Terry Bell: How will workers vote in 2019?

While there has been much media debate about what "black middle-class" voters will do today, there has been nothing about where the votes of unionised workers may go.

Perhaps because it is assumed that, in terms of labour voting patterns, nothing much has changed in the 25 years since the transition from apartheid.

Then it was clear that the members of the trade unions organised under the umbrella of the Cosatu federation were, with very few exceptions, solidly behind the ANC. And Cosatu was, far and away, the largest organised grouping within the labour movement.

Members of the smaller anti-apartheid federation, the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), if they did not put their crosses beside the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) could also be assumed to vote for the ANC. And among the unions affiliated to what became the Federation of Unions (Fedusa), while there was no clear political linkage, it was widely assumed that most members supported the ANC in the transitional elections of 1994.

Among the trade unions that supported apartheid and that later became Solidarity, there was considerable anger at what was seen as the "betrayal" of the once dominant National Party. Members of this group, if they did not abstain in 1994, probably voted for the Freedom Front (now FF+).

The former Parliamentary opposition under apartheid, the Democratic Party, now the Democratic Alliance (DA) clearly found no favour with union members at the time of the first democratic poll. But, in the intervening 25 years, much has changed across the board and the political situation is as volatile within organised labour as anywhere else.

Today Cosatu is a shadow of its former self, weakened by job losses, factionalism and fragmentation. The SA Communist Party (SACP), like Cosatu, allied to the ANC, still exerts considerable political influence, among its larger affiliates of the federation.

Cosatu and its affiliates are bound, by a conference resolution, to regard the SACP as "the workers’ party". This means that, so long as the SACP remains allied to the ANC, so too must Cosatu and its affiliates.

Partly as a result of disgruntlement with the alliance, there have been demands from within both the federation and the SACP for "the Party" to contest elections. However, in the months leading up to the 2019 poll, alliance unity has been the dominant call.

But there is evidently considerable disquiet within the ranks of Cosatu, and this may lead to more abstentions from voting rather than support for another party. There could, however, be some support, for the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) set up by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa).

The largest union

The largest union in the land, with probably more than 330 000 members, Numsa is a core affiliate of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), headed by former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Saftu has not declared support for any one party, although leading figures in the federation are on the Parliamentary list of the SRWP.

It also seems likely that members of other Saftu affiliates, especially those in the other large breakaway from Cosatu, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) will come out to vote for the SRWP.

A number of members of the tiny socialist groupings within the labour movement, although expressing reservations about the authoritarian — "Stalinist" — nature of the SRWP have also indicated support.

Should these union members and others on the "Left" cast their votes for the "Numsa union", the SRWP could gain more than 500 000 votes. Whatever happens, this newest party on the Parliamentary block should have a presence in the 2019 Parliament.

However, there are many unionists angry with the ANC, and the influence they maintain the SACP wields, who are also not prepared to support what they see as "SACP Mark 2" (the SRWP). Where they do not abstain, their votes may go to the DA.

Lesser of evils?

At a provincial level, especially in the Western Cape and, perhaps to a lesser extent, KZN, some traditional ANC votes from within the labour movement could go to, respectively, the DA and the Inkatha Freedom Party. Several trade union and ANC stalwarts in the Western Cape have indicated that they will "hold my nose and vote DA" in the province.

They quote this as the "lesser of evils". But most will still vote ANC nationally in the hope of "strengthening Cyril Ramaphosa". There seems to be a similar sentiment at play within KZN.

EFF and labour

Currently the third largest Parliamentary party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) does not seem to have made much headway with organised labour. But this party has clearly gained substantial support among mainly young ununionised and unemployed workers. 

Solidarity, a professed Christian and nationalist union whose members are "mainly Afrikaners", has increased its membership over the past decade to perhaps 130 000. These unionists are unlikely to abstain, and their votes will almost certainly go to the FF+.

The 'gatvol factor'

But abstention, along with — to a much lesser extent — the "plague on all your houses" tactic of spoiling the ballot papers may be quite pronounced among trade unionists. This is the "gatvol factor" in play.

The only other party list headed by a former leading trade unionist, African Democratic Change (ADeC), was established by former ANC Parliamentarian Makhosi Khoza, who has now resigned from the party. The president of ADeC is Moses Mayekiso, the founding general secretary of Numsa.

The party with most former trade unionists on its Parliamentary list is the ANC, while a former president of Cosatu, Willie Madisha, who entered Parliament as a member of the Congress of the People (COPE) remains on this party’s list.

Voter turnout

Given the large number of voters who chose not to register, the perhaps 250 000-plus who have not collected their IDs and the number who are likely to abstain, a turnout today of much more than 70% is unlikely.

There may, once again, be more than a dozen parties in Parliament, including the union-based SRWP, and the government will again represent the votes of a minority of the total electorate.

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