An initial version first published on Fin24
Despite media claims to the contrary there is no move by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) to start a political party. What the union plans to organise is a series of “socialist consultative conferences” in the nine provinces of South Africa— and this is in line with a 21-year-old Cosatu decision that has apparently never been rescinded.
The jargon used at the Numsa press conference at which general secretary Irvin Jim referred to the establishment of a united front or movement that may in future contest elections was the probably cause of media confusion. Neither a movement nor the more formal united front is a political party in the traditional sense. Both are groupings of individuals and organisations that share broadly common aims.
Twenty years ago, Cosatu, then headed by general secretary Mbhazima Shilowa, staged the first national — and so far only — formal “socialist conference”. Delegates from trade unions and from various leftwing groups met at the Shaft 17 centre in Johannesburg to debate what was meant by socialism and how best to achieve such a future.
This gathering constituted the beginnings of a movement and Cosatu pledged to consolidate this by organising a series of similar conferences in all provinces. Among the debates were whether a united front of independent organisations sharing common aims should be formed or whether a political party in the traditional sense was necessary.
The Cosatu pledge was never fulfilled, largely because the SA Communist Party (SACP) was regarded by most Cosatu leaders at the time as the only necessary socialist organisation. In any event the drive for socialist conferences was overtaken by the euphoria of the 1994 election. What Numsa has done now, is effectively to resurrect that initial Cosatu decision.
The union has committed itself to staging a “consultative conference” in each province to which groups interested in a “socialist future” will be invited. This is planned to culminate in a national conference of delegates drawn from the provincial meetings.
Such a gathering, constituted as a movement or a more formal united front, could decide to establish a formal structure to contest elections. This could be a political party in the traditional sense or it could remain a united front that agrees on a common programme for elected representatives. Such representatives may also be both accountable and recallable by their constituencies.
The sitting Cosatu leadership has responded at length in what amounts to an argument that the SACP, linked to the ANC-led alliance, remains the “only road to socialism”; that the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) is the signpost.