There are the beginnings of a new trade union federation in South Africa. It is a left wing alternative to the established Cosatu federation—a key supporter of the ruling ANC party and president Jacob Zuma.
Thousands of workers came to a rally last Sunday to launch the process that will see the formal announcement of the grouping later this year.
The main force involved is metalworkers’ union Numsa, the country’s largest union with about 350,000 members.
Mining union Amcu, which led the militant miners’ strikes at Marikana in 2012 and across the platinum industry in 2014, has said it will join.
The unions in Nactu, another federation associated with Pan-Africanism and black consciousness, are also set to take part.
In total around 30 unions, with a combined membership of around a million workers, are pledged to be part of the new federation. This is about half the size of Cosatu.
Supporters of the new alliance are united in the belief that the ANC has ceased to stand for workers’ interests, and that unions must break politically from the governing party.
This view led to Numsa’s exclusion from Cosatu.
In his address on Sunday Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said, “Capital will not compromise. It’s a system that works on greed. This cannot be resolved by prayer. It can only be resolved by revolution”.
He added, “This country is rich, this country can feed all its people. All that we need is a government that intervenes in the economy, takes ownership of the steel industry, nationalises iron ore, coal.
“The new federation must launch a campaign to make sure our hospitals are not turned into funeral institutions. Queues in hospitals must stop.”
The new grouping is headed by expelled Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. He called for a socialist trade union federation that fights for workers’ and women’s rights.
The new federation could be a big step forwards, deepening the argument for militant trade unionism not held back by the need to keep good relations with the ANC.
But the key issue is whether it can lead to increased struggle on the ground, recruit among the millions of unorganised workers, and pressure Cosatu unions into joint action.
It will be no progress if there is just a sustained, and potentially violent, scrap over existing union members.
Meanwhile, in another sign of the growth of a left outside the ANC, nearly 40,000 people came to a mass meeting last weekend for the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EEF) local government manifesto launch.
This is the party led by Julius Malema that talks to the left of the ANC. In 2014, after just eight months existence, the EFF won a million votes and 25 MPs in the general election.
Local elections in August will see the EFF advance a strong challenge to the ANC in many areas.
It remains unclear whether the long-promised workers’ party called for by Numsa and others will be set up in time to take part in the elections.
The Numsa-backed United Front has said it will run a small number of candidates.
The ANC and Cosatu still retain a loyalty on the basis of their role in fighting apartheid. They won’t easily be displaced.
But there is a real sense that their grip is loosening every month—with opportunities for the left.