South Africa

Numsa: Break-ins, suspensions and pay rises

By Greg Nicolson 30 September 2013

The National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) is in the thick of it. The union’s offices have been robbed, again. It has suspended a shop steward, who happens to be Cosatu’s second deputy president. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s involved in an ideological battle with the SACP over who’s more Marxist. Zwelinzima Vavi might be the trigger of all this, but there’s a bigger game at play – elections 2014. By GREG NICOLSON.

Numsa is no stranger to threats and attacks. In May this year, the union reported there was an unexplained assault on its headquarters in Newtown, Johannesburg, in the early hours of the morning. Its spokesperson said security would be beefed up and he urged police to act on the many instances at Numsa HQ, including a well-dressed young man entering the offices on multiple occasions and removing highly sensitive information. Last year, Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim reportedly received death threats. Suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, the man Numsa is backing, continues to say there have been plots to take his life.

Last Thursday, there was another break-in at Numsa. Spokesperson Castro Ngobese released a fuming statement: “This latest burglary or brake-in joins a long list of other similar incidents that have occurred in the recent past. We are adamant that this latest burglary or break-in is not an act of criminality, but is a well-targeted and well-orchestrated work of highly sophisticated and trained individuals,” he said. “We are suspicious that the burglary or break-in is politically motivated, and is intended to intimidate and threaten Numsa and its elected leadership. Everybody knows that Numsa has become a political target not only from our class opponents, but also from those we regard as our comrades and brothers-in-arms.”

On Sunday the union’s treasurer, Mphumzi Maqungo, said the leadership were called on Friday and told that a few laptops and hard drives had been stolen. He wouldn’t speculate on whether the robbery was politically motivated, but he said Numsa has employed a security and intelligence company to find out more information and work with the police. According to the union, the police have not given feedback on the past attacks, but Maqungo said he hopes the security agency will help offer them information.

Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven’s house was robbed in April. The only things that were stolen were some “bottles of drink” and two laptops – Craven’s Cosatu laptop and his wife’s laptop from Numsa, where she works. “This in itself looks very suspicious,” he told EyeWitness News at the time. On Sunday, Craven said the theft at Numsa “obviously” is concerning but until police report back we can only speculate about the motive. The targeting of hard drives, etc, “raises suspicions” he said when asked whether the theft might have been political.

The robbery comes as Numsa is in the thick of the battle over Vavi’s fate and the unionist’s support for the ANC in the 2014 elections. Numsa has repeatedly claimed that Vavi, who was suspended for having sex with a junior colleague in a Cosatu House office, is the victim of a political conspiracy, motivated by the forces of capital and pushed by leaders such as Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini and Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, as well as ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe.

There seems to be a tit-for-tat battle raging as suspensions are rippling through trade unions. In August, South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) president Thobile Ntola was suspended for allowing Vavi to address members in the Eastern Cape.

Last week Mail & Guardian reported that Cosatu second deputy president Zingiswa Losi has been suspended by Numsa from her position as a shop steward. She is reportedly viewed as an ally of Dlamini’s in Cosatu and more sympathetic to President Jacob Zuma, whom Vavi has been criticised as too tough on. Maqungo said the Numsa leadership would be meeting with the Port Elizabeth regional leaders today to hear more about the suspension but so far had little details. If suspended from Numsa, he said, she would not be able to act as a Cosatu leader.

“We still haven’t heard anything from Numsa,” said Craven. Until that happens Losi will be acting in her full capacity, he added.

Numsa certainly isn’t afraid of the wrath its actions and comments will draw from alliance partners in the ANC, SACP and Cosatu. Last week it issued a scathing criticism of the state of the country in response to its detractors. Here’s just a snippet: “Senior leaders of the national liberation movement own shares in the very mines, banks and monopoly industries that are supposed to be nationalised. Their role has been to ensure that the national liberation movement is caged in and paralysed from fulfilling its mission, i.e. to transfer to the ownership of the people as a whole, the basic wealth of our country. That is why even when there is a clear anti-imperialist sentiment from within the branches of the ANC on any matter, the ANC has been found seriously wanting when it comes to implementation,” said the 10,000-word statement issued by Jim. It pulled no punches: “As we see the situation, the leadership of the national liberation movement has long been captured by imperialism.”

The SACP’s deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin issued a response last week. He returned the accusations, claiming that it was Numsa who was acting on behalf of crony-capitalist “narrow BEE” interests in calling for nationalisation only when it suits the union and its allies. Cronin accuses Numsa of simplifying economic debate and falsely claiming to be Marxist-Leninists. “At the risk of once more being accused of being the self-appointed pope of Marxism-Leninism, I suggest that this admirable defence of narrow BEE owes more to the influence of Numsa’s businessman joint-venture than any of the classics,” wrote Cronin.

The taunting and communist jeering have implications. Cronin, representing the SACP and Nzimande, who is a defender of Zuma, is effectively calling Numsa self-serving liars. Numsa is calling leaders of the alliance capitalist sell-outs who do not represent the majority or the working class. The stakes? If Numsa do not fund or campaign for the ANC election campaign in 2014 – or if it decides to withdraw from Cosatu when it goes to congress in December – it will have a dramatic effect on the election.

One wonders if garage workers care. On Friday Numsa finally agreed to wage increases of 11.6%, 9% and 9% for 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively for workers in the fuel retail industry. Members in the motor components industry are still on strike.

Numsa’s battle with Cosatu, the SACP and members of the ANC will essentially be a battle over who union members vote for. Vavi, Dlamini, Nzimande, Jim and Mantashe are all characters facing potentially rewarding or dire consequences, but there’s a bigger game at play. DM

Photo:  Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim (Sapa)

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