Opinion / 20 December 2018, 8:00pm / Imraan Buccus
OPINION - The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa) held a spectacularly successful pre-launch conference for its new workers’ party in Boksburg this weekend. The event was all over the news cycle and it was clear that the new party, known as the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP), is now in business.
Numsa has its roots in the workerist politics of the radical wing of the union movement in the 1970s and 1980s. It has been a strong critic of the bourgeois nationalism of the ANC and was eventually expelled from the ANC in 2014 after being strongly critical of Jacob Zuma. For some time, plans to form a workers’ party, adopted at a congress in 2013, seemed stillborn.
The formation of a United Front in 2013 with the aim of uniting workplace and community struggles was not a success. The union inexplicably allowed NGOs and tiny sectarian organisations to capture the project and it went nowhere fast.
The formation of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) last year must have taken a large proportion of the union’s available resources and energies and some concluded that the new party wasn’t really going to happen.
When it became understood in left-wing circles that Zwelinzima Vavi had his plans for his own party linked to a group of NGOs and a small Trotskyist group, optimism declined further.
But this weekend it became clear that the workers’ party is really happening, that it will be a real force and that while Vavi may not support it, the rests of the Saftu leadership certainly do. Vavi suddenly seems isolated and out of touch. The centre of gravity has shifted to Irvin Jim.
For those who follow the left closely; this is a thrilling moment. The SACP lost its claim to being a party of the left when it threw in its lot with Zuma.
The EFF does sometimes use left-wing slogans and imagery, but it comes out of the authoritarian and often corrupt radical nationalist wing of the ANC, associated with people like the late Peter Mokaba and not the ANC’s left wing.
Many credible left-wing intellectuals have seen them as authoritarian populists whose nationalist politics are somewhere between proto-fascist and fascist.
Their recent collapse into crude dishonesty and thuggery in their support for Zuma’s corrupt networks has destroyed whatever credibility they ever enjoyed on the left. Early signs are that their pro-corruption stance, and their degeneration into crude Trump- like forms of insult and dishonesty, will hit them hard at the polls too.
All this means that the road is open for Numsa to capture the left space with its new party. They have a charismatic leader in Jim, an impressive organisational infrastructure, an equally impressive international network and a dues-paying base of 400000 workers.
There has never been a better foundation for anyone to start a new party in post-apartheid South Africa.
Of course, there are challenges. An obvious question is what will happen to Numsa when, as seems likely, Jim becomes the leader of the new party?
Given the failure of the United Front, another obvious question is whether or not the trade unionists in Numsa will be able to win the support of the community struggles, including organised social movements, and the unemployed.
Also, Numsa argue that they are communists in the tradition of Chris Hani. It may be true that they have a far more credible claim to this mantle than the SACP. But this does place them in a strange position internationally.
Globally, the rise is driving xenophobic politics. In South Africa, we have seen senior individuals in the ANC, DA and EFF all making xenophobic statements, and the DA has an explicitly xenophobic platform for the elections next year. Numsa has many leaders who are migrants, and if the new party repeats this it really can be a breath of fresh air that places the party in clear opposition to the right-wing politics surging across the globe.
However, as we saw with Occupy in the US, and we are seeing with the Yellow Vests in France at the moment, the new forms of opposition to neoliberal capitalism often take the form of horizontally-organised and radically democratic politics.
The suspicion of the political class runs so deep that any sense that new forms of politics will mirror the political establishment is quickly rejected.
The EFF with its big man post-truth politics fits in well with the new forms of right-wing politics across the globe. But it is possible that the younger part of the electorate may shrug off the new workers’ party as just another party.
However, it is also possible that South Africans might not follow the global distrust of professional politics.
We are, after all, an unusual society in which politicians often occupy the role that is usually occupied by celebrities in other societies. It may turn out that, despite the across the board disgust at Zuma, we have not yet reached the point at which all politicians and all parties are despised.
It is far too early to have a realistic sense of how the new workers’ party will do in the election next year. Although they have a well-oiled union machine, they won’t have much time to build their political machinery among the unemployed and in communities. But, however, they do when the votes are counted, having an explicitly left-wing party in the fray will shift the political discourse.
In a recent column, I remarked that our politics had become a strange affair, with the neo-liberals in both the DA and the ANC and corrupt nationalists in both the EFF and the ANC.
Logically, the ANC should split into two camps, one aligned with the DA and the other with the EFF. Of course, in reality, this is unlikely to happen for as long as the ANC is the route into office and all that comes with that.
However, the emergence of the workers’ party means that we will now have a left-wing voice as well as the champions of neo-liberalism and corrupt nationalism in the established parties. That is an important step forward towards the normalisation of our politics, and towards offering real choices to the electorate.
Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute research, fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program. He promotes #Reading Revolution via [email protected] at Antique Café in Morningside