Messy alliance politics are clouding issues in the run up to the 2014 general election, but community organisations and other civil society formations across the country have welcomed promising moves by National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) to forge an independent and anti-capitalist united front of the broad working class.
For the first time in the history of a democratic South Africa, a COSATU-aligned union, and its largest one at that, has openly declared that it no longer wants to be in a political alliance with the ANC and will seek to "lead in the establishment of a new United Front that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the UDF (United Democratic Front) of the 1980s."
Additionally, NUMSA has said that it will embark on a process to organise workers across value chains, including in the highly divided and volatile mining sector, a move that could also herald the beginnings of organisational support for informal and casual workers.
NUMSA's moves are embryonic and it remains to be seen if stated intent can be translated into practice, especially in relation to active involvement in community struggles.
Nonetheless, the door has now been opened to new possibilities, not just for labour-community alliances but also for a broad working class-led movement to mount a serious political challenge to the ANC and the state.
The key challenge now for both the labour and community movements in South Africa is to occupy the new spaces and to do so as organisations independent from any political party.
Mass community politics and mobilisation can be messy, but we should also recognise the fact that the labour movement as a whole is tailing contemporary popular struggles on the ground and has largely adopted a reactive and defensive strategy of engagement with communities.
Even though there are some minor exceptions to this overall reality, the present-day picture is a far cry from the celebrated days of the 1980s and the early promise of the post-apartheid period. In order to understand why this is the case, we need to briefly revisit that history.
One of the more studied and celebrated aspects of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa during the late 1970s and 1980s was the active presence and significant political and economic impact of labour-community alliances.
The dynamic and varied struggles of allied labour and community movements in the early 1980s were grounded in a politically independent and largely unified, broad working class battle against the dying kicks of an oppressive apartheid system and the ravages of an increasingly hegemonic neoliberal capitalism.
Such political independence was however, 'lost' when the majority of both movements, in the form of COSATU and the UDF, entered into formal alliances with the dominant political forces of the liberation movement, in the form of the ANC/SACP.
Simultaneously a creeping neoliberal capitalism, which soon translated into a dominant political and institutional post-apartheid framework of corporatism, deepened social and economic stratification between formally employed workers and communities dominated by informal workers and the unemployed.
'Free market' forces and an individualistic, work-defined citizenship quickly became the change-agents of both social and political relations of the broad working class and their organisations.
For COSATU in particular, this placed millions of workers within a corporatist strategic framework that effectively undermined any politically independent, democratic and collectively-enjoined struggle with the even greater numbers of (unemployed/informal) workers who stood on the outside of the corporatist house.
Consequent attempts by the ANC-run state to repress responsive community-led dissent further undermined the basis for unity between labour and community and created the conditions for the delegitimisation of the struggles and ideas of community organisations.
The subsequent rise to party and state power of the Zuma faction in the ANC, while serving to solidify these macro-trends, has also led to the on-going fracturing of the ANC-Alliance.
Catalysed by the horrific events at Marikana in August 2012, there has been a slow but sure loosening of the ANC's political and ideological hegemony amongst the broad working class.
This can be directly attributed to the fact that the wage and working condition gains of all but the most highly paid unionised workers are being seriously eroded by the combined effects of the state's neoliberal policies and the displacement of the current crisis of capitalism onto workers.
Presently, there is no running away from the fact that labour-community alliances are extremely weak and that there are widespread disconnections between the organised (union-based) and 'other' (community-based) working class at many levels.
Consequently, there are virtually no present-day examples, especially at the national level, of unions pro-actively linking with and assisting community organisations and informal workers in a practical and sustained manner. Alliances that do exist, are those concentrated at the local, tactical and circumstantial level.
South Africa's positive, pre-1994 history of labour-community alliances needs to be reclaimed and expanded, both in thought and practice.
Crucial to doing so is for unions to see the community and thus also the 'other' working class, as part of who they are; to forge a unity of struggle that is grounded in mutual respect and learning; to adopt a tactical focus on grassroots mobilisation and vibrant political and social education; to embrace a political and organisational culture of internal democracy alongside vibrant dialogue and debate; and, to build a principled, socially progressive, accountable and committed leadership.
The most viable and useful form to practically pursue this reclamation and expansion is a campaign for reclaiming the public sector and public services for the public, which is rolled out at different levels; in the workplace, in the community, nationally and where possible and relevant, at the international level as well.
Such a campaign must invoke the progressive content of a human and constitutional rights template as well as the more radical content of a democratically forged, anti-capitalist people's power that is not reducible to state ownership and power.
In this way, the idea of meaningful labour-community alliances that encompass social forces beyond their broad working class core can begin to be translated into practice.
Above all, what is required is patient political and organisational work and activism informed by a democratic spirit of humility, honesty and openness.
There is no space here for vanguardist, paramount leadership, no room for the presumption of collective 'working class' consciousness and no place for the defensive and divisive promotion of narrow organisational identities and terrain.
While a longer-term goal of broad working class struggle might well be to replace capitalism with an alternative system, it is only by reconstructing and reenergising labour-community alliances to engage in practical, here-and-now struggle for real changes in the lives of the public, both human and institutional, that the possibilities for more radical change can be brought into being.
This article is based on a recently completed six-month research project by the author under the auspices of the Municipal Services Project.
Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.
Read more articles by Dale T. McKinley.