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 Cosatu 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 formation of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) in 2017 must have taken a large proportion of the union’s available resources 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 plans for his own party linked to a group of NGOs and a small Trotskyist group, optimism declined further.
But at the weekend it became clear that the workers' party will be a real force and that, while Vavi may not support it, the rest of the Saftu leadership certainly does. 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. As I have noted in this publication before, the SA Communist Party (SACP) lost its claim to being a party of the left when it threw in its lot with Zuma.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) do sometimes use left-wing slogans and imagery but they come out of the authoritarian and often corrupt radical nationalist wing of the ANC.
Many credible left-wing intellectuals have seen them as authoritarian populists whose nationalist politics lie 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 enjoyed. 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 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 400 000 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. 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.
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. How ever they do when the votes are counted, the presence of 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 and 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.
Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via [email protected] at Antique Café in Morningside.