Worst case scenario for SA

Posted on August 1, 2022


(First published in Maverick 168 on 30 July, 2022)

An “Arab Spring” threatens South Africa, former President Thabo Mbeki warned last week..  But he was wrong.  The threat the country faces is much more dangerous:  violent fragmentation fuelled by ethnic nationalisms — even potential civil war.  

That is the worst case scenario, which, if it is to be averted, a united trade union movement would have a major role to play.  Because unions, for all their faults, are fundamentally democratic organisations, their members embedded in communities, and that are, for the most part, examples of unity in diversity.

That is the view of several senior trade union leaders, including Karl Cloete, the former deputy general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa).  It was Numsa’s controversial and interdicted national congress that spluttered to an end in Cape Town’s International Convention Centre this week.  And it did so amid threats of its leaders being arrested for contempt of court.

The interdict was delivered by the Labour Court after an application brought by a group of Numsa officials who had been suspended by the union leadership.  This was held to have been contrary to the union’s constitution. Between 30 and 50 regional officials and shop stewards, labelled “rogue elements” along with the entire Mpumalanga region of the union were barred from attending the conference.

This legal backdrop provided a clear example of the difference between “Arab Spring” countries, especially Tunisia and Egypt where anger against dictatorships ignited popular uprisings aimed almost solely at toppling the governments.  South Africa remains a parliamentary democracy, but where state power is in disarray, with the governing ANC rent by factionalism and clearly losing support.  

Getting to parliament, into government or simply close to the feeding trough of state patronage is, therefore, the prime current domestic target, not only for existing political parties, but for a range of local opportunists, ideologues and idealists.  However, there is also evidence of possible external influence in support being channelled to local groups by foundations linked to China. and the United States.  

Controversially, Numsa was behind the creation and launch of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) that stood in the 2019 elections, with union general secretary Irvin Jim as its main candidate.  Although the union at the time had around 300,000 members, the SRWP garnered just 24,349 votes.  However, the SRWP still professes to be “the vanguard party of the working class” and is apparently seeking, despite official denials, links with the SACP.

Ideological rifts have now opened, with allegations of external interference and manipulation.  In the past, the Chinese Communist Party has provided funding to the South African Communist Party and the now China based former IT tycoon and professed socialist, Neville — “Roy” — Singham has close ties with Numsa.  He was also the donor behind the controversial recent closure of the New Frame internet publication.  Here is plentiful fuel for conspiracy theorists, along with the fact that the US is currently helping to upgrade South Africa’s army.

But whether funded or not, at a local political level, different groups are trying — along with established political parties — to find ways to mobilise the voting masses in order to at least gain seats in parliament.  Also to win perhaps a bit part in what seems certain to be the coalition government of the near future.

In several ways, the Numsa congress debacle brought into focus the variety of  machinations underway and the dangers, particularly of manipulation, fragmentation and the threat of violence that some of these pose.  The question of how the admitted R39 million bill for last week’s shambles has been financed was one of the answers being demanded by many Numsa members.

Among the costs was the hire of two companies of uniformed private security guards who kept tight control over every entrance and the foyer of the centre.  The union leadership maintains that they “fund raised” to pay for the congress.  But a 2018 investigation unearthed the fact that the union’s investment company had provided up to R20 million in “sponsorships”.  

Given this background, along with the relationship with Singham, Western Cape delegates who attended the interdicted gathering, demanded clarity about the financing and the state of the investment company.  When they received no answer, they walked out.

Some of these delegates were among those who questioned whether Sigham’s money — and his influence — was behind the tone of the statement in the introduction to the union’s secretariat report:  “The war the United States and its NATO Western Europeans allies are waging against Russia using Ukraine as a proxy…”

There is also more than a hint of paranoia, with an official Numsa statement castigating the media  and naming certain journalists as “enemies of the working class”.  The union also claims that a cabal of non-governmental organisations is plotting to take over the labour movement.

This incendiary rhetoric comes hot on the heels of the victory at the KZN ANC congress of the generally younger “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) faction that refers to itself as the “Taliban”.  They too refer to “enemies” in a province which has recorded the highest number among the rising rate of politically motivated assassinations.

The Taliban and the RET, although playing largely on ethnic nationalism, are  one of the groups battling for what some commentators have still called, ironically, the “soul” of the ANC.  But.for them, this is a soul that apparently needs to be under the guidance of Jacob Zuma.

Groups such as Defend our Democracy (DoD) also recognise that the ANC will likely fall below 50% of electoral support in 2024, and wish to rescue “our glorious movement”.  They look to the era of Thabo Mbeki and tend to cling to the image of a pre-Jacob Zuma past where mythical probity dominated.  

However, as numerous surveys have shown, increasing numbers of the voting public are disillusioned with not only the ANC, but with all established parliamentary parties.  In this environment, xenophobia has gained strong currency, with foreign African nationals at the moment still being the prime targets for groups such as Operation Dudula.  In only milder form, anti-foreigner sentiment is regularly used among several establishment politicians such as Herman Mashaba.

The third largest party in parliament, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), sometimes professing, almost in the same breath, Africanism, Pan-Africanism and Marxism, has also attempted to win inroads here as representing the “Left” and “socialism”.

In fact, undefined socialism seems to be the prime slogan among the various putative political alternatives that are emerging.  Even North West ANC strongman and former premier, Supra Mahumapelo, regarded as being close to the RET faction, this week called for “developmental socialism”.

It is a welter of jargon on one side and waffling promises on the other.  But no serious proposals to alleviate the increasing poverty, desperation and anger mentioned by Mbeki as the fuel for social and political conflagration.

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