WHEN workers downed tools at Coronation Brick at the start of the Durban strikes of 1973 they marched to a nearby stadium led by a man with a red flag. This wasn’t a symbol of socialist solidarity; simply a quaintly old-fashioned warning to traffic. But it was the beginning of the modern South African trade union movement, a largely spontaneous response to exploitation of black labour assisted by a few progressive members of registered unions and students from the university wages commission.

This was the heroic age of the labour movement largely dominated by workerist influences in independent unions. They concentrated on shop floor issues and the grim struggle for recognition in the workplace; and while they did not ignore community concerns, they rejected the idea of political affiliation. One of the most significant was the Metal and Allied Workers Union, founded in KwaZulu-Natal and now the National Union of Metalworkers of South (NUMSA). The union arm of the Congress movement had largely disappeared into exile in the early 1960s, much of it into Mkhonto we Sizwe and the Communist Party, and had become irrelevant to daily worker struggles at home. But by the mid-1980s the ANC had reasserted its influence over the union movement with the foundation of COSATU, which became the battering ram, sometimes violent, of the Mass Democratic Movement.

The long trek of history sometimes takes a circular route. The threatened, and all too probable, exit of NUMSA, COSATU’s largest union, from the federation signals a revival of the workerist cause of 40 years ago. Since liberation there have been recurrent worries that COSATU has become little more than the labour desk of the ANC, a captive source of votes at elections. Government and certain ANC leaders in particular have bought heavily into the predatory, globalised version of capitalism. The workerists have been vindicated. NUMSA, main repository of their tradition, has had enough of political ambition and broad agendas and is likely in time to become the focus of a new labour movement that appeals directly to the electorate under the banner of the Freedom Charter.

When this happens the South African political terrain will change irrevocably. Indeed, a simple withdrawal from COSATU will score high on the Richter scale of politics, which is why Blade Nzimande has been dispensing vitriol in the direction of Irvin Jim, whom he accuses of leading a ‘business union’. Nzimande seems blithely unaware of the irony of accusations of financial irregularity and calls for lifestyle audits of NUMSA leaders. Workers are already marching away in droves from the tripartite alliance, part of a broader breakdown in trust between government and many sectors of society. This renders the future of the Communist Party highly uncertain and it will bury future ANC ambitions around a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

If there is to be a serious and sufficiently radical approach to poverty, unemployment and inequality it will not come from an ANC moving to the right of the political spectrum and increasingly dominated by the security cluster and the business elite it protects. Its essential identity has changed radically in the last five years. It continues to provide the rhetoric of a labour movement while its leaders hobnob with big business, drive cars the size of workers’ homes, imbibe obscenely expensive bottles of whisky, and live the high life. Nor does organised labour have a future with the neo-fascist Economic Freedom Fighters: its nationalisation policy is a thinly-disguised plan for looting, not jobs. A genuine workers’ party is the logical outcome, which is why developments in NUMSA are the cause of such consternation within the tripartite alliance.

COSATU is unrecognisable as the federation launched at King’s Park, Durban in 1985. An influential part of its membership now consists of white collar employees from the public sector, the new middle class, who have little in common with miners and factory floor workers. Civil servants have become comfortable under the new dispensation: well-paid, working in conditions that cannot be described as onerous and shielded from the harsh realities of globalisation. They have every reason to support the tripartite alliance and remain loyal to the ANC at election time.

The historic importance of this moment should not be underestimated. Although the timing has been compared with post-independence developments in Zimbabwe, the circumstances are notably different. It is no coincidence that a workers’ party has come closer to realisation under a weak president. His ideological compass is wayward, guiding ambitions that seem focused on accumulating wealth for his extended family, remaining in power, and staying out of prison. And it also comes at a moment when material deprivation, loosely referred to as class, has possibly overtaken race as the main obstacle to nation building and reconciliation. After twenty years South Africa appears to be moving slowly away from its crude version of electoral politics, a largely racial census every five years, towards a longer term realignment that reflects more accurately the contesting sectors within society. This can surely only be positive.

This article was first published in The Witness on 12 December 2013 and entitled ‘Workers signal changing terrain’.