WHAT TO MAKE OF NUMSA’s POLITICAL ADVENTURISM
On 23 January 1983, during a conference attended by civil associations, churches, trade unions and student organizations, Rev. Allan Boesak called for the formation of a “united front” against the oppressive Apartheid regime. This clarion call would be the seed from which the United Democratic Front (UDF) would grow. As a vehicle for activism, the UDF, powered largely by the unions, soon began to undermine the National Party and sought to make the land ungovernable. This culminated in the 1988 conviction of 19 UDF members for plotting to overthrow the government.
This week saw the historic announcement by the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) that they plan to form a political party. For NUMSA, a 338,000 member strong union and close historic ally of the Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU) and the African National Congress (ANC), to form a “United Front and Movement for Socialism”, marks a significant shift in the political landscape. In addition, their announcement confirmed that they are open to forming alliances and partnerships with other structures, who share their vision for an anti-capitalist South Africa.
There are strong parallels, between the Boesak-moment when the UDF was formed, and that in which South Africans find themselves today. In 1983, civil society leaders were loosing patience with an increasingly abusive and unresponsive regime. The UDF’s National Executive Committee said in a statement in 1983, “The conscience and the moral impulse of all freedom-loving people of South Africa have been aroused [and that] the main thrust of the organisation is directed towards the participation of working people …” While the impetus of the UDF was to address the political injustice of the day, the movement’s underlying vitality came from a sense of exasperation with the political exclusion perpetuated by state apparatus. Today, while factionalism within the tri-partheid alliance may play a large role in the decision of NUMSA, the momentum of NUMSA’s bold refrain comes from a similar sense of discontent. Except, today the injustice they lament is economic exclusion upheld by a corrupt elite, bound up in an oligarchy of vested interests.
CONSOLIDATION ON THE LEFT
Seen in isolation, NUMSA’s decision is a non-event in the short term, but given the strong showing of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) at their manifesto launch last month, and the rapid rise of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), eclipsing the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) on mines within a matter of months, the environment seems ripe for the formation of a new centre of power on the left, distinct from the ANC’s bedfellow, COSATU. This was my view at the recent Economic Outlook Conference at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, (GIBS) where I contemplated the “future of South Africa at age 30”, anticipating that by 2024 we will have seen a wholesale realignment of politics. This is likely to entail “the formation of two new centres of power, on the left around a socialist labour party, and on the right around a socialist conservative democratic alliance.” Its a strange New South Africa indeed, where the Democratic Alliance (DA) and ANC join hands on a turf that strongly resembles AgangSA’s current position. That, of course, will only be possible in a scenario where political expediency necessitates such as betrothal as a counter-balance to a militant, radical, ideological cliche on the left of the ANC. The meeting of the minds among the likes of; Julius Malema, Irvin Jim and Zwelinzima Vavi, has the makings of just such a band of brothers, opposing the ANC.
GOVERNMENT IS COMING AROUND
Ironically, government seems to slowly be coming around to the fact that partnership and respect, as opposed to instruction, is the way forward with their stakeholders. The National Development Plan (NDP), reaffirmed by President Jacob Zuma again this week as the “name of the game” in terms of policy, is evidence that the executive is trying to posture in a business-friendly stance. In addition, initiatives such as the recently announced Solomon Mahlangu Scholarship Fund (SMSF), indicate that government is beginning to tune into the strategic issues facing the country. The sale of the ANC’s stake in Hitachi this week, while critics would argue has come too late and is merely meant to bolster the party’s coffers ahead of the election, does at least indicate that some of the conflicts of interests that have marred perceptions around party-state relations, are not permanent. This may be seen as good news for business, but does little to appease the disgruntlement of the so-called “working class”.
BUSINESS STANDS BACK
During a recent dialogue with economists and business leaders, we posed the question, “what are the main strategic threats to South Africa’s economic performance domestically?” Their response was somewhat predictable. After deliberation and a process of consensus-building, five crucial issues emerged, namely; appropriate education and skills, lingering inequality, the quality of leadership from across sectors, the need for shared vision and values, and the state of the global economy. Importantly for business, the NDP is a good attempt at addressing the first four of these issues, and President Zuma seems adamant to lead the ANC in the direction that the NDP envisions. However, the tide of popular discontent toward the ANC, and by implication towards the executive and the state, seems to be rising faster than the President can rally supporters for his plan.
The credibility issues that President Zuma and his inner circle have unleashed, both through actions taken, such as their criticism of the Constitutional Courts on various occasions, and through their handling of Guptagate and Nkandlagate among many others, seems to have broken the back of worker loyalty to the ruling party. While honest reflection and economic resolve seem to be emerging themes within the ANC’s messaging ahead of the national elections, it seems to be a case of too little too late. The left is rallying, and business, still bruised form escalating labour unrest, is likely to simply stand back and watch the drama unfold.
Domestic politics is unfortunately becoming a liability and constraint, instead of an enabler, of economic progress. The virtuous cycle of “confidence – investment – growth – inclusion” of which the NDP speaks, is simply in reverse.
In response to these developments, business is expected to navigate the tight-rope of public-private collaboration around the NDP, while their critical stakeholder, labour, is highly likely to become emboldened by the prospect of a “anti-capital” political option. For industries such as mining and manufacturing, that are labour intensive, the immediate-term looks bleak. For the likes of construction firms and service providers with direct links to public works programs, the changing landscape will be less severe, and potentially beneficial as pressure mounts on government to deliver – especially at local level.
It is useful to note that the evolution of the South African political system is an inevitable next phase of democratization, and by virtue of the current structure of alliances, necessitates a maturing of labour sector affiliations in particular. The inherent ideological paradoxes that South Africa’s political system has accommodated to date, due to historic realities and especially relating to economic policy, are likely to become increasingly untenable which will require the dismemberment of old supporters on the fringes.
The question for business in particular will be, how to align with the executive of government sufficiently to cooperate on critical questions of national development, without being tainted by the political mud-slinging that will soon be aimed at South Africa’s “neo-imperialist, capitalist” state.
Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty and program manager for the Future of Business in South Africa Project, at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He teaches on leadership, strategy, and ethics and holds a Masters in Strategic Foresight from Regent University in Virginia Beach, USA.
Lecturer: Strategic Foresight, Leadership & Ethics
Program Manager: Future of Business In South Africa
Centre Business Analysis and Research
Gordon Institute of Business Science
“The best way to predict your future is to create it” – Abraham Lincoln