There have been significant developments in South African trade union movement in the last few weeks. The 340,000 strong National Union Of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) at a recent special congress (held over following the death of Nelson Mandela) has decided to withdraw its support for the African National Congress. It has also called for the trade union umbrella body – the Confedration of South African Trade Unions to withdraw from the alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party and further has set out proposals for reform of COSATU, but decided not to leave the Confederation.
NUMSA held a four-day special congress between December 17th and 20th in Boksburg, where it called for President Jacob Zuma to resign, saying his decisions to forge ahead with controversial legislation and the upgrades to his Nkandla homestead was not acceptable.
NUMSA said the time to look for an alternative had now arrived and they would lead a new movement to co-ordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities – similar to the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s.
The Special Congress agreed to stop paying contributions to COSATU, totalling R800,000 per month, as well as to the SACP.
NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim said the working class was “in need of a political organisation committed in theory as well as in practice to socialism. It’s not a function of just even agreeing with NUMSA, it’s a function of saying the gains of South Africa made under former presidents are being undone under this current president.”
The new president of the metalworkers, the 33 years old Andrew Chirwa says he sees no reason to continue supporting the African National Congress which he says has done little to move away from the economy inherited after apartheid. The union’s newly-elected leader says various issues have not been addressed and half the population still lives in poverty.
Chirwa says there are too many outstanding issues with the current government, including e-tolls, the youth wage subsidy which was recently implemented in the Employment Incentive Act, and the National Development Plan, which says Chirwa “is nothing other than an attack on workers’ rights.”
Explaining that nothing has changed since apartheid, Chirwa said: “Wealth continues to be dominated by a very low percentage of our population, which is 12 percent, and the majority of our people are outside the economic system.”
At the same time, Chirwa says NUMSA now has little in common with COSATU and that not enough is done to address race, class and gender questions. He says they will consult COSATU, but workers must be mobilised.
“We need to develop a programme; we have, in actual fact, developed a programme,” he says, adding that there’s a growing need in South Africa to mobilise workers.
At the congress General Secretary Irvin Jim said all hopes of reclaiming the tripartite alliance had faded, and further options needed to be explored. He said a united front, similar to the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s, would be formed and headed by NUMSA.
He said it would be aimed at engaging with the theory of socialism and putting it into practice.
Jim said that President Zuma’s administration wrongly pursued neo-liberal economics and was “characterised by scandals, nepotism and patronage.”
Both Chirwa, Jim and NUMSA are also campaigning for the reinstatement of Cosatu’s suspended Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi
This blog is edited from reports on the Eyewitness News, BBC News, The Mail & Guardian and In Defence Of Marxism websites, all of which are well worth reading to get an understanding of the difficult situation now facing the South African Trade Union Movement.