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Cracks in the ANC monolith: Numsa, Cosatu and resistance to the neoliberal order

By Benjamin Hale - posted Thursday, 3 April 2014

At its special national congress in December the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) made a number of significant decisions which directly challenged the leadership of both Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) and the ANC (African National Congress) led alliance. First, Numsa not only withdrew its support from the ANC in the upcoming elections but decided to persuade Cosatu to defect from its alliance with the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP).

Second, Numsa resolved to organise workers across sectors and create a 'United Front' whilst working towards establishing a movement for socialism as it expressed the sentiment that "the working class needs a political organisation committed in its policies and actions to the establishment of a socialist South Africa". I argue that Numsa's resolutions at the special national congress and actions thereafter were a response to the increasingly heavy handedness of Cosatu, official reactions to the marikana massacre, and the recognition that the ANC and Cosatu do not serve working class interests, and as such Numsa's actions constitute a form of resistance to the neoliberal order in South Africa.

Following the announcement of the above resolutions by Numsa, the SACP and Cosatu castigated the Numsa leadership releasing a number of statements accusing Numsa's 'leadership clique' of being 'dangerous', 'divisive' and hurting working class interests. Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini labelled Numsa's resolutions as 'an invitation to Cosatu to expel them' and accused the leadership of making decisions that 'did not flow from the ground'. In addition, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande labelled Numsa's 'leadership clique' as 'enemies of the revolution' forcing ordinary workers to oppose the triple-alliance. Cosatu even went so far as to hold a special sitting of the central executive committee and issue a letter asking Numsa why it should not be suspended or expelled.


However, Numsa has hit back noting that the decisions its leaders took were the result of a process of 'political discussion and democratic debate' at a local and regional level, passed with unanimity at the special congress. In addition, Numsa has refuted claims by Cosatu's central executive committee that its actions were "diametrically opposed to Cosatu policies" noting that although Numsa will not campaign for the ANC "we leave it to members… what political party they want to vote for". Furthermore, Irvin Jim has been quick to note that one of the reasons that Cosatu took the 'preliminary view' that Numsa should be suspended or expelled, that is Numsa's demand that Cosatu break away from the alliance, had been previously raised by Numsa itself in 1993 without the threat of suspension.

Cosatu's increasingly heavy handedness was also a key factor influencing Numsa's resolutions and actions thereafter, beginning with the suspension of federal secretary Zwelinzima Vavi (a known critic of the ANC and passionate supporter of worker's rights). Numsa's concern over Vavi's suspension is most obviously reflected in its recent call, alongside eight other member unions, for a special national congress to investigate Vavi's suspension, and their recent boycott of a central committee meeting.

The response offered by Cosatu's central committee was hardly encouraging. Under Cosatu's constitution it is required to hold a special congress as one-third of its members had made the petition, however, Cosatu refused to do so due to 'financial constraints'. In addition, Cosatu's threat to suspend or expel Numsa following its declaration of new resolutions triggered a backlash from Numsa, which pointed out that Cosatu did not have the power to suspend or expel a "founding or existing" member according to the constitution. Cosatu's willingness to trample on the rights of its own members constitutes a distortion of its own constitution, justifying Irvin Jim's comment that democracy in the federation was 'distorted and unrecognisable.'

Numsa's decision to spurn the ANC-led alliance in favour of building a mass movement was also influenced by the Marikana massacre and Cosatu's shamefully tame response to it. The massacre, in which many South African workers were fired upon with live ammunition, signalled that the ANC was no longer a worker's movement but an enforcer of neoliberal privatisation willing to defend the interests of large capital violently if necessary.

Furthermore, Cosatu's response to the slaughter, in which it declared 'workers…[must] be peaceful, lawful and orderly', and 'we shall… not… apportion blame' confirmed its role as the ANC's lapdog, unwilling to question the status quo. As Irvin Jim notes 'the country is on fire… there are service delivery protests everyday across the country. Police retaliate with brutality; the working class is facing a national crisis. We cannot sit on our hands and do nothing.'

Implicit within Numsa's actions at the special national congress and thereafter is the recognition that 'the party, a true instrument of the power of the bourgeoisie, reinforces the machine, and ensures that the people are hemmed in and immobilized' (Fanon: 1968: 165, 171-2). Numsa realises that the ANC and its alliance partners (Cosatu and the SACP) no longer serve working class interests, but rather the interests of capital as a class.


In his address Jim Irvin, head of Numsa, argued that the Union could no longer endorse the ANC given the failure of its economic policies to 'address the needs of the working class poor', whilst Numsa Deputy General Secretary Karl Cloete argues that the ANC has a new 'liberal trajectory' which is 'essentially… anti-working class.' Given that global neoliberalism in South Africa is expressed through the economic policies and actions of the ANC-led alliance, Numsa's actions can be seen as both a challenge to the neoliberal world order and a rallying cry for working class solidarity.

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About the Author

Benjamin Hale is an honours graduate and PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University in the field of politics and international relations with a specific focus on Africa.

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All articles by Benjamin Hale

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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