NUMSA, The Working Class and Socialist Politics in South Africa

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di Sam Ashman and Nicolas Pons-Vignon


The South African election on the 7 May 2014 marked 20 years since the end of apartheid and the achievement of democracy. The result was hardly surprising, with the African National Congress (ANC) winning 62 per cent of the vote. But the idea of unchanging ANC hegemony is far from accurate. Only 35 per cent of those eligible to vote backed the ANC, a decline from 54 per cent in the first post-apartheid election in 1994. In Gauteng, the biggest centre of industry and most populous province which contains the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the ANC’s share of the vote fell from 64 per cent in 2009 to 55 per cent in 2014. The Democratic Alliance (DA), a pro-business party based on old white-led parties and new sections of the black middle class, increased its vote from 17 per cent in 2009 to 22 per cent. But most startling of all, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, formed only eight months ago, won over a million votes (6.4 per cent), gained 25 MPs and is now the second largest party (after the ANC) in both the North West Province (a mining area which includes the town of Marikana) and Limpopo (Malema’s home province.) The EFF’s slogan is ‘Economic Freedom in Our Lifetime’; its supporters wear red berets and greet each other as ‘Fighter’; and its success reflects frustration and anger with the slow pace of change since 1994. What is more, the election came amidst considerable turmoil in the labour movement. Three issues are of note and form the backdrop for this essay.

First, the remarkable all-out strike by over 70,000 workers at the world’s three major platinum producers: Anglo American Platinum, Lonmin and Impala. The strike lasted for five months over the first half of 2014 and was the biggest strike in South African mining history. The settlement fell short of the workers’ demand for a R12,500 living wage, but workers made significant gains and, critically, their union remains unbroken (1). (The miners’ action was almost immediately followed by an all-out strike over pay by 220,000 workers in the steel and engineering sectors.) South Africa’s platinum belt has been at the eye of the storm for some time. President Jacob Zuma was forced to cancel a pre-election visit to Marikana, both the centre of the strike area and the site of the massacre of Lonmin platinum workers when they struck in August 2012, for fear of the reception he might receive. The Marikana massacre was a turning point in South African history that is at the centre of the discussion below. The majority of the platinum strikers are members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) which has grown rapidly as the previously dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – whose leaders are central to the ANC – has degenerated as an effective union force. Although it may not necessarily be articulated in this way by workers and strike leaders, the AMCU action was an expression of workers’ independence from the Alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which is the largest union federation (NUM, until Marikana, was its largest affiliate). For such a large and important strike to take place outside the auspices of the Alliance, and in the face of the condemnation of much of the Alliance, is a significant departure from the past (2).

Second, COSATU remains paralyzed by its own internal crisis, and stood apart from the platinum workers’ struggle as a result, as it has from the issues around Marikana and the massacre more generally. It is not difficult to see why: NUM may have haemorrhaged members to AMCU, but it remains a powerful force within COSATU, the SACP and the ANC (3). COSATU is split over how critical its stance toward to the ANC should be. Its General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi – a powerful and popular critic of ANC policy – returned to COSATU in April 2014 after an eight-month suspension orchestrated by the right wing in the federation. A desperate ANC managed to negotiate a ceasefire in COSATU hostilities until after the election, but demanded that Vavi campaign for it. The union federation remains deeply divided, with the leadership of ten unions grouped around President S’Dumo Dlamini, and nine other unions backing Vavi and taking a more critical stance to both ANC and SACP leaderships. The nine have demanded Vavi’s reinstatement and a special COSATU congress to elect a new leadership. However, merely reinstating Vavi will not end the tensions, and seeing it in personal terms about Vavi alone is a mistake both as an analysis of the past, and as a strategy to go forward.

Thirdly, there is NUMSA, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. NUMSA is now COSATU’s largest affiliate with 338,000 members and the unofficial leader of the left bloc inside COSATU. The resolutions adopted at NUMSA’s Special Congress in December 2013 marked the most important rupture in South African politics since 1994. The union refused to endorse the ANC in the election. It called on COSATU to break away from the Alliance. It resolved to organize a new United Front to coordinate struggles in the workplace and communities (much as the United Democratic Front did in the 1980s) and to explore the establishment of a new Movement for Socialism. It is widely speculated that this new Movement for Socialism will eventually contest elections, possibly even the local elections that will take place in 2016, but final decisions about its shape and activities will not be taken until March 2015 and there are different positions and emphases within the union about precisely what form it should take. NUMSA plans also to launch township-based political discussion fora in order to build the United Front so as to include a broad range of forces; to hold nine provincial consultative conferences to further discuss these developments which will lead to a national conference; and to hold a national summit on service delivery to try to link together struggles over service delivery with workers’ organization. The union will also explore various recent international examples of building left parties such as those in Venezuela, Brazil, Greece and Germany in order to try to learn lessons in advance of its decisions next year. These steps clearly mean an end to NUMSA’s attempts to push the Alliance to the left from within. The establishment of some form of mass, union-based, socialist organization outside of the Alliance would amount to a historic step in the history of the South African labour movement. In addition, NUMSA has resolved to organize across value chains, including announcing that it will organize mineworkers.

As Leonard Gentle has argued, both the split inside COSATU and the emergence of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters are a consequence of the unravelling of the alliance of forces which removed Mbeki and put Zuma into office (4). The SACP, COSATU and the ANC Youth League backed Zuma despite the fact he did not promise significant change in policy. The SACP gained cabinet positions as a result of Zuma’s victory, a culture of cronyism developed around Zuma, and Malema was expelled when he overplayed his hand. COSATU is now split between those who wish to remain loyal to the ANC/SACP leadership, strategy and policy and those who can see both the failure of ANC policy and feel the pressure of workers and the poor from below. This is explicitly recognized: ‘We in NUMSA understand the crisis in COSATU as simply a reflection of the on-going class struggles in the wider South African society in general and inside the ANC led alliance in particular’ (5).

And so it is tempting to argue that the tectonic plates are shifting. Strikes and service delivery protests reflect deep dissatisfaction on the ground. The possibility of some form of workers’ party, a historical break from the ANC much debated in the past, now seems a more likely prospect than at any time since 1994. The SACP is in deep crisis, with members on both sides inside the COSATU divide. The possibility of a major regroupment and a new political formation has already boosted many on the left. However, the obstacles and the challenges facing the ‘NUMSA moment’ are also great. Not least of these is the ANC which, now that the election is behind it, is likely to do all it can to ensure that NUMSA is isolated from the rest of the Alliance as a maverick ‘red’ union, one possibly to be expelled from COSATU.

This essay explores this turbulent conjuncture. Firstly, we look at the development of the South African economy and the working class after 20 years of neoliberal ANC policy and the effect this has had on the structure and the organization of the working class. Secondly, we look at the move from the ‘Marikana moment’ to the ‘NUMSA moment’, and how NUM’s degeneration has highlighted the weakness of unions in defending their members. The future for union organizing in the mines could be one of considerable turmoil, with AMCU (with the likely support of NUMSA) and NUM vying to recruit and maintain membership. Thirdly, we look at some of the challenges facing the NUMSA project. Whilst we reject the argument that organized workers are a form of labour aristocracy, and we defend the potential of unions in the twenty-first century to act as a force capable of organizing workplace struggles and linking to communities, the challenges should not be underestimated. A myriad of divisions exist between workers: between the employed and unemployed, permanent workers and the precariously employed, the community (especially youth) and workers, and between workers and social movements (6). While much may be resolved in the coming months, the ‘NUMSA moment’ is both a product of the movement from below, and could prove to be a key turning point within it. If NUMSA continues to be bold, it may well succeed in building a movement to attract to it those who are increasingly disillusioned with the ANC and ready to embrace a credible alternative which aims to unite organized labour, township activists and the left. But simultaneously, NUMSA also carries the burden of left hopes and potential organization. Will it fail by seeking to do too much?


Continuity and change in the minerals-energy complex


The South African system of accumulation has long been dominated by what Fine and Rustomjee dubbed the ‘Minerals-Energy Complex’ (MEC) (7). Capital concentrated and evolved around core sectors around mining and minerals processing, with the state providing support for key sectors, particularly through giant electricity and steel parastatals. This was combined with the extreme exploitation and political oppression of the black majority which predated the introduction of apartheid in 1948, but which was systematized by apartheid. The mining and energy core of the economy was, and remains, capital intensive and there are strong linkages within and between the core sectors but relatively few linkages between the core sectors and the rest of the economy. Industrial development thus has been highly skewed, and a large reserve army of labour has been reproduced systematically. Alongside concentration in particular sectors, the economy has also been marked by extremely concentrated patterns of ownership, with the historic division between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking capital being eroded over time, and six diversified conglomerate groupings coming to dominate the entire economy by the 1980s.

Whilst undoubtedly much has changed in South Africa since 1994, the bitterness at the base of society is rooted in what hasn’t changed. This is graphically seen in the ongoing high levels of unemployment, which is close to 40 per cent of the population if ‘discouraged job seekers’ are included, with that figure rising for youth unemployment, and poor basic service delivery for housing, water and electricity. At the same time income inequality has actually increased since 1994 as a consequence of rising inequality within the labour market due both to rising unemployment and rising earnings inequality (8). There has been extensive corporate restructuring across the South African economy in line with the global restructuring of capitalism in accordance with the imperatives of finance. South African conglomerates have ‘unbundled’ and ‘rebundled’, internationalizing and financializing their operations whilst focusing on core concerns within South Africa (9). At the same time finance has grown to 20 per cent of the economy, and job creation since 1994 has largely been in financial and low-value added services (10). And some 40 per cent of the population remain excluded from the formal financial sector altogether. The bloated and powerful financial sector remains extraordinarily non-developmental. There is a crisis in levels of long-term productive investment whilst the financial system fuels speculation, hoarding and the long-term export of capital, and high interest rates in line with a neoliberal macroeconomic policy framework attract short term ‘hot’ money inflows, fuelling debt-driven consumption and increasingly indebtedness, including an enormous rise in unsecured lending at the base of society (11).

Financial groupings, after unbundling from the major conglomerates and undergoing restructuring themselves, have been well placed to benefit from the financialization of the Minerals-Energy Complex, the major feature of South African ‘development’ since 1994 (12). Combined with the effects of trade liberalization in manufacturing, there has been a relative deindustrialization of the economy. The minerals-energy core of the economy remains central: minerals and mineral-related products continue to make a significant contribution to output. Some 60 per cent of South Africa’s exports in 2012 were from gold, platinum group metals, iron ore, coal, motor vehicles, iron and steel and non-ferrous metals; and platinum, coal and gold are the most important contributors both to revenue from mining and to mining employment (13). Finance, mining and energy interests are also important sources of power in post-apartheid South Africa, acting to defend capital’s position (particularly with regard to rent-seeking in mining) and to block alternative policy measures, such as lowering the price of cheaply produced industrial inputs in steel (14). This domestic power has combined with, as we saw above, internationalization and financialization of operations.

The eye of the storm has very much been platinum as the platinum miners have demanded a living wage across the sector of R12,500 a month to address low pay. But there remains also what is sometimes referred to as the colonial or the apartheid-era wage gap: the persistent discrepancy between wages earned by black and white workers, the former having allegedly ‘low skills’ (15). This gap has combined in recent decades with more general global wage repression. The platinum workers’ demands produced an unsurprisingly hysterical response from the employers and the business press who claimed the industry would no longer be able to continue with such an increased labour share of revenues relative to its executives and shareholders (16). But the biggest mining houses in the platinum industry had enjoyed the years of the commodity boom which lasted until the great crash, during which time (international) shareholders gained extensively, earning very high rates of return on capital as compared to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange Top 40 (17).

The stormy class conflict in the platinum sector needs to be seen in this context. And it highlights more general trends and the failure, despite a plethora of ANC policy proposals, to actually tackle poverty, unemployment and inequality. This is in large part because, under South African neoliberalism, poverty reduction has been couched in ‘residual’ terms, and constrained by the needs of budget balancing (in quantity) as well as by the pervasive and inefficient implementation of New Public Management throughout the state (18). But a black capitalist elite has emerged, through corporate restructuring in and around the MEC, through the reallocation of mining rights and the gaining of tenders secured via access to the state (19). The latter range from large (e.g. the infamous ‘arms deal’, where Western arms companies promised billions of investment which never materialized) to tiny tenders, which play a key function of rent allocation (and class formation) at the local level (20). This new elite is not only as nondevelopmental as its white counterpart, it is embedded deep within ANC structures with Cyril Ramaphosa, former NUM leader, Lonmin executive, and now ANC Deputy President the most obvious case in point. (Ngoako Ramatlhodi, the minerals resources minister appointed just after the May election, was revealed to have R20 million of shares in a ‘Black, Economic Empowerment’ ‘partner’ of Anglo American Platinum, according to the Mail & Guardian (21)). Both the white and black elites have been served by the National Treasury and the South African Reserve Bank, which have promoted and extended neoliberalism in South Africa.


Political liberation, neoliberalism and fragmentation of labour


The battle to unseat apartheid took place in both factories and communities, with workers contesting despotic, racist workplaces. The emergence and formalization (through trade unions) of resistance to despotism on the factory shop floor spread throughout the country from the 1970s thanks to the development of black trade unions and extended to communities living in townships. There, struggles were fought, including consumer boycotts on goods or services provided by white-owned companies. This combination of productive and reproductive struggles retrospectively could be considered ‘social movement unionism’ (SMU) (22). SMU coalesced for a few years in the United Democratic Front (UDF), and succeeded in forcing the apartheid regime to negotiate a transition, while facilitating the return of the ANC to the fore of South African politics. But while the leaders of the ANC were negotiating the transition, and attempting to ensure an end to the flaring violence, they embraced, without ever saying so explicitly, the neoliberal orientation which had been adopted by the apartheid regime since the late 1970s at the insistence of the powerful conglomerates which own much of the South African economy.

Neoliberalism globally has entailed a restructuring of workplace relations that has led to greater labour casualization and has resulted in growing precariousness, all carried out in the name of the need for greater ‘flexibility’, though flexibility was an a posteriori reason given for the casualization of labour, since the term only emerged in the 1980s (23). The outsourcing of an ever-larger number of parts of production to third parties or contractors has been a key part of this neoliberal restructuring. In South Africa, where labourcapital relations were characterized by the racial despotism of apartheid, this restructuring has had specific effects. Racism involved both a high tolerance for labour squalor on the part of the employers, not unlike that described by Hobsbawm in the context of early industrialization in Manchester, and a very hands-on control over workers in the productive and reproductive spheres, most visible in mining. The rise of black unions, which first focused on unfair decisions by employers, in particular dismissals, contested the discretionary power of employers over the labour process and led employers to seek to reassert their authority. This authoritarian restoration has taken the form of outsourcing, though in a manner markedly more brutal than in the North, causing workers to experience an extreme precariousness reminiscent of the sweating system of the early industrial revolution.

This can be seen through the form taken by the task-based system of remuneration in the forestry sector. There, integrated forestry and forest product companies called grower-processors (GPs) have retained ownership of plantations while outsourcing all silviculture and harvesting from the mid-1980s. In so doing, they have put enormous pressure on contractors to do more with less, leading to the development of chain subcontracting, with a large section of producers operating informally. Pressure has been passed on to workers through unilateral increases in task levels, leaving many to work themselves to death chasing unrealistic task objectives. Many work on weekends to ‘make up’ for their inability to realize their individual objectives during the normal week; should they get sick, injured or exhausted – increasingly frequent albeit under-reported occurrences – they can seldom if ever get medical attention, nor dream of getting paid (or indeed keeping their job) if they miss a day’s work. The payment system indexed on ‘performance’ is obscure to most workers (as achievements are recorded unilaterally by employers); its beauty for capital is that the decline in individual productivity, caused by the brain drain of both foresters and experienced workers since the start of outsourcing, does not affect downstream profit levels because a less productive worker can be offset by other workers who only get paid for the accomplished labour.

This is not just the case in forestry, as similar processes have been observed in numerous sectors, from agriculture to mining, and across informalized activities. This explains the failure of attempts to build a ‘class compromise’ to improve productivity in South African workplaces. Such attempts, inspired by the corporatist intent of the post-apartheid industrial relations framework as well as by the then-popular ‘flexible specialization’ approach, alienated both unions, who were unwilling to be superseded by apolitical works’ councils, as well as capital, which was reluctant to relinquish power over the labour process, resorting instead to increased outsourcing which undermined the very basis of co-management (24).

This response by capital was made easier by the existence of the enormous reserve army of labour which exists as a consequence of the structure of the economy, dominated by the MEC core of capital-intensive sectors, but then reinforced further by rising unemployment, first as a result of trade liberalization and then second by the effects of the global economic crisis compounded by regional poverty and economic crisis, notably in neighbouring Zimbabwe. The result has been a crisis of labour casualization with a marked shrinking of the ‘core’ permanent workforce and the spread of subcontracting throughout the economy. This of course had a knock-on effect on labour’s ability to organize and respond, for the fragmentation of workers dents trade union power. That trade unions which were formerly militant and resilient failed so badly to respond to this attack, albeit common by international standards, was surprising in South Africa. The undermining of workers’ rights through the use of third party employers has recently received much attention. COSATU demanded the banning of labour brokers ahead of the 2009 elections although this was to become one of Jacob Zuma’s many forgotten promises.

As elsewhere around the world, the fragmentation of labour is the prime challenge for the building of a credible progressive project driven by trade unions. Can NUMSA succeed in rebuilding working-class unity in a context of growing fragmentation? The accusation of representing a ‘labour aristocracy’, made up of the shrinking core of protected MEC workers unwilling to risk embracing the cause of casual workers, seems unfair when applied to NUMSA. The union has been proactive in the sectors where it is present to leverage its bargaining power to improve and equalize the conditions of workers of all status – whether directly or indirectly employed. In spite of some victories, the challenge remains paramount, as the struggle is far from won even in the core automotive sector (where a number of employers have recently relocated to neighbouring countries), and cannot be limited to these. It is therefore crucial to look at struggles from below alongside struggles from above (for instance around policy orientation) in order to generate the inclusive working-class strength and legitimacy necessary to fight a dominant and confident capitalist class closely aligned – and intertwined – with the state. There are positive signs in this regard, from the commitment to value chain organizing, which holds the potential to link struggles which have been atomized as a result of productive restructuring (and at times poor union strategy), to the insistence on the building of a broad progressive front from below.


From the Marikana moment to the NUMSA moment


The context of present developments then is one of high unemployment and extensive labour casualization, ongoing township protest over service delivery and waves of workers’ struggle, with inequality endemic – a South Africa with ‘a “world-class” business centre surrounded by human misery … to a significant extent a product of post-apartheid government’ (25). It is not surprising that it is mining which has provided a series of key flashpoints, given how central it has been to the history of capitalism in South Africa, but also to union organization and to the liberation movement as a whole. As we saw above, mining has highlighted key issues: the financialized nature of accumulation, corporate unbundling and internationalization; rewards to both domestic and international finance as an important source of deepening inequality; and also the rise of labour broking and the fragmentation of labour (26). Corporate control of mining has gone through extensive restructuring, but while black capital has made inroads, much colonial and apartheid era capital remains in control, with new multinational entrants such as Glencore/Xstrata now important players in coal and also platinum. But it was the Marikana massacre, and the strike wave of which it was part, which shined the spotlight not only on the poor pay and working conditions of miners, but also the failure to provide an adequate alternative to what might be called the ‘classic’ Migrant Labour System (which dominated labour recruitment from the 1920s to the late 1970s) and how these factors have combined with the general failures in social and economic infrastructure provision around housing and health and education across the mining areas and South Africa more generally (27).

The Migrant Labour System was established by the mining-finance houses, initially in gold, both to ensure its labour supply and to drive out the private recruitment companies which extracted heavy fees from the mining companies. It entailed both racialized workplace organization and a regional system of labour recruitment that drew in labour from across southern Africa, allowed for infrequent visits home and saw workers housed in compounds which acted as a means of labour control, but also, latterly, provided an important site of union organizing (28). This classic form began to break down from the 1970s onwards as gold price rises increased demand for labour and as Mozambique (which gained independence in 1974) and Malawi became less willing sources of supply, so forcing mine bosses to increase wages in order to attract South African labour (29). More fundamental change was resisted up until the 1980s, however, when labour militancy profoundly challenged mine labour regimes. Mine bosses used layoffs and casualization through labour broking to try to discipline labour, outsourcing ‘non-core’ functions. Mining houses began to mix long and short distant migration, and introduce new company housing schemes (30). Increasingly the option to take a ‘living out’ allowance and leave the compounds was introduced, negotiated by NUM, but in the absence of adequate housing provision by either the public or the private sector, this has seen many mineworkers opting to live in ‘the shacklands’ surrounding the mines, often supporting two families (one in the mining area and one in rural areas). Given how the structure of the economy is so skewed, and how deep is unemployment, mineworkers’ wages play a central role in supporting un/under-employed dependents in areas of rural destitution such the Eastern Cape, with one mineworker in South Africa now supporting ten other people. Many mineworkers are also increasingly indebted thanks to the unsecured lending of the ‘Mashonisas’ and other sectors of South Africa’s liberalized financial system (31).

Forrest points to how the reconfiguration of the Migrant Labour System then combined with post-apartheid legislation to produce contradictory effects (32). The Minerals Resources and Petroleum Development Act and the Immigration Act of 2002 both emphasized the need for local recruitment of labour and required mining companies to pay special levies if recruiting from overseas. This has further increased short distance migration, though the distances involved may still be hundreds of kilometres. The Bafokeng also challenged mining rights on its land and won an agreement with Impala Platinum to prioritize local labour. Workers get round the definitions however, with retrenched ‘migrants’ often gaining work through labour brokers as ‘locals’. And while the increasing penetration of labour brokers into mining has undermined pay, conditions and union bargaining, it has also eroded the monopoly position of the historic mining recruitment house, TEBA, which has diversified and now has its own financial services section, UBank, in which NUM is a major shareholder (33). This fracturing of the old recruitment system has also led to union corruption, with NUM officials being accused of gaining jobs for friends and relatives or taking bribes for jobs. The failure of NUM to contest the shareholder-driven accumulation of the mining houses has led to an explosion of resentment, and the rapid rise of AMCU, including the emergence of rank-and-file strike committees during the strike of 2012 (34). Moreover, the exposure of NUM intensified the divisions in COSATU, producing a sharp contrast in response to the massacre between COSATU affiliates, and in their ability to reflect critically about whether they too could face a meltdown in membership in the face of allegations of cosy relationships with employers, issues which affect both sides of the divide within COSATU (35).

And so the massacre at Marikana in August 2012 lies at the heart of all the issues under discussion. It revealed the intransigence of capital, the lengths to which the ANC was prepared to go to demonstrate its support for the mining houses, and the desperate struggle of workers against low pay and appalling conditions (in both mining and the rural areas). Subsequently, the ANC has hidden behind the ongoing nature of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry to avoid addressing the subject of the massacre substantively, a Commission which, whatever its final report says, has revealed the extraordinarily close collaboration between Lonmin, the police, the ANC and NUM during the course of the strike of 2012.

The emergence of AMCU is also a key feature of the present moment and one which is redrawing the map, at least in terms of industrial relations. For South African elites, the platinum workers’ strike was, amongst other things, an acute crisis of crisis management. The ANC leaders set up an emergency task team to bring about a settlement to the dispute – which failed to do so. The ANC leadership could no longer draw upon layers of loyalty to the ANC given AMCU’s painful emergence out of NUM, especially in the wake of the Marikana massacre. This was reflected in the vote for the EFF in the 2014 election; indeed, the ANC was the only political party not invited to attend the rally held in Marikana to mark the one-year anniversary of the massacre (every other political party in South Africa attended and addressed the crowds). AMCU’s emergence now opens up the possibility of regroupment within and between South Africa’s trade union federations alongside the political regroupment initiated by NUMSA.36 There is speculation that NUMSA and AMCU may now form some kind of alliance, particularly as NUMSA has stated it will organize mineworkers. There are obstacles to such an alliance, but if NUMSA is expelled from COSATU, as is widely predicted, this increases the likelihood of regroupment at the level of union federations and possibly the formation of a new national federation.

The process is fraught with difficulties, with the possibility of many dirty tricks in recruitment battles and even of more killings than we have seen already in mining. NUM is hoping to rise again in platinum, which may have been a distinct possibility if the AMCU strike had been defeated. A further tumultuous period for union organizing in the mines is likely in any case, particularly given that platinum mining houses are threatening major restructuring in the wake of the strike and as a consequence of new plans for mechanization. AMCU and NUMSA both now represent important groups of workers at the core of the MEC. The Alliance must know that it is facing the prospect of important battalions being outside its influence and control. The employers know this too, and have made it clear that an important reason the platinum producers do not wish to relent on the demand for R12,500 was the fear that it would spread – initially to gold where AMCU also has a presence (though it is a minority union), but then to other sectors of mining and beyond (37). This is now being referred to in the press as ‘the Marikana effect’ – new demands for a living wage and for a closing of the historic wage gap coming from rank-and-file workers. Mineworkers’ demands for a living wage were reflected in NUMSA’s negotiating processes, with union members objecting to the usual percentage wage increases (38). The extent to which the difficulties involved in building new alliances between metal workers and mineworkers can be overcome will be a critical determinant of what lies ahead.


Challenges facing the NUMSA project


The stakes are high for all concerned. NUMSA faces a number of serious challenges in its attempt to build a new movement for socialism in South Africa. Aside from the international opposition an endeavour like this is bound to attract if it shows sign of success (an issue which we will not focus on in this article), there are difficulties within South Africa. NUMSA’s approach to a movement for socialism is explicitly inclusive of all progressive forces. The union’s Deputy General Secretary Karl Cloete says, ‘We want to attract all those who have a left agenda – period’ (39). This is at odds with the attitude of sections of the Alliance towards the many social movements fighting the commercialization of basic services which have challenged the ANC since the late 1990s, and which have been excluded, dismissed (as ‘ultra-left’ by former President Mbeki) and often targeted by police violence. However, NUMSA is not a social movement but a trade union with strong roots in industrial workplaces and a tradition of democratic control by workers (40). It intends to remain focused on industrial struggles, even while it hopes to champion a new movement for socialism. This entails some tensions around its legitimacy, and not least in a context where unemployment, underemployment and casualization have become pervasive.

NUMSA is aiming to build on discussions to ‘mobilise and conscientize’ the working class as part of building left organization to advance the struggle for socialism. NUMSA is comfortable with a Marxist discourse which situates class struggle at the heart of the analysis of capitalism and the practice of building socialism, whatever questions may arise over how this us understood. Many on the South African left had come to criticize such an approach, partly because of their disillusionment with established left parties, in particular the SACP. However an important feature of the present is the support NUMSA’s call has received from many of those associated with social movements, with criticism more likely to be about the slow pace of progress and implementation of NUMSA’s resolutions rather than about the goals themselves. Combined with the democratic approach promoted by NUMSA, drawing on its impressive level of internal democracy, this holds a crucial promise for progressive politics in South Africa and beyond. Of course, NUMSA will still also have to deal creatively and inclusively in its relationship with social movements, which have flourished in South Africa, achieving important, if often temporary, victories. Yet social movements, for all their achievements, have dramatically failed in sustaining and growing movements which could challenge neoliberalism, let alone capitalism.

That said, some have asked whether NUMSA has done ‘an assessment of the appropriateness of the trade union form in the context of the changing working-class under neoliberalism’ (41). The big question, however, with regards to a trade union’s ability to mobilize for broad social change hinges on how we understand ‘the working class’. If the latter is seen as limited to workers employed and unionized, then its shrinking size may justify recent claims that movements which focus on reproductive issues, especially through the contestation of commodified basic services, may offer a broader base for struggle (42). But it also important to keep in mind the limitations of these movements as agents of transformation. It is furthermore important to challenge the notion that the ‘working class’ can be understood in such narrow terms, or sub-divided between proletariat and precariat (43). Notions of an increasingly fragmented working class, from which the poor are sometimes excluded (if not outright opposed to workers) have flourished, not least in South Africa, since the 1970s (44). Today, they reflect a ‘counter-movement’ away from a focus on unemployment as the key socioeconomic indicator towards a renewed interest in ‘poverty’, whether multi-dimensional, chronic or otherwise described (45). In South Africa, as in many parts of the world, many people are employed and poor. Indeed, labour squalor (mostly affecting blacks) has always been a constitutive feature of southern African capitalism (46).

But what matters politically today is that the victory of the Tripartite Alliance against apartheid has been associated with deepening labour casualization. In spite of the presence of COSATU and the SACP in the ruling coalition, workers are losing ground in the class struggle in South Africa. It is indeed in this light that the fragmentation of the working class ought to be understood. Neoliberalism is the result of deliberate strategies by capital to weaken the power of organized labour, and trade unions in South Africa often have failed to respond to the onslaught, and particularly to the rise of ‘labour brokers’ across the economy. But while this has fostered pessimism regarding trade unions’ progressive potential, the response to capitalist divide-and-rule strategies cannot stem from an acceptance of their consequence (a fragmented working class), but from rebuilding an inclusive approach to the working class (47).

What is striking in South Africa is that, in spite of a limited albeit muchadvertised social grant programme, survival still hinges on the wages of those who are separated from the means of production and depend on access to wage labour for their reproduction. This takes two complementary forms: the importance of access to (often casual and poorly paid) wage labour for the survival of the poorest; and the prevalence of wage transfers within kin networks, as we pointed to with mineworkers, which explain why many share the same class identity regardless of their individual occupational status (48). Class identities in South African townships are shaped by ‘dependence on employment and the mixing of worlds of work at the household level and over the lifetime of an individual’ (49). The casualized nature of the labour market in South Africa means that the same individual is likely to experience alternate periods of unemployment and employment, the same affecting other members of one’s extended family. Indeed, in spite of the weakening of organized labour, working-class consciousness and activism is incredibly resilient in South Africa. This is not only true in mining but also in agriculture, a sector where formal union organizing is extremely weak (50). This labour activism, which is of course an essential part of the (hitherto scattered) ‘rebellion of the poor’, represents a crucial opportunity for NUMSA, and its ability to draw on it and give it organizational support will be critical to its success. NUMSA is indeed intending to build on movements wherever they exist, in workplaces or communities, in a spirit of raising class consciousness (51).

Whether or not NUMSA, and a workers’ party formed in the not too distant future, can successfully challenge South African neoliberalism, will depend on the outcome of a whole series of immediate challenges, which will determine what kind of an organization is born, what forces it will bring under its umbrella and what sort of party it will be. First and foremost is the question of the degree of support for NUMSA and the extent to which the rest of the Alliance can succeed in isolating NUMSA and its allies. NUMSA is likely to attract the vehement opposition of both capital and the ANCcontrolled state; the resources available to counter the new movement for socialism are far greater than those available to build it. Furthermore, it is likely that the SACP will attempt to discredit NUMSA by proposing its own blueprint for the elusive ‘second stage’ of the National Democratic Revolution, as it is now dubbed. The vitriolic debates which have already occurred between NUMSA’s Irvin Jim and the SACP’s Jeremy Cronin are likely only to increase in number and intensity.

Second, there is the question of the future trajectory of COSATU. The stance to be taken by the left unions and the many socialists within the federation is at this stage unclear. NUMSA’s ability to hold firm and carry out its ambitious programme of movement-building will hinge on the success of its grassroots mobilization of workers; but it will also depend on the alliances it will forge with those social movements disillusioned with the ANC and other unions. NUMSA’s day of action on 19 March 2014 against the youth wage subsidy was well supported by its own members as well as by some social movement activists. But it was not supported by other left unions within COSATU. If a divide opens up between them and NUMSA, it will weaken the movement and any future party. If NUMSA is expelled from COSATU, the response of the other left unions will be critical, and so will the stance of COSATU general secretary Vavi – which will inevitably also raise the question of whether Vavi will join a new left organization. If he were to do so, he would strengthen its ability to reach out to workers and others disillusioned with ANC policy, but also – very significantly – to rank-and-file supporters of the SACP, of which he is a leading member with a strong base (52).

Third, there is the question of how what is being done now will impact on what sort of party is to be built. The likelihood of a new party looking more like the (early period) Brazilian PT would be increased if the above scenario with Vavi unfolds. Paradoxically, the more broadly based and successful a new party is, the more parliamentary it is likely to be, with less emphasis on class struggle from below. The union is undertaking ‘fact finding’ missions, looking at the international left – Venezuela, Brazil, Germany, Greece as well as historical experiences such as that of Solidarity in Poland. There is also much to be learned about why so many traditional social democratic parties have rejected socialism and embraced neoliberalism, as has the ANC in South Africa, while largely retaining union political support (53). But there are not only many different experiences, there are many different possible narratives of, and conclusions from, these different experiences. A lot is to be learned in a short space of time.

The fact that the current contestation in South Africa, driven by a radical union and involving a growing number of workers, combines a powerful counter-movement to neoliberalism with a socialist political vision is of global significance. The scale of the task is great. The class struggle in South Africa today is turbulent and intensely fought. Should the NUMSA initiative fail, the left in South Africa is likely to be put back decades. But the past achievements of the South African working class, alongside the bold steps taken by NUMSA so far, provide grounds for optimism. What is taking place in South Africa today shows considerable potential for once again inspiring the left around the world.






We would like to thank Ben Fine, Salim Vally and Karl von Holdt for their comments on this article in draft.


(1) For a detailed analysis of what the settlement means for different grades see Gilad Isaacs, ‘Who Won the Platinum Strike? The Figures Speak’, available at

(2) For example, Gwede Mantashe, the secretary general of the ANC (and former secretary general of NUM and former chairperson of the SACP), suggested that the platinum strike was ‘political’ (meaning aimed at the ANC) because AMCU is supported by ‘white foreign nationals’.

(3) Following the election, Zuma appointed Senzeni Zokwana, NUM president at the time of the Marikana massacre and SACP national chairperson, to his new cabinet as Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Zokwana was immediately engulfed in scandal when City Press revealed that he pays his personal cattle herder just R26 a day (about US $2), that the cattle herder works seven days a week and that he lives in a dilapidated iron shack. The minimum wage for farm workers is R558 a week. Business Day claimed last year that Zokwana earned R1.2 million a year as NUM President though others claim that the figure is higher. SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande defended Zokwana by arguing that ‘Comrade Zokwana is a mine worker who is not paid an executive’s salary’. Zokwana later agreed to increase the worker’s pay.

(4) Leonard Gentle, ‘Forging a New Movement: NUMSA and the Shift in South Africa’s Politics’, The South African Civil Society Information Service, 28 January 2014, available at

(5) NUMSA, ‘NUMSA Views on The State of Class Struggles in South Africa and the Crisis in COSATU’, available at

(6) For a discussion of some of these issues see Dale T. McKinley, ‘Labour and Community in Transition: Alliances for Public Services in South Africa’, Municipal Services Project, Occasional Paper No. 24, June 2014.

(7) Ben Fine and Zavareh Rustomjee, The Political Economy of South Africa: From Minerals-Energy Complex to Industrialization, London: Hurst, 1996.

(8) Murray Liebbrandt, Ingrid Woolard, Arden Finn and Jonathan Argent, ‘Trends in South African Income Distribution and Poverty Since the Fall of Apartheid’, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 101, OECD Publishing, available at

(9) Sam Ashman, Ben Fine and Susan Newman, ‘The Crisis in South Africa: Neoliberalism, Financialization and Uneven and Combined Development’, Socialist Register 2011, Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2010, pp. 174-95.

(10) Fiona Tregenna, ‘How Significant is Intersectoral Outsourcing of Employment in South Africa?’, Industrial and Corporate Change, 19(5), 2010, pp. 1427-57.

(11) Milford Bateman, ‘From Magic Bullet to the Marikana Massacre: The Rise and Fall of Microcredit in Post-apartheid South Africa’, Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2012, available at:; Patrick Bond, ‘Debt, Uneven Development and Capitalist Crisis in South Africa: From Moody’s Macroeconomic Monitoring to Marikana Microfinance Mashonisas’, Third World Quarterly, 3(4), 2013, pp. 569-92.

(12) Sam Ashman and Ben Fine, ‘Neoliberalism, Varieties of Capitalism, and the Shifting Contours of South Africa’s Financial System’, Transformation, 81/82, 2013, pp. 144-78.

(13) Data from the Industrial Development Corporation, Stats South Africa and the Department of Mineral Resources.

(14) Simon Roberts, ‘Big steel? The South African Experience of Competition Law and Industrial Policy in Influencing Corporate Strategy and Outcomes in the Steel Industry’, unpublished manuscript, 2010.

(15) Neil Coleman, ‘Towards New Collective Bargaining, Wage and Social Protection Strategies in South Africa – Learning from the Brazilian Experience’, Global Labour University Working Paper, No. 17, 2013.

(16) In May 2014, in the midst of the strike, Amplats announced that bonuses for its top 12 executives would be worth up to R76.5 million. In response to media criticism, CEO Chris Griffith said: ‘I am not on strike. I’m not demanding to be paid what I am not worth’.

(17) Andrew Bowman and Gilad Isaacs, ‘Demanding the Impossible? Platinum Mining Profits and Wage Demands in Context’, Research on Money and Finance Occasional Policy Paper, No. 11, June 2014, available at

(18) See Nicolas Pons-Vignon and Aurelia Segatti, ‘“The Art of Neoliberalism”: Accumulation, Institutional Change and Social Order Since the End of Apartheid’, Review of African Political Economy, 40(138), 2013, pp. 507-18; and Carlos Oya ‘Ambiguities and Biases in the Definition and Identification of the “Poor”: Who is Missing? What is Missing?’, Afriche Orienti, Special Issue on Poverty II, 2009, pp. 34-51. The latter contrasts residual with relational approaches to poverty reduction: the former entail the idea that the poor lack something (capital or education typically) which should be provided to them, while orthodox policies will allow them to thrive. The latter focuses on relations of exploitation and inequality as constitutive of poverty.

(19) On mining rights see Gavin Capps, ‘A Bourgeois Reform with Social Justice? The Contradictions of the Minerals Development Bill and Black Economic Empowerment in the South African Platinum Mining Industry’, Review of African Political Economy, 39(132), 2012, pp. 315-33.

(20) Karl Von Holdt, ‘South Africa: The Transition to Violent Democracy’, Review of African Political Economy, 40(138), 2013, pp. 589-604.

(21) See ‘Mining minister’s platinum shares’, available at

(22) Karl Von Holdt, ‘Social Movement Unionism: The Case of South Africa’, Work, Employment and Society 16(2), 2002, pp. 283-304.

(23) Ben Fine, Labour Market Theory: A Constructive Reassessment, London: Routledge, 1998.

(24) Mark Hunter, ‘The Post-Fordist High Road? A South African Case Study’, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 18(1), 2000, pp. 67-90.

(25) Keith Hart and Vishnu Padayachee, ‘A History of South African Capitalism in National and Global Perspective’, Transformation, 81/2, 2013, pp. 55-85 (quote on p. 56).

(26) Interestingly, Thomas Piketty’s much discussed book Capital in the Twenty-First Century begins its examination of global inequality with a discussion of the Marikana massacre.

(27) Kally Forrest, ‘Rustenburg’s Fractured Recruitment Regime: Who Benefits?’, African Studies, published online 23 June 2014, availabel at; Sam Ashman and Ben Fine, ‘The Meaning of Marikana’, Global Labour Column, No. 128, March 2013, available at

(28) Alan H. Jeeves, Migrant Labour in South Africa’s Mining Economy: The Struggle for the Gold Mine’s Labour Supply, 1890-1920, Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1985; T. Dunbar Moodie, Going for Gold: Men, Mines and Migration, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

(29) Rob Davies et al., The Struggle for South Africa: A Reference Guide, Volumes I and II, London: Zed, 1988.

(30) Jonathan Crush, ‘Mine Migrancy in the Contemporary Era’, in J. Crush and W. James, eds., Crossing Boundaries: Mine Migrancy in a Democratic South Africa, Johannesburg: IDASA, 1995.

(31) Bateman, ‘From Magic Bullet to Marikana’; Bond, ‘Debt, Uneven Development and Capitalist Crisis’.

(32) Forrest, ‘Rustenburg’s Fractured Recruitment Regime’.

(33) Andries Bezuidenhout and Sakhela Buhlungu, ‘From Compounded to Fragmented Labour: Mineworkers and the Demise of Compounds in South Africa’, Antipode, 43(2), 2011, pp. 237-63.

(34) Luke Sinwell, ‘“AMCU by Day, Workers’ Committee by Night”: Insurgent Trade Unionism at Anglo Platinum (Amplats) Mine, 2012-2014’, Review of African Political Economy, forthcoming.

(35) NUMSA, to its credit, has reflected openly on whether it too could face problems associated with bureaucratization, passing a resolution at its Special Congress in 2013 which said, ‘as NUMSA we sincerely believe that as a union we are not immune from the mass desertion by members of a traditional union to a new union’. The union also condemned the massacre as ‘a well-planned and orchestrated strategy by the state to defend the profits of the mining bosses’.

(36) At present there are four union federations in South Africa. Alongside COSATU, which is the biggest (with approximately 1.8 million workers affiliated), there is FEDUSA (500,000), NACTU (400,000) and CONSAWU (290,000). NACTU, to which AMCU is now affiliated, has its roots in the black consciousness movement and it has links to the (politically marginal) Pan Africanist Congress.

(37) Terry Bell, labour analyst, radio interview, June 2014.

(38) NUMSA demonstrations in July 2014 saw workers carry placards saying ‘We demand 15 per cent – Marikana 2’ ; ‘Fifteen percent or Marikana is on the way’; and ‘Prepared to continue for six months fighting’.

(39) Karl Cloete, NUMSA Deputy General Secretary, interview, Johannesburg, 30 May 2014.

(40) Kally Forrest, Metal That Will Not Bend: The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, 1980-1995, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2011.

(41) Leonard Gentle, ‘Forging a New Movement’; and see also Leonard Gentle, ‘What About the Workers? The Old is Dead, the New is Emerging’, The South African Civil Society Information Service, 12 June 2014, available at

(42) See for instance Peter Evans ‘Counter-Hegemonic Globalization: Transnational Social Movements in the Contemporary Global Political Economy’, in T. Janoski, A. Hicks and M. Schwartz, eds., Handbook of Political Sociology, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 655-70; and for a critique see Michael Burawoy, ‘From Polanyi to Pollyanna: The False Optimism of Global Labor Studies’, Global Labour Journal, 1(2), 2010, pp. 301-13.

(43) Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury, 2011; and for a critique see Jan Breman, ‘A Bogus Concept?’, New Left Review, 84(November/December), 2013.

(44) Nicoli Nattrass and Jeremy Seekings, Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa, London: Yale University Press, 2005.

(45) For a historical discussion see M. Wuyts, ‘Inequality and Poverty as the Condition of Labour’, paper presented at UNRISD workshop on ‘The Need to Rethink Development Economics’, Cape Town, 7-8 September 2001.

(46) Giovanni Arrighi, ‘Labour Supplies in Historical Perspective: A Study of the Proletarianization of the African Peasantry in Rhodesia’, Journal of Development Studies, 6, 1970, pp. 197-234.

(47) Franco Barchiesi, Precarious Liberation: Workers, the State, and Contested Social Citizenship in Postapartheid South Africa, Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2011.

(48) John Sender, ‘Women’s Struggles to Escape Poverty in South Africa’, Journal of Agrarian Change, 2(1), 2002, pp. 1-49.

(49) Claire Ceruti, ‘A Proletarian Township: Work, Home and Class’, in Peter Alexander et al., Class in Soweto, Scottsville: UKZN Press, 2013, pp. 96-126 (quote on p. 123).

(50) NALEDI (National Labour and Economic Development Institute), ‘Identifying Obstacles to Union Organizing in Farms: Towards a Decent Work Strategy in the Farming Sector’, report for the Department of Labour, 2011; see also Jesse Wilderman, ‘Farm Worker Uprising on the Western Cape: The Spark, Spread, and Structure of Spontaneous Collective Action’, Masters research report, Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, 2014.

(51) Interview with Karl Cloete.

(52) Concomitantly, the ANC knows the gains it could make were Vavi to remain within the Alliance, and rumours abound that he has already been offered a senior ANC post to try to ensure this.

(53) Aurelia Segatti and Nicolas Pons-Vignon, ‘Stuck in Stabilisation? South Africa’s Post-apartheid Macro-economic Policy Between Ideological Conversion and Technocratic Capture’, Review of African Political Economy, 40(138), 2013, pp. 537-55.