NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim (Picture: SABC) – By Terry Bell Given the potentially highly volatile social, political and economic situation in South Africa today it would be foolhardy to forecast in any detail how the country and its people — let …

NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim (Picture: SABC)

NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim (Picture: SABC)

– By Terry Bell

Given the potentially highly volatile social, political and economic situation in South Africa today it would be foolhardy to forecast in any detail how the country and its people — let alone the labour movement — will fare in 2014. In broad terms, all that can be said with reasonable certainty is that this could be the most critical year since the transition from apartheid and that most of the problems already evident will remain in place.

Joblessness and the yawning wage and welfare gap — exacerbated by perceptions of poor service delivery — are perhaps the most critical since they provide much of the fuel for the social volatility evident around the country. These interrelated problems are unlikely to improve and may, indeed, worsen, increasing the number of those events which the police euphemistically refer to as “unrest incidents”.

Such incidents, in turn, could lead to a situation — or be used as an excuse — by the government to impose a state of emergency. However, this seems at the moment to be a fairly remote possibility, but one that still affects perceptions. And perceptions often guide actions.

It is against this background that two critical events will almost certainly take place: the national and provincial elections and a special congress of the country’s major trade union federation, Cosatu. The general election will probably be scheduled close to the April 27 anniversary of the first non-racial poll. The Cosatu special congress could be delayed until September, but may be staged before then.

Both these events alone make 2014 one of the most critical years in recent South African history. And the outcomes of the election and the special congress will profoundly effect perhaps every aspect of South African society.

Bearing in mind that a week can be a long time in politics, and several months an age, much could happen to alter current outlooks. But as matters now stand, the ANC looks to remain the majority party in an election that is likely to reveal a relatively high level of abstentions and perhaps an increased number of spoiled ballots.

Factionalism and widespread demoralisation among core supporters, especially in the trade union and youth sectors, should sap ANC strength. On the trade union front, this may be encouraged by the decision of the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) to withdraw financial and organisational support for the ANC and the other alliance partner, the SA Communist Party.

Were an election to be held next week, it is possible to forecast that the ANC share of the vote could drop to perhaps 58 per cent. It would also be likely that the Western Cape would remain under the control of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). Less likely, but still possible, is the prospect of a coalition of parties ending up governing Gauteng. Should this occur, tensions within the ANC-led alliance will increase.

It is this that will provide the background to the Cosatu special congress which, according to the federation’s constitution, must be held after notice of “at least 14 days”. It was this apparent loophole that enabled Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini to refuse to call a special congress before the general election and to state that September might be best.

The decision at the Numsa special congress in December to break ties with the political alliance triggered ongoing media speculation about the union providing the catalyst for the formation of a new “workers’ party” in the mould of the PT of Brazil. There is also continuing speculation that Numsa could link up with either the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or the much smaller Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp).

But while both the EFF and the Wasp have been desperately courting Numsa, the union has shown no interest in supporting any other party and, contrary to several reports, does not intend leaving Cosatu. It would, in fact, be tactically foolish for the country’s largest union to sever ties with the federation when it still stands a chance of winning over the majority of Cosatu affiliates at a future special congress.

If the authoritative survey of 2 000 Cosatu shop stewards, published last year, is anything to go by, the feeling on the ground is strongly in favour of a labour party and therefore against the current ANC-alliance leadership. The Numsa leadership has clearly keyed in to this dissatisfaction and the union is now seen by many members of Cosatu unions as reflecting their views.

With government clearly having ignored Cosatu’s protests and promises of “rolling mass action” about e-tolls, labour brokers and the youth wage subsidy, let alone the secrecy Bill, the present, pro-government Cosatu leadership is likely to be unseated. If and when this happens, it is probable that a rump of Cosatu unions will remain linked to the ANC-led alliance, claiming, perhaps, to be the “real Cosatu”.

But such a breach would have severe repercussions throughout the alliance. It might also result in the start of talks between a new, possibly Numsa-led Cosatu majority, and other federations such as the National Council of Trade Unions and the Federation of Unions (Fedusa) about the establishment of a larger, united, federation.

However, unless Numsa backtracks on its decidedly narrow polemical approach, such unity talks would probably fail. Even the prospect of unity with a Numsa-led, “Marxist-Leninist” Cosatu could also see several smaller Fedusa-affiliated unions breaking away.

But if unity could be achieved on a non partisan basis, the trade union movement may emerge stronger and with much more political influence. Should this happen, it seems probable that some form of worker or labour party — perhaps even a “citizens’ coalition” such as that proposed by former Numsa leader, Moses Mayekiso — could be established and could provide the first real challenge to the dominance of the ANC.

But such projections are purely speculative. In this highly volatile situation, with a multitude of agendas in play, any variety of hopes, fears and fantasies could be realised in the months ahead.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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