agents) ensure that there is no “equal pay for equal work”, and “the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry” have not been “transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole,” as the Charter pledges. Of course they haven’t.

NUMSA also announced at its special December 2013 conference that it would explore the possibility of launching a new working class party, since the ANC and SACP were, as far as it was concerned, so politically and morally bankrupt that they could no longer even begin to represent the interests of the poor and working class. And this is probably the most significant of all of NUMSA’s proclamations and actions. Since then, NUMSA has done everything it said it would, on this score, as will be elaborated later.

COSATU had other “official” reasons, besides NUMSA’s break with the ANC, or NUMSA’s resolution to be instrumental in the building of a new party, to proceed with the expulsion. NUMSA was accused of poaching members from rival unions. But in fact it had already applied to the government’s Department of Labor for an extension of its scope to other sectors for recruitment. And this was actually granted just a month after the expulsion.

Finally, there is the factionalism within COSATU. The COSATU leadership is today dominated by sworn loyalists (for now) of the Zuma regime in government and firm supporters of its political “muse”, the evermoreStalinist South African Communist Party (SACP). They are led by S’dumo Dlamini, a former nurse from NEHAWU (National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union), who is president of the federation, with strong backing from his fellowStalinist, Frans Baleni, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)– still apparently claiming 300,000 members, but badly damaged by the traitorous role it played in the platinum mines before, during and after, the Marikana events.

Baleni serves on the central committee of the SACP. S’dumo Dlamini and the ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, a former general secretary of NUM, sit with another NEHAWU stalwart, Fikile Majola, on the 11member SACP politburo. And their rule these days, is to support without question everything that the government does.

These Zuma-SAC-Ployalists had attempted in 2013 to get rid, finally, of the troublesome COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi – who was too critical of the government for their liking. They set him up to be accused of rape – a charge later withdrawn. He was also falsely accused of fraudulent practice over the sale of the former COSATU office building. The fraud charges were dismissed, but Vavi admitted that he had consensual sex with an employee – and he was thus disciplined for this and suspended. This suspension already had the effect of causing a rift in COSATU, between the unions “for Vavi” and those “against Vavi.” In other words, those prepared to stand up against the corruption of the “bourgeois ANC government”,` as NUMSA leaders characterize it, against the puppet unions.

Because of the bitter internal rivalries in COSATU, the threat of expulsion continued to hang over Vavi’s head and his case went back and forth between the courts and self-appointed unionANC mediators. NUMSA always stood by Vavi and defended him. This was another unforgivable transgression. Vavi was eventually reinstated on April 7, 2014 – conveniently, just before the general election.

But Vavi then made another error. He didn’t come out explicitly for the ANC-SACP alliance in this election, contrary to what the COSATU leaders had always done in the past; he didn’t come out for anything. In fact, he just sat on the fence and kept quiet. If he was not so worried about maintaining his COSATU position, perhaps he would have dared to open his mouth and say what so many workers thought. He did not. And after NUMSA’s expulsion – he did not attend the meeting that voted on this – he again was equivocal. Yes, he was against the expulsion, but then again, NUMSA had done wrong, because it had poached members from other unions’ territory...

It should also be recalled that Vavi did the same kind of fudging over a far more important issue: when the mineworkers were shot down in Marikana, he refused to condemn the police, the government, the ANC or the NUM – saying it was all about bad conditions in the mine. He was criticized for this at the time, but he has never changed his position. And the irony is that when he was suspended, he had already toned down his criticisms of Zuma & Co. Sadly, this is the man who the NUMSA deputy, Karl Cloete, when interviewed by a local radio station, said he would wish to be president of South Africa.

There was a fairly long buildup to NUMSA’s expulsion, over the course of 2014. Various government, SACP and ANC figures were brought in to mediate – including even deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, much to the disgust of many in NUMSA. The special conference, which nine of the affiliated unions asked for, and which, according to COSATU’s constitution was required when the expulsion of a union is being considered, was never convened. In other words the action of COSATU’s executive remained “unconstitutional.” But faced only with legalistic challenges to their proposed action against NUMSA, they refused to back down.

Better Fewer, but Better...

The final showdown on November 7 and 8, 2014 was thus also via an “unconstitutional” special Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting, rather than the required, full special conference. The expulsion was a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, NUMSA’s ever-diplomatic general secretary, Irvin Jim, addressed the committee for over three hours, making the case for maintaining federation unity. Finally, in the early hours of the next morning, 33 members voted for the expulsion; 24 voted against. NUMSA was out.

And now the battle lines, pitting the two trends among workers’ leaders, are public and perhaps indelible: the “collaborators and sellouts” who control today’s COSATU, against the “true revolutionaries” in NUMSA and the seven (or eight) smaller unions.

These NUMSA allies are led by FAWU (Food and Allied Workers Union) with around 114,000 members. Although it received little publicity for this, FAWU had also decided not to insist its members vote for the ANC at a three day congress in February 2014.

The other unions standing with NUMSA are the South African Commercial Clothing and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU, 107,000 members), Communications Workers Union (CWU, 18,662 members), South African State and Allied Workers Union (SASAWU, 144,000 members), Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (PAWUSA), Democratic Nurses Organization of South Africa (DENOSA, 72,000), and South African Football Players Union (SAPFU). Then there is the special case of the eighth union, SAMWU, the municipal workers’ union with a membership of around 180,000, which was previously lined up alongside NUMSA, but when it came to the November 7-8 vote, three out of the four delegates to COSATU’s CEC voted to expel NUMSA, against their mandate. Anyway, a good number of SAMWU’s local organizations (e.g., the Eastern Cape) remain on NUMSA’s side.

A joint statement on November 13, 2014 from the KwaZuluNatal sections of FAWU, DENOSA, PAWUSA and NUMSA rejecting NUMSA’s expulsion, gives some idea of their mood. After painting the dire picture of workers’ economic circumstances, it then goes on: “We are, as a result, a furious nation. Our protest rate is probably the world’s highest per person, with the police last recording 1882 violent protests [in fact 2,000 such protests were recorded in 2014] – in which most often, it seems, the police are first to spill our workers’ blood. Our workers are rated the world’s most angry by the World Economic Forum, in the last three annual surveys. Pricewaterhouse-Coopers rated our business elites as the world’s most corrupt this year.

They add that COSATU has been paralyzed by its political subservience to the government: “If truth be told, this paralysis led to COSATU’s irrelevance in the eyes of workers; when workers were massacred in Marikana or out on a five-month platinum strike, when wildcat strikes broke out repeatedly across the country; when workers were fighting for a living wage in De Doorns [strikes of agricultural workers in 2012-2013], and more recently in the ongoing strike of postal workers. Where is COSATU? As is pointed out by Zwelinzima Vavi, too many of its affiliates’ leaders are themselves beneficiaries of this new economic apartheid. They do not have the guts to change the power relations.

So now there are two fronts on which a struggle is being waged. The struggle for union unity against the government supporters in the working class movement, and the fight for a new party of the working class which will revive the revolution, which it was deprived of by the 1994 settlement (marking the transition after the end of apartheid), to change society fundamentally – and, to quote NUMSA’s constitution, “to express our communist intentions: From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs.

Initially, NUMSA was prepared to accept the expulsion, because so much energy and time had already been wasted fighting what was a losing battle in a legal framework, first against Vavi’s threatened expulsion from COSATU and then its own. This was the opinion expressed by NUMSA’s deputy leader, in an interview in December 2014. But the supporting unions were most concerned that legal appeals should continue, to reforge unity in the federation. So these appeals continue, as does the demand for a special full COSATU conference.

There can be no COSATU without NUMSA,” says FAWU’s leader, Katishi Masemola. But he also says, that if need be, there can be a new federation.

NUMSA’s Story

In fact, the NUMSA union membership made its collective decision to break with the ANC just 15 days after the death of Nelson Mandela – the legendary leader of the ANC and of the struggle against apartheid. The general weeping and wailing, even among many NUMSA members, did not deter them from making this historic break with the past. That said, what is also generally understood is the fact that almost all of the aspirations that they thought the ANC, and behind it, the South African Communist Party would uphold and fight for, have been callously chucked aside. It is clear for them that black majority rule means capitalist rule, with exploitation, poverty and social deprivation scarcely ameliorated by the elimination of apartheid. So that 20 years after Mandela steered the South African political system seamlessly into rule by the ANC, with all its state institutions intact, the “legacy” of the decades of struggle is the corrupt and murderous government of Jacob Zuma.

It was this government which gave the go-ahead to the massacre of striking mineworkers at Marikana’s Lonmin platinum mine in 2012. And it is Cyril Ramaphosa, now Zuma’s deputy, who before anyone else, has blood on his hands – both as an ANC grandee at the time and as a major shareholder in Lonmin and one of the richest businessmen in the country.

This event was undoubtedly the straw which broke the camel’s back for a very large section of the South African left and its trade union activists. Taking sides over Marikana was the act that “split” the wheat from the chaff, as it were.

NUMSA’s origins go back to the 1980's “struggle period” under apartheid. It was formed in May 1987, out of a merger of four different unions, which organized autoworkers, metal workers, mining and allied trades workers. The original unions can trace their origins back to the early 1970's, when unions were illegal and their public face was “Workers’ Benefit Funds.” Thousands of workers joined these funds after the famous Durban strikes in 1972 and 1973. The Metal and Allied Workers’ Union was thus formed in 1973. It then helped found a Trade Union Advisory and Coordinating Council in 1974 and, finally, the forerunner of today’s COSATU – the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) – formed in 1979. So today, COSATU has thrown out the very organization which gave birth to it.

As mentioned before, NUMSA characterizes itself as a “red” union, which it says is worker-led. It trains a current “leadership” core of selected shop stewards (the Mbuyiselo Ngwenda Brigade, named after a former leader of NUMSA in auto) very intensively, in order to build a political cadre – both for the leadership of the union, but now also for the sake of promoting the “movement for socialism” and the workers’ party project.

These stewards are placed in political schools and expected to study Marxist classics, including for instance, Lenin’s “What Is to Be Done?” plus works by Mao, Stalin and contemporary representatives of various quasiMarxist or green antiglobalization trends like Samir Amin, Charles Post, Leo Panitch, Marta Harnecker. Lately they were also given Ernest Mandel’s “On Vanguard Parties.”

The stated desire is always for “worker-led” approaches to building movements, and NUMSA has the real possibility of doing this, if it uses its networks of local union organization and the organizing abilities of its shop steward cadre.

In keeping with its commitment to building a “movement for socialism” and helping to launch a “true” workers’ party, the union held several conferences to discuss this in early 2014 – as well as launching its United Front. This gained a lot of publicity with the advent of figures like the SACP’s Ronnie Kasrils (former leader of the armed wing of the ANC, umKhontoweSizwe, under apartheid) who called for abstention from voting in the last election.

The Engineering Strike Intervenes

But NUMSA had to put these matters to one side, on July 1, 2014 when it waged a huge four week strike across the engineering sector (telecoms, electrical engineering, steel and plastics) involving over 220,000 workers across many large, medium and small plants as well as the state electricity supplier Eskom.

The issue was wages. NUMSA had initially demanded a 15% pay rise – but before the strike was launched and after 2 months of talks with the Steel and Engineering Employers’ Federation (SEIFA), it had scaled this back to 12%. It demanded a one year bargaining agreement, an end to agency work (so-called labor brokers, who provide employers with self-employed workers) and a pay settlement that benefitted all workers, whether salaried or waged.

SEIFA wanted a three year agreement with a “peace” clause – amounting to a no-strike deal. Their wage offer went up to 99.5% after two weeks of strike, but the peace clause was still there.

The strike was ambitious and exceptional: it sought to tackle some of the most intractable and low-paying small and medium sized firms across all sections of engineering – thus bringing together workers from all kinds of jobs and on all kinds of different conditions. It was militant right from the start and involved all of the strikers in its actions. It was an indefinite strike – all out, for as long as it takes, across the country, with moving pickets, road blocking, marches and demonstrations. The strike disrupted the supply of components to Toyota, General Motors and Ford, causing them to stop production at their assembly plants. It stopped construction at the new Eskom power stations and of course closed down thousands of small and medium –sized plants, warehouses and construction sites.

Four weeks into the strike, SEIFA agreed to more talks. It now offered a 10% rise every year for three years to the lowest paid categories of workers, with smaller rises from 7.5% to 10% every year for three years, for others. It also dropped the peace clause. Other concessions were agreed on issues like notice for short-time, maternity leave, time off between shifts, etc.

On Tuesday July 29, 2014, NUMSA signed a collective bargaining agreement with SEIFA. But this wasn’t the end of the strike – in the sense that for a whole section of workers who were employed by the smaller firms, it turned into a lockout. These companies suddenly decided that they were not represented by SEIFA and therefore not bound by the agreement SEIFA had signed. Some were already members of NEASA – the National Employers’ Association of South Africa, representing Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) – and others now joined. They insisted they could not afford the 10% wage rise. The workers were left outside.

This lockout continued for an entire six months. In December, a Labor Court ruling forced the companies to end the lockout and pay the wages in full that they owed to the locked out workers. But all kinds of actions against workers then began – many being fired for going on strike.

But NEASA still refused the pay rise. It also won an appeal against the extension of the SEIFA agreement to their firms. NUMSA was forced to accept an 8% pay rise for its members in SMMEs (among the lowest paid in the industry), rather than the 10% won for workers in larger companies.

The strike does raise some questions, of course. All of the workers got a larger percentage pay rise than would be expected in Britain. But even the highest grades represented by NUMSA were the equivalent of $5.50 per hour, and the lowest $2.75 per hour – which means that a 10% increase does not amount to that much! The best wages in this sector are less than half the British minimum wage (and these are skilled workers’ wages!) – yet food and basics cost only about 2530% less than Britain.

But this is not the real issue. What one can question is why the problem with NEASA was not anticipated, since the nature of these small company bosses is well known. NUMSA’s separate deal with SEIFA, de facto, allowed the bosses to split the strikers’ ranks and use the weapon of the lockout against the most vulnerable section.

NEASA has still not given up with its court actions – these continue. The problem of the workers employed in smaller companies will evidently have to be revisited in the near future.

Never mind though, Irvin Jim had already told the press at the end of July last year that NUMSA’s victory in this strike was unequivocal: “We are pleased to inform the public and country at large that the latest offer is a product of sweat and bitter struggles by our toiling workers for a living wage. It was a product of a four-week-long resolute battle to do away with colonial apartheid wage dispensation in the engineering metals sector.” He added that the victory was massive given the “pittance offer at the point of deadlock.” Except that the offer was 9.5% in midJuly and he accepted just half a percent more two week’s later when he called off the strike.

That said, it was, as some commentators put it – a “test” of the loyalty and fighting spirit of NUMSA’s membership when their union was under political and legal threat. And the membership passed with flying colors.

Back to the Workers’ Party Project

NUMSA returned to its “workers’ party project” in August with the “NUMSA International Symposium – Building Our Own Movement for Socialism: Learning from the Struggles of Others.

It had invited guests from 81 different political organizations in 28 different countries to participate in an international conference. For the shop stewards’ political brigade the title was more prosaic: “Module 4 of the MarxistLeninist Political Schools!

Of the international invitees however, only 40 actually attended, to be placed under the scrutiny of the 140 selected NUMSA shop stewards and NUMSA leaders for a week. They had to answer questions as to how and why they choose to organize the way they do and what they have succeeded in doing for workers – and generally provide NUMSA members with the benefit of their experience.

In fact these international delegates were selected according to certain criteria which go some way towards revealing the political orientation of the NUMSA leadership. Delegates were chosen from “left” parties in power, like in Bolivia and other South American countries; on the basis of having “some revolutionary energies” – so Der Linke was invited from Germany, a representative from Fronte de Gauche (Left Front) in France and of course, Syriza in Greece. There were delegates from trade unions which had played a role in setting up workers’ parties – like South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Also represented was a far-left organization from Brazil, a center-left organization from the Philippines, members of the Indian Communist party and trade union organizations, among others. The problem NUMSA must have had, was to know how to judge everybody’s self-recommendations!

Of course, the “Lula Moment” and latterly the Chavez, Rousseff and Morales “moments” in Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia are all seen as models by the official workers movement embodied in COSATU and the SACP. However the NUMSA leadership (which speaks of its “NUMSA moment”) is also using these as a starting point – even if it comes to the generally-agreed, but vague conclusion that these are ultimately “bourgeois parties” and that the working class has to rule in its own name.

What it made, in the end, of the international symposium, remains to be seen. To follow this up, NUMSA representatives are visiting various organizations overseas. Irvin Jim has been doing a speaking tour of U.S. trade unions, to be followed by visits to Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece...

Workers’ Education Project

A good example of the care which the NUMSA apparatus takes when it comes to accountability, was the “Ford Indaba” (Ford gathering) – which it held on November 17, just after the expulsion in November last year.

This was a meeting of Ford Motor Company shop stewards to reorient them and answer their questions about what had happened, which was taken by Irvin Jim himself. It opened with a reminder of basic principles: “We are a red union because we attack the class character of capitalism; yellow unions just negotiate the best deal for their members whilst accepting the capitalist system.” He then recalled the preamble to the NUMSA constitution, saying “it clarifies that NUMSA is an organization of class struggle: we, the members of NUMSA, firmly commit ourselves to a united South Africa, free of oppression and economic exploitation. We believe this can only be achieved under the leadership of an organized and united working class.”

Among the headings of his presentation was, “What does the leadership of the working class look like?” There follows an explanation of class consciousness and the need for a vanguard party. Other headings were: “Why the leadership of the working class; the need for a revolutionary theory; democratic worker control” and then finally, the discussion on the expulsion. Stewards were told: “We must be present in COSATU structures and claim them for the working class.

Other such meetings were organized across the country and NUMSA also started reconvening meetings of its “united front” – by which it really means “popular front.” This United Front is now meant to bring together the “social movements,” alienated ANC and SACP members and service delivery protesters, to try to link up and organize more effective struggles. Whether Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will be included in this is another question. Each accuses the other of being too shy to make the first move, neither being opposed to it in principle. Although, of course, the NUMSA leadership rather snorts at the idea that the EFF has anything to do with MarxismLeninism as it proclaims – unlike NUMSA, which claims to understand Marx and Lenin. And of course, what this really means for NUMSA is a question which is hard for us to answer. It seems to be a mixture of things – a rejection of aspects of Stalinism, while Maoism remains OK, but with some references to the South African pro-workers’ party traditions of the 1970's - 1980's (at that time in opposition to the ANC - SACP nationalists), some distorted Trotskyist add-ons, and lip-service to “internationalism.”

As mentioned before, in January this year, Irvin Jim embarked on a speaking tour of the USA – giving interviews to alternative news stations and speeches to union locals. He has continued to be explicit about the union’s orientation to “socialism” in these public situations (all available on YouTube!). However, he told an SEIU health workers audience that “although it can be argued whether the Freedom Charter is a blueprint for socialism or not, its creation at a 1955 Congress of the People was the result of a collective decision on the kind of South Africa that the people wanted, and still resonates with the masses.” Obviously, these “masses” were never offered an alternative, Communist “Charter.” And that might have resonated far more. But here again, Jim covered his bases by claiming that the Communist Manifesto and the Freedom Charter are almost the same! Let us hope that his followers read the Communist Manifesto for themselves...

In fact he has even been more explicit about bowing to the Freedom Charter – when he launched the “united front.” He said, “Our call for a united front of the working class and a movement for socialism is precisely a defense of the national democratic program, the Freedom Charter, which remains the only program that is capable of laying the basis for socialist transformation of South African society.

This exposes the huge limitations of the “NUMSA moment.” The Freedom Charter offers only a nationalist perspective, not the proletarian internationalist one which even Jim sometimes alludes to. It just takes the working class back to the so-called two-stage theory of revolution in one country – the Stalinist program which the communist parties of the underdeveloped world have used to mislead the working class and poor masses for 90 years.

Of course, for British workers – even the minority who are politically engaged in some way – the “red unionism” of trade unionists like those in NUMSA, let alone the workers’ party project, may well seem as if it belongs on another planet. But in the South African context it is a confirmation that the fighting spirit of the 1980s is still alive.

For NUMSA, however, this is a dangerous course. First and foremost, because the current COSATU leadership is made up of unambiguous “yes-men” of the blatantly corrupt – and murderous Jacob Zuma government. And workers have already seen how far it is prepared to go to pursue its agenda and to protect the interests of its friends. The killing of the striking Lonmin miners in August 2012 may be the worst single example – but there are many, many others.

The militants and the leaders of NUMSA can expect that their adversaries will go to any lengths to stop them - and they know it. This is illustrated, for example, by the shooting in cold blood of three NUMSA shop stewards last August, near their homes in KwaZuluNatal. The finger is already pointing in COSATU CEC members’ direction over the attempt they encouraged towards starting a rival metal workers’ union, using ostensibly “disillusioned” former NUMSA officials like Cedric Gina as the frontmen.

When the seemingly incorruptible Irvin Jim was asked about threats to his own life he was unambiguous: “... they can deal with me as an individual, but they won’t deal with the working class. It is numerous. And all that we need to do is to raise those levels of consciousness against the dominant interest, which is looting, basically, and squandering resources. I think we should all be prepared to live to advance humanity, [rather] than to advance greed. I think if they kill me ... as long as I articulate the interests of the working class, I think the working class will continue with the struggle. They can’t kill us all.

The situation may be fraught with danger for those who chose to attack the government and the system, but there are also many possibilities presented by it, precisely because of the political developments within and around NUMSA which brought it to this point, in the first place.

Towards the Party the Working Class Needs?

Will NUMSA do as it says, and launch a workers’ party with the intention of mounting a serious political fight against the ANC-SACP alliance? And not just on the electoral front?

And are the discussions within NUMSA over whether the new party should be a “mass” party or a “vanguard” party meaningful – that is, based on a real understanding of the Leninism they claim to adhere to, or is this just an abstraction? Will NUMSA be misled and diverted in its purpose by its relations with some of the very abject reformists who the leadership has chosen to “learn from,” or those who pretend to have revolutionary credentials, but are not what they seem? It is impossible not to be tempted to make a negative assessment on the future of the “NUMSA moment,” based on its chosen political consorts and its reluctance to engage with revolutionary tendencies like Trotskyism, other than in the derived form it takes in South Africa such as the WASP (Workers and Socialist Party the policy of which is a reflection of the Socialist Party in Britain) among others.

For now, however, Irvin Jim continues to give more or less the right answers. This in itself, is an inspiration to potential worker activists.

For instance, when asked in an interview with Real News (an American independent left news channel on the internet) if NUMSA would organize a new “labor federation” he answered: “One thing we shall not back off is to take up the struggle to ensure that we unite South African workers, because they must continue to be a compass, because it is only the working class that is capable of carrying the revolution to its logical conclusion... It is the most exploited. And if it has got a clear political organ, which is a vanguard party that raises this level of consciousness to that of a class that exploit it, that working class can be consistent for a revolution.”

He also added: “We call on our own members to join the worldwide movement of the international working class – we know that we’re dealing with capital and capitalism not locally – it is international in character.”

NUMSA’s leadership has embarked on an inspiring and courageous course – and it is about time this happened in South Africa, because the well-organized, politicized and combative working class in this country deserves so much better than its corrupt, ridiculous and in fact criminal leaders sitting in government and in the leadership of the ANC, SACP and COSATU.

Whether NUMSA’s initiative will lead at last to the emergence of the political instrument that the South African working class needs – a revolutionary party setting itself the objective of overthrowing capitalism, not just in South Africa, but internationally – remains to be seen. But at least by raising the need for the working class to build its own political organization, it points in the right direction.

February 22nd, 2015

Postscript (July 12, 2015)

Since this article was written there have been one or two developments regarding NUMSA and the workers’ party project – as well as in the union federation, COSATU (part of the tripartite ruling alliance with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party). COSATU’s leadership, dominated by ANC-SACP loyalists, finally expelled the general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi for his stance against the Zuma government. This brought the tensions between the nine unions in the federation which side more or less with Vavi and NUMSA (expelled last year), and the COSATU leaders, to a head. It seems likely that there will be the formation of a new, rival federation, under Vavi’s leadership, which would leave a “rump” COSATU, retaining only the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and several public sector unions as a significant force. And membership in NUM had already dropped from 310,000 in 2012 to 230,000 or less after the massacre of striking platinum miners at Marikana in 2012, in which NUM leaders were allegedly complicit, while membership in the mining union, AMCU, increased.

In the meantime, on June 26, 2015, a special conference called by NUMSA, bringing together 175 worker activists plus 10 small revolutionary groups formally launched the “United Front,” which is likely to contest the 2016 local elections while trying to progress towards the goal of a “Workers’ Party.” It is mobilizing for an antigovernment, anticorruption march on August 19 in Johannesburg.