This article first appeared in the Africa Report. February 2014

Helen and Mamphele (Photo credit: Times Live)
Helen and Mamphele (Photo credit: Times Live)

Politically it was an audacious attempt by the Democratic Alliance to rebrand itself ahead of elections. In each poll since 1994, the DA has essentially stood for what is good for old suburbia. But this secure constituency is also a low ceiling. South Africa’s electorate is 80% African. To grow, the DA needs more Blacks to vote for them. Many Blacks, however, are wary of white intention and largely still appreciative of the steep moral, social and cultural elevation brought by national liberation. I suppose one could call it BSC – Black self-consciousness. Even if the economic dividends are meagre and even as the ANC subsides in a fire-pool of sleaze, to switch to the “Madam” is a ballot too far.

So, for the DA to field, as their presidential candidate, someone who stands as firmly within the story of national liberation as Mamphele Ramphele does: that would have been a marketing coup.

How much extra business it would have brought the DA, having Steve Biko’s associate on the ballot paper, we will never know. The deal fell apart as a result of personal and procedural deficiencies. This does not alter the symbolic value such a merger would have had. If race, like platinum, had a share price on the JSE, it would have fallen. DAgang would have been a new and passable attempt at constructing a hybrid political machine that did not run mainly on ethnic fuel. The mere existence of such a party would, for better or worse, have dimmed the roar of racial battle that echoes through society, not only at election time but also around promotions at work, places at medical school, composition of sports teams, use of land and countless other sites of social antagonism.

The image used by most commentators to describe the merger was that of marriage, sealed with a kiss. Those who did not like the union, concurred with the metaphor. It was a marriage of convenience, Ramphele was sleeping with the settler. When it fell apart, there was a divorce.

R12500 (Photo credit: City Press)
R12500 (Photo credit: City Press)

In the week that these events took place in South Africa, another union of political forces was being welded. This one was just as audacious and perhaps more important, yet it flew beneath national headlines. NUMSA announced that its members at Amplats had served notice on the employer that they would be joining the Amcu-led strike at the mine on 11 February 2014.

Amcu are pressing their iconic R12500 demand once more. 70 000 miners have been out for two weeks already. The main Cosatu union in the mining sector, NUM, is not on strike. Together with the ‘white union’ Uatu, NUM accepted a wage increase in 2013. Amcu held out.

Relations between NUM and Amcu are not as much strained as homicidal. A South African picket line is not the place to stalk up and down with dreary placards singing ‘we shall overcome’. It is rather, if you are on the wrong side of it on the platinum belt, a road full of seething rock-drillers, twenty rows deep, holding pangas and toyi-toying in harmonious disapproval of your being such a rat. Indeed, NUM have called on management to ensure the safety of members tendering their services during the present strike. Police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to ward Amcu marchers off. What this means is that if Numsa enters the fray, there is a real prospect of its members toyi-toying at a picket line NUM ‘rats’ wish to cross.

NUMSA only has members in the mining sector because of a recent extension of its scope of organisation. Reports about the December 2013 Special Numsa Congress focused on the union’s assertion of independence from the ANC and its titillating criticism of the leadership of the ruling party.

The really important congress resolution, that which will both provoke its eventual expulsion from Cosatu and fund its expansion into general unionism, is the formal extension of Numsa’s scope. This technical amendment has extended Numsa’s constituency by about one million workers. This resolution also pits Numsa against its federation’s other affiliates throughout the metal value chain: from mining and smelting of base and precious metals (NUM), the sale and fitting of glass components, car valet services, jewellery, car-seat manufacturers (SACTWU), petrol refining (CEPPWAWU) and the wholesale transportation and distribution of petrochemicals, tanker drivers (SATAWU) and workers in building and construction. Any cleaners or caterers working at Numsa plants (Nehawu) will also be signed up.

Customer base (Credit:
Customer base (Credit:

NUMSA’s Irvin Jim justified this extension:

“”While capital has changed the way it organises itself, we as the trade union movement have remained the same. We live by our slogan — ‘one union, one industry’ — and we continue to define industries in the same way we did nearly 30 years ago, when Cosatu was formed. The result is that we weaken ourselves”.

Jim’s bête noire, Cosatu President, Sdumo Dlamini accused Numsa of poaching members from other affiliates, warning that this was against Cosatu’s constitution.

Responding to Dlamini in Business Day in December 2013, Jim stated: “We are no longer going to turn away workers from other sectors seeking to join Numsa. Workers who come to Numsa do so because they get bad service from their unions. If people want to define that as poaching, too bad. Workers are not rhinos, they cannot be poached. They are human beings.

Even if they wanted to, other Cosatu affiliates cannot respond in kind. Most are too poor to assemble even ordinary congresses to amend their own scope. And few would successfully compete with Numsa when it comes to servicing members. Jim is right. The truth is that Numsa is one of the few affiliates who provide members with both adequate legal protection in rights disputes and effective bargaining over wages. Some Cosatu affiliates are completely moribund. It is only with the protectionist policy of one-industry, one affiliate that they have survived at all.

Susan Sontag (credit-
Susan Sontag – Photo credit:

And so, as one election-year attempt by a party to increase its scope falls apart in recrimination in Cape Town, it seems another attempt is about to successfully occur in Rustenburg. And the Numsa-Amcu alliance might endure for a while. Unity is not being proclaimed at a press conference but in the trenches. And here, I pause, noting the need to be more careful with metaphors. As Susan Sontag pointed out decades ago about cancer, (military) metaphors can hamper the understanding of a phenomenon.

Rather than seeing Numsa waging a battle with the ANC or consummating a marriage with Amcu, the move by Numsa is better understood, ironically, in terms of business. A new company is entering a crowded market-place. The strike at Amplats by a few Numsa members is less a real wage demand than an opportunity to position and market Numsa to members of the ‘one-man- show’ Amcu and the ‘sweetheart’, NUM. It is the beginning of a take-over of the apocalyptic Amcu and all the radical energies it embodies among platinum miners. Numsa is also presenting itself as a credible but ‘workerist’ home for those seeking a tried and tested guild, with democratic structures, good service and, notwithstanding its ideological spat with the ANC, considerable policy reach.

What absorbing so many new members from other unions will mean for NUMSA in the long run is unclear. Will it have the organisational capacity to service the influx of new members it will be getting? Will it get enough members to achieve the organizational rights it needs to be really effective in new workplaces? Is the leadership secure from an ANC loyalist backlash for I cannot imagine that all its members and organisers are comfortable with the new direction the union is taking? Will it have to give birth to a political party to take its project further and if so, at what point? The answers to these questions will come soon enough.

Thinking about both of these February stunts, it appears that the joint Numsa – Amcu strike shares one thing with the DAgang experiment. It shows that no matter how loud you shout or how many inches of column space you get, if you want to take on the ANC, the dominant player in the political marketplace, you have to take bold steps to increase your customer base. As Jim has shown both Zille and Ramphele, it is better to do so after a national congress though.