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Numsa members protest in Johannesburg. Picture: KABELO MOFOKENG
Numsa members protest in Johannesburg. Picture: KABELO MOFOKENG

May Day, originally a spring festival in Europe, is now celebrated as the leading day on the calendar of the left in much of the world, with a focus on labour. Those of us old enough to remember the great SA mobilisations of the 1980s will recall how Cosatu, which could put millions on the streets in those days, forced the recognition of May Day from below. 

Now institutionalised as Workers’ Day, May Day is recalled with the usual anodyne and soporific government ramblings that mark all our national holidays. There are also the sometimes tiresome lamentations for analysts on the left that the union movement is not what it was. This is true, of course, but when the moralism replaces analysis year after year it starts to become rather pointless.

With mass unemployment and decades of steady deindustrialisation, the union movement can only be far weaker than it was in the 1980s. The kinds of jobs where unions become effective at organising workers have been disappearing for years, and unions — never good at organising people like domestic workers and informal traders — have not been successful in organising workers in new areas of work such as delivery and e-hailing drivers. They have had no success in aligning with the unemployed or even in offering support to the struggles and organisations of the poor.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), uniquely, has been able to expand into areas of work beyond its original base in the metal factories. This is commendable insofar as it means workers in a wide range of areas of work value the support of the union. But Numsa does not mobilise people in domestic work, informal work or the new economy, and appears locked into an industrial-centric conception of work that is not adequate for the realities of the present.

And of course, the breakdown in the hegemony of the ANC has broken the unity of the union movement first achieved with the launch of Cosatu in 1985. In 2014 Numsa was expelled from the ANC alliance for its vigorous critiques of Jacob Zuma’s rotten regime, and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) came to prominence after the wildcat strike and massacre at Marikana in 2012. Those who saw a sort of progressive potential in Amcu were swiftly disappointed as it quickly became apparent that it was run with an iron fist, without democratic processes, and had a big gangsterised element. 


Cosatu collapsed into a deep crisis of credibility when it supported Zuma, something for which then general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi holds primary responsibility, and failed to deal with the gangsterism in unions, most notably the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). However, in recent years the federation has played a positive role in national debates and its credibility has significantly improved. It has a real asset in parliamentary co-ordinator Matthew Parks.

The SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), the new federation outside the ANC formed in 2017, is now a failed project. This is largely because Vavi, its general secretary after his ousting from Cosatu, and Irvin Jim, the general secretary of Numsa, its largest and richest affiliate, have fundamental political differences. Vavi seems to see Jim as a dogmatic, old-style communist, while Jim appears to regard Vavi as a liberal more aligned to NGOs than workers. 

Many unions are in deep decay as they face deindustrialisation, the appearance of toxic, ANC-style factional politics within their ranks, a chronic inability to develop ideas to suit a new economic and political reality; and acrimonious attempts at NGO capture.

Many left intellectuals, myself included, had long hoped that the union movement would form the base for an independent left party, much as happened in Brazil when President Lula da Silva moved from the Metalworkers’ Union and into the presidency. This has not happened, and it now seems clear that there are scant chances that it will happen in the near future.

Cosatu’s periodic sabre rattling against the ANC has never led to an actual break with the governing party; Saftu is essentially powerless; and Amcu has not developed any sort of political vision or broken with the hold of its self-interested leaders. Numsa’s failed experiment with a political party showed that running a large union under conditions of regular conflict in the workplace and trying to simultaneously start a new political party is a daunting prospect. 

Wages and inequality

However, those who wish to write off the union movement as an anachronism are mistaken. Global experience shows union density has a direct and positive impact on wages and rates of inequality. Furthermore, the public sector unions in both Cosatu and Numsa regularly push hard against their employers, with Numsa organising regular strikes. 

But with masses of people in SA — especially young people — unemployed, precariously employed or working informally, old-style unionism focused on industrial and government work cannot have a social base on the same scale as Cosatu did in the 1980s. Organising the millions of people outside government and industrial jobs is a priority for any sort of social justice project, and there are promising green shoots here.

There are a number of small organisations doing this work, such as the Housing Assembly in Cape Town and shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, the only organisation large enough to be termed a social movement in SA. On April 26 Abahlali baseMjondolo attracted thousands to its “UnFreedom Day” protest in Durban, including taxi drivers, street traders, informal workers, domestic workers and others not usually brought into the union movement. The movement is not unionising these kinds of workers but it is attracting their support and supporting their struggles. A recent attempt to begin organising e-hailing drivers in Durban was led by a former leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo.

Could this type of grassroots organising fill gaps left by the decline of the unions in a deindustrialising economy marked by systemic unemployment? The answer is a tentative yes, tentative because the smaller organisations doing this work are still small and because Abahlali baseMjondolo only has vibrant branches in four provinces, and its membership outside KwaZulu-Natal is based on a few shack settlements. 

But perhaps a working alliance of organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Housing Assembly and others could slowly build towards greater organisational density among the people left out by current modes of union organising. This could well be the new frontier of organising in the contemporary crisis.

• Dr Buccus is a postdoctoral fellow and senior research associate at Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute.

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