From Durban to Marikana: A new trajectory of the worker’s movement

by Mar 28, 2014Magazine

In January 1973 dockworkers in Durban embarked on a wave of wildcat strikes against low wages, in total some 61000 workers took part in these strikes. The Durban moment not only smashed the industrial relations framework that had been established after black trade unions had been smashed by the apartheid state in the 50s and 60s, but also gave birth to the black trade union movement eventually leading to the establishment of COSATU in 1985.

A similar moment took place on August 17 last year the day after 34 workers were shot and killed at Marikana. Workers rather than ending the strike after the massacre continued their attempt to win a new wage of R12500 in the Platinum industry, they were soon joined by hundreds of thousands of other workers across the Platinum belt for another 90 days. COSATU’s then biggest affiliate NUM leaked 10s of thousands of members as it failed to support worker’s demands and in many cases sided with management against striking workers.

The impact of this on COSATU has led a third moment, which took place between the 17th and 20th of December this year, as COSATU’s largest affiliate and now the biggest union in African history- NUMSA held a special national congress to decide on the future of its relationship to COSATU and its alliance partners the ANC and SACP. At the end of this congress it was decided that NUMSA would formally break with the tripartite alliance after over 20 years, expand its scope to other sectors including the mining industry, declare open war against the Dlamini faction currently dominating COSATU leadership and initiating the process of building a left political alternative to the tripartite alliance.

The key moment of the NUMSA congress didn’t take place in some backroom meeting of NUMSA elites or in the commissions that debated and decided on NUMSA’s resolutions; it took place on the first night of the conference when Rehad Desai’s documentary on Marikana “Miners Shot down” was screened to over a 1000 delegates, guests and journalists.

The proceedings of the next day began when Delegates marched into the venue clutching R100 rand notes singing, “who killed Mambush at Marikana. Zuma must resign. Phiyega must resign. Ramaphosa must resign”. It was that moment that it became apparent to me that NUMSA would break with the alliance and this would initiate what a delegate described as “the post-Mandela period” in South African political history.

According to Irvin Jim, after Marikana it is clear that “The police are not our friends, they represent something called the state. There is a minister of police… who always speaks after our people have been killed… When people are dead, commissions are appointed,” he said.


“The time has come to communicate our right to protest and demonstrate. Those rights shall not be taken away by Nathi Mthethwa and that lady (National Police commissioner Riah Phiyega)… We must give a very stern warning to Nathi, we are not going to tolerate any police killing from now.”

In the words of their new president Andrew Chirwa, “The state of the working class is in shambles, the working class is leaderless”.

Further reinforcing it was the presentation of around 350000 rand that NUMSA raised for the victims and families of Marikana to some of the Marikana worker-leaders and family members. A worker-leader wearing an AMCU t-shirt began singing to a NUMSA delegation who have been told again and again by COSATU’s leadership that AMCU was a homicidal vigilante union intent on undermining the unity of the working class for the benefits of the bosses.

A delegate from Limpopo told me during a smoke break later that evening that, “we can’t vote for an ANC which kills workers with taxpayers money”. He added that this is the worst thing the ANC have done since 1994, the worst thing done, it wouldn’t have happened under Mandela”.

Why is NUMSA splitting from the tripartite alliance? These reasons are pretty straightforward despite numerous attempts COSATU has been unable to influence the policy direction of the ANC, the ANC since 94 has consistently moved in a neoliberal direction first through the adoption of GEAR in 1996 and now more recently with the adoption of the NDP. As Irvin Jim admitted at the congress, “the strategy of swelling the ranks of the SACP and ANC has failed”. The ANC remains as their leaders like to point out a ‘multi-class formation’, but the unions and left leaning sections of the alliance are increasingly marginal politically and the SACP has transformed into a reactionary clique who use Stalinist jargon to defend the president at all costs. Or as Jim put it , “we want a vanguard party, not Blade’s fish and chips”.

The last attempt to force the ANC in a left direction was Polokwane in which the alliance left made a faustian pact with Zuma and his other more shady backers to come into power and break with “the 96 class project” and remove its representative in chief Mbeki, but this ultimately would prove fatal for the left. Their mistake was twofold 1) thinking that they could call the shots and control Zuma and 2) individualizing the political struggle within the alliance around the figure of Mbeki. The Polokwane resolutions have long since been abandoned and the working class has been rewarded for its efforts in bring Zuma to power with e-tolls, the youth wage subsidy, the NDP and of course Marikana.

The NUMSA congress on the other hand saw a break not only with the figure of Zuma, but the idea of the ANC as a vehicle for pursuing the interests of the working class. The SACP on the other hand, was the object of so much scorn that the possibility of winning it back wasn’t even considered. This signifies a change in political counciousness, from the idea that it is not that the ANC that is wrong, it is the persons who are in charge of it and thus it can be considered a zone of contestation. Instead NUMSA is arguing that the ANC views workers as voting fodder who can be ignored except during election time. As the final declaration put it;

“There is no chance of winning back the Alliance to what it was originally formed for, which was to drive a revolutionary programme for fundamental transformation of the country”

And with these words NUMSA broke with the ANC

“NUMSA as an organization will neither endorse nor support the ANC or any other political party in 2014.”

Following this they declared

“NUMSA calls on COSATU to break from the Alliance. The time for looking for an alternative has arrived.” In the words of their new president Andrew Chirwa, “The state of the working class is in shambles, the working class is leaderless”.

NUMSA sees part of its mission to attempt to fulfill that leadership vacuum both in terms of the “working class” and in terms of the left in South Africa more broadly, in the face of the disintegration of the alliance left, the continued irrelevance of much of the molecular independent left and the collapse of social movements over the last 5 years or so.

While it seemed many of my colleagues in the media were expecting NUMSA to announce they would form a mass workers party with immediate effect to compete in the 2014 elections or announce their merger with EFF or something along those lines. But NUMSA are pursuing a strategy of building a united front with left-leaning elements of civil society, other unions and community organizations before they move towards the stage of building a party

. And what type of party it would be is still very much an open question, it could be a broad mass workers party, it could be another vanguard party and electoral participation is by no means certain. But like the Durban moment this NUMSA moment marks a new direction in the trajectory of the worker’s movement in South Africa.

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