The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) is the new entrant on the electoral scene. Though it will not be the first time that an independent socialist party participates in an election it will certainly be the first trade union-based one that does so and therein precisely lie its potential for rapid growth.
However, the significance of the SRWP goes further. Numsa was expelled from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) a few years ago, but the ramifications ran deeper because Cosatu was the trade union affiliate of the ANC Tripartite Alliance, together with the South African Communist Party. Cosatu made probably its biggest blunder to date by doing so. How could it expel 340,000 members at once? That was unheard of in the history of the trade union movement.
Today, however, the membership of Numsa is 373,000, making it the biggest trade union in the country by far. But besides this critical factor there is a very important dimension to the existence of the SRWP: the fact that Numsa, its key driver, is based in the metal and motor manufacturing sectors of the economy is of huge strategic importance, both economically and politically.
Besides, and perhaps even more importantly, the bulk of Numsa’s membership still resides in black townships across South Africa, living alongside other union members and in fact members and supporters of the ANC. Because they are based in both factories and in already integrated communities holds enormous potential for the SRWP to quickly grow into a formidable force. In fact, it is for these reasons that this party could quickly become bigger than the EFF among the black working class, especially in the midst of a crisis-ridden economy.
But given that the SRWP is a new entrant on the electoral scene and having had very limited time to establish itself and to campaign for the elections I don’t expect them to do very well. However, given the groundswell of alienation from and growing opposition to the ANC, even in some of its former strongholds, the party could surprisingly do better than expected.
However, there are important factors which predispose the SRWP to increasing political and electoral success, such as a capitalist system which is in a mortal crisis, here and globally, the biggest I argue in over a century and in fact probably bigger than anything we seen before. That system is directly responsible for the grave social crisis we are experiencing in this country, of which, as a result of several historical factors, the black working class and unemployed suffers most.
In inverse proportion to the black elite and rising upper black middle class they still remain at the bottom of our society and continue to bear the burden of poverty, unemployment and a related multifaceted social crisis. This situation provides the SRWP with fertile opportunities to organise and present themselves as a credible alternative to the ANC.
There are however some tough challenges ahead for the SRWP. Because Numsa was for many years part of Cosatu and therefore of the ANC alliance many of its members are still wedded to the ANC as the party of choice in elections. Though a significant number of them have joined the SRWP the overwhelming majority have not, as yet, as has most of the members of the other affiliates of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), of which Numsa is by far the biggest. But the reports I have is that the launches of the party and election rallies in various parts of the country went well over the past few months.
Winning support from other Saftu affiliates will create a bridgehead to further worker recruitment in the rest of the labour movement, such as Cosatu, the Federation of Trade Unions of South Africa and the National Council of Trade Unions. Finding common ground with other leftist outfits, such as the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), will help too. In the interest of working-class unity all forms of sectarianism and individualism must perish.
There is no doubt that with the ANC in a deep crisis and Cosatu to a large extent in disarray, after a few major affiliates joined Numsa to form Saftu, and the South African Communist Party as moribund as ever, workers are looking for a new mass socialist party with which to wage struggles during a deep economic crisis which demands maximum unity. That party might be the SRWP.
This is not to suggest that there is complete unanimity within Numsa about the existence of the SRWP and no problems between it and other Saftu affiliates, but despite that and in its own right the SRWP represents a major political development, both in the labour movement and South African politics.
Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and commentator.