Creating leftist alternative to ANC could prove a tall order

Business Day


THE decision by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) to break away from the the African National Congress (ANC) came in the context of the crisis in global capitalism since 2008 and the ANC’s failure to adequately satisfy the interests and demands of its leftist allies.

But it is the specific socioeconomic effects of that crisis on the organised black working class, of which Numsa is an important and strategic part, that explains its subsequent radicalisation. However, its unfair expulsion from Cosatu was the biggest catalyst for the resolve and urgency with which it moved to build an alternative to the ANC.

The key question is whether Numsa’s decision to form a United Front will successfully lay the foundations for a socialist workers’ party, which is what it wants to achieve and with which it wants to eventually dislodge the ANC from power.

But Numsa faces big and difficult challenges, once the present radical euphoria has passed.

There is no leftist formation, outside the ANC’s alliance with Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP), that has over several decades, during and after the apartheid years, succeeded in building a mass alternative to ANC hegemony.

While there are many reasons for this, Numsa will fail in its quest to defeat the ANC at the polls — there will be no other road to power in this country for a long time to come — if it does not imbibe and appropriate lessons from the failed efforts by the independent left to challenge the ANC.

The biggest weaknesses were the self-fulfilling propagandising of small leftist groups, on the one hand, and the sectarianism and factionalism that often accompany these, on the other. Propagandising is often based on an inflexible and arrogant belief in the unshakeable truth of ideas in one’s head or on paper and disposes one to contemplate one’s navel, but it is as often isolated from the mass movement, lying on its periphery.

It struggles to find and walk the road to the masses in the real, messy and convoluted world of politics, faced with the hard, difficult, long and sometimes discouraging slog of building a base by making their ideas the ideas of the masses.

So serious are these weaknesses that they can and often have destroyed many revolutionary groups in the past.

But the fact that Numsa already has a mass base in strategic sectors of the economy might inhibit these historical trends in leftist politics globally and provide greater organisational focus.

However, winning over Numsa members to the United Front and a workers party will be much easier than winning over other unionised or unorganised workers and grass-roots communities to these ideas.

Besides, though dented by past election results, continuing mass loyalty to the ANC will remain a huge challenge for Numsa. Don’t forget, too, that although class is emerging strongly as a factor in mass action, the hold of African nationalism, based on race and colour, on the African masses is still enormous.

However, there appears to be much confusion and several contradictions and weaknesses that might prevent the realisation of the United Front and thereafter a mass workers party. Numsa leader Irvin Jim, interestingly, continues in his speeches to rail against colonialism of a special type, which he learnt from the SACP, but that theory laid the basis for the two-stage national democratic revolution he is now effectively against. Jim appears confused about how he understands the past and how it has shaped both the vulnerabilities of the ANC alliance and the tasks Numsa faces.

He continues also to assert dogmatically that Numsa remains inspired by Marxism-Leninism, when it has been so obvious for so long that in both theory and practice this earlier fetishised and even to a large degree Stalinised framework underwent much review and critique, especially in the wake of the demise of the repressive Stalinist states from the late 1980s and the subsequent declining fortunes of socialism worldwide.

Today, pitted against the SACP — his longtime mentors — he uses the same stock-in-trade language of the SACP while purportedly embarking on a new path.

But the most significant weaknesses lie in Numsa’s approach to and understanding of the United Front and the relevance of the Freedom Charter for that purpose.

As we live in a society deeply divided by race and class, and the United Front is nothing more or less than a tactic, it is terribly naive to expect “all people all over the country” to join or form a United Front. It is equally naive, and in fact ignorant, to assert that ideology will not be a condition for joining it, when in fact the very idea of a United Front as a weapon of class struggle and its programme of action is deeply ideological. The fact that the United Front is a tactic does not justify attempts to deideologise it. No wonder Numsa took a decision to delay the launch of the United Front to April this year: it was not adequately prepared for it.

Numsa also better realise that a United Front is not about turning to prominent individuals who have no mass base to boost its appeal. No, the core and engine of a United Front is to concentrate on uniting and galvanising mass organisations around a common minimum programme of demands, for which purpose overseas trips are unnecessary and wasteful.

As can be seen, the traces of Numsa’s political lineage to the SACP is evident in several respects. In some important respects the theoretical and ideological umbilical cord that tied it to the SACP in particular is still intact, which is not surprising as all of its senior leaders were in the leadership of the SACP for years.

Its one-sided obsession with the Freedom Charter as a basis for the United Front is somewhat misguided, because the charter has always been ambiguous and contradictory as far the economy is concerned. The charter not only never once mentions nationalisation but says national wealth shall be restored to the nebulous “people”, which cannot be equated with the state.

Besides, and more importantly, the charter provides for the removal of racial restrictions that allowed for the untrammelled emergence of a black bourgeoisie, which is what we largely have today. There are many other areas of ambiguity in the charter that Numsa has not even begun to grapple with. A distinct lack of analytical nuance and depth in Numsa’s understanding and interpretation of the charter is evident.

This union that wants to form a mass workers’ party as an alternative to the ANC has a lot more homework and sober reflection to do.

• Harvey is a political writer and commentator.


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