South Africa: from Marikana to the “Numsa moment”

Issue: 144

Charlie Kimber

On 16 August 2012 South African police shot and killed 34 striking workers at the Lonmin mine near Rustenburg.1 The massacre sent shockwaves around the world—and the implications of this political earthquake are far from played out. It is likely to be seen as one of the key elements that began a process leading to a mass worker-based party to the left of the African National Congress—a development of global importance. We are seeing the beginning of a major challenge to the class compromises of 1994 that saw the end of apartheid and the start of ANC rule.

In 1891 police murdered ten textile workers on a May Day parade in the small town of Fourmies in France. Parliamentary deputy Georges Clemenceau warned the ruling class, “Take care, the dead are strong persuaders. One must pay attention to the dead.”

Certainly the Marikana dead deserve attention. The massacre and the subsequent struggles inspired by the courage of the Marikana strikers are central factors explaining the political breakthroughs that have taken place and that are now set to deepen. These struggles, together with the crisis of capitalism, the turmoil in the ANC and several major trade unions, and the victorious five-month strike by platinum miners in 2014 have punched a hole in the tripartite alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Cosatu trade union federation. There is now a chance for a new beginning—the question is whether it will be seized.

Much of the left across the world has studied the rise of Syriza in Greece and has debated whether this is the essential reference point for how the left should organise today. There has been much less attention on what is happening in South Africa, but it is of at least equal importance.

Of course there was tenacious struggle inside South Africa during the ANC’s rule before the Marikana strike and massacre. According to an official South African Police Service report obtained by News24 Investigators, there were more than 3,000 protests over housing, water, electricity, land rights and similar issues between 2009 and 2012.2 These protests, often met by violence, expressed the deep disillusion with the slow pace of change—or utter lack of change—since the end of apartheid. There were also important strikes, such as the public sector strike of 2010 involving over a million workers for four weeks. None had the same impact as the “Marikana moment”—although in truth it is a process, not a moment.

Why was Marikana so crucial? In a powerful article Peter Alexander points out that:

Commentators have used different adjectives to underline the event’s importance. It has been described as a “watershed moment”…a “turning point”…a “tipping point”…as “seminal”…as a “seismic event”…and as marking a “tectonic shift”. Its significance has been likened to the massacres at Sharpeville (1960) and Soweto (1976)…and to the 1973 strikes in Durban… For one US historian, the killings “signalled the quasi-official end of post-apartheid South Africa’s revolutionary era”.3

Anyone who studies the history of South Africa knows that the racist apartheid system sustained its control by the brutal suppression of its opponents. That meant a history of massacres including Sharpeville, Soweto and Bisho and Boipatong, both in 1992. Whatever the shortcomings of life after the end of apartheid in 1994, most people believed that at least the era of massacres had come to an end. Of course, before 2012 the police had attacked protesters and strikers. Banning marches and shooting at service delivery protesters had become a common occurrence. The police had even killed people.4 But there had not been the mass slayings designed to smash resistance. Now the massacres were back. The trade union federation Cosatu said, “After 18 years of democracy we have witnessed scenes which we had hoped were now only part of our history”.5

That was a shock for many. But equally shocking in its own way was the reaction from those who during apartheid had been the subject of repression and murder—the ANC and its allies. Instead of blaming the mine bosses and the police, the ANC and its alliance partners directed most of their fire at the strikers themselves and their Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Four days after the Marikana massacre, Frans Baleni, general secretary of the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), attacked AMCU and spoke of “dark forces who can mislead our members, make them to believe that they’ve got extra power to make their life to be different overnight”.6 Blade Nzimande, SACP general secretary, wrote that “attempts by the opposition to liken police reaction in Marikana to that of the apartheid regime is outrageous” and that there should be an investigation into “essentially backward beliefs and practices amongst sections of the working class”. He condemned “cheap politicking…in trying to lay the blame at the door of government and narrowly the police”.7

Jeremy Cronin from the SACP wrote:

At least one of the silver linings in this dark cloud has been the widespread public revulsion at the vulture-like behaviour of some of the more demagogic interventions since the tragedy. We trust that those…who had continued to flirt with illusions about “economic freedom fighters” now understand exactly what the SACP said back in 2009 when we characterised this tendency as anti-union, anti-worker and even as “proto-fascist”.8

Even the Cosatu statement mentioned earlier, which captured the shock of what had occurred, went on to say: “Cosatu is however refusing to use this tragedy to score points. We won’t play the blame-game nor will we use the anger workers and their communities are feeling to drive sentiments against government or anyone”.9

This is not the place for a full analysis of what happened on the day. Anyone wanting the truth should see the wonderful film Miners Shot Down and read some of the excellent analysis that has appeared.10 The basic facts are that an unofficial strike broke out at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana. Some 3,000 rock drillers began the action having seen the success of a similar strike at the start of the year at Impala’s platinum mine in Rustenburg. The action was over the poverty pay and appalling conditions suffered by workers whose sweat (and sometimes lives) produced one of the most valuable minerals on earth. But it was also a conscious challenge to the NUM, the once-mighty union that had been at the forefront of the battle against apartheid and whose heroic strike in 1987 was one of the proudest moments of the trade union struggle. The NUM had now been transformed into a pliant partner of management, policing the deals that kept pay low and working with the bosses to prevent alternative workers’ organisations emerging.

The strike was therefore a challenge to the neoliberalism that the bosses and the ANC government defend, and to the NUM, a crucial element in the tripartite alliance and Cosatu. These forces were personified in former NUM general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa. During the 1987 strike Ramaphosa led a defiant struggle against mine bosses and the apartheid state. At that time he stated: “I don’t know how one shares power with people who have shotguns in their hands, people who have tear gas canisters, and I really don’t know how one shares power with people who continue to pay starvation wages.” This was in response to the then AngloGold Ashanti chief executive Bobby Godsell’s statement about the need for liberal business to share power with black workers. Ramaphosa went on to help draw up South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, becoming, by 2012, a leading figure in the ANC, a top businessman and one of the richest bosses in South Africa with an estimated wealth of $750 million. Crucially for the Marikana strike, he was a non-executive director of Lonmin as well as having a big shareholding through the Shanduka Group. As the strikers targeted the profits and power of the mine bosses, Ramaphosa urged the police to stop treating the Lonmin strike as a labour dispute and to start approaching it as “dastardly criminal” conduct. He was the link between the multinational firms, the police and the ANC.

The miners were murdered in order to break a strike against poverty pay that was also part of a wider wave of resistance to capital. The massacre tore away the myths about post-apartheid South Africa. It revealed it as a bloody neoliberal state that continued to enforce capitalist rule.

This was also the analysis of Marikana by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). After its Central Committee met at the end of August 2012 it said:

The CC was adamant that what happened in Marikana should be correctly understood, and must go down in our history as the first post-apartheid South African state massacre of the organised working class, in defence of the local and international mining bosses and their profits… The actions of the police confirm that we have not, post-1994, transformed the apartheid state and its violent machinery.11

The subsequent inquiry into Marikana, the Farlam Commission, was still taking evidence as this article went to press. But it has heard repeated testimony of the deliberate killing of strikers, and it has seen emails detailing Ramaphosa’s role in lobbying the state on Lonmin’s behalf. The emails showed a toxic collusion between Ramaphosa, Lonmin, ANC mineral resources minister Susan Shabangu’s department, the police ministry and the state security agencies leading to the planned murder of black strikers. The exchanges at the commission are captured well by this response from Jim Nichol, a lawyer working with the team representing the murdered miners’ families:


Cyril Ramaphosa

Deputy President: Republic South Africa

Deputy President: African National Congress

General Secretary: National Union Mineworkers

Director: Lonmin PLC


Shanduka—shares in every pie

Wealth: US$750 million

2012 bid R19 million for a buffalo

Anti Apartheid Hero


30 or more

Police cars.

A lawyers’ posse.

Men in suits

Stand guard

The Auditorium


and then

T-shirts out

T-shirts on

“McCyril the killer”

Cameras flash

Toy Toying


“Buffalo Buffalo

blood on your hands”

Families sing



loved ones



Picks his teeth.

Commission suspended

Commission resumes

Q. You are a renowned negotiator?

A. Yes.

Q. Lonmin refused to negotiate?


Q. Did you suggest to Lonmin that they negotiate?

A. No.

Q. Why?

A. I was only a non-executive director. I did not want to interfere.

Q. If Lonmin had negotiated killings may not have happened?

A. Agreed.

Q. You in charge Lonmin’s housing for miners?

A. Yes.

Q. Lonmin meet its target?

A. 100 percent.

Q. The target was 3?

A. Yes.

Q. 3?

A. 3.

(Evidence continues)

Ramaphosa’s journey from militant union leader to militant defender of capitalist violence is not just about one man’s failings. The process that ended apartheid in 1992-4 represented a compromise between the ANC and big business. Explosive workers’ struggles and mighty unions, combined with sustained uprisings in the black communities, had not only threatened apartheid. They also opened the way to an assault on capitalism itself in South Africa. A section of big business and the political establishment decided that it was better to secure a deal with the black opposition rather than risk losing everything. This was a difficult and protracted process, relying on major concessions by both sides and the ability of leaders to diminish the expectations of their supporters.

At key points Nelson Mandela’s leadership came under severe strain. The Boipatong massacre in June 1992 saw 41 people shot or hacked to death by vigilantes from the Inkatha Freedom Party backed by the security forces. It saw all the impatience with the slow pace of change bubble to the surface. Mandela, criticised by the youth for acting “like a lamb while the government butchers our people”, called off talks with the white regime. ANC supporters in the trade unions called for strikes. But as soon as the emergency had passed, the negotiations started again.

The murder of ANC and Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993 was an even greater trial. The whole country was in ferment. The movement sent a shudder through those who had envisaged a relatively stable movement from apartheid capitalism to capitalism led by the ANC. But Mandela was able brilliantly to express the outrage at the murder and simultaneously continue the negotiations.

The ANC’s 1994 election manifesto contained some quite radical promises. But at the same time ANC leaders made it quite clear there was not going to be any assault on capitalism. In a speech to white farmers Mandela insisted they had nothing to fear from ANC rule and that their land would not be nationalised. He told business leaders in London, “We have issued an investment code which provides there will be no expropriation of property or investments. Foreign investors will be able to repatriate dividends and profits.” Pallo Jordan, the ANC’s mineral and energy policy coordinator, confirmed that nationalisation of mining companies or mineral rights was not under consideration.

The ANC leaders who headed South Africa after 1994 hoped to preside over a “fair” capitalism where black and white would be treated equally. They hoped that “partnership” with the bosses would produce prosperity. But the price for securing the goodwill of the powerful corporations, landowners and bankers, both in South Africa and abroad, was the abandonment of their promises to the masses. The process began even before the elections with the decisions of the ANC-dominated interim government. As the writer Patrick Bond says:

The very first act of the interim government was to accept an $850 million loan from the International Monetary Fund… The loan’s secret conditions—leaked
to the main business newspaper in March 1994—included the usual items from the classical structural adjustment menu: lower import tariffs, cuts in state spending, and large cuts in public sector wages.12

Two years into its rule the ANC imposed an even more neoliberal economic strategy, based on World Bank advice. Ministers pleaded that this was the only alternative to economic collapse. The ANC knew it could rely on the union leaders and the SACP to do no more than mutter against this turn. They might criticise the ANC, but they would not propose any alternative. Together they sought to squash any systematic opposition. One of the best organised and most militant working classes in the world was held back as the SACP’s leadership came to justify the ANC regime’s shifts. Trade union militants became caught up in a process of stopping strikes rather than encouraging them.

Neoliberalism has been a disaster. Of course there have been some changes since 1994. There are more homes, more people linked to the electricity grid and more schools and hospitals. But not nearly enough. And real economic power remains with the same corporations as under apartheid. Meanwhile a tiny black elite has made itself fabulously wealthy.

Such conditions provoke resistance. And because the state is determined to face down the resistance rather than confront capital, it also means the ANC has turned to repression. The Marikana massacre was a continuation of a wider process, not a break from it. But the fightback will not go away.

Due to the extraordinary courage and defiance of the miners, the Marikana massacre did not end the Lonmin strike. Instead it fuelled a great wave of further resistance. Immediately after the murder a further 23,000 miners in the Marikana complex struck, eventually forcing Lonmin to concede a substantial pay rise. Workers also took strike action at Bafokeng Rasimone Platinum Mine, the Thembelani Anglo Platinum’s mine and facility and Eastern Platinum’s Crocodile River Mine. A report from the US Geological Survey says:

In early September [2012], unrest spread to Amplats’s Rustenburg operations. Rustenburg employed 21,000 workers and accounted for about one third of Amplats’s mine production. In early October, the company fired 12,000 striking workers and confirmed labour strikes at its Union and Amandelbult operations… Strikes also spread to other PGM [platinum-group metals], gold, and iron ore producers and to the transportation sector. In September and October, workers went on strike at Atlatsa Resources Corp’s Bokoni Mine, Gold Fields Ltd’s Beatrix and KDC West Mines, Gold One International Ltd’s Ezulwini Mine, Harmony Gold Ltd’s Kusasalethu Mine, Kumba Iron Ore Ltd’s Sishen Mine, and Village Main Reef Ltd’s Blyvoor Mine. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd had strikes at all its gold mining operations.13

The strikes spread to lorry drivers, sections of municipal workers and even farm workers in the Western Cape—some of the most exploited and oppressed workers in the country. Trevor Ngwane of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) was right to say:

Marikana is a spark for a new South Africa! It is a spark for a South Africa that works for, affirms and advances the interests of the workers and poor. It is a spark for a worker-led democracy! We say to the ANC ministers, the credit rating agencies, the International Monetary Fund and most importantly the mining bosses—the Marikana moment is here to stay! As long as the rich get richer and workers poorer in South Africa the Marikana moment is here to stay!14

Wherever miners’ strikes took place they involved mainly NUM members. But, just as at Lonmin, the NUM officials ruthlessly opposed the strikes. Workers therefore set up their own independent committees which in some cases began to set up coordinating committees across the mines. This was an extremely important development. The workers rejected not only the NUM but also—in the initial stages—AMCU as well in favour of rank and file committees. The rock drill operators’ committees set up from June 2012 were intensely democratic. There were elections, recalls of reps if workers felt they weren’t doing their job, and regular re-election of shop stewards. The committees represented thousands of workers concentrated in a handful of strategically crucial workplaces. Workers formulated their own demands for a “living wage” of 12,500 rand. The now-iconic 12,500 rand demand did not come from a union leader or a think-tank or a politician. It came from below based on workers’ lives and what they felt they could win. At the Farlam Commission workers have repeatedly been asked: “Who came up with this figure?” Lawyers and others seem to find it inconceivable that it came from the workers. Not surprisingly, employers and the government were terrified that independent workers’ committees would take root and spread beyond the mines. In fact they did not become permanent structures, due to intense hostility from the union leaders. But many of these activists became the key organisers in the AMCU union. AMCU was a step forward compared to NUM, a step back compared to the independent committees.15

AMCU, formed by miners expelled from the NUM for unofficial militancy, had achieved a foothold in the mines (particularly at Lonmin) before the massacre. Afterwards workers flooded into the new union. In most circumstances revolutionaries oppose splitting activists away from unions that organise the majority of the workforce. But in this case it became impossible to implement a rank and file strategy inside the NUM. Workers who challenged the existing leadership were met with expulsions and violence. The NUM hierarchy became a byword for corruption and manoeuvre. The union was increasingly integrated into corporate structures with powerful material benefits for those who hung on to their union positions. Greg Marinovich writes:

Despite the pitfalls of conflicted interests, NUM pushed the mines to pay unionists’ salaries. At the lower end, full-time shaft or shop stewards received a few thousand rands extra per month to bring them to a Patterson C level pay grade—roughly R12,000 to R14,000 a month. In addition they received a company petrol card, company cell phone and a company vehicle. Then there were the other perks—bosberaads or company get-togethers, international excursions, etc. Obviously, these unionists did not do another underground shift; they were freed from the arduous labour and conditions that had encouraged them to join the union in the first place. The arrangement with the mines that were their original employers was that should shop stewards not be re-elected, they would return to their old jobs. This was not something anyone wished to do.16

Accountability went out the window. In its place came a cosy atmosphere of working with the bosses.

The strikes ebbed towards the end of 2012. But the circumstances that had produced them did not. And 2014 has seen two further mass strikes of huge political importance. First came the remarkable all-out strike lasting five months by up to 80,000 workers at Anglo American, Impala and Lonmin, three of the world’s major platinum producers. It became the biggest miners’ strike in South African history. This was the continuation of the pay battle that started at Marikana—and because its bosses had reneged on the deal won in 2012 and it was utterly opposed by the NUM union, the ANC and the SACP. A great class struggle took place—and they were on the wrong side.

It ended with a deal that, although it did not meet all the miners’ demands, was undoubtedly seen by millions of black workers as a victory. The NUM and ANC described it as a defeat. In fact AMCU was not broken by starvation, state repression, the hostility of the media, the lies and slurs from the ANC and the NUM, the armoured cars, the tear gas, the batons and the bullets. It prevailed. It faced down ruthless multinational capital and won concessions. When bosses sent out threatening text messages to strikers and tried to organise mass scabbing backed up by the might of the state, the workers responded with rallies and meetings, intensive picketing and mobilisations that stopped the scabbing before it began. The “back to work” movement failed utterly. Had other major unions backed AMCU there could have been a total victory that would have completely changed the environment in South Africa. And AMCU, whatever its weaknesses, showed a grassroots style of trade unionism that was far more democratic than the NUM’s operations. AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa did not dare make any decision about the strike without the broadest consultation with members and stewards. The final acceptance of the offer came after a protracted series of meetings involving tens of thousands of workers.17

The success of the AMCU action, despite its abandonment by almost all the other unions, lent weight to the idea that there is a positive alternative to the traditional political forces.

Then came an all-out strike over pay by 220,000 workers in the steel and engineering sectors who are members of Numsa. It began just as the five-month platinum miners’ strike ended, and metal workers were undoubtedly inspired by the miners’ courage. The strike hit the bosses hard, affected 12,000 firms and, according to the employers, cost companies £25 million a day. Carmakers including Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Ford and General Motors stopped production at some or all of their South African units due to lack of components. The ANC and sections of the top bosses were already shaken by the platinum strike—and the dip in GDP caused by it. The credit ratings agency Moody’s commented: “The Numsa strike threatens to bring this year’s number of lost workdays close to the 20.7 million record set in 2010. South Africa’s reputation among investors is being increasingly damaged by the strike-prone nature of its economy”.18 Metal bosses were therefore in no condition to hold out indefinitely.

The strike ended after four weeks having forced bosses to make major concessions over pay and other matters. Irvin Jim, Numsa general secretary, said: “The settlement offer has been overwhelmingly and unanimously accepted by our members. This is a massive victory given the pittance offer at the point of deadlock.”

Faced with this show of workers’ defiance and power, top ANC leaders are now demanding new anti-strike laws—ironically similar to those pushed through by Margaret Thatcher—apartheid’s last friend—in Britain. We are likely to see a determined assault on militant workers in order to shore up profits and prevent the “contagion” of inspiration from the platinum miners and metal workers to other groups. Big business are increasingly worried that the “reasonable” unions that they have learned to live with are being replaced by a more militant brand of activists. A few days after the Marikana massacre South Africa’s bosses’ paper, Business Day, ran an editorial saying:

The new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is slowly taking apart the venerable National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the platinum industry, mine after mine. That fact, on its own, should be enough to raise alarm bells throughout the South African body politic. The NUM is the thoughtful, considered heart of the union movement here… As a union it is a powerful voice of reason in an often loud and rash movement. It appreciates and values private capital and strong companies. Business everywhere should be hoping the union finds a way to defend itself effectively from AMCU’s attacks… There is not going to be any stopping AMCU. That means a solution to the violence has to be found at a high level, and that it has to recognise, for the NUM and for Cosatu and the ANC itself, the extremely uncomfortable truth that there is a power building in the land over which they have little or no influence, and which itself has little or no respect for the powers that be.19

Turmoil in Cosatu

At several points in the last 20 years the fury among workers at the ANC’s pro-capitalist policies has found a reflection at the top of the unions and come close to seeing serious splits inside Cosatu. But it has never come to a break. Workers quite rightly prize unity, and this is a heavy pressure towards the sinking of secondary differences. But now there is a serious possibility that Cosatu may divide. Much of the media highlights the role of Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu’s general secretary. Vavi was an important figure in the NUM before becoming Cosatu deputy general secretary in 1993 and then general secretary from 1999. He campaigned for Jacob Zuma to become president but became increasingly critical of him.

Since 2010 Cosatu leaders talked openly of the “predatory elite” and the threat of the emergence of a “predatory state”. The federation launched campaigns against neoliberal government policies and targeted not only the ANC leaders but also the SACP figures who were loyal members of the cabinet. In January 2012 Cosatu launched Corruption Watch to highlight the misuse of office at the top. Such assaults, from such a respected position, were not ignored. The ANC and SACP leaders turned against Vavi because he represented a much broader sense of anger inside the working class.

Then in 2013 Vavi was accused by a Cosatu employee of rape and sexual assault. He said they had an affair. The woman subsequently withdrew a sexual harassment complaint against him. In August 2013 Vavi was suspended from office, a decision that was recently overturned in court. Numsa and a group of unions that support its position have demanded a special Cosatu conference to discuss and decide the issue, but this has been blocked by ANC-supporting unions that have a tiny majority on the executive.

Last year Zwelinzima Vavi dismissed superficial or personalised explanations of the crisis in Cosatu. The notes for his speech point towards much deeper political issues:

  • The real bases of the crisis in Cosatu are its complex and contradictory class relationships which it finds itself having to deal with, on a daily basis, in the multiclass and unstructured ANC led Alliance, to which it belongs.
  • The second basis is the failure of the liberation movement as a whole, to resolve the national, gender and class questions post-1994, and letting the Black and African capitalists in the liberation movement to win the day. This has led to the strengthening and deepening of the colonial capitalist mode of production in South Africa and its social relations, and thus deepening and worsening unemployment, mass poverty and extreme inequalities.
  • The singular failure to address the property question, in favour of the popular masses post-1994 in point 2 above, threatens to actually overwhelm and destroy the liberation movement as a whole, and Cosatu in particular.
  • The crisis in Cosatu is a reflection of the class contradictions and class struggles that are broadly playing themselves out in South Africa and in the liberation movement and its formations between the South African Black and African proletariat and the forces of South African colonial capitalism and imperialism.20

The vituperative divisions inside Cosatu, which may well see Numsa expelled in the near future, are not about Vavi’s leadership; they are an echo of the wider arguments inside the working class after Marikana.

The election

At first sight there is no reflection of the “Marikana moment” on the electoral field. But that ignores the long-term fall in the ANC vote, and the emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Beneath the surface there are major shifts taking place.

At the May 2014 general election the ANC was the clear winner with 62 percent of the vote, only a few percent down from 2009. It retains a huge loyalty from those who see it as the party of Nelson Mandela and the main force that conquered apartheid. The SACP’s election poster avoided any class appeal, saying simply: “Do it for Madiba [Mandela]—vote ANC”.

But the ANC’s vote is ebbing. South Africa’s current voting age population—those who could have voted—is approximately 32.6 million. The 11.4 million votes for the ANC in May represent 35 percent of this figure. And by this measure the ANC’s support has been falling ever since the end of apartheid. It declined from 54 percent in 1994 to 47 percent in 1999 to 40 percent in 2004 to 39 percent in 2009 and now to 35 percent. The idea of an unchanging ANC hegemony looks far less credible when only one in three of the voting age population vote for them.

The ANC’s vote is falling most sharply in the cities. In Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and is the country’s most populous province, the ANC share fell from 64 percent in 2009 to 55 percent in 2014.

The state-funded luxury upgrade of President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home estate has become a symbol of the corruption of sections of the ANC and the increasing divide between the governing elite, with their opulent lifestyles, and those who had elected them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said that the ANC government had “stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on”.

One of the most powerful contributions during the election period came when a group of veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle headed by Ronnie Kasrils said they would not be voting ANC. Kasrils is a former leader of the ANC’s armed wing, leading member of the SACP and intelligence minister after the end of apartheid. Now he urged people to vote for progressive alternatives to the ANC, even if they were small parties. If people could not find any organisation they favoured then it was their right not to vote at all.

Such a position flowed from what Kasrils had written in 2013:

From 1991 to 1996 the battle for the ANC’s soul got under way, and was eventually lost to corporate power: we were entrapped by the neoliberal economy… What I call our Faustian moment came when we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election. That loan, with strings attached that precluded a radical economic agenda… To lose our nerve was not necessary or inevitable. The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption—and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out… To break apartheid rule through negotiation, rather than a bloody civil war, seemed then an option too good to be ignored. However, at that time, the balance of power was with the ANC, and conditions were favourable for more radical change at the negotiating table than we ultimately accepted.21

Many South Africans agree with that. The ANC is far from finished. It retains vast reserves of respect and a committed cadre, including some excellent activists. But it is no longer the unchallenged force on the left.


The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a party that had existed for only eight months, won well over a million votes (6.5 percent) and secured 25 of the 400 members of the new parliament. This real achievement was based on expressing the deep resentment and frustration with the lack of change since 1994, and hatred of the arrogance and corruption of the ANC’s elite. It was undoubtedly a left vote, a radical vote and a sign of what is possible in terms of an alternative to the ANC.

The EFF’s approach was uncompromisingly militant, with its activists clad in Che Guevara style berets and red T-shirts proclaiming “Economic Freedom in our Lifetime”—a clear message that the end of apartheid might have meant some political freedom but economic change was still to come. Its posters had slogans such as “Destroy e-tolls physically” (a reference to the automatic charging system that bills drivers for using major roads), “Let’s stop Nkandla corruption” and “Nationalise the banks and the mines”. The EFF leader (or Commander in Chief as the party calls him) Julius “JuJu” Malema derided the ANC as the “African National Criminals”.

To his great credit, Malema gave total support to the Marikana miners in 2012 and called for nationalisation of the mines. The EFF backed the 2014 platinum miners’ strike and on 16 August announced that it would build homes for the widows of the Marikana slain.

Malema is in some ways an unlikely character to lead an anti-corruption, anti-ANC elite party. He faces charges of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money laundering. He vehemently denies these but the evidence is overwhelming. Malema was president of the ANC’s Youth League from 2008 until he was expelled from the party in 2012. But Malema’s former ties to the ruling party and his wealth have proved no barrier to him effectively expressing the resentments of the poor. He came from a very poor family and when he speaks about poverty and humiliation you can tell he knows what he is talking about.

In truth the EFF’s positions are often less far-reaching than its posters suggest. For example, its nationalisation proposals would leave 40 percent of the mines in the hands of private capital. And even then Malema said that although there would be some form of nationalisation “the percentages we are prepared to discuss when we reach the appropriate point”. The EFF is also open to populist pressure. When it launched its manifesto it said that it would seek to hold a referendum on the reintroduction of the death penalty. This reactionary policy appealed to more backward elements of its support base but fortunately was quietly sidelined later in the campaign.

More fundamentally the EFF has no real analysis of the state, or of capitalism itself. It simply accepts that a parliamentary majority would be sufficient to implement far-reaching change. Yet any serious assault on the power of capital would be met by a very unparliamentary response—as Marikana precisely demonstrated. And much of the EFF’s rhetoric suggests that the problem is that ownership and control are in the hands of white bosses rather than black African ones. It is indeed a scandal that the same bosses who lorded it during apartheid are in many cases still in their positions and still immensely powerful. But putting Cyril Ramaphosa in the director’s padded chair has clearly made little difference. Installing Julius Malema or his friends as chief executives would be equally ineffective. The EFF promotes a sort of state capitalism with change from above but little initiative from below.

However, there is no doubt the EFF is having a big impact and is reaching out primarily to the poor. It has caused a huge stir by refusing to obey the stuffy procedures of parliament. Whenever he sees the ANC bowing and scraping to some pompous nonsense inherited from Westminster-style parliaments, Malema’s instinct is to ridicule it and tear it up. Good luck to him. The parliament has a strict dress code that the EFF’s MPs subverted from day one. They came for the swearing-in ceremony dressed in red overalls as miners or domestic workers to emphasis that they were there to “go to work” for the people and the revolution. This enraged the other parties. When the EFF tried the same tactic in the Gauteng provincial legislature, they were forcibly expelled. Riot police used stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas to eject the EFF from the chamber.

Even more unacceptable to the powerful was Malema’s claim in parliament that the ANC had murdered 34 miners in Marikana. He was eventually excluded from the chamber but he certainly did not back off, holding a press conference to announce: “No prison, not even death, can stop this idea that the ANC murdered people.”

Of course, stunts and speeches are not enough, but they have made an impact. The EFF is set to do well in the municipal elections in 2015 and has strong support among large sections of the unemployed, young people and casual workers although it is much weaker in the unions and among permanent workers. Its members and supporters could play an important role in Numsa’s new socialist party project (which I will discuss shortly).

The EFF has shown a willingness to engage with other parts of the left—including the Trotskyist left. It has, for example, met with the DLF to discuss the possibility of joint campaigns and has drawn in some DLF members to bolster its work. This is positive and underlines that the EFF cannot be ignored by anyone—including Numsa—that wants a new left.

Unfortunately the EFF refused an invitation to take part in a symposium on left parties hosted by Numsa in August this year. It gave two reasons for its non-attendance. One was that Numsa had not made sufficient effort to hold talks with the EFF leadership—hardly a reason to ignore an opportunity to put forward the EFF’s view. The second was worse:

a concern that Numsa still forms part of the alliance with the ruling party, the ANC, through Cosatu. There is no clarity, for instance, whether the current differences in Cosatu are deeper ideological differences, or political differences which can be settled through a process presided by, amongst others, Cyril Ramaphosa, who is an enemy of the working class and responsible for the murder of workers in Marikana.22

That is an ultra-left refusal to recognise the immense potential of what Numsa is trying to do and, also, that any left alternative to the ANC and SACP will repeatedly have to enter forums where the ANC operates in order to win its supporters. The EFF will also need to show that the slurs of its critics in the ANC are baseless.

In July ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said Malema was a “Hitler in the making”, and that there were close parallels between the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s and that of the EFF. Days later he reiterated that South Africa has witnessed “the entering of a fascist movement into our parliamentary politics”. Earlier in a parliamentary debate on the budget, deputy minister Buti Manamela said that Malema was a dictator in the making and he feared that Hitler had “risen from the dead”.

In case such myths do not work, there have also been moves by sections of the ANC to pose left in order to counter criticisms that they have sold out. In August 2014 Gauteng ANC spokesman Nkenke Kekana said there was “frustration about the slow pace of economic transformation, and that there was a need for a much more radical approach towards the economy”. A motion to the 2015 ANC national general council calls for the state to intervene in mine ownership—although in the form of support for black “entrepreneurs” rather than through social ownership. Top ANC figures have also discussed the formation of a state bank, although again this would be through the purchase of one of the major banks rather than through any form of expropriation.

The EFF has put forward a real challenge and mobilised people in an exciting way. There remain serious doubts about how far it can become a genuine anti-capitalist force. But it is one of the forces that the left must engage with very seriously. It will be a test for the DLF, which has brought together activists on the far left. It was formed in January 2011 after a conference at Wits University of 250 delegates representing a diverse range of social movements, popular organisations and anti-capitalist formations. This followed a lengthy period of discussion and preparation. The conference declared:

Post-apartheid capitalism is leaving a trail of hunger, poverty, anger and misery. The wealthy elite, the bosses and their hangers on refuse to concede a single inch to the urgent needs of the majority. They label even the most modest reforms as the thin edge of the wedge of communism. And as always the government shakes and concedes… And a new round of suffering begins for our people.23

The DLF has done important work in uniting far-left groups and individuals and then organising solidarity with strikes and protests. It took a lead in backing the miners’ struggles in 2012 and 2014. It now has to work constructively with the EFF and, in particular, the Numsa project.


If the EFF has caused shudders, the discussions about a new workers’ party could bring down the house. I say “could”; there is a long way to go. These discussions centre on South Africa’s biggest union, the 320,000-strong metal workers’ union Numsa.

The process of moving to new political formations after Marikana was not instantaneous. But the tensions it produced were too great to contain in the existing structures. Partly this was because of developing turmoil in Cosatu, and partly because the ANC and SACP showed no sign of learning from the uproar after the massacre. The Numsa special congress that met in December 2013 said that four factors had led to the need for a fundamental re-think of past positions. First the ANC had adopted the National Development Plan, whose faults were not that it was technically flawed or needed minor revision. Instead, for Numsa, “it is the programme of our class enemy. It is a programme to continue to feed profit at the expense of the working class and the poor.” Secondly, the ANC leadership had shown at recent conferences that it would not allow fundamental challenges to its direction—and it would manoeuvre and trample on procedure to crush challenges. Thirdly, Cosatu had been consumed by internal battles and Numsa “has been continuously vilified and smeared by those opposed to its militant approach”. Finally the state had “attacked and killed workers on behalf of capital”. In summary “the ANC has been captured by representatives of an enemy class. It has adopted the strategic plan of that class. Its leadership has shown that it will not let the small issue of democracy get in the way of defending its control.”

Furthermore the congress went on to say that the tripartite alliance of the ANC, SACP and Cosatu “is dysfunctional, in crisis, paralysed and dominated by infighting and factionalism. It has been captured by right wing forces… 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.” After Marikana Numsa had bitterly criticised the ANC and SACP but had dedicated itself to winning back the SACP so that it became a true party of the working class. This project had now been abandoned.

The conclusion was a call on Cosatu to break from the Alliance: “The time for looking for an alternative has arrived.” Numsa would also “lead in the establishment of a new United Front that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the UDF of the 1980s. The task of this front will be to fight for the implementation of the Freedom Charter and to be an organisational weapon against neoliberal policies such as the NDP.” In addition: “Side by side with the establishment of the new United Front, Numsa will explore the establishment of a Movement for Socialism as the working class needs a political organisation committed in its policies and actions to the establishment of a socialist South Africa.”

Then the Numsa congress turned to the coming elections. It acknowledged: “We have traditionally supported ANC in elections. Since 1994, Numsa has invested resources and person-power towards ensuring an ANC victory in elections.” But now, given the factors discussed above, “Numsa as an organisation will neither endorse nor support the ANC or any other political party in 2014… Numsa will cease to pay into the COSATU/SACP political levy”.24

This was a hugely significant development offering a powerful alternative to the ANC. The revolutionary left should wholly welcome discussions towards a “united front and movement for socialism”. There will be problems ahead, and I shall come to some of these. But the first reaction has to be unstinting support for the process that Numsa has begun. If there is a party to the left of the ANC and the SACP involving tens of thousands of workers and the poor, based on the organised working class, and committed to the revolutionary transformation of society, then it will be massively significant.

It will offer an important space for serious united activity, immensely fruitful learning in the course of working together, and discussion about how a successful revolution can take place and what socialism really means. It will be a place for all the serious revolutionary forces including Keep Left (the SWP’s sister organisation in South Africa), the DLF, and the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP)25 to act together and to seek to break militants from reformism.

The Numsa process is posing again, and set to resolve in a more positive way, the key issues about politics and trade unionism that were raised and debated in an earlier period. The modern black trade union movement was born out of a series of strikes in Durban in 1973. As the unions grew there was a sharp debate about the relationship with political organisations in general, and the ANC in particular. The activists who headed the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) in 1979 consciously rejected the subjugation of workers’ interests to those of the multi-class ANC. The experience of Zimbabwe and other national liberation struggles underlined for them the need for an independent workers’ movement that was not used as an occasional actor to strengthen the hands of black capitalists who wanted to achieve their own place in the sun. This did not mean they wholly ignored the wider political questions—who could do so in apartheid South Africa? In 1982 Fosatu played a leading role in the first political strike of the modern era—a half hour stoppage involving 100,000 workers in protest at the death in police custody of trade union organiser Neil Aggett. Fosatu news described it as the “first national work stoppage for nearly 20 years and the first in which workers stopped work simultaneously in their factories and did not just stay away from work”.

This pointed the way towards a potential political alternative to the ANC: rooted in the working class and fighting for class interests in the workplace and in the struggle to change society. But without the creation of such an alternative the only force putting forward a strategy to defeat apartheid was the ANC; it might be imperfect but it could not be challenged by a void. The Fosatu unions either in effect tailed the ANC or were, for most of the time, politically abstentionist. There was talk about a workers’ party, but it did not happen. In 1982 the Fosatu general secretary Joe Foster told the federation’s congress: “It is, therefore, essential that workers must strive to build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are part of the wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to protect and further worker interests and to ensure that the popular movement is not hijacked by elements who will in the end have no option but to turn against their worker supporters.”

As journalist Martin Plaut writes, the speech:

held out the implicit threat that Fosatu would be the launch pad from which a workers party would be formed—possibly on the lines of the Workers Party in Brazil. The reply was provided by the “African Communist”, which was then much more than just the theoretical journal of the South African Communist Party (SACP). It was the mouthpiece of the Congress Alliance. Fosatu was labelled as “syndicalist” and the union federation was accused of attempting to substitute itself for the Communist Party as the party of the working class.

The ANC mobilised to ensure that it not only won the unions to its cause, but to its political perspective. Within four years it had managed to exert enough political muscle to persuade the South African union movement to reform itself as the Congress of South African Trade Unions—Cosatu—adopting the Congress label as an indication that its loyalties lay with the Congress Alliance. They had also managed to arrange a meeting with the new Cosatu leadership in Zambia, at which the Cosatu general secretary endorsed the exiled movement as the leading element in the liberation struggle.26

In 1994 the 170,000 strong Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union called on the Cosatu trade union federation to break its links with the ANC after the elections. And against the advice of its leadership, Numsa voted to consider a workers’ party and to sever ties with an ANC-led government of national unity. But neither of these led to a decisive break or a new party—and workers have suffered because of it.

Now the question is posed again. What are the central issues that a Numsa-led Movement for Socialism (MfS) will face? The first concerns the nature of capitalism and the state in South Africa. In a very interesting document produced in March 2014, Numsa puts forward its views on basic questions facing the left in the country. It says: “In all essential respects, however, the colonial status of the black majority has remained in place. Therefore we characterise our society as ‘colonialism of a special type’”.27 This formulation, popularised by the ANC and SACP, was used to say that change in South Africa had to go through a number of stages—first the national democratic revolution to get rid of colonialism of a special type (apartheid), then eventually socialist revolution. Irvin Jim, in his Ruth First memorial lecture this year, spoke repeatedly of how he believes South Africa remains a colonial country.

Notions of colonialism, whether simple or of a “special type”, can be used in different ways. Many in Numsa would say they reject stageism and believe in a simultaneous struggle against colonial control and the capitalist system itself. Irvin Jim spoke recently of “the interrelatedness, the dialectical connectedness, of racial and capitalist oppression and exploitation in South Africa”.28 The problem is that such concepts often obscure the nature of an indigenous and independent capitalist class that has its own interest and its own dynamic. The struggle is not against some particular form of capital: it is capitalism itself that brings exploitation and oppression.

The capitalist state, whether under apartheid or colonialism or “free” capitalism, acts in the interests of the capitalist class and enforces its rule. We saw that state in operation in Marikana as capital; the “bodies of armed men” of which Lenin spoke in The State and Revolution and the governing apparatus all conspired and combined to assault the proletariat. Socialism in South Africa is possible only on the basis of smashing that state. It is this essential truth that explains why “democracy” after apartheid has not delivered for the vast majority. As Lenin wrote:

Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor. It is this truth, which forms a most essential part of Marx’s teaching”.29

The MfS needs to be much more than an SACP Mark 2 based on votes and with a conception of society that evades the need to smash the bourgeois state.

More particularly there are four questions for any new Numsa-launched formation. These matter because it will come under immense pressure from its Alliance rivals. Already the ANC and SACP are encouraging the growth of an alternative union to Numsa which would affiliate to Cosatu if Numsa is expelled or leaves. And a Cosatu congress decision which goes some way towards Numsa’s position is likely to be ignored by the right in Cosatu. This will pose huge questions for Numsa and any political alternative it supports. So clarity about its ideas is important.


The MfS would rightly stand in elections in order to test its strength, mobilise people around its ideas and win representatives to speak out in parliament, the provinces and councils. This would be important. But if it becomes the central and dominant concern it will be disastrous. Here the example of the Brazilian Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) is instructive. The PT was formed in quite similar circumstances to the MfS: it came from a series of very militant workers’ struggles and from opposition to a brutal military dictatorship. It united trade unionists and intellectuals, community groups, indigenous people’s movements, landless people’s organisations, women’s groups and others. Politically it was a left reaction to the conservatism and Stalinism of the Brazilian Communist Party. It was an undoubted step forward. But its focus on elections and securing victory for its presidential candidate Lula led to concession after concession. In order to calm the financial markets before the 2002 presidential election, Lula issued a “Letter to the Brazilian people”—in truth a letter to the Brazilian ruling class. It committed the PT to meeting the budget limits imposed by the IMF. When he took office, he not only did this, but went further and increased the budget surplus from 3.5 percent of GDP to 4.6 percent. Bankers applauded his rule, characterising it as “continuity not change”. Lula and the PT have achieved some improvements for the poor, but no more than the ANC delivered. It is a lesson of the dangers of making elections the most important focus. The rightward drift of Syriza in Greece as it comes closer to office and seeks to make itself acceptable to bosses and sections of the right is another example. The MfS must be based on struggle, not elections.

A tribune of the oppressed

Lenin argued that a revolutionary’s ideal “should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation”.30The MfS has to connect with all of South Africa’s poor and oppressed. It must be based on the power of the organised working class, but has to draw in the unemployed, the school, college and university students, the casual workers, the women. Otherwise there is a danger of a “division of labour” where the EFF draws on the communities and MfS on the workplace.

Organised workers must be at the centre of a new formation. The MfS must fight for full nationalisation of key industries and banks under social control, for jobs, decent pay and workers’ rights. But it must also campaign on housing, a national free health service, better transport, against xenophobia and homophobia and for women’s liberation.

The failure of the trade unions and most of the left to relate to these issues and to address seriously a decade of rebellion inside working class communities is a tragic mistake. Leonard Gentle writes:

We have had nearly ten years of working class communities being in what has been called everything from “service delivery” protests to a “revolt of the poor.” And this too has passed Cosatu by. We have just had an election in which more than a million people voted for a party—the EFF—which embraces a language of militant left wing politics—nationalisation, redistribution of the wealth, and insisting that ministers and public officials must use public services—and this was the language of Cosatu before. But now it lines itself alongside the government against whom all these slogans are directed.31

Gentle undoubtedly makes a powerful point when he rages at the gap between organised labour and the millions of unemployed and never-employed people. He is also correct to point to a “seamless continuity, or rather a toxic cocktail of ‘workplace’ and ‘community issues’” including the appalling living conditions for mine workers in informal camps, that together fuelled militancy around the platinum miners’ strike. However, elsewhere in his article he goes too far in writing off the unions and organised labour. Like establised trade unions everywhere, South Africa’s unions have a bureaucracy that ultimately plays a conservative role. This should not obscure the truth that workers organised at the point of production are more powerful than in the communities. The platinum miners’ strikes cut off the source of profits to the mining bosses. This is what made them such a threat to the system. They were a greater threat than the community unrest. The Marikana massacre was the ruling class’s response to the threat posed by a monstrous enemy.

The task for the left will be to fuse workplace power and community revolt. It cannot operate effectively by dividing the two and ignoring community issues.

What sort of party?

Many activists drawn towards the MfS have seen the failings of the ANC and SACP and are suspicious of parties. This fear of bureaucratic command will be intensified by the central role of Numsa, such a big and well-organised force. This can be overcome only by thoroughgoing democracy, respect for minorities and differences while uniting around key themes and campaigns, the right to organise platforms and to push for internal change while not degenerating into a debating society, and so on. Numsa has democratic structures and its leaders have suffered from a lack of democracy in Cosatu. So there is a good basis to begin with. Numsa’s symposium of the left in August 2014 showed a refreshing openness to debate and mutual learning. The lesson is that any new project requires compromise, listening and patience. It must be a democratic party of struggle and socialism: only this will open it up to the rich input of worker and community activists.

The union leaders

Even the most left wing union leaders face intense pressure arising from their social position. They negotiate compromises rather than seek to abolish the system. At its worst we have seen the bureaucracy in the NUM become an adjunct of management at certain points in the mines. Numsa has far better leaders. But they did not openly organise solidarity with the 2014 platinum miners’ strike and accepted the fudged statement on Marikana at the Cosatu congress. The recent Numsa strike, although a step forward, was organised in a top-down way and the leadership was clearly expecting a short strike. It will have to reassess tactics for longer struggles. This does not diminish the importance of the involvement of leading figures in Numsa in the MfS. But it does mean that the MfS must be organised primarily at the grassroots and rank and file level—and recognise the role trade union leaders play at critical points.


The potential is clear. Can it be fulfilled? In the end that depends on both the objective and the subjective factors. The objective ones are present now, even if they may not be in six months time. The subjective ones—leadership, political organisation, argument that wins others over—are in the hands of parties and individuals. The MfS can play a key role in the struggles ahead. But there is great danger in delay. With every day that passes an opportunity is missed to support a community struggle or act in solidarity with a strike. New political projects cannot be rushed, but there is a momentum in South Africa that exists now and can be focused—must be focused. In the absence of a workers’ party it may cohere around the EFF—then the workers’ party will be a latecomer on the scene. It is time for decisive action.


1: Thanks to members of Keep Left and the Democratic Left Front in South Africa and to Anita Khanna, Peter Dwyer, Alan Goatley, Jim Nichol, Sam Ashman and Alex Callinicos for comments on the draft article.

2: Saba and van der Merwe, 2013.

3: Alexander, 2013.

4: The horrific and well-documented killing of Andries Tatane is one example.

5: Cosatu, 2012.

6: NUM, 2012.

7: Nzimande, 2012.

8: Cronin, 2012.

9: Cosatu, 2012.

10: Alexander, Lekgowa, Mmope, Sinwell, Xezwi, 2013. See also Socialist Worker’s coverage at

11: Numsa, 2012.

12: Bond, 2004.

13: US Department of the Interior and US Geological Survey, 2013.

14: Democratic Left Front, 2012.

15: The potential is captured in another of Jim Nichol’s responses: The Marikana Effect

Who said that?/the employers/their friends/the government/the unions/ the markets/they’re frightened/What is it?/22% increase/Is that it?/Nah-read on
Strike committees/independent/elected/democratic/mass meetings/participation of all workers/all unions/they decide
Want more?/Yes please
Contagion/no boundaries
Employers’ Demands/Unions must rein in members/Unions: “We agree”
Yes-but what if: Strike committees/become shop stewards’ committees/permanent democratic?
Shop stewards committees/meet with other shop stewards committees/as one does
Now there is a problem/for the employers/and their friends
Watch out/the “Marikana Effect”/may be coming to a country near to where you live

16: Marinovich, 2013.

17: Socialist Workers Party members and supporters in Britain sent over R200,000 (£12,000) to the miners and their families as part of the solidarity movement.

18: Williams, 2014.

19: Business Day, 2012.

20: Vavi, 2013.

21: Kasrils, 2013.

22: Economic Freedom Fighters, 2014.

23: Democratic Left Front, 2011.

24: Numsa, 2013.

25: WASP stood in the national election of May 2014 and received just over 8,000 votes (0.05 percent).

26: Plaut, 2013.

27: Numsa, 2014.

28: Jim, 2014.

29: Lenin, 1918.

30: Lenin, 1901.

31: Gentle, 2014.


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