Numsa and the EFF are currently the two largest “left” formations in SA and could together form a powerful bloc, writes Bejamin Vogel.
As Numsa began splitting from the Tripartite Alliance last year many commentators suggested that this political trajectory would lead towards an alliance with the newly-formed EFF.
Numsa and the EFF are currently the two largest “left” formations in South Africa and could together form a powerful bloc capable of challenging the ANC’s power.
There are many apparent similarities between the movements: both are Left splits from the Tripartite Alliance, hold similar positions on nationalisation, and identify as socialist.
They share a Left critique of the National Development Plan and identify the primary enemy of the South African working class as “white monopoly capital” with the ANC as its protector.
But despite these similarities the EFF did not attend Numsa’s International Symposium on Left Political Parties and Movements, even after receiving an official invitation. The reasons the EFF offered are revealing.
According to their press release, Numsa has rejected all invitations to meet the EFF’s leadership despite numerous requests. Because of this the EFF is “unable to know and understand the deeper political and ideological programme Numsa pursues because EFF has still not met the leadership”.
In a report by Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim at last year’s special national congress, the EFF was described as anti-capitalist rather than socialist, meaning that it was not committed to workers’ control as a principle of economic transformation.
Furthermore, Numsa seems to regard the EFF as undemocratic and is suspicious of Malema and his allies’ previous history “as capitalists”. In an article last weekend Jim claimed that reports suggesting that Numsa had “been in cahoots” with the EFF originated as a “SACP truth”, or in other words lies.
The apparent similarities in rhetoric and policy between the movements are owing to the fact these organisations’ policy documents and statements still cling to Marxist-Leninist prose inherited from the congress movement. Both the EFF and Numsa style themselves as protectors of the Freedom Charter and the “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR), which has been betrayed by the SACP and ANC. Both movements describe themselves as vanguards of the working class and the NDR.
Numsa, though, is not a political party, despite being among the most radical unions in South Africa. It exists primarily to protect the interests of its members. The needs of the factory floor may come into odds with any political ambitions.
The EFF, on the other hand, is a political party that emerged from the purge of Julius Malema and his allies from the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), incorporating many former structures of the organisation, and attracting much of what’s left of the Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanist movements.
The EFF did not emerge from the organised working class – Numsa’s base. Malema’s relationship with the union movement was rocky during his ANCYL days and Cosatu was often highly suspicious of the ANCYL.
Despite adopting Marxist-Leninist language in policy documents and describing its core ideology as “Marxist-Leninist Fanonian”, the EFF’s rhetoric focuses on mobilising its constituency by appealing to black or African political identity.
The EFF would serve as the vanguard of black or African people, rather than the proletariat. This type of nationalism is at odds with movements that seek to mobilise along class lines, and harkens to critiques made within the trade union movement that without class being at the forefront of socialist struggles, workers’ interests will take second place to political interests of an elite layer within a nationalist movement. In the case of the EFF this refers to what is perceived as elements of a “BEE bourgeoisie” previously aligned to the ANCYL.
Such differences are exacerbated by Numsa’s need to preserve the unity of its own membership, and by the need to maintain a bloc of allied unions and branches within Cosatu.
Numsa’s allies do not share the same political outlook that seeks an alternative to the ANC. Many of their leaders, including Zwelinzima Vavi, distrust the EFF. For Numsa to openly ally itself with the EFF would risk alienating sections of its own membership still loyal to the ANC and unions unwilling to break with the Tripartite Alliance
Advocates of a Numsa/EFF alliance have also failed to outline how such an alliance would work. Would it be a temporary electoral alliance, or would the EFF join Numsa’s United Front?
The EFF might view a potential workers’ party emerging out of Numsa as an electoral threat to its own base. Would it merely be an alliance targeting particular issues or campaigns?
This terrain is further muddied by the assumption in the narrative surrounding Numsa’s break with the ANC, that an electoral party is the obvious political route for the union to take. As it is now, it would be premature to suggest that an electoral route is inevitable for Numsa.
Numsa’s first priority is renewing a trade union movement that has been driven into crisis by the rise of a parasitic and often corrupt bureaucratic layer within unions that undermines shop floor democracy, tactical flexibility, and the ability of unions to act in the interests of their members.
The current divisions in Cosatu are a direct result of ANC interventions. The ANC has continued to ignore Cosatu’s policy preferences, implementing neoliberal policies such as labour flexibility as solutions to the unemployment crisis.
Cosatu’s submission to ANC priorities has also undermined its ability to respond to the informalisation and casualisation of the labour force.
For such a renewal to happen Numsa would have to hold together an alliance of unions and branches within Cosatu and either reclaim the federation from its current leadership or form a new trade union federation along with non-Cosatu unions, in particular the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Numsa will also have to do more with its united front initiative to build real alliances with community organisations, NGOs and social movements.
It is too early to suggest that a Numsa and EFF alliance is on the cards, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Divisions between the EFF and Numsa might be healthy for the Left.
There are real disagreements and differences between the two formations and it would be counter-productive for these to be glossed over for the purpose of unity.
The emergence of other formations on the Left might help movements avoid hubris or apathy and keep them honest. Whatever trajectory these movements take, the rise of both as alternatives to the ANC indicates that the primary threat to ANC hegemony in the future will likely be from the Left.
* Fogel is a journalist and critic. He was previously the managing editor of Amandla magazine and is a member of the Africa is a Country Editorial Collective and a contributor to Jacobin magazine.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.