The National Union of Metalworkers of SA’s general secretary Irvin Jim is a really enjoyable character – if you’re not sitting across the table from him in a bargaining chamber or articulating views that he thinks are representative of his biggest adversary: white monopoly capital. He’s down to earth, laughs often and tends to express himself in peculiar, sometimes comical phrases.
In a heated debate over the youth wage subsidy with Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko on SABC television last month, Jim barked: “The problem with you is you listen with your mouth!”
As the leader of the biggest metalworkers’ union in the country and the second biggest affiliate in Cosatu, Jim is becoming a prominent voice in policy debates on South Africa’s economic trajectory. Numsa has been harshly critical of government’s inability to tackle unemployment, poverty levels and inequality, and has been raising the stakes in the tripartite alliance by pushing for an overhaul of economic policy and attacking ANC ministers, claiming they are betraying the working class.
But like the expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, Jim instils fear with his militant stance and fiery talk on nationalisation of the Reserve Bank, mines, land and monopoly industries without compensation. Though nationalisation is a policy position of Numsa, confirmed at its ninth national congress earlier this month, it is Jim who is increasingly the face and voice behind the radical policy proposals.
It doesn’t help Jim’s image as the economic bogeyman that his deputy, Karl Cloete, is mild-mannered and soft-spoken and Numsa’s president, Cedric Gina, is charming and genial. Therefore they don’t tend to rankle people, particularly South Africa’s financial barons, as much as Jim does.
Jim’s militancy and passion for workers’ rights was shaped by his difficult childhood on farms in the Eastern Cape. He says his father, a farm worker, was often abused by farmers and therefore the family could never put down roots for too long. They moved from one farm to another, living in mud houses. His father did not receive financial compensation but was paid with bags of mealie meal and pails of milk.
Eventually, through the young Jim’s insistence, they left the farms to live in Port Elizabeth, where they finally lived in a proper house. But when the family was unable to pay the bond on the house, Jim had to abandon his tertiary studies and find work. It was at Firestone Tyres in PE in 1991 that the trade unionist came to life.
Within three months he became a shop steward at age 23. Seventeen years later, after playing an active role in political structures in the Eastern Cape and being at the forefront of worker struggles in the province’s extensive metal industry, Jim was elected general secretary of Numsa.
Jim says people seem to think the hard posture on nationalisation is his own hobbyhorse. There is also an impression that Numsa climbed on the ANC Youth League bandwagon by claiming that the key to economic freedom for South Africa’s poor is contained in the Freedom Charter’s prescripts on nationalisation, which he claims is false.
But a document mapping all Numsa policy statements over its 25-year history, tabled at last week’s congress, shows that the trade union first adopted a resolution on nationalisation in 1993, and that this was affirmed at every congress of the union since then.
Looking at the policy in the current economic climate, the document states: “We must champion the Freedom Charter, accepting that not all nationalisation is necessarily progressive and therefore we believe in the centrality of the working class in the ownership of the means of production. Nationalisation must be based on a state that is really of the whole people. It involves political struggle.”
On the way forward, the document goes on to say: “We need to dust off the Numsa 1993 nationalisation resolution so that Cosatu National Congress can adopt it. This nationalisation debate must be driven in ANC branches, noting that there are still some ANC ministers who see government leading the ANC and not the ANC leading government.”
This sets up Numsa for an almighty battle, first at the ANC policy conference at the end of June, then at the Cosatu congress in September and finally at the big showdown at the ANC’s 53rd national conference in Mangaung in December.
“People shouldn’t project me as being anti-ANC,” Jim says, though he is increasingly critical of some of the ruling party’s strategic decisions.
The first major mistake the ANC made was to give in to the interests of white monopoly during the Constitution-drafting process to ensure “fiscal stability”. This, Jim says, left South Africa’s mineral wealth under the control of finance capital. “Finance capital defines development and controls every aspect of our lives,” he says.
The second big mistake of the ANC was the path chartered post-1994, said Jim.
“The movement shifted from revolution to reconciliation to service delivery without altering the structure of the economy. This set the movement up for failure.
“How do you prosper when you own absolutely nothing? For the proletariat, the only means of survival is to sell your labour,” Jim says.
Numsa is therefore pushing for a review of the Constitution to allow for radical redistribution and expropriation without compensation, which has led the union’s leaders to be viewed as something of a lunatic fringe within Cosatu. But Numsa aims to use its significant numbers and influence within Cosatu to build momentum for radical change.
Like everyone else in Cosatu, Jim views the adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan as the greatest setback to the ANC government because it allowed white minority capital to maintain its dominance of the economy by mutating from protecting race interests to class interests.
Jim says it is now time to finally put an end to the macroeconomic framework which destroys jobs while maximising profits for bosses. “We need to give South Africa guts to build our own domestic economy. South Africa wants to be a jack of all trades when we are master of nothing.”
He says the country should no longer be dictated to by rating agencies to keep economic policies conservative. “The best rating agency is the working class and the poor.”
When it is pointed out that the ANC’s Polokwane conference was partly a fightback by the Left in the alliance to ensure it has a greater say in the policy direction of government, Jim says Jacob Zuma’s leadership did initially bear dividends with the appointment of representatives from Cosatu and the SACP in government.
The problem is, however, that as soon as people like Ebrahim Patel and Rob Davies were in Cabinet, they were set on a collision course with their constituencies and have been unable to bridge consensus on major policy programmes such as the New Growth Path.
Jim says this is because policies like the New Growth Path are embedded in the macroeconomic framework.
Finance minister Pravin Gordhan and the treasury has also borne the wrath of Numsa because of its “conservative stance” and for pioneering policies such as the youth wage subsidy.
“We are also seeing things like the roads being privatised and the minister of labour deciding to introduce reforms on labour brokers rather than banning them. Where are these ministers getting this mandate from?” asks Jim.
“We have had a terrible experience as some of those from our own ranks who have been deployed in the state and the ANC have become the worst butchers in dealing with Cosatu and the working class.”
When asked if he was talking about ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who has been alienated from his constituency in the trade union movement since Polokwane, Jim says he would prefer not to discuss individuals. He also refuses to indulge in discussions about the trade union federation’s disappointment with Zuma’s leadership.
However, Numsa is agitating for leadership change in the ANC’s national executive at Mangaung, though it has not pronounced openly on its preferences for the top positions in the party, including the presidency.
“Change needs to start in the ANC. Numsa is being blackmailed as being demagogues and extremists by defenders of the state because we are on a mission to drive a revolutionary agenda.”
Jim says the Numsa leadership has also been branded as part of “the new tendency” – a term coined by SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande for Malema’s faction in the ANC.
“We support the economic freedom campaign of the youth league. What individuals in the youth league do is not our business. It is important to maintain the unity of the liberation alliance – the working class and the youth,” says Jim.
Jim says that if Numsa does not win at Mangaung, they will continue to mobilise within Cosatu and the working class on its revolutionary agenda and to push the ANC to maintain its liberation character. “The alliance is not a debating society. We are not going to wait for a spontaneous uprising like the Arab Spring. We need to mobilise the working class and take to the streets to realise some things.”
The first round of battle starts the week after next at the ANC’s policy conference. Jim says he is “extremely worried” that the ANC policy discussion documents are “weak” and lean too heavily on the report of the National Planning Commission.
“Those policy documents are not strong at all. But they are a platform for engagement. And that’s what we plan to do: engage”
Expect, therefore, to see and hear a lot more of Irvin Jim between now and the end of the Mangaung conference. And the moment Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi vacates his seat at Cosatu House, Jim is sure to be in line for it. DM
Photo: Irvin Jim (Jay Caboz/foto24)
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