What happened to the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party?

South Africa - Johannesburg - 16 March 2019 - Members of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party and NUMSA protesting outside the US Embassy in Sandton condemning the US and its allies in the European Union for attempting a coup in Venezuela. Picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi/African News Agency(ANA).

There must be no doubt whatsoever that the dismal performance of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) in the recent elections was a nasty shock for socialist supporters and sympathisers. The key question therefore is why and how did it happen that a party initiated by the 370 000 strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) could perform so poorly? The SRWP received 24,439 votes, a miniscule 0.14% of the total vote.

While there can equally be no doubt that the fact that it was only formed late last year and as a result did not have much time to campaign contributed to this poor result, there appears to be other factors behind the scenes which upon consideration I firmly believe played a big, if not decisive, part in it. It is in the interests of the SRWP, Numsa and the federation it is affiliated to, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), to face and grapple with these factors. Otherwise, the likelihood is that organizationally and politically they all going to suffer to varying degrees in the years ahead.

At first glance the anomaly that strikes one in this result is the size of both Numsa (370 000) and Saftu (about 800,000) members spread among 21 affiliates. It is however not an anomaly in the formal sense that all those members should have or were expected to vote for the SRWP but did not. No, the anomaly rests more on the enormous potential the SRWP had to do well by virtue of those numbers and that the formation of a workers’ party was a Numsa congress resolution in 2013.  

It is important to bear in mind however that no trade union or federation of unions can compel their members to vote for a particular political party. That would be illegal and unconstitutional. But due to the existence of such a Numsa resolution one could argue that it was reasonable to expect that at least a significant percentage of Saftu members would have voted for the SRWP, more so since Numsa, which drove its formation, is by far its biggest affiliate.

The next logical question to ask is why did that reasonable expectation not materialise. This question is especially important because the total Saftu membership of 800 000 was a very significant base of potential support for the SRWP. But this is precisely the point at which things seem to have fallen apart, the gist of which appears to be a troubled relationship between the leader of Numsa and the SRWP, Irvin Jim, and that of Saftu, Zwelinzima Vavi. There has been speculation for years that relations between the two were lukewarm, though the basis of this was never clarified.

Those tensions surfaced again less than a week before the elections, when a journalist asked Jim why did Vavi state that Saftu was not endorsing the SRWP in the elections. Jim’s response was that he could not answer until he had sight of what exactly Vavi said. But at a deeper level it appears that Saftu was justifiably not happy with the fact that the SRWP was formed by Numsa without its   involvement, which is logically what one would not expect to have happened. In fact, the onus was on Numsa to draw Saftu into the process.

It is now very clear that for reasons best known to the leadership of Numsa they failed to bring Saftu and its other affiliates on board when the SRWP was being formed. Why Numsa acted in such an unwise and counterproductive manner must be of huge concern. Worse still, it seems that Numsa failed to persuade even their own members to vote for the SRWP, especially since of the paltry 24 439 votes they received perhaps many were not from its own members.

I can understand why Vavi and other affiliates of Saftu might have felt that Numsa’s expectation of support from them in the election was an opportunistic insult to injury, in the sense that all along they were ignored in the process of forming the SRWP. From the outset Numsa should have actively sought the support of the rest of Saftu. Why that did not happen is an intriguing question, which only Jim, leader of both Numsa and the SRWP, can answer. Had it happened I am certain the electoral results would have been very different.  

Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and commentator.