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South Africa’s largest union breaks with ruling party

South Africa’s largest trade union on Friday said it will no longer back the ruling African National Congress, a tectonic shift in the country’s politics ahead of elections next year.

The 300,000-plus member National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) announced the break at a special congress, accusing the ANC of using workers as “voting fodder.”

“Numsa as an organisation will neither endorse nor support the ANC or any other party in 2014,” said leader Irvin Jim, who also called on President Jacob Zuma to resign.

The announcement could spell trouble for South Africa’s ruling party.

Since 1994, support from trade union umbrella group Cosatu — of which Numsa is the biggest member — along with the Communist Party has helped the ANC coast to victory in every election.

In justifying its withdrawal from the ANC, the union quoted Nelson Mandela, the revered anti-apartheid hero and former ANC leader who died this month.

“How many times has a labour movement supported a liberation movement, only to find itself betrayed on the day of liberation? If the ANC does not deliver the goods you must do to it what you did to the apartheid regime,” said Jim quoting Mandela.

Analysts say Numsa is influential not only as a source of votes, but also for cash and grassroots organisation.

Many members of Numsa are also members of the ANC.

The union’s decision “reflects an increasing ideological divide within the ruling ANC alliance,” according to analyst Daniel Silke, director of Political Futures Consultancy.

That divide, he said, is “based upon poor economic performance of the country over the last few years, continued high unemployment and attempts to find an alternative policy discourse for the country.”

On Friday Numsa also called on Zuma to step down and for Cosatu as a whole to withdraw its support for the ANC.

“The congress called on President Jacob Zuma to resign with immediate effect because of his administration’s pursuit of neo-liberal policies… steeped in corruption, patronage and nepotism,” said Jim.

He also floated the idea of establishing a new socialist party.

“The time for looking for an alternative has arrived,” he told hundreds of cheering members at the end of a four-day congress.

“Numsa will explore the establishment of a Movement for Socialism as the working class needs a political organisation committed to its policies and actions.”

The movement will not stand in next year’s elections but “at an appropriate time that movement will have to contest elections,” he told AFP.

Jim, who said he could no longer “lie” to poor voters on behalf of the ANC, also called for an investigation into the police killing of 34 miners at Marikana, which is already being probed by a government-appointed commission.

If he were to campaign for the ANC again, he said that he would have to “go and face those particular people and still lie to them that ‘look the ANC will change the quality of your lives’.”

The government on Thursday tried to clear Zuma of any wrongdoing in the controversial $20-million revamp at his private home, but the move was roundly rubbished in the country as a smokescreen.

The ANC is still expected to win next year’s vote, but with Zuma under fire and unemployment high the party could see a drop in its share of the vote to under 60 percent.