AS THE National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) comes to terms with its expulsion from labour federation Cosatu and the ANC alliance, it plans to launch a workers’ movement next month that will be the precursor to a left-wing party.
The United Front, which will start out as a loose grassroots organisation that works in poor communities, will be launched on December 13. The political party that grows from this will advance socialism and is expected to contest the 2016 elections in some municipalities and then go on to build its profile ahead of the 2019 national elections.
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim is reluctant to comment on how much support this new party is likely to receive, saying that there are “fundamental things that need to be understood before we talk elections or numbers”.
“Workers need a political organisation that represents them and raises levels of consciousness in the working classes. Creating this is a victory. The working class has the numbers and if it is consistent and organised it can steer the country in the right direction,” Jim told the Financial Mail.
A conference on how to advance socialism will be called next year. Numsa’s central executive committee meeting in March is expected to decide on the plan to turn the United Front into a new, left-wing party. The success of this party will depend on whether it can take votes away from the ANC and increase the left-wing share of the opposition vote.
The ANC and parties to the right of it currently enjoy about 93% of the vote. If parties to the right of the ANC continue to hold the 31% share of the vote that they currently enjoy, left-wing parties would have to secure between 15% and 20% to push the ANC below 50%.
If Numsa’s exit from Cosatu, which will also weaken the ANC’s campaign machine, and its entry into politics can start making this possible it will mark the beginning of proper competitive politics in SA.
But running a union is very different from running and sustaining a political party. Other attempts by ANC members to break away to form opposition parties haven’t worked. The most recent examples include Cope and Agang. Cope got 7% of the vote in its first election in 2009 but less than 1% of the vote in the 2014 poll. In spite of the public attention Agang’s launch attracted, the party secured only 0,28% or 52 000 votes.
The EFF secured 6% of the vote in its first election in May this year. But signs of infighting between leaders and organisational weaknesses are already showing, which means that the 2019 election will be a crucial test for the party.
Ebrahim Fakir of the Electoral Institute of SA says the advantage that Numsa has over these parties is that it already has structures and a presence on the ground that will give it some foundation on which to build a party.
Numsa’s existing membership is 339 567. This makes it Cosatu’s largest affiliate and the biggest metalworkers’ union in the country. But in political terms these numbers are small.
The areas where Numsa’s party is likely to receive immediate support are its existing strongholds, including the docklands of KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape, industrial belts of Gauteng and in Mpumalanga where there is light industry.
While it is unclear whether support in these areas would be enough to secure it representation on municipalities in the 2016 municipal poll, Numsa’s biggest support base is in the Eastern Cape’s automotive sector, especially in the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area.
This is not only a strategic and symbolic metro; the ANC’s hold on power here has weakened. It just managed a majority (52%) here in the 2011 municipal elections. The 2014 national election results suggested that ANC support here has dropped below 50%.
The DA is hoping to take control of this metro with a clear majority. Time will tell if Numsa’s new party would form a coalition government with the DA if this is what would be required to oust the ANC in 2016. The DA is the only party that is likely to offer it this option in Nelson Mandela Bay because other parties, including the EFF, don’t have a strong presence here.
The DA may appear to be an unlikely bedfellow for this new left-wing party. But being in government in this metro would create a proper platform for Numsa’s party to build a campaign from ahead of the 2019 national election.
DA Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip says his party would definitely govern in a coalition with Numsa’s party, as it has done with other “parties that share our objective for good governance”.
Some ANC leaders argue that Numsa would be wise to stay away from the EFF because it comprises disgruntled ANC members who are seeking power rather than a party that represents a cohesive policy platform.
But Jim says the new party will be open to collaboration with anyone (including left-wing political parties like the EFF) “who has a contribution to make”.
Fakir cautions that the lesson to learn from the failures of other new parties is “to take things very slowly”.
“The key lies in taking a long-term view and having a well thought through strategy that’s coherent and tactically smart,” adds Fakir.
Anything less, he says, increases the potential for being remembered as just another flash in the pan.