South Africa

Numsa: A marching beacon of the left

By Greg Nicolson 20 March 2014

In its first real act of Alliance defiance, the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) staged a nationwide strike on Wednesday. The union said 500,000 people would be on the streets demanding jobs for the youth. In Johannesburg, numbers were hard to gauge: the march was so big it was impossible to see everyone at once. While Numsa agitates, the left anticipates something new. By GREG NICOLSON & BHEKI SIMELANE.

Profits Soar, Workers Go Under,” screams the front page of February’s Workers Vanguard, a diminutive paper yearning for an era when activists handed out pamphlets on the streets championing the progression of the Soviet Union. Another rag, Black History and the Class Struggle, No. 23, $1, leads with “South Africa: Marikana Massacre – The True Face of Neo-Apartheid Capitalism”.

How’s business, gents?” we ask three men around the table of socialist zines. They’re trying to sell us a subscription costing R40. A couple have glasses; some have beards. Their clothes rebel against established style and are best described as not-from-the-bourgeiosie, avant-garde, academic, loner chic. “We’re not a business,” says one behind the card table, mumbling about not making a profit and socialism. We persist. “So, ummm, how’s… distribution?”

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Photo by Thapelo Lekgowa/Daily Maverick.

Numsa officially marched towards Nedlac (it stopped a block away) to demand more jobs for young people. In reality, it was about politics and ideology. The party – sorry – union’s resolution not to support the ANC in the upcoming elections and instead investigate starting a workers’ party and form a “united front” to fight for socialism has revived hopes on the left, drawing soapbox communists, organised workers and community groups on Wednesday to Zoo Lake for Numsa’s first significant public demonstration since distancing itself from the ANC and battling Cosatu leaders.

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Photo by Thapelo Lekgowa/Daily Maverick.

Zweli Mtsolongo, a 47-year-old poet with a voice like a smoking bear, addressed the crowd of thousands as they gathered on the lawns. Marikana, Soweto 1976, Solomon Mahlangu – the topics were far from the Employment Tax Incentive Act that Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim wrote about on Daily Maverick on Wednesday.

The Workers & Socialist Party is one of the organisations involved in Numsa’s “United Front”. One of its leaders, Liv Shange, armed with a table and two camping chairs, handed out flyers calling for workers to form a socialist party. There’s been a great response from Numsa members, but the union’s leaders remain “aloof”, she said. After the resolution not to support the ANC, workers are asking, “Then what?”

They’re hungry for options.”

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Photo by Thapelo Lekgowa/Daily Maverick.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were well-represented. At times it looked like they were co-organising the march. In an AMCU t-shirt and an EFF beret at a Numsa march, Joburg convenor Napoleon Webster remarked, “We are all left.” Fighter Rivalter, who withheld his surname, stood nearby holding up two books – Hitler by Neil Gregor and Land Reform: Issues & Challenges by Bertum de Villiers. With black people dying in the country, Zuma is becoming like Hitler, the EFF member reasoned. One of the reasons black people die is because they don’t have land, he said. “I lost hope for finding employment in this country. That is why I’m here. The only way of finding hope is socialism because it will restore us.”

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Photo: Irvin Jim, by Thapelo Lekgowa/Daily Maverick.

Early this month, Numsa said the Tripartite Alliance “no longer serves any revolutionary purpose” and the country’s biggest union would be convening meetings with social movements and community organisations to form the United Front. The aim is to mobilise towards radical implementation of the Freedom Charter.

The Democratic Left Front (DLF) is one of the organisations working with Numsa on mobilisation. While still small, the DLF has deep connections with grassroots activists and is at the forefront of the Marikana Support Campaign. One of the leaders, Trevor Ngwane, says, “A movement for socialism cannot start with a party. It must start with a movement… We are responding to a changing shift in the workers. Marikana was a turning point… It showed the importance of the workers… It showed that workers realise their power.” Numsa, however, is not bold enough, said Ngwane. The EFF’s shown that workers are prime for the taking.

We are here to draw a line and we have the power with Numsa to make that line bolder,” said Jim, once the march reached Rosebank. “We are campaigning for no political party, we will launch a socialist movement, and who knows, maybe somewhere down the line we may even contest elections.” He attacked the Employment Tax Incentive Act and e-tolls. “We are sending out a stern warning that the working class wants full implementation of the Freedom Charter which belongs to them.”

Photo: Numsa members sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica, not the national anthem it was pointed out, at Zoo Lake Johannesburg (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)

Communication Workers Union Provincial Secretary Aubrey Tshabalala added, “The poor are employed under inferior conditions. The government is saying half a loaf is better than no bread but neither do we want a loaf, we want a load full truck, and we are not on a political agenda.” The Food and Allied Workers Union issued a press release saying they supported the march but did not instruct members to take the day off, as they didn’t apply with Numsa for a protected strike.

Over in Durban, suspended Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi addressed marchers. “We say yes to radical economic transformation. We demand full implementation of the Freedom Charter and RDP.” In a typical Vavi speech, he quoted statistics on the lack of development in SA, cited Cosatu congress resolutions and championed initiatives he says will reduce unemployment. “This programme cannot be driven by a sweetheart union of federation of unions. It demands independent unions whose only basis of their existence is to serve the working class. It requires a militant and fighting organisation who uses flexible strategies and tactics – combing militant actions and mobilisation of members, use of sophisticated negotiations strategies backed by high-level research and networking and engagement with both employers and government,” said Vavi. “Numsa has been a pace setter and we confident that it will lead the rest to this direction.”

The Vavi issue is political. Numsa and eight other Cosatu affiliates calling for a special national congress believe he has been persecuted because of factionalism, cast out for his criticism of government. Cosatu President S’dumo Dlamini is adamant investigations into Vavi’s role in the sale of the old Cosatu building, working with family members, and a sexual relationship with a junior staff member are all part of due process.

Numsa members that Daily Maverick spoke to were cagey on which party they were going to vote for in less than two months. It seemed they were expecting an announcement to offer some direction; it never came. A member from Daveyton said after the event he was disappointed in the Numsa leadership for not being open regarding their support this late in an election year.

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Photo by Thapelo Lekgowa/Daily Maverick.

For many of those who attended the union’s march on Wednesday, however, the issues are bigger than the Alliance and Cosatu politics. It’s about establishing a movement free from the shackles of the ANC’s “broad church”, which includes capitalists and co-opts leaders. Under the ANC, the socialist movement has been watered down by comrades who talk left and walk right. The government has made significant progress since ’94, but failing to address unemployment and inequality significantly, there are people who demand immediate and radical change through a legitimate workers and socialist party.

Those activists might have been disappointed by Numsa’s march. There were no announcements on its political goals and few solutions to policy problems. But that’s beside the point for the anti-ANC socialists. Leftist movements sense they can get a voice through a large, organised and well-funded union. After years in the cold, it’s time to capitalise. DM

Main photo: Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim on the front lines of the march. Members ran most of the way from Zoo Lake to Rosebank. (Interestingly, police did not stop the march to make sure they were a collective as they have been doing at AMCU marches.) For a short while, Jim physically tried to slow the march down. (Greg Nicolson)

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