Numsa members. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Numsa members. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

Tired of protesting from the sidelines against what it deems anti-poor, anti-worker policies, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) has registered its own political party.

The Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) is unlike any other formed out of disgruntlement with the ANC. While those failed to amass large support bases and build sustainable organisations, the SRWP enters the scene well resourced. It’s backed by a 300,000-strong trade union (SA’s biggest) and has ready-made constituencies across the country as a result.

However, the SRWP’s founders have a unique burden: while building the party from the ground up, they will have to fulfil the union mandate of protecting members’ rights in workplaces and ensure the sustained growth of the year-old SA Federation of Trade Unions.

Has Numsa bitten off more than it can chew?

The party has been on the cards since the 2013 Numsa special congress, at which the union denounced the ANC, decrying a "political vacuum" that left the working class on its own. But a lot has changed since then.

A Cosatu survey of the political sentiments of its shop stewards at the time found that more than 60% wanted the federation to start its own political party. But a similar study conducted today could turn up different results, given the extent of public servant support.

Political analyst Ebrahim Fakir points to a dual trend in the SA labour market: a falling number of workers, especially in manufacturing, where Numsa has a stronghold; and declining trade union density.

Fakir concedes, though, that there are constituencies in SA with a liking for the socialist politics the SRWP advocates. "[The party] will find some resonance because of huge income inequality and because all the other parties are terrible," he says.

The role of a trade union is to represent worker interests but the question is, have they overrepresented themselves in the politics?
Haroon Bhorat

SRWP spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola says: "Most of the political parties which dominate the SA political landscape promote capitalism, and some of them want to reform the system. We are the only ones fighting for the total destruction of capitalism. We want a socialist SA, where the interests of the working class will be primary and the wealth of the country will be used for the benefit of all."

It’s likely, then, that the SRWP will have to wrestle with the likes of the EFF for electoral support, should it decide to contest the 2019 elections. That decision — and a call on whether it will co-operate with other political parties — will be dealt with at its inaugural congress next month.

There are other concerns to be addressed. For a start, Numsa’s 2016 congress resolved that "Numsa will remain a union and will not turn itself into a political party". Yet, in the same breath, the union committed its shop stewards and officials to maintaining an activist role and "[taking] responsibility for the party we are building".

Hlubi-Majola explains this seeming contradiction by arguing that Numsa "will always maintain its character as a trade union and will continue to fill this role. SRWP is a party for all the working class, including Numsa members, who want to unite to fight and defeat capitalism."

But Haroon Bhorat, professor of economics and director of the Development Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, asks: "Where does Numsa end and the new political party begin?

"My bigger concern is the trajectory of the union movement … To what extent have unions become too politicised and not ‘workerist’ enough? The role of a trade union is to represent worker interests, but have they overrepresented themselves in politics?"

There is also uncertainty about how Numsa members will enjoy their constitutionally enshrined right to support political parties of their choice when resolutions bind their allegiance to the SRWP.

What it means

If the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party contest next year’s elections, it will battle it out with the left-leaning EFF

At its 2013 congress, the union emphasised individual members’ freedom to campaign for the ANC, or any other political organisation, after it decided not to endorse the ruling party. But in 2016 it decided officials and shop stewards would have to recruit and mobilise for the new party.

Trade unions in SA are synonymous with party politics, given their shared history in the liberation struggle. Cosatu has been in an alliance with the ANC and SACP since 1990. But that has come at a cost: the federation’s proximity to the ruling party has not given it the political leverage to drive through its policy proposals, including the banning of labour brokers and the realisation of socialism.

This is the mantle the SRWP now wants to assume. It’s not the only party to try this. The Workers & Socialist Party (WASP) was formed by the Democratic Socialist Movement after the 2012 Marikana massacre.

WASP general secretary Weizmann Hamilton tells the FM that the SRWP will widen division among workers, because the greatest challenge facing the working class is "not a shortage of militancy but unification".

He says: "The missing ingredient is the unification of all these forces, because it’s all about the same issues: anticorruption, poverty and low wages."

While time will tell whether the SRWP will occupy a prominent role in SA’s political landscape, the most immediate challenge for Numsa appears to be how to ensure its worker and political interests co-exist without compromising each other.