NATIONAL Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) secretary-general Irvin Jim says South Africa has veered well off course from the values of the Freedom Charter — the basis for policy in the governing African National Congress (ANC).
The Freedom Charter is the statement of core principles of the ANC and its allies, and was adopted at the landmark Congress of the People gathering of 1955 in Kliptown, Johannesburg.
The document is notable because it demands commitment to a nonracial South Africa, and this has remained the platform of the ANC.
Delivering this year’s Ruth First Memorial Lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) on Thursday evening, Mr Jim said 20 years into democracy the values detailed in the Freedom Charter were being undermined by the adoption of policies such as the National Development Plan (NDP).
Mr Jim leads the largest union in South Africa, with more than 300,000 members. The union is currently at odds with the ANC, an ally of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the labour federation to which Numsa belongs.
The endorsement of the NDP at the 2012 ANC national elective conference in Mangaung is considered the straw that broke the camel’s back for relations between the ANC and Numsa.
The union is currently in the throes of a likely split from Cosatu and is researching the need for a “socialist movement” or “workers’ party” in South African politics.
Mr Jim said the reality of the working class in South Africa was characterised by poor working conditions, inequality and inferior service delivery, which led to community protests and a chasm between the government and the people they are appointed to serve.
“The Freedom Charter says the people shall govern. I would argue that in South Africa today the people are not governing. How many of you have been called to council meetings on the allocation of budgets at a local government level? And every year the finance minister tables big budgets before us. If we are not active in budgets on a local level how can we influence the national budget?” Mr Jim argued.
He said the socioeconomic challenges and inequalities that still dogged the country 20 years into democracy could in part be ascribed to political obstacles, including a “fragmented left” and a “consolidated right”.
“The working class has the numbers but does not have the organisation. That is why the most important task is to found a militant socialist organisation.
“Organised labour must be organised and militant. Civic movements must be welded together into a strong and united front. The alternative is too dark to venture into,” Mr Jim said.
He called Ruth First “a courageous Marxist woman” and hailed her for her activism through journalism and volunteerism during the formulation of the Freedom Charter.
Speaking at the same event, political analyst and Ruth First Fellow Ebrahim Fakir said protest movements mobilising against the government over the past 15 years were complex as they had manifested themselves in different ways.
“There are subtle yet significant shifts in the political space. There has also been a rise in social movements using mass mobilisation, engagements with government and court action.
“The absorption of movements into the political space, such the Bushbuckridge Residents Association, which is now a political party; Numsa’s moves and the rise of Amcu (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union).
“We have also seen a change in voting patterns, the growth of the Democratic Alliance and entrance of EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters),” Mr Fakir said.
Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib said: “We always get the key note address which is usually controversial for speakers who speak truth to power. Ruth did a number of great things in her life. She was a great scholar and a committed activist, right from the days when she first joined Wits University as a student.”