Remaking the South African Left

A revived South African trade union movement could challenge the ANC from its left.


In the early hours of Saturday, November 8, after a sixteen-hour meeting of South Africa’s largest trade union federation, the central-executive committee of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) voted to expel their largest, most powerful, and most radical affiliate, the National Union of the Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

NUMSA has a membership of around 350,000, but when the seven affiliates who dropped out of COSATU in protest are included, the federation stands to lose 750,000 members. These unions are demanding that COSATU hold a special national congress through which the pro-African National Congress (ANC) leadership of COSATU can be removed.

The official position of the ANC, the party that led the country out of apartheid, is that NUMSA’s expulsion is a tragedy that weakens the “tripartite alliance” — the decades-old pact between the South African Communist Party (SACP), the ruling ANC, and COSATU. In contrast, the SACP didn’t hide their enthusiasm for the purge. In the words of their general secretary Blade Nzimande: “If you keep a corpse in the house without burying it, it will rot and smell.”

The South African media, when not sentimentally eulogizing the deaths of the tripartite alliance and COSATU, has focused on the electoral fortunes of an apparently forthcoming NUMSA-led labor party along the lines of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) and the political future of COSATU leader Zwelenzima Vavi, a key NUMSA ally. None of this, however, is useful in sketching the political implications of NUMSA’s removal from COSATU. Put another way, could a revivified trade union movement mount a viable left challenge to the ANC?

Austerity Under the ANC

The first and most important point missing from the discussion is that the ANC is intent on implementing a new austerity regime, and the accelerating collapse of COSATU means that the organization most capable of leading an anti-austerity movement in the country is incapable of waging a political battle against the ANC.

Prominent media figures, of course, don’t dare, or are too ignorant to call the government’s plans austerity; instead they offer apologetics: “we can’t spend money we don’t have.” The Right, for its part, is overjoyed at the chance to finally do in the unions.

Since the national election in May, ANC cabinet ministers have been hinting at the impending cuts via attacks on a “culture of entitlement” among the black poor, who, we are told, expect “something for nothing” through state-provided housing and social grants. This sort of rhetoric has long been part of South African politics, and was employed by the ANC under former President Thabo Mbeki, as well as by the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

But the right-wing discourse has recently returned with a vengeance. In October, President Jacob Zuma said, “If I am wrong, come and tell me which country did as we did. Once we were free we said our major focus is to address the plight of the poor. In no country in the world have you seen government giving people houses free of charge because they are poor.”

Less than a week later, housing minister Lindiwe Sisulu declared, “I don’t know of a country that gives free houses to young people. Free housing in a few years will be something of the past. [Young people] have lost nothing [to apartheid]. If it is not clear — none of [them] are ever going to get a house free from me while I live.”

Yet labor has hardly prospered under the ANC, as economist Niall Reddy points out:

“There is no greater register of labour’s defeat over 20 years of democracy than a plot of real wages by percentile. The majority of workers saw no improvement (or small declines) in their inflation-adjusted wages. In 1997, half of all workers in the economy earned R3274 per month (in 2011 prices); in 2011 it was R3028.”

Vowing his government would prioritize workers’ interests, Zuma promised a left turn in the ANC when he came to power a half decade ago. His term has instead seen the massacre of workers at Marikana, the split of the country’s largest trade union federation, and the continued degeneration of the national liberation movement. Powerful factions within the Zuma administration are now planning an attack on the fragile social security system and may well roll back workers’ rights in the near future.

COSATU, up until fairly recently, insisted that Zuma’s second term would see a so-called “Lula moment,” a reference to the perceived left shift in the PT during the second term of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. This was always sheer fantasy. Instead we have the beginning of yet another attempt to break what remains of a powerful trade union movement.

Labor’s Strategic Dilemmas

NUMSA’s priority in this political climate must be reviving the trade union movement. NUMSA Deputy Secretary General Karl Cloete lays out the options thusly: “Do we continue inside COSATU to reclaim COSATU or has the time arrived to close shop and draw a line in the sand and to move towards the formation of a new independent militant, democratic worker-controlled federation?”

It is highly unlikely that the metal workers union will be able to force its way back into COSATU, and any legal challenge to do so would likely fail. So while the COSATU leadership is attempting to forgo a split, it appears NUMSA’s excommunication will stick.

Opponents of the purge don’t have to throw up their hands, however. They could form their own labor federation and try to reclaim the soul of COSATU under another name. Such a move wouldn’t be without strategic difficulties. The dissenting unions would first need to craft a response to the increasing informalization of the South African economy and the shifting locus of struggle (from the workplace to the broader community).

Another hurdle: many South African unions suffer from authoritarian leadership who serve the whims of the ANC in order to enrich themselves. The best example of this decay of shop floor democracy was when the National Union of Mineworkers leadership sided with the police after the massacre of their members at Marikana.

The betrayal didn’t come as a surprise. Over the last twenty years, COSATU has lacked both the political will and the tactics necessary to organize among informal workers. Opportunities to capitalize on grassroots militancy — from community protests to wildcat strikes — have been passed over by a leadership unwilling to take up any political project that could potentially displease the ANC.

For the Left, building a strong trade union movement, organizing an alliance capable of blocking austerity programs, and developing new tactics to deal with the changing nature of work must take priority over any short-term electoral ambitions. A political party capable of advancing the struggle of the working class would have to emerge organically from this project, rather than being imposed from above, with no clear base or program.

Outside of the union movement, once-vibrant social movements are largely dead, including the first generation of post-apartheid movements once thought to be the future of South African politics. They have wilted due to a combination of state repression, a lack of organizational structure, infighting, corruption (in many cases stemming from an unhealthy relationship with mainstream NGOs), and stale, ineffective tactics.

And yet, there’s still some activity in South African civil society. One cannot ignore the “service delivery protests” — the thousands of daily protests across the nation that have led some to declare South Africa “the protest capital of the world.” The demonstrations are often spontaneous and emerge in response to an array of local problems, from lack of housing to municipal corruption.

There are two standard narratives about these protests. The first is that they are a “rebellion of the poor” and constitute a nascent counter-hegemonic movement. The second suggests that demonstrators are not irrevocably opposed to the ANC, but that instead the party has raised, and then dashed, their hopes of quality service delivery. Protesters often remain party supporters and even appeal to the ANC at higher levels, convinced that if national officials knew what was happening in local communities, they would get rid of corrupt local functionaries and fix their problems.

While both of these narratives are unsatisfactory, what is apparent is that local government is the site where many of the country’s contradictions are being experienced.

Sketching the South African Crisis

The state the ANC inherited in 1994 was organized almost entirely around providing services to whites and those in major urban centers. In large swathes of the country — in particular, former bantustans in rural areas — government exclusively a patronage mechanism. Ineffective local governments have reproduced this power arrangement in post-apartheid South Africa.

After it took power, the ANC attempted to remedy the patronage issue by using local government to create a new South African political subject: the entrepreneurial stakeholder in the reborn country. This was done through the commodification and outsourcing of service provision, which midwifed a new politically connected black bourgeoisie while maintaining a semblance of a social welfare system through grant provision and government-provided housing.

While the ANC’s record looks decent on paper, with millions of households gaining access to water and electricity and mass construction of new housing, government remains a vehicle for patronage and private accumulation in large portions of the country. Many of the houses that were built are of shoddy quality, and housing demand still outstrips housing supply in urban areas. The country’s housing also tends to reproduce the apartheid geography of cities, as new developments are constructed on the periphery of urban areas, far away from job opportunities and the wealthier whiter suburbs.

The ANC’s response has been to empower traditional authorities in the former bantustans in order to wash their hands of responsibility, subordinating South Africans once again to authoritarian rule. In response to municipal corruption, the ANC has in other parts of the country begun to centralize local government and replace political appointees with a new generation of technocrats. They have also made no attempts to address the patronage rot within ANC branches, a status quo in which political loyalty is rewarded with well-paying jobs and dodgy government tenders.

But the ANC is vulnerable, its hegemony faltering in this climate of social and political crisis. Riot police descending on parliament to remove opposition members, the rise of the first left-wing split from the ANC in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the longest strike in South African history, new land occupations across the country — each shows that the facade of stability and control presented by the party is slipping.

In her recent book, Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism, Hegemony, geographer Gill Hart identifies two main forces behind the post-apartheid turbulence: de-nationalization and re-nationalization. De-nationalization describes the “alliances through which corporate capital defined the terms of reconnection with the global economy, as well as to the forces unleashed in the process.” Re-nationalization refers to the discourses and practices that reaffirm ideas of nationhood.

South African re-nationalization can be seen firstly in discussions around the rainbow nation, which embrace “the liberal ecclesiastical discourse of forgiveness” that made possible the negotiation ending apartheid. A second dimension involves harsh ANC immigration policies and the construction of “fortress South Africa” to keep “Africa” out of South Africa.

Also of contemporary importance is the historic concept of “national democratic revolution,” which emerges from the theory that apartheid Africa was not fully capitalist, but instead a “colonialism of a special type” in which the colonizer shared the same territory as the colonized. Because South Africa was not fully capitalist, and much of the country was still subject to pre-capitalist modes of production, it would be impossible to have a socialist revolution in South Africa. Instead, winning socialism would first require the creation of a “bourgeois democratic” state, as well as economic development sufficient to advance the productive forces and give rise to a large working class.

The national struggle thus would take precedence over the struggle for socialism, and the South African Communist Party would ally itself with the liberation movement in the form of the ANC. The SACP would have the responsibility of establishing “socialist hegemony” in South Africa once apartheid was overthrown.

Framing the national question in the language of the SACP means that this debate is still conducted in high Stalinist jargon. The SACP and its allies in COSATU are increasingly mixing its Stalinism with disturbing tinges of ethnic nationalism, which could potentially re-open the wounds of the past (e.g., the murders of COSATU activists and members by unions and militias aligned with the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party.)

The black trade union movement emerged out of several political traditions that rejected both the SACP’s Stalinism and the ANC’s brand of nationalism. Particularly important was the Black Consciousness Tradition, which was instrumental in the formation of unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers and the development of the “workerist” tradition. (NUMSA still has workerist elements within several of its branches.)

The tradition, which adheres to an almost syndicalist conception of the trade union as the incubator of working-class politics, dates back to interactions between black workers, black consciousness activists, and white New Left unionists in the 1970s. This encounter produced an anti-Stalinist politics suspicious of nationalist movements, which would put the fate of the nation — personified in a petty-bourgeois black elite — ahead of the working class. The main vehicle for this form of politics was the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU).

FOSATU leader Joe Foster summed up this stance in the early 1980s:

“It is, therefore, essential that workers must strive to build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are part of the wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to protect and further worker interests and to ensure that the popular movement is not hijacked by elements who will in the end have no option but to turn against their worker supporters.”

As Foster predicted, these elements have indeed turned against their worker supporters. While the anti-Stalinist tradition can’t be easily transplanted into the political environment of contemporary South Africa, its focus on grassroots democracy and principles of worker control are essential to reconstituting a trade union movement plagued by corruption and authoritarianism.

A Left Alternative to the ANC?

If the EFF and NUMSA have many similar policy proposals, they’re hardly natural bedfellows for a future political affair. The EFF casts itself as the vanguard of black South Africans rather than the working class as a whole, and has found some of its political hold among sections of the alienated black middle class. It remains unclear if they have carved out a base among the organized working class outside of the platinum industry, and there is little evidence of support among the rural and urban poor.

Those who helm the NUMSA have long been hostile towards the EFF, both because of the EFF’s lack of a trade union base and because EFF leaders were “crony capitalists” when they controlled the ANC’s Youth League.

NUMSA’s allies in COSATU are even more antagonistic toward the EFF, and openly aligning with the EFF at this stage would risk the shaky alliance forged by NUMSA. Moreover, would EFF likely view NUMSA as a potential electoral threat if a workers’ party were formed.

Most of the labor groups that comprise the anti-NUMSA faction are public sector unions, which in the context of a declining manufacturing base have come to dominate COSATU. These unions are tied to the state in a way that NUMSA is not, and thus pose a different organizational challenge.

In addition the declining fortunes of South Africa’s manufacturing industry mean that potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost in the near future. With this in mind, it is all the more urgent to intensify unionization attempts, to create alliances with precarious and casual workers, and to build a new trade union federation capable of strengthening the country’s working class.

For this to happen there needs to be a shift in the union culture of NUMSA and its allies. For instance, the iconography and language employed by NUMSA often uncritically reproduces the traditional image of the male, industrial South African proletariat. It often fails to properly recognize the nature and importance of struggles that don’t easily fit into Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies.

Many casual workers are female and don’t necessarily identify with the Marxist-Leninist slogans of the tripartite alliance, which often don’t speak to struggles against sexual violence or the abusive nature of the inherited colonial culture of white South Africans employing black domestic workers.

The challenge for NUMSA is an organizational and theoretical one: how does one construct a broad left-electoral front in modern South Africa? Appeals to reconstruct the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s have limited value. The UDF was built both in the absence of the ANC on the ground, and in a period where the enemy was easy to identify: the apartheid state.

Today, the ANC still enjoys widespread support (over 62 percent in the last election), and so the challenge is to articulate an inclusive vision of a future South Africa, that does more than identify itself as the lost soul of a once-noble tripartite alliance or cast its lot with a fickle middle class.

Part of South Africa’s political morass derives from historical doublespeak, which both asserts that the ANC liberated South Africa from apartheid — a vision of a messianic liberation constructed around the figure of Nelson Mandela — and at the same time calls on people to forget the past and move on.

This process of reconciliation, rather than moving South Africa forward, has caused national amnesia. It is reconciliation without structural change, at the core of which is a failure to identify who the enemies were beyond the apartheid state. Consequently, the economy has remained in the hands of those who benefited from apartheid.

The political violence and psychological terror at the core of South Africa are also confined to the past. South Africa was on the verge of a civil war in 1994, but the details of this are left to professional historians and naysayers. The enemies disappear under this delusional concept of a rainbow nation, which suggests that we need to move forward, to work together for the future, a future in which foreign investment will flow from the metropole and lift millions of Africans out of poverty and into a new globalized world.

In the context of historical amnesia, the Stalinist doublespeak that characterizes so much of South African politics has become dominant, and an abstract concept of unity against unidentified enemies has become fetishized.

For instance, despite the South African government’s cozy relationship with the European Union and the United States, the ANC still at least rhetorically insists it is under constant attack from mysterious imperialist forces who seek to undermine the national democratic revolution. To put this into perspective, South Africa was the only member of the African Union to back the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya. According to this view, the tripartite alliance represents a victory against the (mysterious) enemies seeking to destroy this unity.

It is common practice in South African politics to suggest that protest and dissent is the work of “a third force” that is working to undermine the state. State intelligence agencies have already released fraudulent documents accusing NUMSA and its allies of working with imperialist spies as a way of discrediting NUMSA’s leadership. The union’s leaders and their allies have had their offices broken into and hard drives stolen, there have been death threats, and recently three NUMSA shop stewards were assassinated in Kwazulu-Natal.

These dirty tricks campaign will almost certainly intensify in the coming months. Already former NUMSA president and close Zuma ally Cedric Gina has launched a new metalworkers union called The Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa. (The documents to join COSATU have already been submitted.)

This political culture is a product of the anti-apartheid struggle, which required unity and fostered a paranoia engendered by mass repression, exile, and the imperatives of armed struggle. Those who sought to critique this form of abstract unity, were often seen as enemies looking to undermine the liberation movement.

These features are still predominant in the ANC, but they also have mass appeal. Many South Africans sincerely believe that the continuation of the tripartite alliance is vital, despite the degeneration of the ANC. In fact many believe that the ANC’s problem is the current leadership and that in good time Zuma will leave office and the party’s moral fiber can be renewed.

Among the black middle class, this manifests itself in the form of a wish for a South African “Obama,” a centrist figure capable of restoring the moral fabric of the nation and improving the country’s international reputation after the disastrous Zuma administration.

Towards a New Strategy

A new hegemonic project must use an original language and embrace the politics of truth. It must break with the mythology of the transition and the doublespeak that is central to the political culture of the liberation movement. Part of the EFF’s early success is attributable to their boycotting of the formalities of South African politics and their open declaration that the ANC killed the workers at Marikana — that it was a massacre rather than a tragedy.

One of the more interesting contradictions in South Africa is that while in terms of class struggle levels of worker militancy and civil discontent are among the highest in the world, there remains very little in the way of an organized left or hegemonic apparatus outside of the decaying remains of the tripartite alliance. Land occupations, wildcat strikes, and battles over housing occur, but they get passed over by the media, NGOs, and very rarely receive any solidarity from the organized left.

In Antonio Gramsci’s formulation, hegemony refers to the apparatus of practices and institutions — from newspapers to educational organizations to political parties — through which the dominant class translates its position in civil society to power in political society. The ANC already has all of these at its disposal. A successful left front will have to build up its own strength, as it has nothing save for the vestiges of the anti-apartheid struggle.

The real battles are yet to come, and the effects of austerity on South Africa will be devastating.  As we know from the rest of the world, austerity doesn’t necessarily strengthen the Left. For NUMSA to spread beyond the organized industrial working class, a new articulation of the national question is needed. Experimentation with new organizational forms capable of synthesizing workplace and community struggles will also be essential — simply calling for a repeat of the successes of the UDF will be not be enough.

NUMSA has to learn how to engage with existing forms of popular struggle in all their messiness, for some of this organizational experimentation is already emerging organically — for example, the way in which women’s community organizations in Marikana supported striking mineworkers. This is the only way to bring about the emergence of a new “common sense” capable of transcending the limits of the inherited political culture and theoretical framework of NUMSA and the ANC.

The expulsion of NUMSA means the struggle for the future of the South African workers’ movement can no longer be hidden by abstract calls for unity. The seeds of a new political movement have been sown. What they will grow into remains to be seen.