LAST week’s elections have cast the spotlight firmly on the opposition landscape in SA. The growth of the Democratic Alliance (DA), as the official opposition, will now more than ever force the party to deal with its internal contradictions if it hopes to capture the imagination of the majority of South Africans in future elections.
On Thursday, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) provided the strongest indication yet that it will contest future elections, starting in 2016, and referring pointedly to the Nelson Mandela Bay metro in the Eastern Cape. Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim says the African National Congress (ANC) is on the cusp of losing the metro and Numsa does not want it to fall into the hands of the DA.
The union is as hostile to the DA as it is to the ANC, and while it is willing to talk to political formations across the spectrum about its planned political party, it will shun the DA.
Numsa has dismissed the National Development Plan, arguing that the long-term blueprint for SA’s development mirrored the “neo-liberal” policies of the official opposition.
The union has began rolling out its plans to form a United Front and is continuing its research on the form and content of a workers’ party.
The “Numsa moment”, as it is dubbed in leftist circles, is upon us.
While the DA has grown in each successive election, despite the formation of new political parties — the United Democratic Movement in 1999, the Congress of the People in 2009 and the Economic Freedom Fighters and Agang SA this year — Numsa, as a 27-year-old organisation with a strong structural base, could prove to be a formidable opponent. Its strategists are researching models for the workers’ party in South America — Bolivia, Equador and Venezuela — and, closer to home, in Africa.
Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) scenario is among the chief examples Numsa’s detractors have used to argue against its plans for a workers’ party in SA. But its strategists say its initiative will not meet a similar fate to the MDC as it is a “socialist inspired movement”, not propelled by liberalism.
The negotiated settlement that led to SA’s first democratic election was a “marriage between the black elite and white capital”. This locked out the working class, which found expression within the governing alliance between the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party, but only to a degree that kept them on the fringes of society.
Numsa strategists say it is not about “seizing” the commanding heights of the economy, but ensuring that economic resources are made accessible to everyone in society, particularly the working class and the poor.
“Any working class which is not interested in political power must accept that it will continue to be butchered by capitalists,” says Numsa deputy general secretary Karl Cloete.
The precursor to Numsa’s party would be a “United Front”, which would prepare the ground among communities and in workplaces for the launch of an organisation that will ultimately contest elections. The front would begin its work nearly a year before the launch of the party.
DA leaders have warned that their party has to begin winning elections instead of remaining on the opposition benches or South Africans will lose their appetite to vote it. The voter may find a more palatable option in Numsa’s workers’ party. The DA will have to deal with its identity crisis, and fast, if it hopes to remain in the game, especially in the run-up to the critical 2016 municipal elections, where the ANC is floundering in metros in Gauteng.
But Numsa does not have an easy ride ahead. Its leaders complain of attempts to destabilise the union. The battle for control of Cosatu is also key to its fortunes. Even if Numsa and eight other unions succeed in holding a special national congress and electing new leaders, it will not be able to convince a majority of affiliates of its decision to form a worker party. It will then have to form another federation, which could have far-reaching consequences for the labour market.
• Marrian is political editor.