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Remaking the South African Left

Benjamin Fogel

A revived South African trade union movement could challenge the ANC from its left.

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In the early hours of Saturday, November 8, after a sixteen-hour meeting of South Africa’s largest trade union federation, the central-executive committee of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) voted to expel their largest, most powerful, and most radical affiliate, the National Union of the Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

NUMSA has a membership of around 350,000, but when the seven affiliates who dropped out of COSATU in protest are included, the federation stands to lose 750,000 members. These unions are demanding that COSATU hold a special national congress through which the pro-African National Congress (ANC) leadership of COSATU can be removed.

The official position of the ANC, the party that led the country out of apartheid, is that NUMSA’s expulsion is a tragedy that weakens the “tripartite alliance” — the decades-old pact between the South African Communist Party (SACP), the ruling ANC, and COSATU. In contrast, the SACP didn’t hide their enthusiasm for the purge. In the words of their general secretary Blade Nzimande: “If you keep a corpse in the house without burying it, it will rot and smell.”

The South African media, when not sentimentally eulogizing the deaths of the tripartite alliance and COSATU, has focused on the electoral fortunes of an apparently forthcoming NUMSA-led labor party along the lines of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) and the political future of COSATU leader Zwelenzima Vavi, a key NUMSA ally. None of this, however, is useful in sketching the political implications of NUMSA’s removal from COSATU. Put another way, could a revivified trade union movement mount a viable left challenge to the ANC?

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