South Africa

Cosatu: The rock, the hard place and Numsa

By Ranjeni Munusamy 20 November 2013

Cosatu remains directionless and moribund but its biggest affiliate, metalworkers’ union Numsa is in a complete fix. Numsa simply cannot get its way, no matter what it tries. It has two big problems: it does not have a fool-proof political strategy to outsmart its opponents and it does not have the numbers on its side in the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC), which is meeting this week. Attempts to go around Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini to convene a special national congress cannot work without these two things. And for as long as Numsa is frustrated from having its way, the suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is a sitting duck. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) knows the Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini intends stringing them along for as long as possible. If Dlamini does what Numsa wants and accedes to their demands for a Cosatu special national congress, it would be a virtual suicide mission for him.

The recent incident, where Dlamini was booed and prevented from speaking during a Cosatu march, should make him even more resolute that taking a gamble by convening the special congress would not be in his interest. At the Johannesburg march against e-tolling and labour brokers last week, Dlamini was interrupted by Cosatu members singing songs in praise of the general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who has been on special leave since August after it emerged that he had sex with a subordinate in the federation’s offices.

If Dlamini was embarrassed at the march, imagine what it would be like at a special congress where his detractors are planning to oust him. His leadership will be under scrutiny and Vavi’s supporters will try to prove that he is behind the general secretary’s woes.

Dlamini was to report to the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meeting this week about preparations towards convening the special congress. Nine Cosatu affiliates, led by Numsa, requested that the special congress be convened following Vavi’s suspension. Numsa also led a group of affiliates in court action challenging the CEC decision to put Vavi on special leave.

Although the Cosatu constitution does not give Dlamini the option not to convene a special congress, he is stymying the process using the logistical arrangements as an excuse. A figure of R16-million has been suggested as the estimated cost of a special congress, including the cost of venue hire, transport, meals and accommodation.

Numsa is aware that some Cosatu affiliates are genuinely in dire financial straits and thus the affordability issue does have some legitimacy. The well-resourced metalworkers’ union is therefore offering to sponsor a large portion of the costs so that Dlamini cannot use it as an excuse. Numsa has gone as far as getting quotes for conference venues, in desperation to get the wheels turning.

These moves, however, are not going down well with some Cosatu unions claiming they are offended that Numsa is using its size and financial strength to bully and “buy” them. It is also feeding into perceptions that Numsa is able to get other unions to support them in the Cosatu battles by bailing them out when they are in financial difficulties.

Numsa also wants the CEC to appoint someone else to convene the special congress because it feels that Dlamini has no will to do so and is frustrating the process. The Cosatu constitution empowers the CEC to appoint a convenor if the president fails to arrange a special congress. Numsa has written a letter to Cosatu leaders asking that this route be taken.

The problem for Numsa though is that it cannot simply get a convenor appointed if Dlamini is dragging his heels. The CEC has to agree with Numsa that Dlamini has “failed” to convene the congress in order for the option of a convenor to be explored. If this goes down to a vote in the CEC, Numsa and its allies are outnumbered.

At the last CEC in September, the vote went against Numsa when it wanted to review of the minutes of the meeting when the decision was taken to suspend Vavi. Therefore it was unable to re-open the matter for discussion.

The balance of forces in the CEC has not changed in two months so it is unlikely that a vote would go Numsa’s way now. If Numsa wanted to turn the heat on Dlamini, it needed to do serious lobbying over the past two months to get other unions to vote with it. Without it being able to convince the leaders of other affiliates to collaborate, Numsa cannot win the argument that Dlamini is “failing” to call the special congress, even if he stalls indefinitely.

As things stand, Numsa cannot win any argument in the CEC as it will be outvoted every time.

Some Cosatu unions are in fact fed up with Numsa’s constant agitation and public statements of its leaders. They have asked the federation’s national office bearers to investigate the conduct of Numsa’s leaders, which they argue has brought Cosatu into disrepute. Some affiliates have even suggested that Numsa should be expelled. The national office bearers are to report to the next CEC in February on this matter.

While there is unlikely to be any speedy action in probing Numsa’s alleged misconduct – Cosatu has yet to charge Vavi and convene his disciplinary hearing – what the move does is put Numsa on notice that it could be booted out before it is able to make any further manoeuvres. But Numsa leaders claim that they do not care as they are going to their own special congress in mid-December to make crucial decisions about their continued participation in Cosatu, the alliance and electoral support for the ANC in next year’s poll.

Numsa’s special congress is bound to infuriate its opponents further and also annoy the ANC and SA Communist Party leadership. This means that 2013 will end with rapid fire from Numsa’s Irvin Jim and 2014 beginning with retaliatory attacks from the other alliance partners. This will force Cosatu to act against Numsa.

In the meantime, Vavi has no option but to wait for his disciplinary hearing or the special congress – whichever comes first. At present, neither looks possible anytime soon. The court challenge on Vavi’s suspension is also dragging out, leaving him cooling his heels indefinitely.

Numsa’s last resort would be to go to court to demand the Cosatu special congress. It will still come down to whether Dlamini is deliberately filibustering or is being reasonable in his preparations.

Cosatu is to report on the outcome of its CEC meeting at a media briefing on Thursday. The federation is under additional pressure as it has made no progress towards implementing the resolutions of its 11th congress last year due to its internal battles. It will therefore be making a special effort to show that it not completely bogged down, particularly since its move and shaker in chief, Vavi, was put on ice.

But there is only one decision that everyone is waiting for. And if a date for the special congress were announced, that mere fact would be nothing short of a miracle. Jim and Vavi in the meantime are still hedging their bets and expecting that things will eventually swing their way. But wishful thinking has never won political battles and it is doubtful it will now. DM

Photo: Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini is seen at the trade union federation’s 11th national congress at Gallagher Estate in Midrand on Monday, 17 September 2012. Picture:Werner Beukes/SAPA

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