South Africa - The pre-election balance sheet

Spring 2014

South Africa's fifth general election since the end of white rule, scheduled for the 7 May, is taking place just 5 months after the death of Nelson Mandela and 18 months after the massacre of 34 striking platinum miners at Marikana by the state police. These two events will pull the vote for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the party of Mandela, in opposite directions.

Having been in government for the past 20 years, where it has led a Tripartite Alliance - with the union federation COSATU and the South-African Communist Party (SACP) - the ANC is facing multiple charges of corruption, mismanagement and failure to deliver on basic public services. So it can do with the sentimental surge which the demise of an all-but-sanctified Mandela may bring. But it is unlikely that this will prevent significant voter defections.

ANC president Jacob Zuma's reception when he appears in public, says it all. The solemn occasion of the memorial service for Mandela, in Soweto's Soccer City stadium on 10 December, didn't prevent a section of the crowd from booing as soon as he opened his mouth. And he got booed again when he appeared at the same stadium, on 5 March, when Bafana Bafana, the national football team played (and lost to) Brazil.

Of course, despite its current unpopularity, the ruling ANC is still likely to gain the most votes and win the election. It is by far the largest party, so even if its vote falls (polls have predicted a 56% total share - and 45%, or less, in Gauteng province, around the country's economic capital, Johannesburg), no other party comes close. The runner-up in the last election, the Democratic Alliance, )the descendent of the former (white) liberal opposition under apartheid , got 2.9m (16.66%) votes compared to the ANC's overwhelming 11.6m (65.9%). Even if the DA doubles its vote at the ANC's expense it can't win. In other words, the ANC's domination, while facing challenges, new and old, is not in question. Not yet.

But its share of the vote in absolute terms has been falling since the very first post-apartheid election in 1994. In 2009, it got 11.6m votes from 23.2m registered voters, compared with 1994's 12.2m votes from 21.7m registered. In 1999, the second post-apartheid election, when the population gave its verdict on the first 5 years of ANC rule, under the venerated Nelson Mandela, the party got its lowest score ever, with 10.6m votes, reflecting the acute disappointment of the population, when the radical social transformation it hoped for, and expected "its" party to deliver, did not materialise.

And turnout has also fallen: an estimated 77.3% in 2009 compared to 89% in 1994. As for the two elections in between, the lowest turnout so far - 76% - was in 2004.

So yes, there has been a decline in voter registrations over the years, along with an increase in the number abstaining from voting. If you add those who did not register to those who did not vote last time round, in 2009, only 56.5% of eligible voters actually went to the polls.

This year, despite the government's best attempts - aiming specifically at the youth and the so-called "born free" generation (born free of apartheid), that is 18-20 year olds eligible to vote for the first time - total registration is down, according to the Independent Electoral Commission - at 80.8%, compared to 84.07% in 2009 and 84.6% in 2004, and only slightly higher than the all-time low of 80% reached in, 1999, the year of "great disappointment"..

To vote, or not to vote?

In fact there are several organisations, campaigns and individuals, calling either for non-registration, abstention or for spoiling ballot papers. Unfortunately the option of "voting blank" on the ballot paper is not offered.

Probably the most surprising addition to the ranks of the non-voters is Ronnie Kasrils, who is so proud of his past at the head of UmkhontoweSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC in exile, that he entitled his autobiography "Armed and Dangerous". He was a member of the SACP central committee until 2007, and a cabinet minister in the ANC government untili2008. His last post being Thabo Mbeki's Minister for Intelligence Services. Kasrils now says there is no-one to vote for.

"I have been a person who was so involved in mobilisation for ANC votes," he said to a local newspaper recently, "I must confess that I can't do this today... The ANC has had 20 years to prove itself. If it hasn't proved [itself], then I'm saying: 'Listen to your head and your heart'(...) I have said to people... it's no good going into a polling booth and just crossing everything out. If you want to do something like that, as a group, issue a statement expressing why you feel that you can't vote at this particular point in time."

In June last year, Kasrils wrote an article for Britain's Guardian newspaper, declaring that the ANC sold out the struggle and the poor, by making a "Faustian" pact with the apartheid regime in 1994. He wrote: "an ANC-Communist Party leadership, eager to assume political office (myself no less than others) readily accepted this devil's pact, only to be damned in the process. It has bequeathed an economy so tied to the neoliberal global formula and market fundamentalism that there is very little room to alleviate the plight of most of our people."

This is telling, coming from the likes of Kasrils. But it was not he nor his comrades who were "damned in the process". It was they who did the damning - of millions of poor. Kasrils, like many prominent SACP leaders, served in Thabo Mbeki's government for two terms, a government which opened the doors wide to corruption-plagued private tenders for everything it could think of, putting the selected few Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) beneficiaries well on the road to enrichment at the expense of the poor. Worst of all, it also denied the existence of the HIV virus and hence the Aids pandemic, condemning at least half-a-million adults to horrific deformities, chronic illness and death, and depriving millions of children of parents or even substitute carers, and to a lifetime of physical and psychological distress.

So today Kasrils and others like him can wax eloquent over the nature of the ANC's "betrayal". ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, defensively refers to these ex-ANC ministers who now criticise their former pay-masters, as "free agents who have a lot to say today, although they did not do much during their time in government". But whatever Kasrils' past record may be, Mantashe can't deny that he has a point when he accuses the current ANC government of having blood on its hands over the Marikana miners' massacre. Indeed, Kasrils speaks of the Marikana massacre as "Bloody Thursday" and "the most shameful and shocking of all". At the premier showing of the documentary, "Miners Shot Down", directed by Rehad Desai, Kasrils told the audience that "Marikana was far worse than the Sharpeville massacre because it was premeditated" - referring to the 1960 shooting by the apartheid police of the protest organised by the Pan African Congress (PAC) against the Pass Laws, when 69 people were killed - many shot in the back,s at Marikana.

The discontent of party stalwarts, like Kasrils and Jay Naidoo, the now-retired founder-leader of the union confederation COSATU, is symptomatic of a real groundswell of discontent among the population. Naidoo likens it to the 1980s: "The TV images of burning barricades, police in armoured vehicles firing teargas and even live ammunition, heaps of rubbish piled on streets, communities without water and basic services. It bears all the hallmarks of the conflicts and struggles of the 1980s. It brings back painful memories of the days when guns enforced the will of a hated apartheid regime. This cannot be the result of 20 years of freedom".

The revolt of the poor

In a country where the poor living below the poverty line constitutes probably more than 60% (officially the statistics admit 41.8% and 57.2%, depending on which criteria you use) the "poor" thus are the majority of the population. The fact that 70% of under 35-year olds are out of work, bears this out.

Popular discontent has expressed itself through ongoing protests that started more than a decade ago. They have got larger and more general, particularly as the growing urban population has been pushed outof the cities and found itself obliged to build its own homes - shacks out of corrugated iron and bits of wood - on any land it could find which was not being used. Now millions live in sprawling informal settlements, often without any amenities whatsoever. And in fact they are uncounted - and they don't count - in the politicians' scheme of things unless they make themselves felt and heard, which, courageously, they do.

At least 10 township protesters were shot dead by police in the first six weeks of 2014, alone. In January and February this year, there have been an average of 30 protests every day in townships around the country - including firebombing council buildings and burning tyre barricades. Police figures give a total of 1,781 protests in the urbanised ghettoes of Kwazulu-Natal, Gauteng and Western Cape - 668 of them in Gauteng. The triggers for these have been the forced removal of squatters, allegations of corruption, lack of houses, water and electricity. In fact each city council now has its own dedicated "anti land invasion unit" - the local councils' version of thenotorious "Red Ants" - a private security force used to remove squatters by force.

So it is hardly surprising that politicians are regarded with suspicion and disdain, nor that officials trying to register voters for the elections were attacked and stoned, in several townships in Gauteng, including in Bekkersdal on the West Rand which has its own well-organised residents' association, and which has been organising service delivery protests for many years. This time, in March, the protesters were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannon. When ANC officials visited they therefore brought armed body guards - and, apparently, live ammunition was used to fire warning shots at angry crowds. Fortunately this time no one was killed.

It is in the context of lack of services and housing that there is a growing boycott-the-election "movement". One such group is Abahlali-base-Mjondolo - "democracy from below" - which, for years, has brought together some of the ad hoc protests for service delivery, in Kwazulu-Natal primarily - that is, the struggles for clean water, toilets, proper homes which have not been forthcoming in these last 20 years. They demand "land and housing in the city". To this end they have occupied land, but face demolitions and violent attacks by the special units set up to go in and destroy "illegal dwellings". Abahlali has recently successfully occupied land in Cato Crest in Durban, and in Cape Town's East Phillipi, calling these the "Marikana Land Occupations". In Cape Town the land occupiers just won a court ruling preventing their settlement from being demolished, for the time being.

Abahlali specifically rejects the NGOs and organisations which have come in and tried to take over their fights. In the words of one of the founders, obliged to go into hiding because of attempts on his life: "We want a responsive government that will cater for the needs of the people equally, starting with the worst off. We understand that this will only happen when the poor have organised to build their own power and to reduce the power of the politicians and other forces like business and NGOs."

There are other organisations - too many to mention - formal and informal, which have grown up in the past 20 years to try to fight for decent conditions in the face of "non-delivery" on promises and little improvement in basic facilities.

The red berets multiply

The discontent of all of the layers of society - including the middle class - has meant that new political parties have also been springing up in the run-up to the election, to try to tap into this discontent.

Indeed, the electoral commission said on the day that registrations closed, that maybe 46 or 48 parties had paid their deposits to participate in the election. If they win even one seat in either provincial or national assemblies, they get a full refund - the amount to take part being R605,000, equivalent to £34,000. This may not seem like a lot by European standards, but Julius Malema, who launched the Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF) last year, decided to contest this in the courts on the grounds that it was too great a sum for average South Africans to come with. He lost the case and duly paid up.

The DA, led by Helen Zille, remains the main opposition party with the most seats in parliament after the ANC. In 2009, it got 16.66% of the vote and 67 seats. But given the discontent in the country, it hopes to double its vote at the ANC's expense. However, it is still seen as a white-led party, and is certainly a pro-capitalist, "centre-right" party - being the direct descendent of the old, white-led opposition party which represented the English-speaking white petty and big bourgeoisie. It arose during the apartheid years, standing against the Afrikaans-speaking, Afrikaner nationalist apartheid regime, but not always against apartheid.

In passing, it is worth mentioning that the last significant breakaway from the ANC, the Congress of the People (COPE), which had been formed in 2008 after the unceremonious ousting of former prime minister Thabo Mbeki from the ANC leadership by Zuma's clique, has not fared very well. It is still led by ex-cabinet minister Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota. In the 2009 election, COPE won 7.42% of the vote and 30 seats in the National Assembly. It had initially looked as if it was going to have radical policies to the left of the ANC. Even one-time leader of the 1980's township revolt, and co-founder of the metal workers' union NUMSA, Moses Mayekiso, joined it, actually holding office in the party until 2012. But it turned into an alternative "middle class", middle-of-the-road ANC, and was soon riven with rivalries and splits. Today it could even be likened to a black-led version of the Democratic Alliance.

It will be interesting to see how the newcomers among the parties, launched after Marikana, fare in these elections. The most important beingthe above-mentioned EFF led by the expelled former ANC youth league leader, Julius Malema; Agang (meaning "to build" in the Northern Sotho language), headed by Dr Mamphela Ramphele ; and WASP, the Workers' and Socialist Party, which is presented as a "united front" party.

When the flamboyant populist, Malema, launched the EFF last year, like everything he does, it got a lot of publicity. Malema had already been trying to capitalise on the anti-government feeling in the Rustenburg area after the Marikana massacre. Te EFF has since then, been actively trying to recruit members in the mining areas and settlements of Limpopo and Mpumalanga, holding rallies and making sure activists in their EFF red berets were visible during meetings of strikers, etc.

It launched its manifesto at a rally in the huge Thembisa township, north-east of Johannesburg, with 60,000 people in attendance, on 22 February this year. In fact, politically, the EFF is simply opportunistic: its policies are a jumble of populist, but often quite reactionary, nationalist reformism, behind what it claims are "Marxist-Leninist" slogans, presumably to give it some "revolutionary" street cred. And of course there would be no street cred at all without the red berets, worn by its supporters, while its "officers" have full military uniforms and brand new jeeps to drive around in. It caused a big stir when it published a manifesto calling for land expropriation without compensation, nationalisation of mines and banks, and elected politicians being compelled to use public rather than private services (making a reference to Thomas Sankara, the murdered "Marxist" president of Burkino Faso in the 1980s). But since then it has reassured big business - by speaking of a mere 60% "management takeover" by the state... In other words, limited state control, rather than state ownership...

Of course EFF "Commander in Chief", Malema must hope that voters are able to forget who he really is:that he is the same Malema who helped his now "arch-enemy", Jacob Zuma, to win the ANC leadership election, against Thabo Mbeki in 2008, by mobilising the ANC youth. Zuma, of course, repaid him by expelling him from the ANC in 2012, for his disrespect to the party and "threats to turn the youth wing against it". It was a night of the long knives.

But Malema's trials were not over: on 26 September 2012, he was charged with money laundering, relating to his awarding of lucrative government contracts in Limpopo, in return for R4m (£225,000) in kickbacks. He also faces tax evasion charges to the tune of R16m (£900,000). So in February last year, The Revenue Service decided to auction off his property to pay these taxes - including a mansion in the posh suburb of Sandown near Johannesburg and a farm in Limpopo. He can't have been too poor if he had so much tax to pay, but some would say that such an unbelievably huge tax bill proves he must have been stitched up. And that this is all a smear campaign by political enemies.

Malema is good at making rousing political speeches and his populist language, designed to hit home among disgruntled voters, may mean that the EFF will get quite a few votes - pollsters say (at the time of writing) that it could possibly get around 7% of the vote. But who can really tell?

Build what and sting what?

The other party which was launched last year was "Agang" led by Mamphela Ramphele, a medical doctor and academic, who had two children with the assassinated Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko. But that is where any association with radical politics ends. She went on to become a World Bank managing director and a mining multinational executive. She is said to be funded by a notorious tax-avoiding South African billionaire Natie Kirsch who resides in that notorious tax haven, London. Her party almost teamed up with the DA - but at the last minute decided this was a mistake. In other words, Agang is designed to be a more palatable form of the DA for black middle class voters. Since they already have COPE and the DA and several others, why should they be impressed?

The last of the new kids on the block, is the Workers' and Socialist Party or, unfortunate abbreviation as it may be, "WASP". This organisation was also set up in the wake of Marikana, claiming support among striking miners and their strike committees. It had a very quiet (nobody really knew much about it)launch on "Human Rights Day" - the official holiday to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre - on 21 March 2013.

WASP originates in the Democratic Socialist Movement, which is the latest incarnation of what used to be the Marxist Workers' Tendency inside the ANC in the old days, that is, the South African counterpart of the formerly "entrist" Militant faction in the British Labour Party - now the Socialist Party. In the process of forming this "united front", all references to Trotskyism or communism have disappeared from the language of the new organisation, presumably for fear of deterring existing or potential associates, although this was never spelt out. However, despite this, or maybe because of this, they managed to get Moses Mayekiso (last heard from in COPE!) to head their list for the National Assembly election.

That said, WASP also made an approach to the EFF for some kind of joint platform - but this did not work out, said the WASP spokesperson, in an interview to the South African weekly Mail & Guardian: "It is necessary to expropriate capital's private ownership but for the purpose of bringing society into public ownership. Their [the EFF's] position is nationalisation to bring sectors of the economy into state control, which doesn't resolve the problems of the working class. It only poses the question of who owns the state and who benefits?" However, how the working class is supposed to achieve the "expropriation of capital" according to WASP, is anybody's guess. Besides, one can only wonder why WASP proposed an electoral alliance with the EFF when, in the same interview, its spokesperson accuses Malema of having supported the awarding of big bonuses to executives in the public electricity utility Eskom.

For the election, WASP has issued a "five point manifesto" which reads as follows:

"- Kick out the fat-cats; Nationalise the mines, the farms, the banks and big business. Nationalised industry to be under the democratic control of workers and working class communities; Democratic planning of production for social need, not profit.

"- End unemployment. Create socially-useful jobs for all those seeking work. Fight for a living wage of R12,500 per month.
"- Stop cut-offs and evictions - for massive investment in housing, electricity, water, sanitation, roads, public transport and social services.
"- For publicly funded, free education from nursery to university.
"- For publicly funded free health care accessible to all."

What will become of WASP in this election remains to be seen. It will probably be viewed with some suspicion due to its lack of real implantation amongst workers - even if it claims to be "influential" amongst mineworkers and especially in AMCU, the union which now dominates the Rustenburg platinum belt, having capitalised on the disgust the mineworkers felt for the COSATU-affiliated union, the NUM.

The ANC in defensive mode

If president Zuma is today blamed for the continued corrupt practice involved in numerous arms deals and government tenders, the ongoing self-enrichment of the political class and their friends and relatives, "Nkandlagate" - the scandal over his private Nkandla complex in his home village in Kwazulu-Natal, apparently paid for with public funds (still under investigation) - etc., there is one thing he is generally applauded for: the reversal of Mbeki's HIV policy. Nobody can forget the terrible years of mayhem and death caused by Mbeki's disastrous "denial" of HIV. So Zuma and his health ministers have won credit for this, even if the real struggle to reverse policy was waged by tireless public campaigning.

Given the devastating consequences that a 20% HIV incidence among the population has had, this is an undisputedly dramatic change in South Africa's social landscape - although it should never have been necessary in the first place. Today HIV counselling, testing and treatment is free and generally available. Excellent programmes exist which have made a very significant impact on the health of the population even if there are still logistical problems with the delivery of anti- HIV drugs.

However, and unsurprisingly, given the scale of the poverty and thus the general ill-health of the population, it seems that by pouring resources into addressing the HIV crisis, the health service has had nothing much left for anything else - and is on the brink of falling apart, despite the dedication of the health workers and professionals who heroically man the under-funded clinics and hospitals, always under severe pressure. As for the promised "National Health Insurance", it remains a mirage on the distant horizon.

The ANC has, of course, taken the disillusionment of the electorate into account, by emphasising the challenges it has faced over the past 20 years. But it also had to acknowledge the present dire social situation which it presides over. So its election message admits that: "Poverty, inequality and unemployment still affect the lives of many people. Corruption continues to erode our social fabric and undermine our development efforts. Our economy continues to feel the effects of the global economic slowdown." Never mind that it was the ANC itself which generated this "erosive" corruption, chiefly via government tenders!

The manifesto continues: "South Africa has begun a new and far-reaching phase of its democratic transition. This calls for bold and decisive steps to place the economy on a qualitatively different path. The National Development Plan (NDP) aims to eradicate poverty, increase employment, create sustainable livelihoods and reduce inequality by 2030."

Even if this was possible under the profit system, which it is not, why fix the NDP's "vision" on 2030, in 15 year's time ? As an economic programme (which is 480 pages long...) this NDP has come under attack from both COSATU, and the large metalworkers' union, NUMSA, for not addressing issues concretely and for its unambitious targets as regards poverty. The Communist Party defends it, of course, but since this party claims that South Africa is now embarking on the second stage of its "National Democratic Revolution", presumably towards socialism, it too, has to point out that there are some problems with the ANC's "vision". But it can't be too critical because renouncing its present parasitic existence as an appendage of the ANC would be opting for a life in the cold, which it is not prepared to do.

Anyway, as an election message, the above quote is certainly not aimed at the millions of poor, living in the sprawling so-called informal settlements around almost every single town and city in the country - "housing" the uncounted and disenfranchised poor. They may be a substantial proportion of the population, but if they have no voice, why indeed should the ANC bother to take them into account? However, they could be a direct threat to the cosy rule of the ANC, and in some ways already are. Because these working class families gave up on "pieces of paper" long ago. They have taken to making themselves heard in another way - by staging the regular, sometimes violent protests and blockades referred to above. They may be targeted by police bullets, just like the striking miners were, at Marikana, but they keep coming back. As do the miners, in fact.

Marikana unforgiven

Yes, the platinum miners up in Marikana are on strike again today - and, at the time of writing have been out for 7 weeks, because they have not yet achieved a minimum starting wage for everyone of R12,500, equivalent to £696 per month. Even if their strike in 2012 gained rock drill operators an increase to nearly R12,000 - which meant they "almost" won the strike they paid so dearly for, with their blood.

Indeed, the massacre of 34 of their comrades in August 2012, is by far the most important factor impacting on this year's election. It is rightly considered a watershed in ANC rule. And it is rightly likened to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.

That the ANC could sanction such killings 52 years later, shocked everyone. But in fact it merely revealed that it is, after all, class rule which is the decisive factor in this capitalist world, and that, at the time, the apartheid regime was just one of its more oppressive disguises. When it comes to it, any government ruling in the interests of the bourgeoisie, i.e., the capitalist class, in this case the ANC, is capable of similar acts.

Of course, this does not make the brutal Marikana killings any less shocking. And while the state police carried them out, it was at the instigation of mining giant Lonmin. What is more, everyone now knows that rand billionaire, and former miners' leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, who sits on Lonmin's board, formally agreed to the police action. And when, nevertheless, ANC delegates elected Ramaphosa as the party's Deputy Secretary General just 4 months later, at the party's Mangaung conference, it became clear to anyone who cared to notice, on which side of the class divide the ANC sat.

But are the ANC government's days of hiding behind the so-called "Tripartite Alliance" with COSATU and the Communist Party, which has allowed it to claim to be a "party of the working class", now over?

This question brings us back to the election line-up. There may be 46 or so organisations with their deposits paid up to participate on 7 May. However, if there is a potential game-changer, it may well prove to be none of these participants, but rather an outsider - the metalworkers' union NUMSA, which has thrown a very large spanner in the works of this year's election.

In December, at a special conference, NUMSA delegates decided overwhelmingly that their union would not support the ANC in this election and that the union would not use any of its resources, nor its vast network of local branches, to campaign for the ANC. This is the first time anything like this has happened .

So why did NUMSA make this decision, and why now? After all, it has placed it in a position of conflict with COSATU - of which it is a founder and a cornerstone, but which is now threatening it with expulsion. And of course it has placed the union leadership (headed by Irvin Jim, since 2008) in direct opposition to the ANC and SACP leaders.

In fact NUMSA was the first and most prominent COSATU union to back the Marikana strikers in 2012 and to condemn, immediately, their killers. Sympathy strikes were staged at the time and strikes scheduled to take place over disputes involving NUMSA members were used to raise the issue of the dead miners, as well as the miners'ongoing strike at the time.

At the time too, it should be remembered that the SACP and even the leader of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi, condemned the Marikana strikers. They were "provocateurs", "splitters" and "counter-revolutionaries", said Jeremy Cronin, the arch-stalinist Communist Party leader. And at the time, Vavi echoed his words. COSATU was facing a crisis. One of its other foundation stones, the National Union of Mineworkers, had been increasingly discredited over the course of the 2 or 3 previous years amongst platinum mineworkers. The miners had even been on strike against their own union leaders, because of the NUM's victimisation of their shop stewards. They left it in droves in order to join the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which was younger, newer and thus more responsive to their needs. In contrast, the NUM had become conservative, bureaucratised and its leadership was more obsessed with making partnership deals with the bosses (often their fellow ANC cronies, like Ramaphosa) than defending workers.

Then came the suspension of Vavi, accused, in a set-up, first of rape - but this accusation had to be withdrawn - and then of sexual intercourse with a work colleague in the COSATU building. Because this has not had the desired effect of discrediting him in members' eyes, he is also now being accused of some kind of shady dealing over the sale of the COSATU headquarters. But Vavi had also been prominent in opposing corruption in the unions and in government. And this is precisely what puts him at odds with the current Zuma loyalists in the ANC and the SACP leadership.

NUMSA had all along supported Vavi - and called for a special conference of COSATU in order to resolve these issues. In this, it was supported by 9 other unions affiliated to COSATU - most of the more important ones, indeed. But the "new" COSATU leaders put in place to rule in Vavi's stead are refusing a special conference and have launched a slanderous campaign accusing NUMSA of all kinds of malpractice and even corruption.

Of course if they expel Numsa it will be a clear case of cutting one's nose off to spite one's face, since NUMSA is the largest COSATU union by far, with around 350,000 members. And COSATU is already faced with its other pillar, the NUM, haemorrhaging members to AMCU.

Forward to a revolutionary workers' party?

In December, NUMSA decided to hold a special conference to reappraise where it stood politically, with reference to COSATU, the ANC and the SACP.

Its discussion documents for the this conference contain a multitude of well-reasoned political points, economic facts and examples, all of which boil down to the fact that the ANC Alliance has failed to deliver on its promises, that it has not even stuck to the Freedom Charter, which was hardly a "socialist programme" anyway. It notes that the so-called National Development Plan (NDP) which was supposed to put the country back onto the road of development in the interests of the working class (!!) under Jacob Zuma - as opposed to the "neoliberalism" of GEAR , which was the framework imposed by Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki - surprise, surprise, turns out to be just the same... And for the working class it is, of course, and this goes without saying, an abysmal failure.

In fact, NUMSA has belatedly discovered the "bourgeois" nature of the ANC-SACP Alliance. "If we have characterised the NDP in these class terms, as a neoliberal plan, a major right-wing deviation from the Freedom Charter, it is therefore a straightforward conclusion that the leadership that uses the NDP as a basis to mobilise the progressive social forces around a common vision is also a "neoliberal", "rightwing" leadership. In short, our conclusion is that the leadership that emerged in Mangaung [the last ANC congress in December 2012] is a bourgeois leadership."

As far as the NUMSA activists are concerned, if the Freedom Charter had been adhered to, today we would have seen the nationalisation of the "commanding heights" of the economy. They are obviously mistaken, since the Freedom Charter was pretty ambiguous on this point, but at least they are now putting into question the policy followed over the past two decades.

NUMSA goes on to explain that on top of all the other failures, today the ANC offers only policies which hurt workers. For instance, E-Tolling on the roads - against which COSATU's rather half-hearted campaign has been totally unsuccessful. Another example is the ANC's strategy for tackling youth unemployment, which is to give the bosses a subsidy to pay younger recruits a pittance - and in consequence, to dismiss older workers! NUMSA has been the union most vocally against this.

It was thus at this December 2013 conference that thousands of NUMSA delegates voted overwhelmingly for their union not to support the ANC in the coming election and for NUMSA to convene provincial consultative meetings to discuss a "socialist future" and the need for workers to have their own party. In the words of Irvin Jim, "unless the working class organizes itself as a class for itself, it will remain unrepresented and forever toil behind the bourgeoisie." They were not clear what shape or form the future party would take - so this would be left open for the discussions until some kind of consensus could be reached.

Incidentally, the idea for regional conferences to discuss socialism and how to get there, is not something NUMSA pulled out of its hat. In fact as some commentators point out, it is part of the constitution of the union federation, COSATU. Twenty years ago, under the leadership of Mbhazima Shilowa, COSATU convened just such a "socialist conference". The problem is that it never had another one! But today NUMSA is taking the initiative single-handedly in the face of extreme opposition from the powerful nationalist and Stalinist leaders of the Tripartite Alliance.

One of NUMSA's press releases thus boldly reads:

"1. Every NUMSA member is entitled to vote for a political party of their choice including the ANC;

2. Given the attack on the working class as a result of neo-liberal and anti-working policy implemented by the ANC, NUMSA shall not endorse nor fund the ANC in its 2014 elections campaign;
3. NUMSA is not and shall never be transformed into a political party;
4. In NUMSA we have members of different political parties and therefore the unity of workers is our primary goal;
5. The United Front is not a political party BUT a mobilising instrument and tool in the hands of the working class to organise and coordinate working class struggles for working class confidence, consciousness and working class power;
6. The working class needs an independent and revolutionary working class party. In this regard we shall research and investigate internally the experience of workers parties and report these international research findings in March 2015. Dividing workers as the ANC, SACP and COSATU national and provincial leaders are now doing, demonstrates the fact that the working class is on its own and would have to accept that painful reality. No romanticism or sentimental attachments can obscure the bad state of the South African working class. As we reached the end of February 2014, we have grown the NUMSA membership to 341, 473. We shall continue to serve the interest of workers to the best of our abilities."

One can only agree with the spirit of this statement. NUMSA, and particularly its leadership under Irvin Jim, is now awaiting the verdict on their submission to COSATU, stating why they should not be expelled from the federation. As mentioned before, they already have a lot of support - and it is growing - from other unions (9 unions and several other regional branches, in other words almost half of the 21 affiliates of COSATU) and from the left-wing formations already outside of COSATU like the National Transport Movement, which split from COSATU's Transport union some time ago.

COSATU may well decide to expel NUMSA. If it does, it will have split the trade union movement. However, it is no foregone conclusion that this will weaken the working class. After all, over the past two years, the largest strike and protest movements have been carried out by workers without the active support - and often against - the COSATU leadership.

Of course, it probably goes without saying that the South African working class can expect nothing from the election on 7 May. On the other hand, if the current Numsa initiative takes off the ground and produces the embryo of a new and genuine workers' party, this could prove to be a decisive development. Coming out of the largest and most militant union, this party would be based from its inception, on the core section of the working class - its industrial proletariat. And if, building on its long and militant tradition, it was able to free itself from the nationalist straitjacket which has so far paralysed working class politics in South Africa, and was then able to adopt a clear class perspective and revolutionary communist programme, in an international framework, that would indeed change everything!

16 March 2014