Faced with what appeared to be a veritable swamp of ideology at a “socialist movement” conference in Boksburg this month, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) has embarked on the process of creating a “Marxist, Leninist, revolutionary working class” political party. However, Numsa also facilitated the Boksburg conference, where representatives from 11 political groups or parties and a number of trade unionists and individuals made up the approximately 150 attendees.
Among the various groups were the nationalist Pan Africanist Congress and the Socialist Party of Azania, a breakaway from the Azanian People’s Organisation, along with representatives from several internationalist and avowedly Trotskyist groups and members of the SA Communist Party (SACP).
All that apparently united this disparate gathering was opposition to the present government and its economic orientation. Numsa, for its part, also continues to claim that its guiding principles are contained in the Freedom Charter of the ANC, a document the union’s first general secretary described as “bourgeois”. In fact, the 1987 congress of Numsa only accepted the Freedom Charter provisionally as a “minimum programme” that was subject to amendment.
However, the ANC and SACP both continue to lay claim to the Freedom Charter, with Numsa maintaining the former have deviated from its principles. In other words, as some unionists have commented, the proposal from Numsa is effectively reaching back to the past in order to proceed to the future. As one wag described it: “Offering ANC/SACP revised”.
But throughout the nearly two years of bitter infighting among members of the Cosatu federation, Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim has also consistently maintained that “trade unions are not political parties”; that Numsa might help to facilitate the formation of a workers’ party, but would remain separate from it. It would be “a catalyst”.
Statements in recent days seem to contradict this position, with the union claiming that its “Marxist-Leninist ideological perspectives” have caused it to “forge ahead with the establishment of an independent, revolutionary socialist workers political organ”.
However, to complete this task, the National Office Bearers have been mandated to “take forward this work through a structured internal discussion process”, through policy workshops and “international study tours”.
At the same time, the union remains committed to building a fundamentally community-based united front. It is scheduled to be formally launched at the end of June. Given this background, it is difficult not to see the commitment to a “workers’ party” along with a broad united front as a replication of the current — and governing — ANC-led alliance. But the crucial difference seems to be that the putative workers’ party would take the lead political role.