NUMSA: Left, Right, Out?

2014-10-27 21:52

The announcement, made late on Monday, that NUMSA would break away from COSATU and the ANC to form its own socialist party should come as no surprise. NUMSA’s battles within the labour federation (most notably with its historical rival, the Zuma-aligned NUM) and the ruling alliance (particularly with the Zuma faction, ostensibly on questions of ideology) have served as a generous forewarning that this was coming.

Further, in light of the EFF’s leftist populism gaining significant electoral support, and its subsequent domination of the political arena, NUMSA is hardly alone in thinking that it could replicate – and possibly better – the EFF’s success. Indeed, it may not be thinking that at all: rather, it could see itself as the union-affiliate that the EFF would need in order to truly rival the ANC’s reach and breadth. After all, both NUMSA and the EFF openly recognise their similar platforms despite making public denials of further cooperation having occurred between the two.

It is too early to tell whether NUMSA and the EFF will drift towards each other to form a left-leaning rival to the ANC. Some analysts will undoubtedly argue that this is the catalyst for the grand ideological realignment of South African politics that is often predicted. Contrarily, I would urge caution.

Firstly, the manoeuvres of splinter groups from the ANC are rarely driven by ideology. Rather, they are often a direct result of how factions within the ANC fare in intra-party battles. The patronage network that remains in place, and the federalised structure of the ANC which allows strong individuals to maintain fiefdoms, means that only in very limited circumstances – where a return from the political wilderness is virtually non-existent – will parties break away. The examples of the IFP (i.e. Buthelezi & Co.), COPE (i.e. Lekota & Co.), and the EFF (Malema & Co.) are all instructive: while disguised in ideology, the real motivation for departure was personal ambition. The rivalry of Irvin Jim and Jacob Zuma is no different. And any prospective alliance based on ideology will have to answer difficult questions that all NUMSA’s prospective partners have little real capacity to answer.

Secondly, NUMSA has announced that it was going it alone – not joining the EFF. That is significant because, even if they do eventually end up with the EFF, it signals that NUMSA has misgivings about (a) the party’s commitment to leftist ideology; and, (b) the power dynamic that would ensue between their respective leaderships. Irvin Jim is not going to leave the ANC to escape an obdurate Jacob Zuma only so that he would then have to deal with an obstinate Julius Malema. And neither would Malema want to have a situation he was only too happy with when he headed the ANCYL: the tail trying to wag the beast. Both sides must be patently aware of this – and the fact that the overtures are non-existent shows that. Realpolitik may suggest that joining forces could topple the ANC but, being schooled in the ways of factionalism – and particularly how short-term alliances can go awfully awry, NUMSA and the EFF are probably more keen to preserve themselves right now.

Thirdly, the commitment of both NUMSA and the EFF to genuinely rival the ANC remains to be seen. The lack of structures, proper financing, institutional capacity, and organisational strength, are tests that they will have to overcome. While the EFF does seem to be making some inroads in this regard, and NUMSA does have the benefit of already being a constituted union before it broke away, the fact that neither of them have functioned as fully-fledged political party for a long period of time is something that cannot be overlooked. Because, as Terror Lekota discovered, and Julius Malema did too to some extent, you can lead a factional battle within a party and face little opposition but that does not mean when you lead a party you will not be opposed by factions of your own. As COPE illustrates on one hand: the internal dynamic of the new organisation can either tear it asunder if it has no genuine programme in place; and, as the EFF demonstrates on the other: there can be a programme but it may come at the cost of internal democracy. In either case, the people who suffer most are those who lend their support (financial and otherwise) to the party they hope can save them.

While a degree of readjustment may occur so that the system attains some equilibrium, realignment is not yet truly on the cards. The divided and competing agendas of the left; the weakened, though still monopolistic, hold on power of the ANC; and a true test of electoral support for NUMSA (and indeed the EFF) are nowhere near serious enough that things will change too fundamentally. But, these games have only just begun and I for one will watch them closely.

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