South Africa

NUMSA: Is Irwin Jim using BMW to make a hard left entry into national politics?

By Stephen Grootes 8 October 2013

On Sunday NUMSA general secretary, Irvin Jim, decided to ratchet things up a bit in his little spat with BMW. He suggested that BMW was "blackmailing" South Africa in deciding not to consider the country as a site for new investment. The reason for BMW's decision, said Jim, was the fact that his union, in going on strike, had cost BMW billions in production. In other words, vehicles that would have been made here had not, and jobs had been lost as a result. What's going on speaks volumes about NUMSA's place in the world right now. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

We have said before that in South Africa’s slightly bizarre Alliance-based democratic system, we need Cosatu to save us from the ANC’s corruption, and the ANC to save us from Cosatu’s economics.

No one exemplifies the (former) trade union federation’s Marxist view of the world better than Jim. He is one of those who really do seem to believe that making a profit is murder, that all property is theft and that private schools must be closed, along with private hospitals.

In other words, to sell one’s labour through a mutually beneficial agreement with someone else is really wrong, unless a trade union is there to manipulate the process.

So it wasn’t surprising to see Jim laying into BMW for its recent comments. And look, let’s be clear here, it’s not that BMW has done anything wrong. It has money to invest. It has a new model out soon. And, like any other business in a competitive market, it needs to make sure that its factories around the world work to Bavarian standards.

There are plenty of new Mercs and Audis out there for people to buy. So, when BMW decides that it’s going to spend its money elsewhere because it’s clear that our unions, and NUMSA in particular, are not going to play along to Teutonic rules, well, that’s its decision.

I hate to repeat this, but clearly it needs to be said again: It’s BMW’s money. They can take it anywhere they like.

And when Jim reacts in the way he does, he is unlikely to encourage other people to come in where BMW has decided no longer to tread.

However, to fully understand what’s going on, it’s important to rewind a bit to just before that famous march on Cosatu House by the DA last year when NUMSA held a policy briefing.

It was a space for Jim and others to try and explain NUMSA’s economic policy to assembled guests. It was one of those made-for media events, the type the DA advertises in statements that ends with “There will be opportunities for interviews and photographs”.

I remember thinking at the time, “Well, this is interesting, but what’s the point really? It’s one union, it’s pretty radical, sure, but it’s not like it’s going to change the world.”

I now realise that another process may well have been underway. At the time, Jim was emerging as Zwelinzima Vavi’s strongest supporter. The two seemed very close, and Jim was the most vociferous in insisting that Vavi was right and correct to ensure that the blue brigades would meet a Cosatu phalanx when the march happened. The rest, as they say, is stone-throwing history.

But the point is, this may well have been an attempt by NUMSA, and by Jim in particular, to set out a policy stall. If Jim had a pony-tail like the other people who use the brand-spanking new Virgin Active Alice Lane gym [you cut off that pony tail, hey Stephen? – Ed], then he would have called it “creating buzz”.

It was about making sure his union had something to stand for, that it wasn’t just about representing workers. It was about grabbing the commanding heights of the ideological economy and making sure people realised he had thought about such things.

It was, just maybe, the roots of NUMSA’s bid to create a federation of its own. To be a proper political entity, not just a union, but actually a political party in some way shape or form. It is, if you like, part of a transition from representing workers, to creating an organisation that would try to change society as a whole.

All of the policy that Jim spoke about on that day is contained in the way he and NUMSA have dealt with BMW. Profit is evil. Capitalists are evil. Property is theft. The rich are there to be eaten. Oh, and government must somehow control all of the economy. I know we’ve been here before. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.

But that’s not going to stop Jim. Because he realises, as do some others, that there is very much a gap in the political market right now. It’s not on the right; we’ve got the DA trying to bring back Apartheid there, remember.

Nope, it’s on the left. And we don’t just mean in the softie left that the SACP has become. No, we mean the Hard Left, with its state control of the economy. And if the state controls the economy, well then the person who runs the state is very, very powerful indeed.

So what is also, perhaps, going on here, is that Jim is using BMW as his whipping boy, because he’s not representing the best interests of workers. He’s actually campaigning. He’s using BMW as a prop, to show that he can represent the lumpen proletariat better than anyone.

His competition in this is not anyone from the ANC. S’dumo Dlamini is not the person he worries about. Blade Nzimande isn’t the guy who’s going to get the unemployed vote next year. No. Jim is campaigning on Julius Malema’s turf. For years, he has sounded very much like Malema, certainly from a policy point of view.

And the difference between the two is that while Malema now has his IEC registration certificate, he still doesn’t have structure. Name two other members of the Economic Freedom Fighters? Right, now look at NUMSA. It has money, organisation, people, ways of doing things. Structure. Which means it will be much more effective than Malema will ever be.

If this was not the case, well then, consider who would have benefited if NUMSA had played the game, and helped and encouraged BMW to build more factories here. With more investment would come more jobs, and with those jobs would come more members for NUMSA. It would have been in NUMSA’s interest to have more BMW investment. But it’s decided to actually go another path.

How NUMSA will do, of course, we don’t yet know. How much damage will be done, we also don’t know. And of course, on one level, nothing is more important than the economy. But, it could also be said that nothing is more important than having proper electoral competition in South Africa.

And if going to the hard left does that, and makes voters out of people who have given up on parliamentary politics, well, we’ll probably all be able to live with that. DM

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He’s been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Photo: Numsa members demonstrate outside the High Court in Johannesburg on Tuesday, 10 September 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


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