As the dust slowly starts to clear on the results of last week’s elections, it is abundantly clear that for now, at least, the dream of a political party that is focused only on the needs of workers appears to be dead. The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP), the party that was created by Numsa, received only 24,439 votes nationally, an embarrassingly small number, despite having resources and a massive union organisation behind it.
There are credible questions here about why this happened, and about whether any kind of political resurrection can take place in the future. The much more fundamental issue is whether workers, in the sense of people who take orders and do the work, will be able to achieve significant political power in the near future.
The scale of the humiliation the SRWP suffered at the hands of the voters cannot be overstated. The union behind it, metalworkers union Numsa, has a total membership of over 339,000 people. That is the figure stated on its website. To get to that number, you have to go through the landing page of the site, which proudly features the SRWP’s banner. How did the 339,000 members translate into 24,439 voters, a loss of 93%?
Or, to put it another way, only around seven percent of Numsa’s claimed members voted for their own union as a political party.
This also despite the professed support of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement based in KwaZulu-Natal. This group appears to have strong structures and many members. And yet, again, this public support did not translate into votes.
This is not what was envisaged when Numsa decided in December 2013 to stop supporting the ANC. That special congress is what led to Numsa, inevitably, being forced out of Cosatu. And that, in turn, led to then-Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, being forced out of his position and leaving Cosatu to form the SA Federation of Trade Unions with Numsa.
The writing had been on the wall for some time.
Numsa had decided, quite oddly, to release its own policy documents, a sort of blueprint of what it would do if it were ever to run the country. A strike at BMW at the time led this writer to opine that perhaps Numsa, and its leader Irvin Jim, were using that industrial action to make a political point.
Back then, it seemed the real point of the turmoil and bitter dissension was that Numsa was first going to stop supporting the ANC, then leave Cosatu, then form its own trade union federation, and finally its own political party. Why else go through an expulsion that was inevitable over this particular issue?
There was much excitement at this. While Julius Malema had already been expelled from the ANC, the EFF was not quite yet at its fighting weight. This meant that a political party run by Numsa could have been one of the bigger political formations coming out of the Congress movement to challenge the ANC. In other words, it had a chance to really shake up our politics. At the time, of course, the president was Jacob Zuma, and there were great fears about what could happen were he ever to get a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
And it should not be forgotten how close to political parties trade unions are. They have members, organisation and resources. Throughout the recent democratic era, unions have played big roles. The original Labour Party in the UK was formed by unions, unions formed Solidarity which won freedom for Poland, the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions formed the Movement for Democratic Change, and the miners’ strike of 1987, led by one Cyril Ramaphosa, had a massive political impact here as well.
All of this means that from a standing start, Numsa should have been in prime position to start a political party and to win significant support. And yet that has not happened.
It does seem clear that one of the problems is that there wasn’t complete agreement around all the people within this movement about the formation of the SRWP in the first place. Vavi, in his role as Saftu general secretary, went on the record to say that he was not campaigning for it, and neither was his federation, saying this was because the party was not discussed with them.
Certainly, when Numsa first left Cosatu, it formed Saftu, and there appeared to be some sort of momentum behind it. But that momentum then stalled.
The reasons for this are hard to discern. On Wednesday last week, Daily Maverick asked Numsa a series of questions around why they thought the political party had not received more support. By Sunday morning no response had been received.
When political movements try to form, one of the problems that can immediately emerge is the fighting among the people involved for the political power of their own. It is this feature that strangled Cope to death. Many other new movements have emerged and then simply disappeared. To circumvent this, a group of people are required who are united, and who are all able to move in the same direction. Julius Malema has been able to achieve this with the EFF, although even his strong personality has led to some people leaving, and the odd internal dispute.
From what is known it seems the roots of the problems within the SRWP lie, perhaps, with the problems around the relationship between Vavi and Jim. Both are strong personalities, and now may well be moving in different directions.
It may seem strange to make this point now, but seven or eight years ago Vavi had almost no equal in terms of political profile in South Africa. While he was not technically speaking a politician, he was the kind of person who was literally stopped in the street wherever he went. His media profile was stratospheric. At the ANC’s 2012 Mangaung Conference, he once spent literally hours standing on a street corner being photographed with one ANC member after the other.
It seemed at the time that the Numsa/Saftu grouping would be able to put this to good use. Instead, it seems his profile has ebbed. In the same period, so has the profile of Jim. He too was seen as one of the key political movers of the time. And yet, despite the posters bearing his visage, in the real world he has seemed to almost disappear.
Some might claim that this is proof that it is indeed “cold outside the ANC”. But considering what the ANC has been through in recent years, it cannot just be that. Rather, there must be internal reasons for this. How can a movement with more than 300,000 members, with all of the monthly dues that come in, still only get fewer than 25,000 votes? Certainly, there was a lack of campaigning: perhaps people just didn’t really know it existed.
All of this leads to other questions. The SRWP is what could be called an “ideology party”; it wants a particular kind of state. It may be that here, as in some other countries, ideology no longer wins votes, that politics is becoming less about ideas and more about personalities. That doesn’t mean policy doesn’t matter, but it could mean that a strong ideology is a bit of a turnoff. And certainly, that applies to the hardline, and somewhat outdated in the 21st century, the ideology that the SRWP (and Numsa) espouse.
The consequences of this very low level of support for this movement could actually be felt by Numsa in the short term.
It is about to go through a test of strength in its interaction with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government at Eskom. Ramaphosa and those who are with him want to reorganise the sputtering giant, which would almost certainly lead to thousands of retrenchments. Numsa is seen as being one of the toughest enemies to beat in this struggle. The other main union is the NUM; it still belongs to Cosatu and so other political means can be used against it. If the SWRP had done well in this election, Jim and his allies would have headed into this fight with the wind behind their backs; having political support from hundreds of thousands of people is a good weapon to have in a do-or-die battle.
Now they are going into this fight with an embarrassingly low level of support, which is surely likely to dent their confidence, and their effectiveness with it.
Certainly, to come back in any politically meaningful way is going to be tough. Vavi and Jim will first have to sort out what looks like real differences between them. Then there will have to be some kind of real change within Numsa; it will have to regather the momentum that it has lost. And then it will somehow have to make the case that workers should support a workers’ party, just as the ANC is being led by the person who played a key role in forming Cosatu.
It is a long and tough road ahead for Numsa. And for the moment, it seems unlikely that it is a journey that can be completed. DM