As the ruling ANC prepares for its big policy conference in June, it faces another challenge – a new alliance of radical trade unionists and grass-roots activists.
A new socialist movement – the United Front (UF) – is due to storm onto South Africa’s political scene in April.
It brings together trade unionists and activists to fight for working people’s rights, facing off against both big business and the African National Congress (ANC) government, which is one of the biggest employers in the country.
This is not the birth of the new left. This is the birth of the ultra-left
The UF burst into the open in December at its founders’ meeting in Johannesburg.
There, some 400 people from 71 labour, religious and activist organisations came together for what they called the Assembly of the United Front and to draw up a road map for the national launch of the movement.
Karl Cloete, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), told the The Africa Report after the Johannesburg meeting: “The UF is the birth of the new left, a movement that is anti-neoliberal and would certainly bring together sectors of society.
This is a far-reaching shift on the political landscape of South Africa.”
NUMSA, the radical trade union that repeatedly clashed with and was then expelled from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in November 2014, is the driving force behind the new movement.
The UF’s founding statement suggests it will take aim at a host of social and political ills, vowing to fight corruption, the looting of public resources and police brutality.
Irvin Jim, NUMSA’s general secretary, says the new movement will be “united in its struggle for socialism”, with key campaigns including fighting austerity measures and government malfeasance.
For now, those close to the UF are coy about its political ambitions.
Local government elections in 2016 would provide an important first test for the movement and its allies if they want to get into electoral politics and challenge the still-formidable ANC.
Over the past two decades, the ANC has left several breakaway groups in the dust, none of which possessed the organisational nous and resources needed to take it on.
But the UF looks to be a different matter, partly because it has a strong base drawn from NUMSA and the other trade unions that have clashed with Cosatu over its support for ANC president Jacob Zuma.
The new movement is also pressing home its clear ideological differences with the ANC.
It has an unambiguously left-wing agenda and says that it will speak for the millions of poor and jobless in South Africa.
Privately, top ANC officials concede that their party is vulnerable to a leftist challenge.
A document leaked in December that was written by ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe for the ANC National Executive Committee says “the ANC was at risk of losing power”.
Last year, President Zuma told an ANC Youth League conference that the party was in trouble.
Long before the UF was mooted, the political line-up was changing, with new leftist and populist groups emerging to fight the ANC. So far, Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have made the most impact.
The EFF’s top leaders were elected as members of parliament in May 2014 and have since disrupted the body’s activities, targeting Zuma with criticism for state spending on his Nkandla homestead.
Quite how parties such as the EFF fit into the UF’s plans is unclear.
UF backers say it will form the building blocks of a socialist movement.
But it will face some daunting tasks: firstly, how to unite all the diverse voices under one umbrella; and secondly, how to campaign for socialism in a country that is so steeped in capitalism and materialism NUMSA’s Cloete is very clear about the UF’s identity and role, which he says is to galvanise leftist and progressive groups.
“UF is not a political party but is a movement,” he explains. His union used a considerable part of its revenue from membership dues to get the new movement going.
The UF has its own slogan, adapted from the North African uprisings four years ago: “Kwanele kwanele! Enough is enough! Genoeg is genoeg!”
Another key figure behind the new movement is Ronnie Kasrils, a former minister and a veteran of the South African Communist Party (SACP) who led a ‘no vote’ campaign in the 2014 elections to protest against what he saw as the ANC’s betrayal of its principles.
“UF is a social movement of protest and change for a better, more equitable and socialist- oriented South Africa,” Kasrils tells The Africa Report.
It is “aiming to create an umbrella for all such organs of society that currently exist.”
Kasrils was elected to the 25-strong leadership of the UF, saying he was excited about the new political baby.
Several high-profile activists were also elected to the leadership: Zackie Achmat, the pioneering leader of the Treatment Action Campaign; Noor Nieftagodien, an academic; Andrew Chirwa, NUMSA president; Zanoxolo Wayile, former Eastern Cape ANC member of parliament; and Thobile Ntola, former leader of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU).
In its closing statement after the initial meeting, the UF said: “Post-apartheid capitalism is leaving a trail of inequality, hunger, poverty and misery. The wealthy elite and the bosses – white and black – refuse to concede a single inch to the urgent needs of the majority.”
The ANC chose to remain silent on the new movement and instead got its key allies in the trade unions to do its bidding.
“It is a stillbirth before it even started. You cannot start a movement built out of rage,” argues Mugwena Maluleka, general secretary of SADTU. “This is not the birth of the new left. This is the birth of the ultra-left and will fail,” he adds.
The largest public-sector union, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, a staunch supporter of the ANC and Zuma, says: “We are convinced that a united force of class-conscious organised workers cannot afford the luxury of isolating itself by standing on a self-indulgent high moral ground, merely satisfied with militant-sounding slogans.”
Cosatu’s president Sdumo Dlamini, another ANC loyalist, tells The Africa Report that his federation already backs the struggle for socialism and that Cosatu “must never be tired to build the ANC- led alliance with working-class leadership”.
He says that Cosatu supports the struggle for socialism under the leadership of the SACP.
In their hearts, they know
That has not convinced the new leftists and dissident former members of the SACP such as Kasrils.
He said he was “sure the ANC and its allies were worried about the emergence of the UF, which could have an effect on how the ruling party performs in the 2016 local government elections.”
He continued: “In their hearts, they know they are seeing their support eroded, as witnessed by the high level of protests and strikes through the country and the results of the May national elections, where the ANC lost 3% of its previous vote, down to its lowest mar- gin since 1994.”
For Cloete, the massive deployment of ANC members to the Eastern Cape, in the wake of the UF’s formation, is significant.
“The ANC is extremely worried. The UF is a wake-up call,” he says.
Significantly, Zwelinzima Vavi, the popular and charismatic Cosatu general secretary, was absent from the UF’s meeting in December.
He said this was due to a clash of schedules but many had expected Vavi to be a leading voice for the UF.
Nature fills a vacuum
However, in an interview with The Africa Report a few days before the meeting, Vavi said the Cosatu congress had long called for the formation of a broad people’s front, adding that he wished “that Cosatu would be the one that was leading it. That’s my view. But nature doesn’t allow vacuums.”
He added: “Cosatu is paralysed, and it’s unable to implement its own decision. Other people move in.
Cosatu is in tatters and divided and defocused, so don’t shout against [the UF]”.
For now, Vavi is reluctant to explain his plans. He says he hopes that NUMSA will be brought back into the Cosatu fold.
But until that happens, he is unlikely to be a key figure in the UF.
The UF is setting out to build bridges between unionists and other activists, according to Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
“The UF is supposed to rectify the situation in which the trade union movement has ignored social movements. Cosatu trade unions have narrowly focused on the workplace. The question is, is this new initiative going to rectify that?”Friedman says.
The new organisation cannot be faulted for a lack of ambition. In a December statement of principles, it said: “With a great sense of urgency we have come together as the United Front and are uniting our separate and often fragmented efforts to build solidarity, restore confidence and hope amongst the masses of this country.”
And its timing – when the country’s union movement is divided – could help the project.
Its future work and success will depend critically on the state of the country’s trade unions.
If more choose to break with Cosatu’s current leadership, the UF could be the start of something very big. ●