Vol. 17 (July - December 2015)
A New Counter-Hegemonic Politics in South Africa: What Now? What Next?
By John Saul The liberation struggle in South Africa, while successful in overthrowing apartheid and white minority rule, has been far less successful in sustaining an on-going process of continuing liberation and popular empowerment. This introductory article will seek further to frame such an analysis, while setting the stage for the series of articles on various dimensions of this overall pattern and the renewed resistance it is giving rise to within the country.
By Dale T. McKinley The article will first provide a brief explanation of the emergence, character and role of community organizations and social movements and their associated struggles covering the first 15 years of South Africa’s democratic transition. This will lay the foundation for a critical analysis of more recent political, ideological and organizational shifts within them. What expressions of a ‘new’ radical politics can be found in the emerging spaces and struggles within the labour movement?
By Shireen Hassim Women seem to be the winners in South Africa democracy, over the past twenty years. But on closer attention, it is apparent that a thin form of democracy has been implemented, in which representation has replaced the more powerful feminist demands for participation and representation. Shireen Hassim looks beneath the gloss of the ‘good story’ that is being told about South African democracy to consider the nature and extent of gender inequalities in economic position and social status.
By Edward Webster The central issue now confronting the organised working class is the form and content of their politics. Edward Webster shows how these debates on working class politics were overtaken by the struggle for national liberation and the transition to democracy. Numsa’s position on politics have shifted from a qualified support for the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, to growing disillusionment with this Alliance. This has culminated in a mandate for the Numsa leadership to forge ahead with the formation of a United Front and Movement for Socialism to advance working class struggles.
by John Saul
|A ‘Next Liberation Struggle’ in South Africa? The Prospects.|
A “next liberation struggle” in
South Africa? To evoke such a prospect and such a goal is to imply that
the liberation struggle that culminated
in 1994 and saw the emergence of a formally democratic South Africa and a population
apparently liberated from oppression and, prospectively, from penury, has not
been, in its essentials, so very liberatory after all.
For it is difficult to so
interpret what “liberation” has actually produced – or to see such a result as
having been accidental. After all – and as examined at length elsewhere (Saul
and Bond, 2014) - the chosen path of the new elite (clustered, in particular,
around the ANC and the SACP) has been one of extensive collaboration both with
global capital and with local, chiefly white, capitalist elites. This, no
doubt, helped ease the transition past the rocks of structured white racism and
right-wing backlash, but it represented a substantial compromise with the
existing structures of racial capitalism.
Although not every author in this
symposium agrees with each of his/her fellow authors on every detail of such an
analysis, all do ask a similar and entirely pertinent question: just where is
the energy for action to modify, or even to radically change, what can only be
seen as an anti-climactic outcome – by means of some kind of renewed liberation
struggle in South Africa – to come from? True, perhaps, such a revived struggle
for a more genuine liberation may be difficult to imagine. Yet it is well to
remind ourselves of how very close South Africa came “last time” (during the
struggle that did overthrow apartheid itself) to building a social movement
that would transform South Africa even more profoundly.
| ||"just where is the energy for action to modify, or even to radically change, what can only be seen as an anti-climactic outcome – by means of some kind of renewed liberation struggle in South Africa "|| |
After all, it was not primarily
any “liberation movement” (the ANC, for example) that brought down apartheid. Rather
it was in significant measure a popular movement that produced “from below” the
initial stirrings of revolt in the Durban strikes of the early seventies and
the Soweto resistance of the mid-seventies.
And this, in turn, continued to
fire a rebellious populace, acting through COSATU, the UDF and a wide variety
of organizations on the ground that ultimately convinced capitalists and canny
old-guard politicians a settlement was necessary – one best achieved by
abandoning apartheid the better to rescue South Africa’s future for capitalism!
A key player in this compromise
was the African National Congress, of course (Saul and Bond, 2014). For it was the
ANC, a would-be vanguard liberation movement, that, in the early 1990s, coopted
COSATU into its ruling coalition and worked assertively to wind-down the UDF
and the active popular movement for change that had emerged during the apartheid
years. And it did so while sealing a deal with capital that produced the total
adherence of the “new South Africa” to capital’s global logic. What, in fact,
had happened was a recolonization of South Africa by global capital - and the
complete absorption of the ANC brass into the circle of post-apartheid power
and privilege (Lissani et al, 2012).
The result? It was only very
slowly that the illusion of meaningful victory showed just how thin and threadbare
it was. Of course, a struggle-weary populace can perhaps be forgiven for seeing
a considerable victory to lie in the overthrow of so humiliating and degrading
a socio-political system as apartheid. Nonetheless, it was not long before this
populace began to register the sharp contrast that had come to exist between the
smug comfort of capital and its African/ANC front-men in positions of formal
power on the one hand, and the broader populace’s own continuing poverty and
subordination on the other.
In sum, there were very tangible
signs that things weren’t quite working out as the ANC had promised they would and
that the socio-economic and political morass into which global and local capital
and their firm ally, the ANC brass, had led the the South African liberation
struggle had become painfully raw...and increasingly unacceptable (see Neville
Alexander, 2002; Dawson and Sinwell, 2012).
To be sure, the South African
population had been relatively passive in allowing such a recolonization to
occur during the false dawn of hope offered by the “transition” that the
“defeat” of apartheid permitted. Yet it is also true that the ANC’s shell-game
of “achieved liberation,” at first so convincing, did not, as time went on,
work quite so well in silencing the revived protests of the country’s poor and
(still) oppressed. Recall the old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me
twice, shame on me.” In this kind of context, it is not surprising that resistance
in South Africa to ANC hegemony began to grow.
Perhaps most dramatic in this
regard have been two graphic expressions of such distemper. One was the
Marikana Massacre of 2012, at which state forces blatantly shot and killed
35-40 striking miners at Lonmin’s platinum mine. This was said by some to be as
stark a wake-up call to the true meaning of the ANC’s post-apartheid rule as had
been the Sharpeville Massacre (in 1960) and the Soweto Uprising (in 1976) -
these twin events having themselves been so revelatory of the true meaning of
apartheid itself in their time.
Second has been the marked
eruption, over a number of years, of what Peter Alexander once referred to as
“the rebellion of the poor,” referring to the dramatic protests – South Africa
would soon become the leader on the world’s table of countries marked by such
protests – by the dwellers, both rural and urban, in those very slums whose
continuing existence has come to underscore the vast and deepening disparities
alluded to above (Peter Alexander, 2014).
| ||"the rebellion of the poor, referring to the dramatic protests by the dwellers, both rural and urban, in those very slums whose continuing existence has come to underscore the vast and deepening disparities."|| |
Indeed, it is in this latter wave
of “community resistance from below” (as Dale McKinley [McKinley, 1997] titles our second essay here) that one sees South Africa’s vast
precariat in action, with McKinley’s account charting the emergence, character
and political role of community organisations/social movements and their
struggle against established power during the years of South Africa’s
ostensible democratic transition (see also Saul, 2014a).
In addition, and while
registering (as had Alexander) a quantitative intensification of such
community-initiated protests, McKinley considers the ongoing and future
potential of the mounting of such a radical new politics by the precariat,
asking whether this kind of resistance from below can and will continue to grow
and also interact effectively with whatever emerging and novel struggles South
Africa’s labour movement might also produce (as discussed by Eddie Webster in
essay # 4, below). A very new South African history is in the making, if so.It
is no wonder, as well, that one presumptive counter-hegemonic alternative to
the ANC’s own project, the Democratic Left Front/DLF, consistently speaks of
its potential radical base as lying, quite specifically, in “the working class
and the poor”! Both precariat and proletariat, in sum: is this not the key?
Another potential source of
dramatic protest to be emphasized is explored in the third essay of this
collection, that by Shireen Hassim on the possible (and necessary) rebirth of
the women’s movement. Of course, as chronicled most effectively by Hassim
herself the women’s movement constituted an extremely important force in
radicalizing the whole process of removing the apartheid system and also in
constructing a new state apparently much more sensitive to gender concerns
Indeed, women seemed to be among
the chief winners in the coming of a new South African democracy; a struggle seemed
joined, some thought, to overcome gender inequalities in economic position and
social status. Thus, over the past twenty years the number of women in
parliament has actually reached parity, quotas for women have been implemented
in all government policies. In addition, poor women have become the major beneficiaries
of social grants and women’s participation in formal politics has been virtually
“normalised.” And yet, Hassim now argues this “victory” actually merits a close
second look; it is apparent, she says, that it is only a very thin form of democracy
that has been implemented. One in which mere representation has replaced the
original and powerful feminist demands for a more real and genuine
Looking beneath the gloss of the
“good story” conventionally told in this regard Hassim considers the nature and
extent of persisting gender inequalities in economic position, in political
efficacy and in social status. Even more crucially, she asks how important
women’s initiatives, women’s organizations and women’s issues may yet be to any
future building of a new political movement for a new South Africa.
But what of “the working class”
per se, once so crucial a component of the overall resistance movement against apartheid
but now fragmented, notably by splits between more established and organized
workers on the one hand, and the vast array of “casuals,” “part-time”, “semi-employed,”
and unorganized workers that have come to define so much of South Africa on the
other? Here, in the fourth essay in this series, one of South Africa’s
most-cited writers on the experiences of the country’s workers, Eddie Webster,
again surveys the issue of “working class politics” but now on a quite
different terrain than that which was once defined by the struggle for national
liberation and by the transition to democracy (cf. Webster, 1985; Adler and
Indeed, in the post-apartheid
context of the ANC’s apparently unqualified acceptance of the primacy of
capital’s power and programme, and in the wake of such a startling event as the
Marikana Massacre, Webster focuses quite specifically on the existing
challenges that South Africa’s largest trade union, NUMSA, feels it necessary
to confront. Drawing on surveys he has undertaken since 1991 Webster carefully
analyzes NUMSA’s shifting position on politics: from a qualified support for
the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party to growing
disillusionment with this Alliance.
Such a trajectory in turn
culminated, Webster underscores, in a special congress decision in December
2013 that mandated the NUMSA leadership to forge ahead with the formation of a
United Front and Movement for Socialism in order to advance working class
struggles and to reach out to a broader constituency. Webster then examines the implications of the
different options now facing NUMSA and the possible directions that a novel
working class politics might ultimately take in South Africa.
Clearly, as Jacklyn Cock argues
(in our fifth essay here, as elsewhere [Cock, 2007]), prospects for a “new liberation
struggle” in South Africa depend in part on a convincing vision of an alternative
social order. And under present South African conditions, she suggests, the
transformative vision of a just transition to a sustainable low carbon economy
can provide the embryo of a new (and necessary) eco-socialist order. Moreover,
this in turn would have to involve the collective, democratic control of
production for social needs, rather than profit; the mass roll out of socially
owned renewable energy that could mean decentralized energy with much greater
potential for community control; the localisation of food production in the
shift from carbon-intensive industrial agriculture to food sovereignty; and the
sharing of resources in more collective social forms.
| ||"...under present South African conditions, the transformative vision of a just transition to a sustainable low carbon economy can provide the embryo of a new (and necessary) eco-socialist order."|| |
Nor, emphasizes Cock, are these
unrealistic goals. After all, the anti-capitalist nature of such an alternative
is related to the growing recognition that the fundamental cause of South
Africa’s deepening environmental crisis - one that is having devastating
impacts on the working class and the precariat alike - is the expansionist
logic of capitalism. And, as she carefully recounts, this recognition is
promoting, in turn, new forms of organisation and new alliances between labour,
community and environmental activists – a solidarity that embodies the promise
of a new kind of socialism that is at once ethical, ecological and democratic.
Precariat, proletariat, women and
environmental activists: can all these and more potential centres of
organization, of protest, and of progressive demand now begin to add up to
something quite new and potentially counter-hegemonic to what is being proffered by the ANC state
and by recycled and reconstituted racial capitalism. Vishwas Satgar, author
(Williams and Satgar, 2013) and Democratic Left Front activist in South Africa,
explores, in a sixth essay, the situation as traced above – with South Africa
now standing, in his phrase, somewhere between “crisis and renewal.” Moreover,
this is in fact, he argues, a situation that could now permit a freshly
mobilized mass constituency to find a promising, effective and sustainable
Consider this, Satgar says. The
resistance to neoliberalisation has already engendered numerous promising left-responses
in South Africa: an impressive trade union-led street politics, the sustained
building of social movements and multiple community-based protests. There has
also been much lobbying by local NGOs and popular organizations as well as a
new and militant expression of independent trade unionism – with anti-neoliberal
resistance outside of the ANC-led Alliance coming to the fore in the first
decade of the new millennium of the 2000s, deepened by the Marikana Massacre,
the “NUMSA moment” and the further unravelling of the ANC’s national liberation
Satgar’s article then further
maps the terrain of left politics in post-apartheid South Africa in order to clarify
orientations, trajectories and limits. Anchoring this survey is a particular
focus on the Democratic Left Front/DLF) to which initiative he is himself very
close – with various contenders for a similar role ranging from Julius Malema’s
rather populist and demagogic Economic Freedom Fighters to the new United Front
South Africa - he identifies space for progressive social forces and those on
the left to find convergence around a platform of alternative grass roots
solidarity and a new anti-capitalist imaginary. His article thus provides a
critical analysis of left politics in general and a specific assessment of one
attempt at left renewal as forged within the Democratic Left Front, while
evaluating more generally the challenges and prospects for any emergent and
potentially counter-hegemonic left alternative in post-apartheid South Africa.
* * *
South Africa, for all its size
and economic weight, may actually have gained a somewhat exaggerated reputation
in the eyes of the rest of its continent and of the world: the positive role of
the ANC, even in the liberation of South Africa, overstated and the benign role
of Mandela, especially after apartheid, rather misconstrued (Saul, 2014b). For
people in the region another face was soon apparent, however: South Africa as
an entrepot for the sub-imperial penetration of the sub-continent by
corporations that used SA as a spring-board for depredations further north
(Saunders, 2008). And also as an often unwelcoming snake-pit of violence and
xenophobia directed against in-coming migrant-workers from the region and
beyond (Mozambicans as target providing a good case in point) - such enormities
owing much to the ANC’s “lack of visionary leadership,” in Ozias Tungwarara’s
potent phrase (Tungwarara, 2015, Essa, 2015).
| ||"South Africa, for all its size and economic weight, may actually have gained a somewhat exaggerated reputation in the eyes of the rest of its continent and of the world."|| |
In short, a “liberated” but
untransformed South Africa has done little to help to free the continent as a
whole; moreover, if the situation decays further it may actually do a great
deal of damage (as Mugabe has already done in Zimbabwe, for example). Small
wonder that Africa as a whole has sensed that it has a significant stake in
what the forces we itemize in this set of essays can do to reclaim South Africa
for a more progressive outcome. For such an outcome in South Africa, then, the
John S. Saul has been a liberation support/anti apartheid activist since the 1960s, most prominently with the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portugal’s African Colonies/Southern Africa (TCLPAC/TCLSAC). He has also taught at York University, the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), the University of Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique) and the University of Witwatersrand (South Africa). He is the author/editor of more than twenty books on southern Africa and development issues.
Adler, Glenn and Eddie Webster, eds. (2000), Trade Unions
and Democratization in South Africa (London and New York: MacMillan Press abd
st. Martin’s Press).
Alexander, Neville (2002), An Ordinary Country: Issues in
the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa(Pietermaritzburg, S.
A.: University of Natal Press.
Alexander, Peter et. al. (2014), Marikana: A View from the
Mountain and a Case to Answer (Auckland Park, S. A.: Jacana, 2012).
Cock, Jackyn (2007), The War Against Ourselves: Nature, Power
and Justice (Johannesburg: Wits University Press).
Dawson, Marcelle C. and Luc Sinwell, eds. (2012), Contesting
Transformation: Popular Resistance in Twenty-First-Century South Africa
(London: Pluto Press).
Essa, Azad (2015), “Is South Africa taking xenophopia
seriously,” Aljazeera, April 30, 2015).
Hassim, Shireen (2006), Women’s Organizations and Democracy
in South Africa: Contesting Authority (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).
Lissani, Arianna and Jon Soske, Natasha Erlank, Noor
Nieftagodien and Omar Badsha, eds. (2012), One Hundred Years of the ANC:
Debating Liberation Histories Today (Johannesburg: Wits University Press).
McKinley, Dale (1997), The ANC and the Liberation Struggle”
A Critical Political Biography (London: Pluto Press).
Miller, Darlene, O. Olayede, and R. Saunders, eds. (2008),
“Special Issue: South Africa in Africa – African perceptions, African
realities,” African Sociological Review, 12, 1.
Saul, John S. and Patrick Bond (2014), South Africa – The
Present as History: From Mrs. Ples to Mandela and Marikana (Woodbridge, Suffolk
and Johannesburg: James Currey and Jacana).
Saul, John S. (2014), A Flawed Freedom: Rethinking Southern
African Liberation (London, Toronto and Cape Town, S. A.: Pluto, Between the
Saul, John S.(2014a), “The New Terms of Resistance:
Proletriat, Precariat and the Present African Prospect,” in Saul, 2014.
Saul, John S. (2014b), “Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s
Flawed Freedom,” in Saul, 2014.
Saunders, Richard (2008), At Issue EZINE, Vol 8: South
Africa in Africa (AfricaFiles web-site); see also Miller, Darlene et. al., eds. (2008).
Tungwarara, Ozias (2015), “Xenophobia in South Africa: lack
of visionary leadership,” at Open Society in Southern Africa
(http://www.osisa.org/), April 15, 2015.
Williams, Michelle and Vishwas Satgar, eds. (2014), Marxism
in the 21st Century: Crisis, Critique & Struggle (Johannesburg” Wits
Webster, Edward (1985), Cast in a Racial Mould: labour
process and trade unionism in the foundries (Johannesburg: Ravan Press).
by Dale T. McKinley
|Community resistance from below: reclaiming the past, inventing the future?|
the most studied and celebrated aspects of the anti-apartheid struggle during
the 1980s in South Africa was the breadth and impact of community resistance.
(Ballard et al 2006; Buhlungu 2010)
origins of that resistance came during the late 1970s and early 1980s when the
working class, broadly conceived, was hit with a double blow. Emerging clusters
of neoliberal capitalism privileged the opening up of global markets,
increasing capital mobility and reorganising states to guarantee and catalyze
‘free market principles’ (Harvey 2005), while pushing for a flexible, insecure
and informal labour regime. (Chun 2009) Simultaneously,
a large number of unions had become increasingly opposed to what they saw as
the subordination of worker interests and struggles to the macro-national
liberation politics of the ANC and its alliance partner, the SACP. (Pillay
1996) These unions wanted to forge politically independent labour organizations
allied to the broader working class of communities, informal workers and
students that practiced workers’ control and participatory democracy. (Baskin
eventually resulted in the formation of the Federation of South African Trade
Unions (FOSATU). Linking the strengthening of internal union (especially
shop-floor) structures and democracy to the struggles against state repression
on a more general societal level FOSATU reached out to communities and their
unemployed and casual worker constituencies. (Barchiesi 2006)
the community front, there was the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF)
in 1983, This brought together a wide range of community and other anti-apartheid
civil society organizations, many of whom were aligned to the ANC. Key to these
developments, were the worsening material conditions of the black majority and
their increasingly radical resistance to the devastating socio-economic impact
of the apartheid-capitalist system (Naidoo 2010). After the formation of COSATU
in 1985, the terrain for a genuine people’s alliance that contained an equally
genuine alternative to apartheid-capitalist oppression was fertile.
in the midst of widespread community and labour movement struggles during the
late 1980s, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid
state were well-advanced. Negotiatory politics began to fast displace whatever
ground working class struggles were attempting to occupy, in the process
creating the conditions for top-down, centralized “power and decision-making.”
| ||"...in the midst of widespread community and labour movement struggles during the late 1980s, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid state were well-advanced."|| |
the early 1990s, the strategic locus of resistance and people’s power shifted
even further onto a ‘negotiations’ terrain. COSATU became involved in a
parallel negotiating process, devoting much of its energies to
institutionalizing bargaining agreements between unions, employers and the
state. (McKinley 1997) Similarly, a range of community organizations entered
into negotiations with local white councils about the provision of public
services. With the core leadership and organizations of what had constituted
the UDF now absorbed into the ANC itself, the remaining community
organizations, after holding talks with the ANC, formed a new umbrella body
called the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO), which
unofficially became the fourth member of the ANC Alliance. (Zuern 2004)
these shifts resulted in the effective curtailment of anti-capitalist mass
struggle by the broad working class. Ordinary workers and community members
often had little say in key political and policy decisions which became
dominated by the perceived necessity of seeking common ground with capital and
the apartheid state for some kind of social contract to restructure an ailing
South African macro-economy.
the transition to democracy and the ANC’s capturing of state power after 1994,
a range of new political, socio-economic and organizational constellations of
power thus came to the fore. This occurred alongside the rapid adoption by the
ANC of a neoliberal macro-economic policy framework that profoundly reshaped
not only the political economy of South Africa but the more specific struggles
of poor and working class communities. (Marais, 1998)
the poor and working class, the impacts were devastating. Massive job losses
were visited upon those who had been fortunate enough to be employed, this
‘experience’ being accompanied by attendant social and economic damage to
already poor and vulnerable families and communities. The ANC-managed state
also implemented “basic needs” policies that turned many basic services into
market commodities, facilitated by a drastic decrease in national government
grants/subsidies to municipalities and support for the development of financial
instruments for privatized delivery. (McDonald, 2000)
| ||"For the poor and working class, the impacts were devastating. Massive job losses were visited upon those who had been fortunate enough to be employed, this ‘experience’ being accompanied by attendant social and economic damage..."|| |
turn, this laid the foundations for an enabling environment of patronage,
corruption and factional politics as well as a huge escalation in the costs of
basic services and a concomitant increase in the use of cost-recovery
mechanisms such as water and electricity cut-offs. By the turn of the century,
millions more poor South Africans had also experienced cut-offs and evictions
as the result of the neo-liberal orgy. (McDonald and Smith, 2002) Further, the
state’s capitalist-friendly land policies, which ensured that apartheid land
ownership patterns remained virtually intact, has meant that South Africa’s
long-suffering rural population continue to taste the bitter fruits of labour
exploitation and landlessness.
was within this transitional context that a range of new community
organizations and social movements surfaced. (Ballard et al, 2006; Naidoo and
Veriava, 2003) In almost all cases, they emerged in the very spaces opened up
as a result of the failure of the tactical approaches and strategic visions of
the main traditional forces of the left (for example, COSATU and the SACP) and
‘civic’ structures like SANCO to offer any meaningful response to the changing
conditions. (McKinley and Naidoo, 2004)
‘perfect storm’ of neoliberalism thus brought together all those inhabiting an
extended and flexible ‘community’ of work and life the organizational form of
which replaced the formal workplace as the epicentre of social solidarity. In
response, there were some serious efforts from sections within the labour
movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s, mostly from municipal workers, to
forge collective solidarities and struggles. Despite this, the dominant
politics and practices of the labour movement in the context of the changing
composition of the broad working class and the enforced boundaries of
corporatism under neoliberalism, has largely undermined the possibilities of
any practical unity.
‘new’ social movements and community organizations have also been subject to a
consistent state campaign of rhetorical vitriol and physical assaults.
(McKinley and Veriava, 2010) Crucially, the various leaderships of the SACP,
COSATU and other ANC “civil society” allies have most often given tacit support
to the state’s repressive actions and have consistently failed to seriously
engage with, politically support, or provide material solidarity to their
division and conflict
these community organizations and social movements do not represent some kind
of homogeneous entity, and while there have been (and continue to be)
substantive organizational differences and political and ideological debates
within their ranks, they have become inextricably bound together by the
levelling content and common forms of the neoliberal onslaught, both nationally
and, to a lesser extent, internationally.
yet, besides the highly fractured social and productive relations within poor communities,
there is the additional challenge of engaging and overcoming a rising social
conservatism among the ranks of the broad working class, driven by the growth
of (right-wing) Christian evangelical churches and culturally reinforced
patriarchy, as well as intensified ethnic and national chauvinism.
of this social conservatism (McKinley, 2010) has come to the political and
social surface since the rise of the current South African president, Jacob
Zuma, whose thinly disguised misogyny, homophobia, and open embrace of
patriarchal ‘traditional values’ and religion have provided a trickle-down,
socially backward ‘role model’ to the ANC’s and the left’s core constituency –
the broad working class. Further reinforcement has come from the ANC-led state’s
consistent championing of a narrow nationalism that has framed and encouraged
xenophobia as evidenced in the eruption of xenophobic violence in 2008 and
again in early 2015.
of this has evinced a double ‘movement’ over the last several years in respect
of poor communities and their struggles. On one hand, an escalating
hyper-commoditized daily existence has produced a situation in which the vast
majority of those residing in poor communities are engaged in a desperate
struggle for social relevancy and location. The result has been an
intensification of social division, stratification and dysfunction, now more
than ever driven by increased competition for limited social benefits, services
and productive opportunities.
| ||"Much of this social conservatism has come to rise with the current South African president, Jacob Zuma, whose thinly disguised misogyny, homophobia, and open embrace of patriarchal ‘traditional values’ and religion have provided a trickle-down, socially backward ‘role model’ to the broad working class."|| |
Manichean twist, scarce waged labour has become the hoped-for light at the end
of the tunnel, the main “prize” for social inclusion and stability as against
the dark and desolate recesses of utter social marginalization. Access to
state-serviced and controlled social grants, which are even then most often
subject to considerations of political patronage and party electoral support
now represent a barely inclusivist second ‘prize’.
there have been growing levels of tension and conflict that have been manifested
in various forms of local, community protests and violence, most often
involving the state’s police forces as well as local politicians and elites.
(Alexander, 2010; von Holdt, 2013) According to one, multi-year, academic study
the number of community protests increased by almost 150% from the period
2005-2008 to the period from 2009-2012 when they averaged 309 per year.
combined waves of protest and violence have also involved union members, mostly
those occupying the lowest paying jobs in the mining sector striking over wages
and working conditions. This was the case at the Marikana mine in August 2012
when 10 miners were killed in intra-union violence, followed by the massacre of
35 striking miners by police, with another 70 injured. (Alexander et al., 2012)
There have also been scores of community protesters shot dead by police forces
over the last several years. (The Sowetan, 24 January 2014)
this cocktail of constructed dysfunction, division and conflict has made the
possibilities of forging common, national level political and socio-economic
struggles of communities for radical change hugely difficult. Likewise, it has
also vitiated much of the earlier transitional potential of meaningful
anti-capitalist labour-community alliances.
good news, however, is that there are new spaces opening up. The most crucial
of these spaces have been engendered by the on-going fracturing of the
ANC-Alliance over the last few years which has seen a slow-but-sure loosening
of the ANC’s political and ideological hegemony. This process has been
catalyzed by the horrific events at Marikana. During the subsequent
post-massacre strike by platinum miners, the longest in South African history,
practical and solidaristic links between workers, community organizations and
independent left activists were forged. This heralded possibilities both for
more sustained and campaigning alliances between labour and community and an
effective and principled ‘United Front’ of community, labour and independent
left forces and struggles.
whether it be in South Africa or elsewhere, the very basis, historically, for
the maintenance of a sustainable political alliance between unions and
(ostensibly progressive) political parties that have hold of state power is the
parallel maintenance of both a politically malleable union leadership and
expanding benefits for a meaningful threshold of unionised workers. On both
counts, the alliance of the ANC, COSATU and the SACP is looking increasingly
| ||"The good news, however, is that there are new spaces opening up. The most crucial of these spaces have been engendered by the on-going fracturing of the ANC-Alliance over the last few years"|| |
not only is the ANC itself riven with factional battles and drowning in a sea
of corruption but the last two years have also seen the formation of a new
political rival (ostensibly to the ANC’s left) in the form of the breakaway
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as well as the expulsion from COSATU of the
largest union in the country, the National Union of Metalworkers of South
Africa (NUMSA). Further, COSATU and many of its affiliates have become virtually
paralyzed by leadership and factional battles, these catalyzed by ever growing
exposés of massive financial mismanagement and fraud. (McKinley, 2014)
is also happening is that the wage and working condition gains of all but the
most highly paid unionized workers are being seriously eroded by the combined
effects of the state’s neoliberal policies and the displacement of the current
crisis of capitalism onto workers. In respect of the ‘other’ part of the broad
working class (i.e. poor communities), the impacts are being felt even more
is where the incipient moves by NUMSA, supported by many community
organizations and other civil society formations across the country, to forge
an independent and anti-capitalist ‘United Front’ of the broad working class
comes into the picture. For many community organizations, workers, social
movements and other left activists who have been waging various struggles over
the past decade and who are not part of the long-standing ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance,
the significance of NUMSA’s break is that it comes with a commitment to
in the establishment of a new United Front [UF] that will coordinate struggles
in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the UDF of the 1980s.
The task of this front will be to fight for the implementation of the Freedom
Charter and be an organizational weapon against neoliberal policies such as the
NDP [National Development Plan]. (NUMSA, 2013)
initiatives could indicate that “the nearly 10-year revolt of the poor may be
complemented by an industrial partner” (Gentle 2014) and see a rejuvenation of
labour-community alliances centred on basic public services. (Ashman and
Pons-Vignon 2014). Additionally, NUMSA has said that it will embark on a
process to organize workers across value chains, including in the highly
divided and volatile mining sector (NUMSA 2014), a move that could also herald
the beginnings of organizational support for informal and casualized workers
who, it is estimated, now constitute the majority of those employed in South
Africa. (ILO, 2015)
the beginning of 2014, NUMSA has held a range of meetings and conferences with
an array of community organizations, NGOs and independent left forces. This has
led to the launch of several provincial and local structures of the ‘United
Front’ and campaigns against, for example, the ANC government’s introduction of
a youth wage subsidy and its neoliberal budget. Several joint protests have
taken place across the country and have often been extended to other struggles
initiated by community organizations and social movements.
moves to build such a ‘United Front’ remain embryonic at this stage, of course,
and it must still translate stated intent into practical action when it comes
to active involvement in community struggles and organizations as well as in
making common cause with informal/casualized workers. Nonetheless, what NUMSA
has done is to open wide the door of new possibilities not just for
labour-community alliances for public services but for a broad working
class-led movement to mount a serious organizational and political challenge to
the ANC (alongside its so-called ‘left’ alliance partners) as well as to the
state in its present form.
key challenge now for both community organisations and the labour movement in
South Africa is to occupy the new spaces that have opened and to do so
independently from any political party. In order for that to begin to happen
though, there must first be recognition by unions and community organizations
that they are part of the same struggle: in other words, the laying of a
foundation for a unity in resistance of the broad working class in opposition
to neoliberal capitalism and all its associated practical impacts.
doing so, a base can be constructed on which a parallel joint programme of
basic grassroots organizing and activism can then be pursued. Such a programme
needs to be grounded in a basic set of demands that speaks directly to the real
living conditions and daily struggles of both poor communities and organized
workers. And it must also linked to a coming together to change the face of the
public sector as a means not only to deliver public services but to do so in a
way that deepens and expands their democratic character and content. (Ronnie,
2013; Wainwright, 2013) In this way, the idea of a meaningful ‘United Front’
that also encompasses social forces beyond its broad working class core can
begin to be translated into practice.
| ||"a base can be constructed on which a parallel joint programme of basic grassroots organizing and activism can then be pursued. Such a
programme needs to be grounded in a basic set of demands that speaks directly to the real living conditions and daily struggles of both poor communities and organized
all, for community and worker resistance to invent the future of
anti-capitalist struggle in South Africa is going to require patient political
and organizational work and activism informed by a democratic spirit of
humility and openness. There is no space here for vanguardist, paramount
leadership, no room for the presumption of collective “working class” consciousness
and no place for the defensive and divisive promotion of narrow organizational
identities and terrain.
a longer-term goal of broad working class struggle might well be to replace
capitalism with an alternative system, it is only by engaging in the kind of
practical, here-and-now struggle for real changes in the lives of the public,
both human and institutional, that the possibilities for more radical change
can be brought into being.
McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer based in
Johannesburg. He is a long-time political activist and has been involved in
social movement, community and liberation struggles for over three decades. He
is the author of four books and has written widely on various aspects of South
African and international political, social and economic issues and struggles.
2010. ‘Rebellion of the poor: South Africa’s service delivery protests – a
preliminary analysis.’ Review of African Political Economy, 37(123): 25-40.
Sinwell, L., Lekgoa, T., Mmope. B. and Xezwi, B. 2012. Marikana: A view from
the mountain and a case to answer. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.
Samantha, and Nicolas Pons-Vignon. 2014. ‘NUMSA Rupture Could Mark New Start for Socialist
Politics.’ Business Day, 11 February
Habib, A. and Valodia, I. (Eds). 2006. Voices of protest: Social movements in
post-apartheid South Africa. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Franco. 2006. ‘Commodification, Economic Restructuring, and the Changing.
Geography of Labour in Post-Apartheid South Africa: The Case of Gauteng Province,
1991–2001.’ Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American
Geographers, Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, 7-11 March.
Jeremy. 1991. Striking Back: A History of COSATU. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
2010. A paradox of victory: COSATU and the democratic transformation of South
Africa. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press
2009. Organizing at the margins: The symbolic politics of labor in South Korea
and the United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Leonard. 2014. ‘Forging a New Movement: NUMSA and the Shift in South African Politics.’ The
South African Civil Society Information Service, January 28
2005. A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Labour Organisation. 2015. World Employment Social Outlook: The Changing Nature
of Jobs. Geneva: International Labour Office Research Department.
1998. South Africa limits to change: the political economy of transformation.
London: Zed Books.
2000. ‘The bell tolls for thee: Cost recovery, cut offs, and the affordability
of municipal services in South Africa.’ MSP Special Report. Cape Town:
Municipal Services Project.
and Smith, L. 2002. ‘Privatizing Cape Town. MSP Occasional Paper No. 7.’ Cape
Town: Municipal Services Project.
1997. The ANC and the liberation struggle: A critical political biography.
London: Pluto Press.
2010. ‘South Africa’s social conservatism: A real and present danger’, South
African Civil Society Information Service, March.
2014. ‘Authoritarianism for Beginners’: The crisis of leadership in SAMWU and
the union movement’, Daily Maverick, 12 September.
and Naidoo, P. 2004. ‘New social movements in South Africa: A story in
creation.’ In McKinley and Naidoo, eds. Mobilising for change: New social
movements in South Africa. Development Update Special Edition 5(2): 9-22.
and Veriava, A. 2010. Arresting Dissent: State Repression and Post-Apartheid
Social Movements. Saarbrucken: Lambert Academic Publishing.
2010. The making of ‘the poor’ in post-apartheid South Africa: A case study of
the City of Johannesburg and Orange Farm. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of
KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.
Naidoo, P. and
Veriava, A. 2003. ‘Re-membering movements: Trade unions and new social
movements in neoliberal South Africa.’ Research Report No. 28, Centre for Civil
Society. Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal.
(National Union of Metalworkers). 2013. ‘NUMSA Special National Congress, December 17 to
20, 2013 Declaration.’
(National Union of Metalworkers). 2014. ‘Resolutions adopted at NUMSA Special National
Congress, 16–20 December, 2013.’30 January.
1996. ‘Social movements, development and democracy in post-apartheid South
Africa.’ In J.K. Coetzee and J. Graff, eds. Reconstruction, development and
people. Johannesburg: International Thompson Publishing Company: 325-351.
2013. Personal interview, 29 November (Ronnie is a long-time unionist and
political activist and former General Secretary of SAMWU).
2013. ‘An overview of community struggles in 2012: Key trends and their
significance.’ Paper presented at the International Labour and Information
Group April Conference, 26 April.
von Holdt, K.
2013. ‘South Africa: The transition to violent democracy.’ Review of African
Political Economy 40(138): 509-604.
2013. The tragedy of the private, the potential of the public. Ferney-Voltaire
and Amsterdam: Public Services International and the Transnational Institute.
2004. ‘Continuity in contradiction? The prospects for a national civic movement
in a democratic state: SANCO and the ANC in post-apartheid South Africa.’
Centre for Civil Society Research Report No. 26. Durban: Centre for Civil
by Shireen Hassim
|Who’s Afraid of Feminism: Gender in South African Politics.|
Recently, the University of Cape Town (UCT) student organization RhodesMustFall, displayed a banner proclaiming: “Dear History: This revolution has women, gays, queers, and trans. Remember that.” It was a profound declaration that the old politics of the left can no longer hold, and that the masculinist, male-dominated forms of oppositional politics that centred the male subject as the defining agent of transformation must be confronted.
To understand where this statement – which went viral on social media – comes from, we need to consider both the failures of the state-led democratic project and the modes of analysis and organisation on the left. An honest examination is especially timely as progressive politics is re-grouping around new formations ranging from political parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, to student movements, to broad front civil society arrangements such as the United Front. The women’s movement itself, to the extent that it ever existed in coherent form, has also seen several changes in the past two decades with the collapse of the Women’s National Coalition, the ever-increasing distance between the ANC Women’s League and feminists, and the emergence of a much wider range of organisations dealing with issues of violence and sexuality. Importantly, through initiatives such as the Feminist Table, connections are being forged between women’s organisations working at the brutal edge of the economic crisis in families, households and communities, and feminist thinkers.
But can the left itself connect in new ways? In this period of see-sawing between despair and hope, what are the possibilities for a renewed conversation on what redistribution would entail – redistribution of economic resources and assets to be sure, which remain central to projects of the left, but also the redistribution of social and political power which remain marginal? Women, gays, and queers appear to be caught between two forms of nationalism: a state-based, liberal project in which ‘women’ occupy a particular place in governmentalism, and a resurgent populist Africanism which for the most part privileges racial identity over all other forms. Are Zuma and the Malema merely two sides of the same patriarchal coin?
| ||"But can the left itself connect in new ways? In this period of see-sawing between despair and hope, redistribution of economic resources and assets to be sure, but also the redistribution of social and political power which remain marginal?"|| |
The ANC has proven that the old allies of feminism are all too unreliable. Pulled kicking and screaming behind a project of equality over the course of a century, the ANC in government found ways to blunt the concept and denude it of its particular radical content developed by women under its banner. In both Women’s Charters (1954 and 1994), the concept of equality referred to substantive equality. By this was meant attention to the systemic ways in which gender power operated through both the economy and the family-household.
The drafters of the Charters – and the thousands of women involved in the Federation of South African Women and the Women’s National Coalition recognized that representation in the formal institutions of the state mattered: nothing about us without us. They well understood that the law was complicit in inscribing inequality and upholding it in ways that mattered for women’s everyday lives. But as even a cursory reading of the Charters will show, they were at pains to point out that formal discrimination was indelibly tied to maintaining a system of exploitation of women’s labour and control of women’s sexuality.
That legacy, rich in debate and contestation, has been abandoned by the ANC in government. Going into the democratic era, there was a political consensus that not only should women have greater voice in decision making about public resources, but that those resources should be directed towards reducing the inequalities that are rooted in economic and social structures. That consensus is embodied in the Constitution. To be sure, one part of this related to parity in representation, full legal equality for all, and a public commitment to the rights of women. But that was always understood among feminists inside and out of the ANC to be one side of the bargain; the other side was the redistribution of status and resources.
Slowly but steadily, the last two decades have witnessed the Women’s League taking up the space as official representative of women in politics, in the process dislodging claims for redistribution. Under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, a form of liberal feminism found firm footing. Women became the face of the modernist, national project of governing. Indeed, South Africa could be an exemplar of the argument made by Nancy Fraser that feminism is a crucial ally in the restructuring of capitalism. The easy incorporation of women into the existing places of power through the use of quotas, the spiraling illusion that projects of gender equality could be disaggregated from decision-making about the economy and the celebratory discourse about women’s progress in the new South Africa are all examples of this.
The Women’s League of course benefitted from supporting both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma: it gained positions for its members in Cabinet and in provincial legislatures, as well as in the Commission on Gender Equality. In 2007 it was poised to nominate a woman for the position of president of the ANC, in line with the suggestions by Mbeki about his successor. Many hoped that successor would be Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a longstanding leader in the Women’s League and a smart and capable politician.
But Mbeki’s game was up and, by the end of that year, the League joined the winning side. It supported Zuma against the views of feminists in its own party, who were concerned about the macho assertions of power, the attitudes of sexual entitlement and the homophobia displayed by Zuma during his rape trial. Standing by their man came at a price. By the 2014 elections it was so hopelessly aligned to Zuma that it could not even maintain the pretense of support for women’s political power. It declared that South Africa was not ready for a woman president. This year it has made an about turn and rumours are that it will be nominating a woman for president at its elective conference this month. Truth is, no amount of spinning can conceal the fact that the Women’s League has done little during the past two decades of democracy to build public support for women’s rights, let alone shift gendered patterns of economic inequality.
| ||"...no amount of spinning can conceal the fact that the Women’s League has done little during the past two decades of democracy to build public support for women’s rights, let alone shift gendered patterns of economic inequality. "|| |
Even by the minimal standard of formal equality, the ANC has regressed in its support for feminism and the Women’s League has not been able to leverage its close relationship to the powerful faction in the party into political advantage. The women appointed to Cabinet and to parliament cannot seem to stop their party from introducing legislation that threatens the rights of women living under traditional authorities. It took a campaign led from outside the party, under the auspices of the Alliance for Rural Democracy, to halt the legislation. The Department of Women can seemingly not provide leadership in the battle to end gender-based violence, infamously tweeting in August 2015 the query ‘what should we do about women who lay charges (of gender-based violence) and then withdraw them’. They were roundly criticized by gender-based violence activists for having no understanding of the complexities of navigating the justice system. Hosting Sixteen Days of Activism and Women’s Month events is meaningless when government budgets for addressing violence and for supporting women affected by violence are massively cut.
In place of a politics of removing inequalities, the various structures set up to represent the interests of women in policymaking – such as the Office on the Status of Women – suggest the triumph of form over substance. Once the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was set up, none of the ministers that headed it could come up with the programs or the resources that would address the hard realities of life for poor women. Instead, they championed a bill that would legislate gender equality in both the public and the private sector – a cold sop to compensate for the lack of proper ideas and strategies. Now even that Ministry has been moved, this time into the Presidency – precisely the location in which the Office on the Status of Women was sidelined. This latest shuffle seems to be a typical gesture that gives the appearance of elevated status without the power to actually do much (or be properly accountable through the structures of parliament).
In fact, it is hard to see it as anything other than a retrogressive step for the project of getting government to deal with the gendered impacts of its economic policies. Zuma hopes that the Minister will champion women’s socio-economic empowerment and rights: so would we. But does anyone really believe that Susan Shabangu, who disastrously mismanaged the aftermath of the Marikana massacre, remembers her trade union roots?
Much of the collapse of the idea of substantive equality is attributed to the shift in the leadership of the ANC away from the ‘modern’ ideas of Mbeki to the more ‘traditionalist’ ideas of Zuma. Indeed it is fair to argue that Zuma has shifted the public debate to the right on issues of gender and that crude patriarchalism is far more evident under his presidency. More pertinently, the left in the tripartite alliance resolutely refused to listen to the feminists who warned that he was not the standard-bearer for progressive politics that he was portrayed to be. Of course, the association of Mbeki with the quota project and the initial support of the Women’s League for the continuation of Mbeki’s presidency complicated the picture. But only a little.
| ||"More pertinently, the left in the tripartite alliance resolutely refused to listen to the feminists who warned that he was not the standard-bearer for progressive politics that he was portrayed to be. "|| |
Mbeki may have incorporated women into his project of neo-liberal governance but there was never any doubt that Zuma would make things worse. It was very evident by 2009 that Zuma’s personal life revealed that his support for women’s and gay rights was thin. While the ANC Youth League was boosting Zuma with its 100% Zuluboy campaign, feminist activists were visibly and vocally opposed. The left in the alliance had little time for feminist arguments. The stakes were ‘higher’ they said: returning the party to the branches was the key consideration. Radical change was to hand. Gender was a secondary issue, they said impatiently. In effect, they made a Faustian pact and left it to history to prove the feminists right.
This raises the question of whether the Economic Freedom Fighters, the radical new kids on the political bloc, can offer any hope for beleaguered feminists. The signs are not promising. This first and obvious point to make is that the EFF is driven by the same team that brought us ‘100% Zuluboy.’ It is a team, moreover, led by Julius Malema who was taken to the Equality Court for his comments on women and sexual consent, and who made the infamous statement that the word intersexed did not exist in the Pedi language and hence it was unAfrican. Secondly, the EFF have chosen an explicitly militarized and masculinist mode in which to make their entry into politics. This is signaled by the language of the party: Commanders, Fighters, Central Command. It is also signaled by the gendered nature of the chosen uniforms: overalls for the men, housecoats with doeks for the women. The EFF supports substantive equality and redistribution and on paper it looks like a fair ally on the core issues.
However, their rhetoric slips dangerously into verbal abuse. When he was still leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema referred to the then opposition parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko as a ‘teagirl’. As a more recent example and in a tussle in parliament this year, Malema referred to Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu as a ‘straatmeid’ – literally a girl of the streets, figuratively a sex worker! As Siphokazi Magadla points out, such sexism is telling: it is ‘a crude reminder of the sexist double-standards faced by female guerillas in the aftermath of war where they are expected to conform to dominant ideas of feminine respectability.’
| ||"...such sexism is telling: it is ‘a crude reminder of the sexist double-standards faced by female guerillas in the aftermath of war where they are expected to conform to dominant ideas of feminine respectability.’ "|| |
The other new kid on the block, the United Front, has begun promisingly with an upfront commitment that it would not reproduce the typical patterns of civil society organisations in which women act as the backbone of the movement and men take on leadership. Some feminists suggest that the United Front’s association with former COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi will taint the project. Vavi was notoriously brought down by allegations of a non-consensual affair with his secretary. It is too early to call whether this whiff of the familiar will be enough to keep feminists away from the United Front – whose anti-austerity politics has enough in other ways to bring together those who want radical change through nonviolent means.
There is no doubt that key feminist questions have only been engaged thus far at the margins of political debate: the gendered nature of power, the implications of a masculinized politics for women’s sense of agency, and more particularly how we might understand the implications of masculine forms of power for women as political subjects of postcolonial democracy in its South African form.
The sphere of the ‘political’ continues to be constructed in terms of high politics: the formal state, associated parties and allies such as trade unions, and oppositional social movements and NGOs. Even though racism and its multifarious forms of persistence in social and economic relations are re-entering public debate, the left pays scant attention to the sphere of the social. Economic policy debates simply pay lip service to the gendered forms of production and reproduction, leaving these connections to be made by the small number of overburdened feminist activists. It is a rare event when there is attention to gender dimensions of inequality in the writings of the male left. Issues of sexual identity and gender-based violence remain a ‘bit on the side’ of politics. The RhodesMustFall banner references precisely the ways in which these important concerns are either ignored or counterposed to the project of radical change, and the refusal of young feminists to collude in that positioning.
Professor Shireen Hassim is Professor of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. She has published widely in the field of gender and politics, and her most recent book The ANC Women’s League: Sex, Gender and Politics was published by Jacana in 2014.
Jacklyn Cock and Meg Luxton, “Marxism and Feminism: Unhappy Marriage or Creative Partnership?” in Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar (eds) Marxisms in the Twenty-First Century: Crisis, Critiques and Struggles, University of the Witwatersrand Press 2014
Pumla Dineo Gqola “How the ‘cult of femininity’ and violent masculinities support endemic gender based violence in contemporary South Africa” African Identities 5(1) 111-124.
Shireen Hassim 2014 Violent Modernity: Gender, race and bodies in contemporary South African politics, Politikon, Vol. 41, No. 2:167-182
by Edward Webster
|The Numsa moment: Fresh trade union openings.|
The Marikana massacre of 16th August 2012 triggered a wave of
strikes across South Africa, culminating in an unprecedented uprising in the
rural areas of the Western Cape. It also began a process of political
realignment. The dramatic entry of the Economic Freedom Front (EEF) into
parliament was to become the most spectacular. But could the historic decision
of NUMSA in December 2013 to withdraw its logistical support for the ANC and its
mandate to the union’s leadership to form a United Front and Movement for
Socialism, be of more long term significance? It certainly was the popular view
on the left at the time. (Satgar, 2014) The “Numsa moment”, one support group
boldly proclaimed, “constitutes the beginning of the end for the ANC and its
ambivalence towards neo-liberalism.” (Democracy from Below, December 2013)
The expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu in November 2014, followed by the
expulsion of Zwelinzima Vavi in March 2015, the long-standing general-secretary,
did not initially slow down enthusiasm for the Numsa moment. But the outcome of
the Cosatu Special Congress in July, where Cosatu President Sidumo Dlamini
seemed to win support from the carefully chosen delegates, has led to a more
reflective mood. The launch of a rival pro-ANC metal union, the Liberated
Metalworkers Union of South Africa, Limusa, further complicates the narrative.
The postponement of the national launch of the United Front and on-going
differences in strategy, is leading to a more sober assessment of the Numsa
On Turning Points
Is Marikana and the “Numsa moment” a turning point, the beginning of
the ‘next liberation struggle’ or does it mark the disintegration of a once
powerful labour movement? We begin our answer to this question by revisiting
South Africa’s turbulent labour history and the contested nature of Numsa’s
| ||"Is Marikana and the “Numsa moment” a turning point, the beginning of the ‘next liberation struggle’ or does it mark the disintegration of a once powerful labour movement? "|| |
In the history of South Africa, mass strikes, “trials of strength”,
have crucially impacted on the relationship between political parties and
social classes, leading to a realignment of politics. Three strikes can be
identified as turning points. Firstly, the 1922 white mine workers strike went
on for three months and brought South Africa to the brink of civil war. The
outcome of the strike was a class alliance between the emerging Afrikaner
nationalist movement and white labour that was to lay the foundations for
modern South Africa’s apartheid labour regime.
Secondly, the 1946 African mine workers strike marks another turning
point. The strike highlighted the growing urbanisation of African workers.
Afrikaner nationalists used this “threat” to help them win the 1948 general
elections, which they contested on a programme of white domination.
Importantly, it also helped cement an alliance between black labour and African
nationalism, and the formation of the Congress Alliance in 1955 between the
African National Congress (ANC) and the recently formed South African Congress
of Trade Unions (SACTU).
Thirdly, the mass strikes of black workers in Durban in 1973 marked
another turning point. It took place during the high point of apartheid, at a
time when it was widely believed that strike action was not possible in South
Africa. The strikes were to lay the foundations for the modern labour movement,
as trade unions were established in all the major metropolitan areas of South
If the 1973 strikes led to the reconfiguration of the industrial
relations system and the emergence of an independent workers movement for the
first time in South Africa, it was the massacre of 34 striking mine workers on
16 August 2012 at Marikana that was to call into question the sustainability of
the new post-apartheid labour and political order.
A Working Class Politics?
The idea of a workers’ party has deep roots in South Africa’s
post-1973 labour movement. It was first openly articulated by the predecessor
of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Federation of South
African Trade Unions (Fosatu), in a speech by general secretary Joe Foster in
1982. He argued that Fosatu’s task was to build a working –class organisation
within the popular struggle to represent workers politically. The South African
Communist Party (SACP) saw Foster’s speech as an attack on its ‘vanguard’ role
as the historic political representative of workers. It argued that Fosatu was
promoting “syndicalism”, and that “trade unions cannot be political parties.”
In the eighties a powerful shop steward movement had emerged amongst
South Africa’s metal workers rooted in the idea of worker control. (Webster,
1985:231-260) They had begun, in 1981/2, to go beyond the factory floor to
wider issues related to the reproduction of the workforce. These actions ranged
from resistance to the demolition of shacks in Katlehong to demands for worker
control over pension funds. This was to culminate in the November 1984 mass
stay-away in Gauteng led by unions, students and township residents. Unions
were reaching out to those sectors outside the formal proletariat and
developing forms of social movement unionism. Importantly, they were turning to
political answers for their members’ problems and were searching for national
level political responses. But this did not entail subordination of labour
organisations to the nationalist movement. “The contradictions generated by
capitalist development,“ I concluded, “had given birth to a working class
politics. The central issue now confronting the organised working class is the
form and content of this politics” (Ibid, 280)
| ||" The contradictions generated by capitalist development, had given birth to a working class politics. The central issue now confronting the organised working class is the form and content of this politics."|| |
But this was not to be. The debate on working-class politics was
overtaken in the mid-1980s by the national liberation struggle and the
transition to democracy led by the African National Congress (ANC). Indeed in
1984 the South African Communist Party (SACP) shifted its hostile position
towards the democratic labour movement and decided to recruit trade unionists.
In December 1985 Cosatu was launched as a ‘historic compromise’
between the two dominant political traditions, the national democratic tradition,
mobilizing around the Freedom Charter, and the workerist tradition of Fosatu
with its emphasis on building strong shop floor structures. This merging of the
two political traditions led to a furious debate inside Cosatu. Those opposed
to alliance politics charged that this new political direction was
“misdirected,” and that this “rush” to espouse “alliance politics” will result
in a situation where years of painstaking organisational work will be swept
aside and workers will again be without democratic unions. (Lambert and
Alliance politics, and the victory of the ANC led Alliance in South
Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994, was to shift the focus of
COSATU from workplace issues to a growing concentration on economic and
industrial policy. Numsa leadership embraced what some have called strategic
unionism, an engagement in tripartite structures such as Nedlac, a peak-level
social dialogue forum, and the concept of “progressive competitiveness.” This involved
labour adapting to global competition by developing new skills and a more
strategic engagement with capital and the state. But, as Karl von Holdt
demonstrated in his ethnographic study of Highveld Steel, “replacing ‘the
culture of resistance’ with a ‘culture of productivity’ created an
‘organisational crisis’ in Numsa.” (Von Holdt, 2003:198) The strategy failed
for a number of reasons: the process through which it was adopted, its
complexity and lack of union capacity, doubts about its internal coherence, and
the possibility that it could increase members’ workload and lead to job losses
Numsa’s new strategy had an essentially corporatist agenda for
labour. It aimed at a ‘reconstruction accord’ with the new government and
participation in workplace and tripartite structures. But the idea of a
separate party of workers had not died. At its fourth congress in July 1993,
Numsa re-asserted the need for independence from the new government and called
for the working class to develop an independent programme on how to advance to
socialism. This, the congress declared, could take the form of a working class
party. (Forrest, 2011: 475)
The ANC’s “non-negotiable” embrace of neo-liberal economic policies
in 1996 through the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, led
to a direct confrontation with COSATU and sections of the SACP. This began a
process of increasing marginalization of the left from the ANC and growing
tensions , articulated most strongly by the COSATU General Secretary, Zwelizima
Vavi, accusing the ANC leadership of being a “predatory elite”. Growing
disillusionment with the ANC led to the re-emergence inside NUMSA of the idea
of a workers party.
To assess the extent of support for a workers party in the broader population,
we conducted a survey of a large nationally representative sample of adults
between February and March 2014. (Webster and Orkin, 2014) Surprisingly, a
third of South African adults definitely thought that “a new political party,”
a workers’ or labour party, “will assist with current problems facing SA” (the
proportion answering ‘probably not’ or ‘definitely not’ were 15% and 13%).
In 2012, a sample of Cosatu shop stewards was asked a more specific
question: “If Cosatu were to form a labour party and contest national
elections, would you vote for such a party?” 65% said they would. In the 2014
survey, among the fully employed 69% agreed with the question (30% said
“definitely” and 39% said “maybe”).
A Workers’ Party?
Numsa has approached the question of a workers’ party with caution.
Following independence, trade unions in post-colonial Africa have tended
initially to submit to the ruling party that drove the liberation struggle. But
growing marginalization led unions in countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe
into opposition and the formation of a separate political party, which, in the
case of Zambia’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy, won state power in
| ||"The existence of a relatively large industrial working class, strong civil society organizations and an independent trade union movement with a political culture of shop-floor democracy makes the survival of a workers’ party more likely."|| |
However, there has generally been a low level of political tolerance
of political opposition in post-colonial Africa. Unlike established
democracies, these new governments are engaged in the complex task of nation
building. The result is a culture of “us” versus “them,” and union-backed
oppositional parties have often been quickly labeled “counter-revolutionary”
and “imperialist.” The union-backed Movement for Democratic Change soon became
the focus of organized violence inflicted by the Zimbabwean state.
Could South Africa be a special case in post-colonial Africa? The
existence of a relatively large industrial working class, strong civil society
organizations and an independent trade union movement with a political culture
of shop-floor democracy makes the survival of a workers’ party more likely.
What would the social base of such a party be? In the 2014,
nationwide adult sample, 30% of the full-time or part-time employed would
definitely support a workers’ party, rising to 40% of the unemployed. The
highest expression of ‘definite’ support for the idea of a workers’ party was
among the black working poor; among those with household incomes of less then
R8000 a month; of primary/secondary education; and in the main working age of
18-49. By contrast, the lowest expressed ‘definite’ support for a workers’
party was among whites, Indian and coloureds alike; with household incomes of
more than R8000 a month; of tertiary education; among the oldest.
This survey question indicated the size of the potential support
base, and broadly identified its likely class features. But what will the form
and content of a working class politics be in SA ? Is it to involve a broad
workers’ party, along the lines of Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores, with
links to working-class communities , academics and small farmers. Or is to be a
more traditional labour party along the lines of the UK Labour Party, with
close ties with organized labour? Is it to be a revitalized Marxist-Leninist
vanguard party, a mirror image of the SACP; or will something distinctive
emerge out of the initiative to establish a United Front (UF).
Designed to link unions to struggles in the community, a National
Working Committee of the United Front was established in December 2014. Although
it still remains to be formally launched nationally it has an estimated two
hundred and fifty loosely affiliated social justice and environmental justice
affiliates. Of particular concern are climate change and the demand for
eco-socialism. However, its political direction remains uncertain: should it be
openly socialist, or a broad front similar to the United Democratic Front (UDF)
of the eighties; is it a step towards a worker’s party or is it an autonomous
body connecting a range of community based organizations; should it engage in
electoral politics or should it remain at arms-length from party politics?
Importantly, the multiple expressions of local-level militancy that
emerged over the past decade is a fragmented militancy, different from the
social movement unionism of the early to mid eighties. The link between the
current township protests and NUMSA is tenous. Indeed the high levels of
unemployment in these communities – sometimes as high as 80% - has led to
conflicts – and intensified violence – between the employed who are trying to
maintain collective solidarity in a strike and those who want to go to work.
This emerged most dramatically in the strikes on the platinum mines in
Rustenburg. The coercive tactics used to maintain solidarity, described by
Chinguno as a form of “violent solidarity,“ runs counter to the democratic
traditions of labour. (Chinguno, 2015a and 2015b: 178)
| ||"...the multiple expressions of local-level militancy that emerged over the past decade is a fragmented militancy, different from the social movement unionism of the early to mid eighties."||
It is important to emphasize that the new initiatives,
organisational forms and sources of power are emerging on the periphery of
organised labour. The strikes at Marikana were not led by a union but were the
product of the self-activity of labour, as Sinwell and Mbatha (2013: 32) argue:
The agency of workers, and more specifically the independent
worker’s committee, is arguably the key feature surrounding the event of the
Marikana Massacre…The committee at Marikana is important in understanding the
strike wave along the Rustenburg Platinum Belt where these independent
organisations emerged. Industrial sociology more generally has been dominated
by investigations into formalised unions...
Labour’s dilemma in post-colonial countries is how to express its
distinct working class politics in such a way that it does have a confrontation
with the state or alienate itself from those who continue to support the
dominant national narrative. Interestingly, the Ghana Trade Union Congress
(TUC), has chosen the path of non-alignment with any specific political party.
It prefers to develop its own political demands, lobby for these demands and
advise its members to vote for the party that supports the GTUC’s programme. A
similar approach has been adopted amongst informal worker organisations in
India (Agarwala, 2013:98) Informal worker movements, Agarwala demonstrates, are
most successful when operating within electoral contexts where parties compete
for mass votes from the poor. She calls this competitive populism. These
informal worker organisations are not attached to a particular party nor do
they espouse a specific political or economic ideology. In this way they have
successfully organised informal workers. As one organiser observed:
" The informal sector is entering into the previously formal sector,
and the formal sector is being cut in size…. We cannot differentiate between
formal and informal workers, because politicians only care about getting most
votes." (Cited in Agarwala, 2013: 98)
We are entering a new kind of politics, what some have come to call
the “politics of precarity” where precariousness at work creates a crisis not
just of job-quality but also of social reproduction (Lee and Kofman, 2012) There
is, as Jennifer Chun argues, a “growing interest in a new political subject of
labour...women, immigrants, people of color, low-paid service workers,
precarious workers, groups that have been historically excluded from the moral
and material boundaries of union membership.” (Chun, 2012:40)
| ||"We are entering a new kind of politics, what some have come to call the “politics of precarity” where precariousness at work creates a crisis not just of job-quality but also of social reproduction..."|| |
Whether the left activists of the labour movement have the political
imagination and energy to take advantage of this new terrain remains to be
seen. What is clear is that the old labour order is no longer sustainable and
building an alternative is going to require patient and long-term
Edward Webster is Professor Emeritus, Society, Work and Development
Institute (SWOP) at University of Witwatersrand. He is the outgoing director of
the Chris Hani Institute, an independent left think tank in Cosatu House.
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