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Numsa: Is this the left’s moment?

The announcement that Numsa would form its own socialist party should come as no surprise. Numsa’s battles within Cosatu (most notably with its historical rival, the Jacob Zuma-aligned NUM) and the ruling alliance (particularly with the Zuma faction, ostensibly on questions of ideology) have served as a generous forewarning that this was coming.

Further, in light of the EFF’s leftist populism gaining significant electoral support, and its subsequent domination of the political arena, Numsa is hardly alone in thinking that it could replicate — and possibly better — the EFF’s success. Indeed, it may not be thinking that at all: rather, it could see itself as the union-affiliate that the EFF would need in order to truly rival the ANC’s reach and breadth. After all, both Numsa and the EFF openly recognise their similar platforms despite making public denials of further cooperation having occurred between the two.

It is too early to tell whether Numsa and the EFF will drift towards each other to form a left-leaning rival to the ANC. Some analysts will undoubtedly argue that this is the catalyst for the grand ideological realignment of South African politics that is often predicted. Contrarily, I would urge caution.

Irvin Jim (Gallo)
Irvin Jim (Gallo)

Firstly, the manoeuvres of splinter groups from the ANC are rarely driven by ideology. Rather, they are often a direct result of how factions within the ANC fare in intra-party battles. The patronage network that remains in place, and the federalised structure of the ANC, which allows strong individuals to maintain fiefdoms, means that only in very limited circumstances — where a return from the political wilderness is virtually non-existent — will parties break away. The examples of the IFP (ie Buthelezi & Co), Cope (ie Lekota & Co), and the EFF (Malema & Co) are all instructive: while disguised in ideology, the real motivation for departure was personal ambition. The rivalry of Irvin Jim and Zuma is no different. And any prospective alliance based on ideology will have to answer difficult questions that all Numsa’s prospective partners have little real capacity to answer.

Secondly, Numsa has announced that it is going it alone — not joining the EFF. This is significant because, even if it does eventually end up with the EFF, it signals that Numsa has misgivings about (a) the party’s commitment to leftist ideology and, (b) the power dynamic that would ensue between their respective leaderships. Jim is not going to form a party to escape an obdurate Zuma only so that he would then have to deal with an obstinate Julius Malema. And neither would Malema want to have a situation he was only too happy with when he headed the ANCYL: the tail trying to wag the beast. Both sides must be patently aware of this — and the fact that the overtures are non-existent shows that. Realpolitik may suggest that joining forces could topple the ANC but, being schooled in the ways of factionalism — and particularly how short-term alliances can go awfully awry — Numsa and the EFF are probably more keen to preserve themselves right now.

Thirdly, the commitment of both Numsa and the EFF to genuinely rival the ANC remains to be seen. The lack of structures, proper financing, institutional capacity, and organisational strength, are tests that they will have to overcome. While the EFF does seem to be making some inroads in this regard, and Numsa does have the benefit of already being a constituted union, the fact that neither of them have functioned as a fully-fledged political party for a long period of time is something that cannot be overlooked. Because, as Mosiuoa Lekota discovered, and Malema did too to some extent, you can lead a factional battle within a party and face little opposition but that does not mean when you lead a party you will not be opposed by factions of your own. As Cope illustrates on one hand: the internal dynamic of the new organisation can either tear it asunder if it has no genuine programme in place; and, as the EFF demonstrates on the other: there can be a programme but it may come at the cost of internal democracy. In either case, the people who suffer most are those who lend their support (financial and otherwise) to the party they hope can save them.

While a degree of readjustment may occur so that the system attains some equilibrium, realignment is not yet truly on the cards. The divided and competing agendas of the left; the weakened, though still monopolistic, hold on power of the ANC; and a true test of electoral support for Numsa (and indeed the EFF) are nowhere near serious enough that things will change too fundamentally. But, these games have only just begun and I for one will watch them closely.


  • Kameel Premhid is a hack. He has opinions and writes about them. He dabbles in everything, which he shamelessly self-promotes, in an attempt to anger as many people as possible. He holds a BA and LLB from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is reading for a degree at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. Follow him on Twitter: @kameelpremhid


  1. Joel Headlight Joel Headlight 29 October 2014

    Numsa, having been born in a gold bearing dark tunnel or coal coloured diamond pit, first & foremost represents Black sweat, self-righteous patronage & personal ambition masquerading as egalitarian nationalism. Try signing up as an other ‘white’ skinned universal socialist & you will be met with silence. Sign a donation to their cause, however, as an other ‘white’ skinned universal socialist & you will be receive that standard smile, fawning praise and left sounding jargon.

  2. jnrb jnrb 29 October 2014

    Numsa’s workers party is likely to fail for the same reasons that Cope, the UDM, Agang and the EFF has been unable to garner significant broad based support. They are not in charge of the gravy train – that is the privilege of the ANC. Jobs means votes, votes means power and power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is so true that it “is cold outside the ANC”.

  3. Frans Van Erk Frans Van Erk 30 October 2014

    It is surely NOT THE LEFT RIGHT OR CENTER, but the people who are interested in REAL DEMOCRACY.
    Do an effort and Google: “Political views of Albert Einstein”.
    Countries who implemented Einstein’s views after WWII belong today to the “most safe and prosperous countries in the world”.

    Capitalism, Communism, Religious Extremism, Despotism and CLOWNS who wish to RULE by FEAR must be banned out of every country what respect themselves and wish to live in a better world.

  4. Sizwe Sizwe 30 October 2014

    Mr Premhid, I think your three points are very valid: factionalism, personality cult and the electoral litmus test.
    Unlike with Numsa I see no left policies in EFF, but for noisy “revolutionary” rhetoric, which might stem from the deep disgruntlement of Malema & Co with the ANC and the hatred driven actionsagainst that party’s leadership, Msholozi in particular.
    However, similar to both groups is a kind of fundamental opposition, which tends to alienate sympathetic forces inside or on the fringes of the ruling party. This kind of opposition strategy will eventually benefit neoliberal forces like the DA rather than “the Left”.

  5. The Creator The Creator 31 October 2014

    This is a better analysis than most, but it does not go far enough.

    Firstly, the proposed party is not called the “Socialist Party”; it is called the “United Front” (united about what, front of what forces?). This is very different from WASP or EFF, which were not afraid to be upfront about their agendas. This raises doubts about NUMSA’s courage and convictions.

    Secondly, NUMSA runs a big risk of losing membership by challenging the ANC; most of its members are historically Charterist. As I see it, they have been hoping that the ANC would expel them from COSATU and thus give them an excuse for setting up an alternative shop — and many of the stupid Zumatics in COSATU wanted to do just that. As I see it, if the ANC can put off expulsion until the launch of the United Front, they will have a very good excuse for expelling NUMSA from COSATU, and an excellent chance of stealing a lot of NUMSA’s membership.

    Thirdly, by waiting so long, the United Front will now only be contesting municipal elections; it must wait till 2019 for the next national and provincial elections which would be of relevance for socialism. Unless they can take control of a big city, they will just end up having a bunch of impotent councillors who will have no public profile. Therefore they will have spent their money and ideological capital for very little gain.

  6. Sips Sips 31 October 2014

    It’s amazing how people who are supposedly learned and well informed often miss the point. How does one assume that most Numsa members belong to the ANC or Numsa members joined the ANC via Numsa. Most people who are members of trade unions joined the ANC independently of their union membership. If this simple thinking by the intellectuals was true Rev. Mvume Ndadala would be in state house now, based on the membership of the Methodist Church. This shallow thinking also assumes that people join a union and stay with it for life, the truth is when people lose or resign from jobs they don’t necessarily remain in the same sector – again not all union members have a romantic view of their unions. We are told Numsa has 350K membership, how does that translate in the mind of an intellectual to a real threat to the ANC majority escapes. But then again I’m part of the sheepish 62% that vote ANC.

  7. Syd Kaye Syd Kaye 2 November 2014

    Start from the end point and the answer to your headline will become evident.
    Communism, Socialism, freelunchism , whatever you want to call it, just will not work..
    True: mainstream economics, whether Social democraticism or capitalism lite are not perfect but they do create wealth, and we know the leftist systems only consume wealth till there is nothing left.
    So, no. This isn’t the left’s moment. It will never have its moment.

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