South Africa

Unions confer before Cosatu’s big meet

By Greg Nicolson 27 May 2013

Two Cosatu affiliates met this weekend, highlighting two different positions within the federation. One is growing and calling on the ANC to do more to win its backing. The other wants all the support it muster to halt its decline. One supports Zwelinzima Vavi. The other is skeptical. Tensions between Cosatu affiliates will continue to play out this week; the outcome will be crucial to the 2014 national elections. By GREG NICOLSON.

ANC supporters can breath a sigh of relief: one of SA’s biggest unions, Numsa, will defend the party during the 2014 elections. The support, however, comes with conditions. The union’s national executive committee (NEC) met in Benoni over the weekend and continued to express dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in South Africa.

Numsa believes the country is set to deepen its “capitalist colonial foundations” if the National Development Plan (NDP) is implemented. It also believes the National Liberation Movement has lost its revolutionary stripes, and the ANC is using its alliance partners as an “electoral machine.”

“Numsa has taken a conscious decision to defend the National Democratic Revolution through support for the ANC. We will determine our strategy of support for the ANC in the 2014 election on the following basis: the response of the ANC to our working class demands; how our demands find expression in the ANC Manifesto,” said the NEC’s statement. Numsa wants labour brokers banned, e-tolls scrapped, the NDP dumped, the Freedom Charter implemented, import parity pricing gone, the state to take ownership of key industries, and for the manufacturing sector to receive a boost.

The union wants the ANC to act on its workerist and socialist rhetoric of past and present. “In our view the National Liberation Movement has been robbed of its revolutionary content and character,” said the NEC. “It has become clear that the only function of the alliance is to be an electoral machine. We reject that approach.” To achieve its demands, Numsa will push Cosatu to plan a stay-away.

At the union’s 26th birthday last week, Numsa President Cedric Gina announced a campaign to reach 400,000 members by 2016 and emphasised the union’s role in life outside the workplace. Addressing the celebrations, Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi urged Numsa to fight for unity and not to bow to pressure from employers and become a “darling union”.

Vavi will fight his own battle this week when the central executive committee of the federation trade unions meets. A tense battle is expected as Cosatu is set to discuss the investigation into Vavi and how or whether it should proceed. Vavi stands accused of selling the old Cosatu House below market value. The criticism is widely perceived, however, as stemming from Vavi’s “oppositionist” stance on government. It’s believed union leaders who support President Jacob Zuma want Vavi gone. Mail & Guardian reported this week that the unionists almost came to blows while debating the Vavi investigation.

“Cosatu is deliberately being paralysed,” said Numsa. “There is a clear attempt to undermine National Congress resolutions on the program of action and also the elected leadership, in particular comrade Zwelinzima Vavi. We see that the intention is that workers must lose trust in Comrade Vavi so that he can be ousted in a vote of no confidence,” said the union’s NEC. Numsa rejects any attempt to remove Vavi through a no confidence vote and wants a special conference to deal with Cosatu’s internal divisions. Vavi’s detractors, however, want the inquiry into his affairs to continue.

Various unions are reported to be lining up against Vavi, including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The NUM held a central committee (CC) meeting over the weekend, which gave various leaders a chance to be heard before this week’s divisive Cosatu meet. Speaking on Thursday, Vavi supported the NUM in its struggle to retain members while the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) gains ground. He expressed concern over the NDP and backed the NUM’s wage demands – at least R7,000 a month for surface workers, R8,000 for underground and opencast workers and a 15% rise for all other mineworkers.

Vavi tried to rally against common enemies. “I have already referred to the external attacks we face – from the employers, the media, the DA and breakaway ‘unions’. But our unity is also under internal attack reflected in media campaigns based on lies and distortions about the federation and its leaders, spread by leaks from faceless, anonymous ‘sources’, with the sole aim of weakening and ultimately wrecking our proud federation. We must not allow that to happen. Let us not forget what we agreed at our 11th National Congress: ‘We cannot afford to fight silly battles against one another when the house is on fire.’”

Speaking to the NUM, ANC Treasurer General Zweli Mkhize encouraged NUM to support the NDP before touching on unity within the alliance: “Disunity in the alliance makes us incapable of fulfilling our historic mission of lifting our people out of conditions of poverty, unemployment and inequality. Disunity in the alliance gives our common enemy the space to manoeuvre and portray itself as the suitable home for our people. We need to declare war on divisive elements and defend the unity of our alliance with everything we have.”

NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni on Sunday said the union has lost 37,887 members in the year to February 2013. He acknowledged divisions within the NUM and Cosatu, claiming that the NUM was under attack in an attempt to destabalise the federation. Baleni supported an intervention from Cosatu that would see facilitators work to eradicate divisions in the labour movement. “The body is hurting itself without external forces,” Baleni told the meeting on Friday. “There are individuals who have no interest in unity.”

Unity, however, might be hard to achieve. The ongoing turf battle between NUM and Numsa is hardly the stuff of buddies. “The NUM is collating information regarding the extend to which Numsa is organising in mines, construction and energy,” wrote Eddie Majadibodu, a top NUM negotiator in the North West, to the SACP’s Communist University recently. “Should this be found to be true that Numsa is organising in the NUM’s scope, I would be forgiven for being the first to lead a campaign for a move to get Numsa expelled from Cosatu in the next congress.”

The internal divisions within Cosatu and the alliance come at a time of particular pressure. The NUM is losing members in key mining regions while the ANC needs a united labour movement to champion its campaign to the 2014 elections. Those concerns will turn this week’s Cosatu meet into a pressure cooker that could define the future of the federation and its relationship to the ANC. DM

Photo: Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim attends a news briefing after a meeting of the trade union’s central committee in Johannesburg, Thursday, 18 August 2011. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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