South Africa

South Africa

Mayday! SA’s working class at the crossroads

Mayday! SA’s working class at the crossroads

“This is the last May Day to be stolen. It has been used for electioneering and workers are being fed lies and given promises which will never be realised. We must never allow this to happen again.” These are the words of Irvin Jim, the general secretary of metalworkers union Numsa, who says the next year will be spent consolidating the working class into a powerful new political formation. But who gets the workers’ vote in the meantime on Wednesday? For the first time since 1994, the ANC cannot take for granted that it will. In years to come, the workers might turn out to be the ANC’s lost constituency which turns back to bite it. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

It is quite telling that Cosatu was unable to fill the 40,000-seater stadium in Polokwane on Thursday for the main Workers’ Day rally – meant to be its big show of support for the ANC less than a week before the elections. Limpopo is one of the ANC’s biggest strongholds – it has consistently received above 80% of the vote in that province. Cosatu members were being bussed in from across the province. But this was also the main May Day rally, with President Jacob Zuma, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini and South African Communist Party (SACP) leader Blade Nzimande topping the bill, so it should have been the showstopper event of the alliance.

Yet only half the stadium was full. Where are the workers who normally travel overnight from all parts of the country to see their leaders in action? Where is the militant show of force by what should be the ANC’s largest single constituency?

The voting cattle are harder to deliver this time around, it would seem.

It is not difficult to work out why South Africa’s working class is despondent and why workers are less enthused by the election fever this year. They have borne the brunt of tough economic times, they have been most affected by delivery failures and have struggled to have their grievances heard and addressed. This is despite the post-Polokwane ANC leadership being backed and campaigned for by Cosatu, with the understanding that the Zuma government would be more worker-friendly and left-leaning.

All this really translated to was that the deployees from the SACP and Cosatu landed positions in Zuma’s Cabinet, thus joining the elite set in society and relinquishing their mandate to represent workers’ interest in government. The social distance between workers and union leaders is hyper-amplified when Cosatu leaders make it to the top of the food chain.

While the working class is the only constituency that is directly represented in the alliance – by two of the three partners – it is arguably the most neglected sector when it comes to influencing policy and marshalling attention to its grievances. National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim argues that this is because the dominant group in the multiclass ANC is the petit bourgeoisie who have become pro-capitalist and anti-worker in their outlook. It could also be that the working class is easy to gloss over when they are represented by compliant leaders.

It is quite clear that the ructions within Cosatu have severely hampered the federation’s ability to mobilise workers behind the ANC as it has done in the past. The power battles between factions led by Dlamini and general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi left Cosatu ineffective and unable to drive its own campaigns, such as against e-tolling and labour brokers, let alone rally support for the ANC.

Cosatu has also not been able to explain to its members why, despite it being in alliance with the ANC, it has lost all battles with the ruling party on issues it vowed not to back down on. The biggest slap in the face for Cosatu was the implementation of the youth wage subsidy, which the federation was vehemently opposed to and claimed was a policy of the Democratic Alliance.

This presents a big danger for Dlamini and his allies if they have to face a special national congress, being demanded by Numsa and eight other affiliates. How would Cosatu be able to convince its membership that their interests are being adequately represented in the alliance and in government policy when clearly it has been snubbed on major issues?

The disintegration of Cosatu and preoccupation with issues around Vavi has meant that its two million-strong membership is no longer a largely politically homogenous group. The decision by the biggest affiliate, Numsa, not to support the ANC in May 7 election has opened up the working class to other options, which parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are taking full advantage of.

However it is apathy rather than the lure of other parties which seems to be impacting on the working class vote. The turbulence in the mining sector, particularly on the platinum belt, has been an eye opener for all workers about how their grievances are viewed and whether the ANC government would act in their defence against their employers. The Marikana massacre proved quite the contrary: where the mining company colluded with the police against the workers, it resulted in the shooting of 34 mineworkers on August 16, 2012.

That prolonged wildcat strike led to fragmentation of the National Union of Mineworkers, previously the biggest union in Cosatu, and the rise of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). AMCU has no declared political affiliation, and the EFF, Workers and Socialist Party, and most recently the United Democratic Movement are dipping into its membership. In areas like Marikana, the workers are violently opposed to the ANC, unsurprising in light of the party’s failure to condemn the massacre and it abandoning the community.

The current strike in the platinum sector, which began on January 23, is now taking its toll on AMCU. It is unclear how much longer its members can hold out and how much more haemorrhaging the union will suffer. Numsa has been the beneficiary of some of the workers leaving AMCU, causing further strain within Cosatu over the metalworkers union accepting members from other sectors.

But Numsa is gearing for a bigger game, with not only members across unions but with other trade union federations. Its special congress in December resolved to explore the establishment of a workers’ party or social movement that would represent the interest of workers.

Jim says the decision not to support the ANC is because “the country is being led in a complete[ly] wrong direction”. The SACP has surrendered its position as the vanguard of working class and therefore that space needs to be occupied effectively. “It is time for us break new ground and act in the interest of working class,” he said.

“Why are Cosatu and the SACP lying purely for the ANC to win?” Jim asked, referring to their failure to convince the ANC on major issues such as e-tolls and labour brokers. The ANC has also not taken seriously Cosatu’s demand for a national minimum wage, stating only in the manifesto that it would “investigate the modalities” for this.

If Numsa was still in two minds up to now about a new political formation, May Day 2014 definitely tipped the scales.

The leaders of the metalworkers union were left of the schedule of Cosatu activities because of their refusal to campaign for the ANC. Although Cosatu is currently left suspended in an uneasy truce, negotiated by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, the isolation of Numsa’s leaders came as a backhand slap for the union railing against Dlamini and his allies.

“This is the last May Day to be stolen. It has been used for electioneering and workers are being fed lies and given promises which will never be realised. We must never allow this to happen again,” Jim said.

Numsa’s leaders being left cooling their heels on Workers’ Day was substantially less awkward than Vavi being forced to campaign for the ANC. Vavi, who had his suspension lifted by a court last month, had to address a rally in Port Elizabeth with an unequivocal endorsement of the ANC on behalf of Cosatu. It proved harder to do than he thought. Vavi veered from the speaking script and instead started belting out the demands of workers, including that of “radical economic transformation”.

Vavi continues to be in an uneasy space. His suspension – possibly expulsion – is bound to be put back on the table by his detractors in Cosatu as soon as the election is over. But Vavi’s compliance with the truce and Cosatu’s decision to support the ANC has now resulted in discord between him and his biggest allies, Numsa. Vavi is hanging back on Numsa’s radical positions, still believing it is possible to achieve unity within Cosatu. Numsa is quite aware that it is a matter of time before there are formal attempts to force it out of Cosatu and therefore refuses to play nicely.

This may therefore have been the last May Day with Cosatu and the alliance in their current configuration. In its 30th year of existence, Cosatu may finally be facing the inevitable split. With its proud history holding it together and factional battles tearing it apart, is Cosatu still the voice of the workers of South Africa?

Cosatu’s internal and external conflicts have led to the diminishing of that voice. A new voice is now being sought, and if that new formation is able to amalgamate unions, political parties and civil society groups, it is likely to be the most powerful political force in the country next to the ANC.

It could even turn out to be the ANC as its former self. And for the ANC, that would be a disturbing prospect. DM

Photo: Thousands of people celebrate Workers Day or May Day at this event organised by the ANC alliance partner Council of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) held at Sinaba Stadium in Daveyton, South Africa, 01 May 2014. South Africa is to hold its 5th general election since the end of Apartheid on 07 May 2014. It is 20 years since all South African’s regardless of race were able to vote freely and the end of the white minority rule Apartheid system. EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI


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