The National Union of Metalworkers of South African can be a scary bunch. Cosatu’s second-biggest affiliate has now taken the space vacated by Julius Malema to advocate for radical nationalisation and land reform without compensation. They are also agitating for leadership change in the ANC. On Tuesday, the president bit the bullet and went to address them. He left with a smile. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY
President Jacob Zuma must have been bracing for the worst when he stepped into Durban’s Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre on Tuesday to address the ninth national congress of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. Unlike the National Union of Mineworkers congress two weeks ago, Numsa are not Zuma’s fans and have openly called for radical change in the ANC leadership at the party’s elective conference in December.
On Monday, members of Cosatu’s most militant affiliate howled at Zuma’s chief cheerleader, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, and forced him to speak on the controversial issue of the Gauteng e-tolls.
Nzimande, though no shrinking violet himself, had to comply and smartly articulated the SACP position against the e-tolling system rather than the Cabinet’s pro-tolls approach (he is, of course, a member as higher education training minister and is obliged to defend decisions of the executive).
Numsa, through its outspoken general secretary Irvin Jim, has also set its targets on finance minister Pravin Gordhan, castigating him for undermining the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane resolutions by pursuing “macro-economic and neo-liberal policies” such as the youth wage subsidy.
Jim said this week the congress would discuss a review of the Constitution, particularly the property clause, which they see as an impediment to social and economic transformation in the country.
“It (the property clause) must be dumped so that we can take back the land and key strategic sectors of the economy without compensation.
“Numsa will be seeking to make things very clear that the Freedom Charter can only be implemented through nationalisation of mines, and all key strategic and commanding heights of the economy that include the Reserve Bank, Sasol and ArcelorMittal,” Jim said.
Ahead of Zuma’s address, media reports emerged quoting Numsa’s secretariat report, which claimed that the ANC was in trouble and had left the masses leaderless.
“Our honest view is that the movement of Oliver Tambo is in trouble…because it has failed to produce cadres who have revolutionary consciousness to serve for no material gain.
“We cannot continue with the current situation where the masses are leaderless,” the report says.
It went on to say: “Numsa is going to insist on the implementation of the revolutionary programme of the ANC, and the leadership elected in December must be a leadership that is equal to the task of implementing the Freedom Charter”.
The report stated that while Numsa had a good relationship with the ANC “we can also say boldly that we have had some difficulties at certain times with some key leaders of the ANC.”
Zuma is aware that the discussions and resolutions of the Numsa congress – like with the mineworkers’ congress last month – will have a bearing on the Cosatu congress in September. While the NUM congress was dominated by friendly forces, the president knows that the leadership of Numsa will be leading the charge against him at the Cosatu congress and possibly at Mangaung.
It is a critical time in the political cycle, with the ANC conference now just six months away, and it would be extremely damaging PR if the president were to be booed or heckled by a significant affiliate of Cosatu. Besides being embarrassing, it would make Zuma look vulnerable and all the sharks circling around him would smell blood.
Despite this inherent danger, Zuma dared to stare down the barrel of the gun. Perhaps he learnt a lesson from his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who, ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane conference, avoided attending all politically charged meetings – particularly trade union conferences – which only served to increase hostility against him.
With all this in mind, Zuma went on the charm offensive, tapping into the deep historical bonds between the trade union movement and the ANC. He praised Numsa for its role in the liberation struggle and for becoming one of the “most influential trade unions in our country” over its 25-year existence.
“Numsa was formed during the state of the emergency, a period of immense and brutal repression…
“Sometimes, it is just unbelievable that we once lived through such horror and survived to usher in a free and stable democratic state, which enshrines the rights of all, including the rights of workers which are enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic.”
It would be difficult, even for Jim’s radical troops to boo someone being so nice and arousing such sentimentality.
In order to acknowledge that there is a place for militancy in the alliance and playing on the homeground advantage, Zuma evoked the memory of one of the ANC’s most militant and outspoken leaders.
“It is not surprising that Numsa took a significant decision to appoint one of the greatest teachers and political theorists of our time, Harry Themba Gwala, the Lion of the Midlands, as honorary president, given the period in which this trade union was formed.
“Comrade Gwala was known for his forthrightness, militancy and most importantly, hard work,” Zuma said.
And then the winning line: “I am proud to say that I learned some of my political and labour theory from Mntomdala (the name by which Gwala was affectionately known).”
“We draw inspiration from Mntomdala as we recommit ourselves to building and uniting the ANC-led alliance to confront the challenges we face at this point in our national democratic revolution,” Zuma said.
Then he ventured into much-disputed terrain: the trajectory of social and economic transformation.
“We cannot maintain the status quo if we are to eradicate or at least seriously dent poverty, inequality and unemployment. It means we cannot continue just managing the situation on a day-to-day basis. We must bring about real change where necessary for the good of the country and to change the lives of the poor and the working class.
“For example, to achieve economic transformation, the state cannot be a bystander in the economy. It must participate and play a central and strategic role in the economy.”
While not committing to the extreme state intervention Numsa is calling for, Zuma left the door open for the ANC policy conference to determine the exact role of the state.
Zuma veered off script to urge Numsa members to play an active role in the ANC in order to influence decision-making in the organisation. He said they could choose to be “fellow travellers” or they could choose to be “conductors” or “drivers” of ANC policy.
“It is wrong for you not to be a part of the ANC,” he said, adding that the alliance’s “revolution” had reached “some cross-roads” and that “there is no revolution that can drive itself”.
Zuma’s speech was greeted with loud applause. Despite the odds being stacked against him, he disarmed the radical elements in Numsa and showed that there was a way to manoeuvre past the stark policy differences. In other words: there’s no need to get rid of me just yet, chaps.
Even if Numsa continues on its radical path, it will be difficult for them to maintain Zuma as the face of the enemy. His ministers may remain fair game but Zuma has positioned himself as a person schooled under a militant like them who will give them space to manoeuvre.
It was a skilful display by the ultimate comeback kid on his way to Mangaung. DM
Photo: Jacob Zuma (REUTERS)
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