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Lethargic Numsa may have missed its political moment by Natasha Marrian (BdLive), 14 July 2016

14 July 2016

Numsa members strike. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
AUGUST’s local government elections are aptly billed as the most difficult elections to read since 1994. This is, in many ways, a by-product of a decade of turbulence and considerable shifts in the body politic.

From the DA snatching a province from the ANC, the recall of Thabo Mbeki, the tsunami that swept Jacob Zuma into the presidency, the destruction of the ANC Youth League, to the disintegration of labour federation Cosatu, and the rise of the EFF, to the election of the first black DA leader — there has seldom been a dull moment in our democracy.

Amid this tumult was a decision by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) — Cosatu’s largest affiliate — to distance itself from the ANC-led alliance at the end of 2013, precipitating its expulsion from the labour federation.

The "Numsa moment", as it was billed, first exploded, then fizzled and popped surreptitiously off the scene in the wake of a jobs bloodbath in manufacturing. The union’s decision not to campaign for the ANC in the 2014 national polls probably contributed to the party’s drop in support in Gauteng from 64% to 53%.

Numsa’s offspring, the United Front, is registered to contest elections in several provinces under different names.

In Gauteng, the United Front of Civics will contest wards in the cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, and in one ward in Sedibeng.

In Plettenberg Bay and Bitou in the Western Cape, a United Front affiliate, Active United Front, will contest the areas’ wards.

There are also United Front affiliates contesting wards in Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

But the United Front of the Eastern Cape — a Numsa stronghold — has the largest presence. Its spokesman, Mziyanda Twani, says it is contesting 43 of the 60 wards in the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, as well as wards in Buffalo City, Sterkspruit and the Chris Hani district municipalities. Shop stewards are dealing with worker issues by day and campaigning at night.

The United Front of the Eastern Cape is functioning on a tiny budget, and the contact number listed on the Electoral Commission of SA website is for Numsa’s regional office.

The union’s political ambitions have been stalled by job shedding in the steel and manufacturing sectors, and financial troubles, but mainly by internal differences over whether the party should be "mass-based" or a "vanguard" in the image of the South African Communist Party.

United Front activists campaigning for the election say that the polls themselves are not as important as the aftermath — it is providing an opportunity to do some groundwork and to create infrastructure that will eventually be absorbed into the "political organ" Numsa is intent on creating.

It may be too late, however, with the EFF now occupying the political space to the left of the ANC. But the United Front is dismissive of this threat — citing credibility issues faced by EFF leader Julius Malema.

However, Malema has clearly been working hard to counter perceptions about him — his corruption charges and run-ins with the taxman are in the past. He got married and is rapidly shedding weight as well as the perception that he is a thriving tenderpreneur. He obtained a degree and says he intends to register for an honours in philosophy. The commander-in-chief is doing some serious brand repair and cuts a stark figure from the one associated with the chaotic, bum-exposing youth league conference in which he was elected president in 2008.

But Numsa leaders are pushing on, and will next week once again hold a policy workshop during which the union will discuss the shape and form of its political party.

A final decision will be made soon afterwards at the union’s central committee meeting.

There have been constant attempts by Numsa members who remain loyal to the ANC to thwart the union’s political ambitions. A further complication is Numsa’s national congress in December, when it will elect new leadership. Since Numsa took its self-proclaimed "ground-breaking" decision in late 2013, the union has been in an oddly contradictory state — hesitant in the face of its determination to make a final break with the politics of the congress movement. It may have missed its moment.