Militant unionism in action: Reflections from the ninth national congress

Sitting in Durban’s Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre, the venue for Numsa’s national congress, one was dazzled by the spectrum of issues that were discussed.

In the midst of it all I was trying to understand how this giant union of over 300 000 members ticks, how it is organised and its plans for the future.

The theme of this congress was 25 years of militant struggle for decent jobs, national liberation and socialism.

Songs and politics

The sessions were long, going on well into the night and the agenda, too, was long. It is not surprising, therefore that some resolutions were deferred to the organisation’s central committee. But the delegates sat through the sessions, remaining alert and debating issues vehemently.

Of course this was punctuated by the occasional singing and sloganeering which one comrade aptly called “amandlaness”. When delegates felt tired, they left the conference hall to stretch their legs and to “drink some water” as Karl Cloete the deputy general secretary would put it.

The speech-making and singing abilities of the national office-bearers were never in doubt. The president, Cedric Gina, would calmly deal with emotive issues while outgoing first vice president Phil Molefe chaired sessions effectively.

The general secretary, Irvin Jim, could give a capella groups a run for their money, but in the same breath send shivers down the spines of capitalists with his passionate call for socialism.

Radical unionism

However, the politics of Numsa as a radical trade union were reaffirmed at the congress. The union’s political stance which calls for establishing a “socialist Republic of South Africa”, is located in the country’s struggle against apartheid.

“Numsa is a fearlessly anti-capitalist and unashamedly a socialist union, a real red union!” says the secretariat report, one of a dossier of documents that were presented at the congress by Jim.

This explains why Numsa attacked the country’s neo-liberal economic policies such as the growth employment and redistribution framework, the role being played by the National Planning Commission and the monetary policies of the Reserve Bank of South Africa.

These policies and institutions were a cocktail for disaster. The union argued that those policies were responsible for the financialisation of the economy, which benefitted capital through profit but did not create jobs.

Neo-liberalism also supported practices such as that of labour broking which fuels poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Numsa also argued that the global economic crisis showed that capitalism as a system had failed especially if one took into account the events in Europe and the United States of America. This showed that the crisis was created by capitalism.

However, building a revolutionary trade union has been on Numsa’s agenda since its founding, and it is a tradition that the union celebrated at its silver jubilee rally with much fanfare at the Curries Fountain stadium in Durban.

So the Freedom Charter (1955) and the African National Congress’s Morogoro Conference, Tanzania (1969) had a lot of currency. Especially as they called for “a return of the wealth of the land to the people” and “economic emancipation” which dovetails well with current debates on nationalisation of land, mines and other strategic economic resources as one of the ways to stimulate development.

Elijah Chiwota is the editor of the South African Labour Bulletin.


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