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Are developments in NUMSA moving towards an emancipatory project?

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Are developments in NUMSA moving towards an emancipatory project?

Prof Raymond Suttner

5th February 2014

By: Raymond Suttner

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NUMSA’s withdrawal of electoral support for the ANC will have a dramatic effect not only on NUMSA and COSATU, but also for the future of the ANC-led alliance.   Insofar as the government is led by the ANC, it may also affect perceptions of government stability inasmuch as its support base becomes fragile.

That the biggest COSATU union makes such a decision is very significant.  It is linked to other issues, including failure by COSATU’s president to operate constitutionally and call a special congress over suspension of COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.

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This may not have a significant impact on ANC’s electoral performance. NUMSA is not advising members to vote for any party, though it will not contribute financially or campaign for the ANC.   It may be that Numsa members will still vote for the ANC this year. Nevertheless if they do not assist in the campaign that could have a significant effect on the ANC’s fortunes. This is because COSATU members have tended to be important in electoral campaigning of ANC branches. 

But Numsa advances more ambitious goals beyond elections, although it may include an electoral impact. In the short run it is consulting a range of organisations to develop a united front, similar to the United Democratic Front of the 1980s.  While these organisations may be concerned with diverse issues, beyond that of trade unions, there is a very definite working class emphasis: the discourse is suffused with anti-capitalism and linked to Marxist-Leninism.  Current developments have been preceded by bitter exchanges over Marxism with the SACP, which evokes anger in NUMSA through its perceived absorption into the Zuma project.

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The road to a united front is seen as potentially leading to a workers’ party. This debate has repeatedly surfaced for decades within unions.  It may be that such a party would contest elections.  However, if such a party is formed, the aim would be to contest the 2019 elections.

Challenging ANC political dominance could be a positive development-enhancing debate, but when something crashes, as the alliance may well do, we need to be sure that what follows is emancipatory.

Immediately there is a problem in that the call for a broad united front is joined with a narrow emphasis on the working class and anti-capitalism.  This is markedly different from the UDF, which recognised, as did the ANC that those who suffered under apartheid were not only workers but also a range of people in various sectors in society.  That was why national liberation was seen as a central goal.  The need to address all who experience historical or contemporary oppression persists to this day and that is why the bill of rights refers to a range of rights that relate to the wellbeing of people who have often been denied shelter, rights to dignity, gender equality, freedom from police violence, freedom of sexual orientation and a number of other rights.  In practice, while freedom from racist insults may lead to energetic prosecution in most cases, women, children and other vulnerable people who are raped do not receive the level of protection from police and the courts enshrined in the bill of rights. 

Equally freedom of sexual orientation is not a right that can be enjoyed with security.  People who dare to deviate from ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ may find themselves attacked or subjected to ‘corrective rape’, without vigorous police response.

NUMSA is silent on gender and sexuality. This is all the more problematic in the light of their indifference to Vavi’s unequal sexual relationship in the work place. 

NUMSA conceives a united front narrowly, not only because it is gender blind and uninterested in sexuality rights but also because the framing of its unity within Marxist-Leninist discourse immediately excludes many concerned citizens.  In some respects it may be seen as an attempt to dismiss national liberation, made explicit by one of its backers, the Democratic Left Front.  

A unity that is needed now is one that joins together a range of people who may not agree at this point on long-term socio- economic issues like socialism.  It needs to join people who share a belief in constitutionalism, who believe in the need to resolve differences and settle issues through reasoning and non-violent action.  It should be a unity that urgently addresses the constitutional right to have basic needs met so that people do not continue to live in dehumanised conditions. A unity is needed to halt diversion of public monies from services to the poorest of the poor.  Many who rally behind such a banner may not be Marxists or see themselves as revolutionaries, but they are very unhappy about the present situation.  A united front that draws a line in the sand between those who are workers and those who are not, narrows its constituency and limits the power that can be unleashed to reclaim the gains of 1994 and take these further.

Professor Raymond Suttner, currently attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, was in the leadership of the United Democratic Front during the 1980s.  In 2010 he published the booklet, 'Crisis of South African liberation. In and beyond the Zuma Era.'

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