The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Monday, 13 January 2014

NUMSA asserting its independence: showing the way for unions in Europe?

When I attended the Futures Commission of SIGTUR in Johannesburg/South Africa, Nelson Mandela was already seriously ill in hospital (see SIGTUR’s Futures Commission and the search for alternatives in and beyond capitalism!). Nonetheless, first voices of criticism were voiced by South African representatives at the Commission meeting, arguing that Mandela had given in too easily to demands by the white capitalist class. At the same time, his figure as the father of the new South Africa prevented a more in-depth discussion of his socio-economic legacy. As he has now passed away, could this be the moment for a more serious discussion about South Africa’s socio-economic future? The Declaration by the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) adopted at its special national congress, 17 to 20 December 2013, seems to suggest this. In this blog post, I will discuss NUMSA’s Declaration and reflect on its implications for European trade unions.

NUMSA and its attack on the Alliance of ANC, SACP and COSATU

Historically, as a federation affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), NUMSA has been part of the Alliance of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU, which has governed South Africa since the end of Apartheid in the early 1990s. Considering the vast economic inequality, which still characterises South Africa over 20 years after the end of Apartheid, NUMSA now attacks the ANC and the SACP head on. The decrease in industrialisation would not be the result of an accident or incompetence, it is argued in the Declaration. ‘It comes from the fact that the leadership of the ANC and SACP is protecting the interests of white monopoly capital and imperialism against the interests of the working class. The ANC and SACP leadership defends the ownership and control of the mines, banks and monopoly industries in the hands of white monopoly capital and imperialism’ (P.2). 

Photo by Dinki Mkhize

Unsurprisingly, the attack on the Alliance also comes in response to the massacre of workers at the mine of Marikana in August 2012, seen as a turning-point in South African labour relations (see also The Dance of the Undead). 'What we saw was', the Declaration reads, 'that Marikana was a well-planned and orchestrated strategy by the state to defend the profits of mining bosses' (P.4).

The ANC’s most recent National Development Plan is heavily criticised for its neo-liberal policy contents. Instead of the Freedom Charter and its challenge to property relations in South Africa, the ANC has now adopted ‘the programme of our class enemy’ (P.3). Nevertheless, NUMSA does not only criticise the National Development Plan as a project by the class enemy. It also states that ‘the ANC has been captured by representatives of an enemy class’, it is argued. ‘It has adopted the strategic plan of that class’ (P.4).  

As a result of this assessment, NUMSA decided at its special congress to call on COSATU to break from the Alliance. Moreover, it resolved that ‘NUMSA as an organization will neither endorse nor support the ANC or any other political party in 2014’ (P.13). Hence, NUMSA as a federation has stopped its support for the ANC and SACP as well as the Alliance as a whole. This also includes the ending of paying into the COSATU/SACP political levy (P.13). Ending support for the Alliance does not, however, signify a retreat from politics by NUMSA. ‘The working class needs a political organisation committed in theory and practice to socialism’ (P.7). Hence, it calls for the establishment of a new United Front ‘that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities’ (P.7).

NUMSA and the struggle for COSATU’s soul

Photo by Egui_
The special congress also debated the current tensions and divisions inside COSATU. Two positions are identified, one in favour of a militant, independent and united union, which continues to fight for socialism and against neo-liberalism, the other regarding COSATU as a kind of labour desk for the ANC, supporting and helping to implement the party’s neo-liberal policy programme as a result (P.9). In line with its rejection of the ANC and the Alliance, NUMSA supports an independent, militant union. And it is here, that the SACP comes especially under criticism for its decision to intervene in the confederation. Importantly, NUMSA will not wait for COSATU to take the lead as an independent union. ‘After detecting that there was no enthusiasm within COSATU to mobilise for the socio-economic strike, the union’s July 2013 National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting took a decision that as NUMSA we should have our own programme of rolling socio-economic strikes’ (P.16).

Equally, when focusing on developing a new strategy, NUMSA will push ahead with a move towards socialism. ‘NUMSA is a revolutionary union and as such plays a leading role in the defeat of capitalism and the exploitation that is associated with it’ (P.15). It, thus, moves ahead to explore ‘what may constitute a revolutionary programme for the working class’ (P.7)

Lessons for European trade unions?

Do developments in the South African labour movement have any lessons for European trade unions? It is quite common and would be quite easy to argue that South Africa is a completely different country with a different economy and different institutions from European countries and, therefore, there are no lessons to be found there. Moreover, there has been a tradition by trade unions in the Global North to lecture labour movements of the Global South about how to organise and interact with employers and the state. After all, have not European trade unions had a much longer and more successful history at representing workers’ interests?

And yet, once such a Eurocentric perspective is left aside, parallel developments are easily visible. Do trade unions in Europe not face the same situation as NUMSA in South Africa, in that labour parties, once an essential political ally of workers, have turned against them? Have not social democratic parties across Europe participated in the implementation of neo-liberal restructuring and the imposition of austerity as much as conservative parties? In the UK, the current onslaught on the welfare state by the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberals is vicious, no doubt, but most of the restructuring had already been initiated by the previous labour governments. Should European trade unions not learn the lesson from NUMSA and declare their independence from these social democratic parties, which have adopted the policy agenda of the class enemy? Should European trade unions not stop supporting these social democratic parties financially?

And it is not only social democratic parties, which have turned over towards capital’s agenda. Trade unions too have often too easily accepted the policies of the right. NUMSA warns against COSATU becoming a labour desk for ANC policy. Do we not face similar dangers in Europe, where many trade unions remain locked into a social partnership ideology, which privileges social dialogue with employers and the state over mobilising workers in support for a transformative strategy? In Europe too, not only South Africa, will it be essential to ensure that trade unions become again an independent, militant force.

Photo by GovernmentZA
Back in June 2013 at the Futures Commission meeting in Johannesburg, NUMSA representatives reported on two of their current initiatives. First, they were investing union pension fund money into production facilities for sustainable energy. Second, they had started to form alliances with farmers in support for demands of land reform and re-distribution. Although a metalworking, industrial union, NUMSA, thus, acknowledges the need to work towards environmentally sustainable production as well as to broaden the social basis of resistance through alliances with other social movements. And the constant increase in membership making NUMSA with 338,000 members not only the biggest trade union in South Africa but the whole continent of Africa indicates, that workers are willing to mobilise, if they are provide with a militant, independent alternative.

European trade unions can clearly learn a lot from studying the strategies of NUMSA and the trade unions in the Global South more generally!   

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK

Personal website:

13 January 2014


  1. Good analysis, Andreas, as far as it goes ... what do you think the role of the Economic Freedom Fighters, SOPA, AZAPO and the other left-dissident political formations will be?

    1. NUMSA speaks about the need of a new political organisation of the working class, the establishment of a United Front. Perhaps an alliance with these forces you mention could be a step into this direction?


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