It is like watching a pair of nervous teenagers flirt. Perhaps they are on a dance floor: their hands never touching, their eyes firmly locked. The trouble is, as with any tryst, predicting whether they will unite is like reading the horoscope to get the answer. It is a rather futile exercise.
So it is with the story of metalworkers’ union Numsa and its various coalitions.
Just after its expulsion from labour federation Cosatu in November last year, the workerist Numsa was unambiguous about its next move.
“The time has arrived to start with the building blocks of forming a new, independent, democratic, worker-controlled, militant, anti-imperialist trade union federation,” deputy general secretary Karl Cloete told reporters at the time.
This week the union presented to reporters a coalition, raising speculation that it is beginning to court other unions and working-class organisations with a view to forming this mooted new federation.
The coalition, reminiscent of mass-based anti-apartheid movements such as the United Democratic Front, is Numsa-led but former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is clearly its front man. His previous calls for a new trade union federation have not been forgotten.
This coalition will lead an anti-corruption march to the Union Buildings on September 30. More than 200 organisations are involved, from independent trade unions to civil society bodies and churches.
Later, there will be a workers’ summit organised by the same group of people behind the march. It could be the beginnings of a new federation, but analysts say that goal is a long way off.
Lucien van der Walt, professor of sociology at Rhodes University, says the coalition could be seen as part of a wider attempt by Numsa to forge alliances outside the workplace. For example, Numsa is behind the United Front and the Movement for Socialism, which some have seen as the beginnings of a political party.
However, Van der Walt says the direction these alliances will take is still up for debate within Numsa. This is also true of the envisaged new federation.
Those involved in the latest alliance are being coy about their intentions.
The workers’ summit so ardently argued for by the likes of Vavi is in the embryonic stages of planning.
Vavi’s previous remarks were unambiguous: this summit would be about discussing the possibility of a new, independent trade union federation. It has been scathingly received by Cosatu and its affiliates. Its public sector affiliate, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, called the endeavour a “foreign-funded political adventure” designed to “undermine” Cosatu.
A meeting was held last week to discuss the proposed summit and anti-corruption march.
On Tuesday Numsa gave notice of its intention to hold the anti-corruption march. The protest action is to take place in terms of section 77 of the Labour Relations Act, which gives employees the right to protest in defence of their socioeconomic rights.
The same day, Vavi and representatives of six unions told reporters that the march would be the start of a long campaign against both public and private sector corruption. Members of the Food and Allied Workers Union sat alongside Numsa and Vavi. The latter two have been expelled from Cosatu; the former remains inside the federation.
Two independent union federations – the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) – are also in the anti-corruption coalition. Nactu brings with it the support of its affiliate, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which is the rival of the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers.
Solidarity is also part of the coalition, but it says it is early days and will not yet entertain talk of joining any new federation. Spokesperson Marius Croucamp pointed out that Fedusa and Nactu are also federations in their own right.
Solidarity is on board with the march and the workers’ summit, but is treading carefully. Despite Vavi’s promises that the summit will discuss forming a new federation, Croucamp pointed out that the first preplanning meeting will only occur next Monday. An agenda has not been set, he says.“It’s really early days. We will take this step by step and see how much we will be involved,” he told the Mail & Guardian this week.
He said the only issues on the agenda of last week’s meeting were the anticorruption march and the workers’ summit. While ideas had been thrown around by individuals in public, Croucamp said the possibility of a new federation was not discussed.
Numsa president Andrew Chirwa told the media this week that the march and summit represent the largest mass formation of organisations since the demise of apartheid.
Numsa’s other project, the United Front, is also involved in the march and summit. Its secretary, Mazibuko Jara, says the United Front is also part of the steering committee.
He says that Numsa is playing a crucial part in a variety of “wider initiatives”, such as the Movement for Socialism and the United Front. Whether either of these will eventually become a new political party or a new trade union federation is not yet clear, Jara says.
“There are different initiatives for different purposes. There’s a need for a new federation, without a doubt, and the workers’ summit will go some way towards [achieving] that. You need various initiatives to respond to various needs in various parts of society.
“But it’s too early to say which way things will turn out when it comes to the federation and the potential political party,” he says.
But are the tectonic plates shifting, or are the chairs merely shifting around the deck?
Leonard Gentle, the director of the International Labour and Research Information Group, says that ever since Numsa’s exit from Cosatu, there has been speculation about what might happen, including the possibility that the union would form a workers’ party.
But organising a march and a summit, and genuinely responding to the issues that have beset the broader trade union movement, are not the same thing.
If a new federation is on the horizon, Gentle says Numsa must first face up to the challenges experienced by the working class.
These are international trends, he says, which include the move away from permanent work to casual or “precarious” work. New forms of organisation to respond to these trends must be at the top of the agenda, he says.
“It’s to Numsa’s credit that it is the one union that’s at least trying to do something different. But that doesn’t free it from the difficulties that labour has across the board,” he says.
Gentle adds that this must include finding common ground with working-class struggles.
“There have been some attempts to do this, but it’s been done in a very top-down way.”
He says this often stems from a bias among the middle-class intelligentsia, which assumes that the working class cannot organise itself. But the events in the wake of the Marikana massacre in the platinum belt show this is not true.
Instead, the country is being taken on a “roller-coaster ride”, anticipating that something “new and exciting” is about to happen, in the form of a new party or federation.
“Is there a desire to form new federation? Yes. Is there a desire to form a new political party? Yes. Were they expecting those intentions to find resonance all over the country? Yes, but the reality is proving to be a lot more difficult,” Gentle says.
Van der Walt says the anti-corruption theme could take a radical direction. “But it could also be quite bland,” he says. “In one way it’s a less ambitious and less radical idea. With the corruption theme, a lot of people could come on board. Your average Democratic Alliance supporter could come on board.
“It also ties it to the governing party. If somebody in government doesn’t support this anticorruption agenda, you could say: ‘Oh, really?’ The same goes for your average ANC branch.”
But Van der Walt adds that corruption is part of a larger class formation: a new, powerful elite using the state as a source of patronage.
This suggests that, while the march’s theme may seem quite mild, it could take a radical turn if it is used as part of a wider assault on neoliberalism.