Left Revival: United Front takes flight as UDF 2.0, but fails to ignite
- Ranjeni Munusamy
- South Africa
- 15 Dec 2014 12:35 (South Africa)
Who knows why both the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the United Front both decided to call their conferences “people’s assembly”, but there were massive differences between the two. Granted, the EFF is 18 months ahead in the game, but Julius Malema knew from the outset exactly what he wanted to do – contest for political power. The United Front was a gathering of leftist activists of yesteryear, civil society campaigners, academics and people disgruntled with the ANC, all rallying under Numsa’s banner to chart a new political course. Brilliant minds, yes, but no apparent leader, and no firm trajectory about where the United Front is headed. Numsa, in particular, needs to tread cautiously now. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
As the meeting of the United Front was about to wrap up on Sunday afternoon, and Numsa deputy general secretary Karl Cloete was calling on people to rise to sing the anthem, some delegates started murmuring: “Where’s Vavi?”
Indeed, where was Zwelinzima Vavi?
The Cosatu general secretary was billed to speak on the second day of the United Front meeting, attended by about 350 people from a range of organisations. The United Front would have essentially been Vavi’s to lead had he been bold enough to leave the trade union federation when he should have. Instead the big United Front launch fizzed out to become a consultative forum, which Vavi did not attend at all. Numsa officials said he was either in KwaZulu-Natal or the Eastern Cape, attending a funeral, and could not get a flight back to Johannesburg. They seemed uncertain of the details.
Had Vavi attended and addressed the meeting, two things would have happened. His career in Cosatu would have been over and the United Front would have had a face and a definite identity. What we know for certain now is that the United Front is not a political party set up in opposition to the ruling party, neither will it contest elections.
So what is it then?
At the end of the two-day meeting, a 25-member national working committee was appointed to chart the way forward and prepare for the official launch of the United Front in April. The committee has a number of prominent faces in it, including former Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, the former Treatment Action Campaign leader Zackie Achmat, Numsa president Andrew Chirwa, Mazibuko Jara of the Democratic Left Front, director of the Alternative Information and Development Centre Brian Ashley and former Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Zanoxolo Wayile.
Some of these people were incidentally named in a bogus document alleging a secret regime change plot to destabilise the government. The document said the United Front wanted to “influence and confuse South African communities with socialist rhetoric and theories” and also instigate violence and instability. Whilst the socialist rhetoric is ever-present – as is bound to be the case in a room full of leftist activists – the aim appears to be to unite civil society organisations to have a stronger voice collectively, rather than to overthrow the government.
Throughout the meeting, the excitement was palpable. Some people who had been in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and who had surrendered their voices to allow the ANC government space to do its work, were thrilled to be back in the game. Activists representing education, women, youth, climate change, rural development, sanitation, homeless people and social justice causes were all raising their voices about the need for an umbrella organisation to unite their efforts in a reincarnated UDF.
Youth activists were advocating for a United Front student movement, while some activists were calling for women to play a dominant role in the organisation (the working committee is largely male dominated). From Palestinian solidarity to climate change and justice for the people of Marikana, it is all in the mix. Which is why there is a danger of the United Front being all things to everyone and nothing in particular for the ANC to worry about.
Kasrils says he is excited that a “new baby” has been born to “regenerate mass-based struggles”. Kasrils led a “no vote” campaign during the May 2014 elections because of his disenchantment with the ANC. His campaign did not draw a lot of momentum because people perceived this to be a waste of their vote.
So what is to say that the United Front will not go the same way? If all it becomes is an umbrella organisation for civil society organisations, does it solve the problem of a credible opposition to the left of the ANC? And was this what Numsa envisaged when it decided to withdraw support for the ANC and chart its own course?
The United Front will only be truly effective if it can become the voice of millions of people around the country fed up with waiting for delivery, jobs; who have to bear the brunt of corruption and poor leadership, and whose only outlet is taking to the streets in protest. The United Front has pledged to reach out to communities but without a proper identity and game plan, it would be difficult for people to vest their faith and trust in them.
And at the moment, there is another organisation mobilising in that very constituency that is highly visible, has proven itself at the polls and in Parliament as a loud and effective voice, and that has one of the biggest political personalities in the country as its leader. The United Front might have strong leftist pedigree and intellectual capacity, but Julius Malema and the EFF have the nation’s attention.
This is why Irvin Jim and the rest of the Numsa leadership need to have a straight talk with Vavi. Another one. Numsa took a leap of faith and threw its weight behind Vavi in all his troubles with Cosatu on the understanding that they have a united vision to run a counter force against the ANC. But now Vavi is floundering, wanting to continue to be seen as victim in case the campaign in Cosatu to boot him out is revived, but also to try to keep his job for as long as possible.
Numsa has been expelled from Cosatu, and while initially distancing himself from the decision, Vavi was the one later confirming it in a media briefing. Daily Maverick understands that Numsa leaders took Vavi to task for this and his appearance at the metalworkers’ union central committee last week was to apologise for this. But Vavi’s renewed faith in the ANC-led political process to work through Cosatu’s problems is also setting him on a collision course with Numsa.
It is no secret that Numsa envisaged that Vavi would be the most recognisable face in the United Front and would also possibly lead a workers’ party that would contest elections. The workers’ party would in fact be the organisation that runs against the ANC, not the United Front, which would be more of a campaigning structure outside politics. Then there is also the prospect of a new trade union federation, in opposition to Cosatu.
Numsa is the force behind all these visions, but it has learnt some lessons from the United Front assembly this weekend. Out of the seven unions that have sided with Numsa in the Cosatu battle, only three were present, and not with significant delegations. So the metalworkers’ union needs to be careful if it forges ahead with plan for a new federation without being absolutely certain about how much support it has, within Numsa itself, amongst allied unions, as well as sympathy from members of hostile unions who would want to join them.
Numsa has now been registered to extend its scope and recruit members from other sectors, but this does not mean that workers from other Cosatu unions would jump ship en masse. While the Numsa special congress decided last year to set up the United Front, the union cannot be certain about the political allegiance of its members.
Daily Maverick understands that Numsa has been invited to address the EFF conference in Mangaung, but is yet undecided about whether Jim should attend. As things stand, the Numsa leadership does not have a mandate to show support for the EFF, although they speak pretty much the same language. Jim could face a backlash if he does appear at the EFF conference without consultation with Numsa structures.
Numsa has taken a lead role in the establishment of the United Front, but will have to be cautious about its role once the organisation takes shape. Numsa is only allowed to use workers’ funds for specific purposes and therefore cannot continue giving the United Front financial backing. It is understood that Numsa leaders have undertaken missions outside the country to raise funds for the new organisation.
But Numsa also wants to retain its own identity, primarily as a trade union. In order to do this, it needs people who can champion its other causes. This week saw a roomful of people ready to do so. Civil society organisations have had their own weaknesses and financial problems over the years, and have not been a strong enough voice against excesses and failures of the ANC government. They now have a new united voice and new impetus. Whether they can keep up the momentum remains to be seen.
They would do well to watch the other people’s assembly in progress in Mangaung. Malema, now formally elected president and commander-in-chief of the EFF, has shown how to start something and turn it into a force to be reckoned with.
The United Front might have some old hands, a wealth of knowledge and the determination to make an impact. But it is still needs the X factor.
Or perhaps it is the V factor. DM
Photo: Day two of Numsa people’s assembly began with a discussion on the purpose of the United Front. Picture: Emily Corke/EWN