South Africa’s biggest union Numsa has been expelled from the ANC-aligned trade union federation Cosatu for its opposition to the ANC. The Numsa-ANC split represents the third revolt of the left in the ANC and, as our Editorial Director James Schneider reports from Johannesburg, a turning point for the country.
On paper, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) should be sitting pretty. Just this summer, the party won its fifth consecutive national election with over 60% of the vote. But since then, the ANC and Jacob Zuma’s presidency in particular has lurched from crisis to crisis.
Zuma is no stranger to controversy. But what we are now witnessing is challenging the very roots of the ANC’s long-held hegemony, as the conflicting interests that came together under its banner in the closing years of apartheid and first 20 years of majority rule unravel.
The latest manifestation of these dynamics came on 8 November when South Africa’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), was expelled from the country’s largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
Cosatu, with its 2.2 million members, along with the South African Communist Party (SACP), is strongly allied to the ANC in an arrangement known as the Tripartite Alliance. Numsa had previously broken with the ANC and refused to support the party in the 2014 elections.
The ANC is suffering from the contradictions within South Africa’s economy and society. And because of the centrality of the ANC to the structuring of the country’s post-1994 politics, its crisis is one of the South African system as a whole.
Building the Alliance
South Africa’s labour movement is large, militant and played a key role in ending apartheid. Founded in 1985, Cosatu quickly built itself up as a powerful force of labour militancy. There were many currents within the federation, but the body formed to create unity despite differences of perspective and approach.
One shared belief, however, was that the overthrow of apartheid was necessary to the improvement of workers’ lives, and so it allied with two other political organisations, the ANC and SACP, and agreed to work under the ANC banner.
As it became clear that apartheid would fall, Numsa became more aware of the possible complications of the labour movement being so closely allied to the government, especially when the government was the country’s largest employer. In 1993, therefore, it proposed that Cosatu withdraw from the Tripartite Alliance after the 1994 elections. Cosatu debated and rejected the proposal. The Alliance stuck together.
In government, the ANC has been redistributive via its social grants system but has broadly followed a market liberal macroeconomic policy. It has not radically intervened in the economy to restructure it in favour of the poor or working class. The Tripartite Alliance has maintained an extremely lively, and often highly critical, internal debate about policy and party direction. But at its heart, the unions have accepted a central compromise: that there will be some, but not structural, change, and that they will get a seat in the car, but not the driving seat.
The left revolts
This bargain kept the labour movement on board until the mid-2000s, but since then, there have been three revolts. All of these have claimed to be explicitly opposed to South Africa’s policy framework that developed following the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan in 1996.
The first of these rebellions was the removal of Thabo Mbeki as ANC party president in 2007. In this revolt, the left of the Alliance – led by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of Cosatu, and Blade Nzimande, General Secretary of SACP – rallied behind Jacob Zuma to oust Mbeki. The left hoped Zuma’s ANC would tack firmly in its direction, abandoning the policies Nzimande dubbed the “1996 class project”.
The ouster was successful, and the left had something to cheer about when Zuma brought leftist figures into his cabinet. However, as time passed, many on the left began to see Zuma’s government as employing its people but not its ideas.
What we are now witnessing is challenging the very roots of the ANC’s long-held hegemony, as the conflicting interests that came together under its banner in the closing years of apartheid and first 20 years of majority rule unravel.
The second revolt came in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), established in 2013 and led by Julius Malema along with other expelled ANC Youth League figures. Malema, who had been a major part of the right wing of support for Zuma over Mbeki, now shifted to a trenchant critique of Zuma’s ANC from the radical left. The EFF, which combines socialism with Black Consciousness and focuses its critique on white monopoly capital and the ANC’s failure to confront it, won 6% of the vote this year. Its vote was firmly weighted towards the disenfranchised, young and jobless, although it did gain support from some older professionals too.
The EFF, which demands radical change from a left that mainly sits outside vehicles like the unions, is having an outsized effect on South African politics. The 25-member caucus in parliament has brought a fierceness, as well as a hint of pantomime, to debate in the chamber. The ANC has fought back aggressively, but the EFF demand that Zuma “pay back the money” (a reference to the more than $20 million of public money spent on his personal homestead in Nkandla) has captured the public imagination.
The third revolt, like the second, can be seen partly as a response to the ostensible success (overthrowing Mbeki) but structural failure (not transforming society) of the first. Numsa now sits outside the ANC alliance, while seven other unions have suspended their participation in Cosatu. Between a third and a half of Cosatu’s membership is thus at risk and with it more than R1 million ($90,000) per month in funding. Vavi opposes the expulsion of Numsa and must be seen as hanging by a thread in the federation, despite his nominal leadership of it.