South Africa

Numsa’s ready to fight for the future of the left

By Greg Nicolson 13 August 2013

The left is under attack. As Cosatu is set to decide general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s fate on Wednesday, his ardent supporter Numsa believes the labour federation is in the throes of a class struggle. The battleground is Zwelinzima Vavi and his fate could decide the future of the left. By GREG NICOLSON.

The left have largely been left out of South Africa’s economic policy since 1994, when the ANC government came face-to-face with the realities of running an impoverished state in a global economy dominated by Western powers proselytizing neoliberalism. Twenty years later, the chosen economic policies haven’t delivered enough jobs and the country is at a crossroads. It needs an economy that can drastically reduce unemployment, battle inequality and fight poverty. The Marxist-Leninists, once so predominant in the struggle movement, are on one side calling for their version of the Freedom Charter to be implemented with the carrots of socialism (and nationalisation).

That’s the real battle within Cosatu, says Numsa. Addressing media on Monday after a meeting of the union’s national office bearers (NOBs) over the weekend, the union says the attacks on Vavi are bigger than factional politics, issues of morality and policies within Cosatu. It argues that at this juncture the forces of capitalism and socialism are fighting for control of SA’s future, and the battleground is one Mr Zwelinzima Vavi.

First, some context. Numsa has been an ardent critic of the National Development Plan (NDP). The union sees it as a continuation of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, which failed to significantly reduce unemployment and was slated as a neoliberal document. “Inevitably, the rupture in Cosatu is between those who want to see a thoroughgoing implementation of the Freedom Charter, thus a rejection of the GEAR that the NDP is, and those who are consciously or unconsciously defending South African capitalism,” said Numsa president Cedric Gina at the union’s offices in Johannesburg on Monday.

One of Cosatu’s factions will sell it out to the capitalists, making it a “labour desk of the bourgeoisie,” he argued. The other, which Numsa obviously includes itself in, sees Cosatu as a united, independent (but still aligned) federation fighting for a version of democratic socialism. Numsa avoided outright insult, but the attack was clear: each side in this battle has its own leaders. Lining up for the capitalists is Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini. In the other corner is Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

Numsa slammed Dlamini for having “prejudged” Vavi’s situation by claiming his sex scandal damaged Cosatu. “Those who want Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi out of Cosatu want a Cosatu which will be a ‘toy telephone’, a ‘labour desk’, a pro-capitalist Cosatu, and those who are defending Comrade Vavi want a revolutionary socialist, anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist Cosatu,” said Gina.

Gina said he met with Dlamini to express concern over the factional problems, but instead of organising a meeting of affiliate heads, the Cosatu president told Numsa to contact the other unions on its own. “As a leader of one of the most important left formations in the country, we would have expected the Cosatu president to engage the presidents of affiliates to rescue Cosatu from imploding, but instead he requested the Numsa president to convene affiliate presidents,” Numsa stated on Monday.

The union’s deputy general secretary Karl Cloete explained, “We’ve pointed out in the past the two voices that have emerged within Cosatu. The general secretary would say one thing and the president would say another, but in the recent past … it’s becoming evidently clear that the president of Cosatu is not unbiased in the crisis confronting Cosatu. In other words, we have all the reason to believe that in one way or another, instead of steering the ship, instead of making sure that we rescue the organisation of Elijah Barayi, there is a factional approach to the problems in Cosatu.”

The most divisive issues are the allegations against Vavi. In February, allegations emerged that the general secretary had sold the old Cosatu House for R10-million below market value and a “facilitated process” continues to analyse the issue. Last month, Vavi admitted to sleeping with a junior employee at the new Cosatu House, but denied allegations of rape.

Wednesday is crunch time. Numsa wants Cosatu’s scheduled special central executive committee (CEC) meeting, which could decide Vavi’s fate, to be called off. It says the meeting was planned against official procedure and is part of a plan to get rid of Vavi. Numsa has voiced its opposition to the CEC meeting and has heard other unions have done the same.

Vavi’s fate, however, looks bleak as Cosatu is split and the sex scandal has done significant damage to his reputation. If Vavi is suspended or expelled, Numsa’s reading of the situation could mean the capitalist class has won. Would they then leave Cosatu and distance themselves from the ANC?

The union was hesitant on Monday to make any bold statements, assuring media that it wants to be a part of a united federation and continue its alliance with the ANC. But there are no certainties. Numsa thinks Cosatu could split and will hold a press conference after Wednesday’s meeting to discuss what happens and what it means for the union. It has also planned a national congress for December, where its role in Cosatu will likely be discussed. There’s a lot that can happen in that time, said Gina.

The union might just be flexing its muscles, posturing to the Dlamini faction. Now that it’s the biggest union affiliate it knows its strength and wants to force Cosatu’s leadership to stop the actions on Vavi.

It’s unlikely, however, that the tough talk is just about individuals. There’s an ideological battle going on over the future of the country’s economy and Numsa, a “militant” union which is also SA’s largest, risks being forced to accept the NDP while new formations like Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters are able to dominate the left.

If Vavi is suspended or expelled, Dlamini’s faction of Cosatu will build on its strength and one of the most strident critics of the ANC government will be sidelined. The trade union federation will likely agree with the Zuma administration more often and the future of the left will, sooner rather than later, be outside Cosatu and the ANC. Somewhere in the Vavi home, or in an office in Cosatu House, the general secretary will be kicking himself for getting him and his allies in this position. DM

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Photo: Numsa President Cedric Gina, centre, addresses media at the union’s Newtown headquarters. Photo by Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick

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