Numsa's United Front: Forward to the Past?

By Jane Duncan · 19 Nov 2014

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Picture: Numsa
Picture: Numsa

The country’s largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), has expelled the National Union of Metalworkers’ of South Africa (Numsa), for not supporting the African National Congress (ANC). Anyone in South Africa who doesn’t know this news must have been living under a rock for the past week.

Numsa has been exploring political alternatives for the past year. In its December 2013 congress, it decided to launch a United Front to explore the development of a socialist movement, and time will tell if this movement will result in the establishment of a workers’ party.

In pursuing a United Front, the union claims to uphold socialist ideas in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, although it also recognises the importance of a diversity of political thought. But it also invokes received ideas from a particular tradition in liberation politics.

According to Numsa, South Africa has fallen victim to a peculiar form of colonialism, where the largely black working class was colonised internally by a largely white elite, and these exploitative relations continue to this day. This is unlike other classic colonies, where an external invading force colonises an indigenous population: hence the South African version being called Colonialism of a Special Type (CST).

In order to address this poisonous colonial legacy, Numsa has invoked another received idea, that of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). They argue that the continued existence of exploitative practices from apartheid to a democracy ‘…serve as clear evidence that the NDR as the most direct route to socialism, is completely off track, and in fact has been abandoned in favour of a capitalist post-apartheid South Africa’.

In order to break these cycles of exploitation, the union has called for the country to return to the NDR, guided by a very familiar and much revered document from South Africa’s history, the Freedom Charter, as a path towards a socialist society. But do these received ideas really offer the basis for an alternative socialist politics?

The NDR concept has a troubling history in liberation politics. In the 1920’s the Soviet bloc, through the Third Communist International (Comintern), developed the NDR as a national liberation programme for countries in the-then colonies, and transmitted it to all communist parties around the world as a one-size-fits-all approach to struggle. They argued that these countries had not developed productive forces and working classes that were sizeable enough to win socialism immediately.

The Comintern argued that any sustainable revolution in the colonies must pass through two stages. The first would be a national democratic stage, where a liberation movement would win basic democratic rights and freedoms or national liberation from colonial rule. This would be done through an alliance with the broadest range of forces across classes.

The resulting society would be non-capitalist. Once national democratic rights were won - which ostensibly created democratic space for more thoroughgoing transformation - then the movement would move onto the second stage, namely a socialist society.

Many independent socialists opposed this doctrinaire approach to struggle, which was not applicable to all situations. They argued that the broadness of the alliances forged in the struggle for the NDR would give the middle classes too much power, who risked derailing the transition by ensuring that the struggle would never move onto the second stage. They advocated for a diversity of approaches to struggle and programmatic independence.

Predictably, and as documented by Franz Fanon, many counties that followed this path to liberation never moved beyond the first stage, as the middle classes abandoned their former allies and cashed in on the opportunities that national liberation offered. In these situations, some of the basic democratic gains won in the first stage were reversed. Many of the socialists who opposed the Comintern’s directives were routed from mass organisations, and some were even killed.

The two-stage programme was particularly inappropriate for South Africa, as its productive forces were highly developed and its working class sizeable. However, under apartheid, the South African Communist Party (SACP) dutifully followed the Soviet line, and in fact continues to parrot it to this day to justify the continued existence of its hugely profitable alliance with the ANC.

It is unfortunate that Numsa is invoking a Stalinist path to socialism: a path that has been tried and shown to fail.

The CST analysis, which is also classic SACP doctrine, is also flawed as it misconstrues the nature of South African society. CST represented a tortured attempt by the SACP to shoe-horn the South African struggle into the Comintern’s dictates for colonial countries.

By arguing that racial divisions trumped all other, CST ignored the fact that the dominant relations in South Africa were capitalist. As a result, in practice, the SACP prioritised alliances with the black capitalist class over unity with the white working class, with the result that the former has benefited much more from the transition than the latter. By continuing to evoke this analysis, Numsa risks repeating these historical errors.

Then there is the question of the Freedom Charter, and its political character. It is not socialist, and cannot even be described as anti-capitalist, which is why sections of the trade union movement argued for the development of a Workers’ Charter in the 1980s. The document was meant to unite the broadest possible range of forces to oppose apartheid as the first phase of the struggle; as a result, it was left deliberately vague in strategic places.

The Freedom Charter contains basic democratic demands that no one in their right minds can disagree with, and many of these demands have been won. Yet it also fails to identify the social forces that are most likely to bring fundamental social change about. As a result, democratic rights are being enjoyed (although they are coming under pressure), while exploitation continues relatively unhindered. This means that while the Charter has huge symbolic value, it is a tenuous programme for contemporary struggles.

The Freedom Charter contained a highly problematic formulation on the national question, assuming that South Africa is divided into four national groups. It also states that ‘the land shall be shared among those who work it’, which could include small subsistence farmers and big commercial farming multinationals. Its pronouncements on nationalisation are not inherently radical, and it is silent on the need to move beyond nationalisation to socialisation.

At times in its history, the Freedom Charter has not been a unifying document. People were killed in the mid 1980’s for opposing the imposition of the document on mass organisations, including the trade union movement.  By asserting the Freedom Charter as a basis of a United Front, Numsa risks alienating various political currents that may otherwise be sympathetic to it.

Numsa has not been insensitive to these controversies around the Freedom Charter: its own history tells us that. Writing in 1987, the Azanian Labour Monitoring Group recounted the debates in Numsa about adopting of the Freedom Charter in the wake of the National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) adoption.

At the time, three motions were tabled at a Numsa conference: the first for the adoption of the Charter, the second for adoption with the qualification that the Charter was limited in outlook, and the third supporting the drafting of a Workers’ Charter. The third motion was adopted. When Cosatu held its second national congress in that year, a NUM resolution calling for the adoption of the Charter was passed, despite a contrary motion by Numsa.

It is important to reach back into the socialist movement’s rich political history and build new political organisations on the best it has to offer. But pursuing these politics using these received ideas may well lead to a repetition of the political dead ends that progressive politics strayed into, here and elsewhere.

Unavoidably, building an alternative politics means building alternative forms of political organisation, and an alternative language. Theoretical errors can lead to serious mistakes in the world of practical politics: mistakes that can (and have) cost lives.

The United Front and whatever political force it gives rise to cannot afford to allow Stalin to direct South African history from the grave. It needs to try and prevent, in the words of Marx, ‘…world historic facts and personages from repeating themselves, first as tragedy, second as farce’.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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Barry Saayman
19 Nov

Exit Strategy to Escape Racist and Communist NDR

>>"Then there is the question of the Freedom Charter, and its political character. It is not socialist, and cannot even be described as anti-capitalist..."

I think it must be very difficult for the privileged "colonialists of a special type" that supported the Freedom Charter of 1955 to come to grips with the reality that they will also be disowned, because that is the objective of the liberation war/struggle.

This is what the self-conflicting FC states and if it is not communist rhetoric then I don't know what communism is-

"The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole".

This is how the Founding Manifesto of the Economic Freedom Fighters interprets the Freedom Charter-

"30. The EFF appreciates the role played by the fathers and mothers of South Africa's liberation movement. The EFF draws inspiration from the radical, working class interpretation of the Freedom Charter, because, since its adoption in 1955, there have been various meanings given to the Freedom Charter. The EFF's interpretation of the Freedom Charter is one which says South Africa indeed belongs to all who live in it, and ownership of South Africa's economic resources and access to opportunities should reflect that indeed South Africa belongs to all who live in it. The EFF's interpretation of the Freedom Charter is that which says the transfer of mineral wealth beneath the soil, monopoly industries and banks means nationalisation of mines, banks and monopoly industries.

31. The EFF's interpretation of the Freedom Charter also accepts that while the state is in command and in control of the commanding heights of South Africa's economy, "people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions", meaning that there will never be wholesale nationalisation and state control of every sector of South Africa's economy. Nationalisation of strategic sectors and assets will be blended with a strong industrial policy to support social and economic development...

35. The attainment of Economic Freedom in Our Lifetime is our strategic mission. Towards this, we have identified 7 (seven) non-negotiable cardinal pillars for economic freedom in our lifetime. These are:

a. Expropriation of South Africa's land without compensation for equal redistribution in use.

b. Nationalisation of mines, banks, and other strategic sectors of the economy, without compensation..."

NUMSA and the EFF are frustrated by what they regard as the slow pace of the "transformation" of SA society into a vaguely defined "national democratic society" which most probably will be a society without private property in the hands of especially white colonialists of a special type.

The FC is regarded by the ANC as the blueprint for liberation from white minority oppression as articulated by the late Oliver Tambo on 28 November 1980-

"The state of war which exists in South Africa is a war of national liberation, for self-determination on the basis of the Freedom Charter, of whose adoption we are celebrating the 25th anniversary this year. It is, as Article 1 of Protocol 1 of 1977 recognises, an armed conflict in which peoples are fighting against "colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination".

Legislation and policies that operationalise the NDR are among others-

- Nationalisation of water and mineral rights without compensation;
- Employment Equity Amendment Act of 2013;
- Draft regulations to be promulgated in terms of section 55 of the Employment Equity Act, 1998;
- Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill of 2014;
- Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Amendment Act of 2013;
- Codes of Good Practice (generic codes) under subsection 9 (1) of the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Amendment Act, 2003;
- Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill of 2013;
- The cancellation of bilateral investment treaties;
- The Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill of 2013;
- The Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill of 2013;
- The Property Valuation Bill of 2013;
- The Private Security Regulation Amendment Bill of 2013;
- The power now vested in the State to expropriate land or rights in it in accordance with the Infrastructure Development Bill of 2013;
- Immigration Regulations.

The racist and seditious NDR cannot be stopped and we must now debate and devise an exit strategy for those members of minorities without a future in SA or another home.

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Barry Saayman
19 Nov

Intellectual Property Rights

I should add the ANC government's plans to overhaul SA's intellectual property laws to my somewhat outdated list of legislation and government policies that promote the objectives of the NDR.

19 Nov

This is Brave

"It is unfortunate that Numsa is invoking a Stalinist path to socialism: a path that has been tried and shown to fail."

This is exactly correct and its rather brave to say it in a context where most of the left is rushing behind NUMSA. I salute Duncan for her courage here.

However her position is basically a very sophisticated version of the Trotskyite position. There is no example, anywhere in the world, where a Trotskyist group has attained mass support, let alone state power.

Trotskyism (aside from its deformed iterations, like the SWP in the UK that supports the Islamicist right and rallied behind a rapist) is vastly superior to Stalinism in ethical terms but it is never able to become a mass politics. The fact that most of the left in this country is either Stalinist or Trotskyite explains the failures of the last twenty years.

We need to put aside all the old dogmas and look to Latin America. That is where there are real movements, and real changes happening.

We need to break with this Angolphone intellectual dependence on the UK and the USA, and their deformed left traditions, and look to Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela etc.

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Barry Saayman
19 Nov

Anglo American Liberals

>>"...her position is basically a very sophisticated version of the Trotskyite position."

I never thought of the Anglo American liberals (read white faux liberals) in South Africa as socialists in any form. (That description is in my view more apt for Afrikaners that created State Owned Enterprises such as Iscor, Krygkor, Eskom, Post Office and Telkom)

Anglo American "liberals" are in my view right wing capitalists without any respect for diversity. They are race and culture denialists and until now, NDR denialists, embedded in a closed paternalistic and nepotistic society controlling the English language newsrooms and the South African economy, against the national will one must add.

Only they think of their good selves as "independent" and "objective" and immune against the "redress" (BEE, Employment Equity and Affirmative Action) policies they imported to our shores and the legislation they, in the form of highly compensated consultants, initiated to corrupt the State and to further enrich themselves.

They never thought for one moment that they were in fact serving the objectives of the communist inspired and seditious NDR.

The Lonmin Plc massacre and the crumbling of Cosatu are advancing the loss of their nefarious control over sweetheart labour unions such as Num.

The demonising of Numsa from these circles is going to be counterproductive - this is what the communists expect from the "white bosses" and their agents and they will use it to their advantage. The cat on hot tin roof behaviour of among others the SAIRR, Free Market, FW de Klerk and Helen Suzman Foundations could have been funny if it was not such a serious matter.

>>"We need to break with this Angolphone intellectual dependence on the UK and the USA, and their deformed left traditions..."

It does not matter in the least what moneyed white elites believe or do in South Africa. We cannot control or stop the Africanisation and indigenisation of everything including Universities and political parties.

This process is gathering momentum and in another 20 years there will be no place for 'colonialists of a special type' in SA. We need to thank the parasitical white communists and the leechlike parochial Anglo American liberals for this catastrophic turn of events.

20 Nov

Why Is Sacsis Publishing Saayman's Racist Rants

Not only does he have zero idea of what he is talking about (e.g. assuming that Duncan is a monied English liberal just because she is white and English speaking when she is clearly a socialist), but he is also openly racist.

What point is served by giving space to this drivel?

Progressive student
21 Nov

The World has Moved On

It is 2014. How is it that in South Africa our debate is still Trotskyism vs Stalinism? Both of these political ideas are entirely discredited in the rest of the world. We as South Africans really need to stop living in the past.

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Rory Verified user
24 Nov


It seems fair to say that people who see the solution to mankind's woes as being within the embrace of the particular '...ism' of their choice cannot see the wood for the trees. No '...ism' has yet provide a solution to mankind's woes rather their implementation when it has been achieved has only added to mankind's suffering. To my mind no '...ism' can embody the solution to mankind's woes because humanity is simply too diverse to be successfully dealt with through the eyes of an '...ism'.

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1 Dec

So Far the United Front Is a Real Dissapointment

So far the UF seems to be orientating towards the same group of 'activists' and NGOs that have always failed to connect to grassroots struggles, and messed up the SMI and DLF. Let's hope that NUMSA wakes up and finds a way to connect with real struggles.

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3 Dec

So What Counts as the Real Left?

So Numsa are Stalinists and the EFF are fascists. Slim pickings for the left it seems.

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Zamile August
20 Jan

Stalinist Numsa

The Freedom Charter and NDR, which Numsa champion are a Stalinist agenda, I concur. Numsa wants to go to parliament. Parliament is a cul de sac for the working class together with the NDR and the Freedom Charter.

22 Jan

Freedom Charter Stalinist?!

The NDR is a Stalinist concept. No one disputes that. But the Freedom Charter is certainly not Stalinist. It declares that the people shall govern, not the great leader via the party.