South Africa

Numsa and Cosatu: The last tango

By Ranjeni Munusamy 6 November 2014

Steve Hofmeyr is taking puppet Chester Missing to court, Numsa is taking Cosatu to court, nine Cosatu affiliates are also taking the federation to court, SABC chairwoman Ellen Tshabalala is taking Parliament to court and the EFF wants to take the Powers and Privileges committee to court. As if the justice system isn’t burdened enough, now the overworked judges have to take time away from serious criminal matters to settle public disputes that could easily be dealt with elsewhere. In its fight with Cosatu, Numsa is employing the rules of any playground battle – round up your friends and shout louder. But Numsa’s time may be up and neither a judge nor its allies may be able to save its Cosatu membership. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

When you listen to the words metalworkers’ union Numsa officials use to describe the leaders of Cosatu and the federation’s meeting, you cannot help but wonder why they are fighting so hard to remain part of the fold. At a media briefing on Wednesday, Numsa president Andrew Chirwa and deputy general secretary Karl Cloete used the words “gangsters”, “thugs” and “tsotsis” to describe members of the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC). Cloete also described CEC meetings as being like “a tavern without rules” and “a shebeen without order”.

On Thursday, Numsa is seeking an urgent interdict from the South Gauteng High Court to prevent the “gangsters” from expelling them from the “shebeen”. Cosatu has called a special CEC meeting on Friday where the expulsion of its biggest affiliate Numsa is to top the agenda. Numsa believes that it would be against the Cosatu constitution for the CEC to expel them without being presented with a full charge sheet, and has therefore applied to the high court to prevent this from happening.

But Numsa already has a sense that the court may not consider the matter to be urgent. Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini has already indicated that the CEC will go ahead on Friday irrespective of the court action. And Numsa is well aware that the union, together with their allies, are outnumbered in the CEC, and that Dlamini and his faction are bound to succeed if any matter is put to the vote.

In light of it not being too confident about its court application, and with its expulsion now a matter of time, Numsa rounded up a group of allied unions in Cosatu in a show of strength. The nine unions are reinstating their court action to force Cosatu to convene a special national congress. Their demand for a special congress was put on hold to allow an ANC task team to try to resolve the impasse in Cosatu. That process, however, failed to resolve the raging power struggles, and according to Chirwa, the situation is now worse than when the ANC intervention began.

The nine unions are also rallying behind Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, saying there is now a renewed attempt to dismiss him from the federation. Vavi disciplinary process was also put on hold pending the ANC intervention, but the nine charges he faces for misconduct and financial impropriety are to be reinstated.

Numsa’s allies are also supporting its battle to remain in Cosatu, arguing the metalworkers’ union has committed no “crime” that warrants its expulsion. Among the issues Numsa is facing the boot over is its decision to break Cosatu’s alliance with the ANC, for holding back paying its affiliation fees until a special congress is convened and for poaching members from sister unions. But its allies say Numsa has made a 59-page submission to Cosatu, responding to all the accusations made against it, but have received no response from the federation’s office bearers.

From the outset of this crisis, we have declared that we are not prepared to remain silent as we observe our federation, built by the blood, sweat and tears of millions of South African workers, experience its greatest danger since its formation 29 years ago,” the nine unions said in a joint statement.

We call upon all members of all affiliates of Cosatu to join us in our efforts to stop the destruction of the federation both through the suspension or expulsion of Numsa, and through the growing spate of unconstitutional, factional and divisive suspensions and expulsions of members of Cosatu affiliates that is taking place.”

The group of unions claim that they represent over a million workers in Cosatu. The federation claims to have a composite membership of 2.2 million but Cloete says this is no longer the case. The unions say only a special national congress, which will represent the broad membership of Cosatu, can decide on issues such as the fate of Numsa and Vavi.

Dlamini and the unions who support him are dead against the holding of a special congress. They hold the balance of power in the CEC and do not want to surrender decision-making to the actual membership of Cosatu. Cloete claims that there is a broader political agenda to remove Numsa driven from “up high” in the ANC. Since Dlamini sits on the ANC national executive committee, Numsa believes he is carrying out a mandate from the party rather than acting in the interests of Cosatu.

The situation has become so muddied and devoid of logic that it is impossible for either side to get their way.

Dlamini’s faction is so desperate to get rid of Numsa that they are willing to surpass due process to make it happen. The drafters of the Cosatu constitution probably never envisaged that the federation would face an internal rupture as the document is not definitive about the expulsion process. However it does provide that the affiliate facing expulsion should be given “permission to present its case to the CEC”. Numsa is arguing in its court papers that this has not been complied with.

Numsa’s problem is that if the court does not rule on its application as an urgent matter, it might only appear on the court roll in March next year. By that time, it would have been long expelled and Vavi, whose fate is dependent on Numsa remaining within Cosatu to defend him, would also have received his marching orders.

But that was ultimately where it was heading. Numsa is in the process of setting up a new workers’ movement under the banner of the “United Front” and is also in talks to establish a new “super federation”. Vavi, the most recognisable face amongst the rebels, would be the logical choice to lead one or both of these organisations.

But Numsa will not go without a fight, and if and when it does go, it wants to do so on its terms and with as much of Cosatu as possible. The problem it faces now is that there is no guarantee that its entire membership will leave with it, or whether it might face a breakaway that wants to stay in Cosatu.

The second problem is what happens to the allies now standing alongside Numsa. The eight affiliates backing Numsa now are doing so in support for the call for the special congress and to protect Vavi from being slaughtered. However none of the eight affiliates have mandates from their members to support Numsa’s move to break the alliance. They do not know if their members will support the United Front initiative or would want to join the new super federation. So the support for Numsa is within limits.

When Daily Maverick posed this question at the press conference on Wednesday, it caused the affiliates to become flustered, with some claiming that such questions were intended to divide them and sponsored by their enemies. They seem to be blinded the gaping caveat in their coalition, which will cease to make sense once Numsa is expelled.

But the other unions refuse to contemplate this eventuality. They say there “cannot be a Cosatu without Numsa” and will use all means possible to fight the expulsion. Which is what exactly if Numsa’s interdict fails?

The nine unions have their court application to force Cosatu to convene a special congress. But if Numsa is expelled, how can it be party to this court application? It can only be reinstated by a special congress, but unless this is called, Numsa loses all its rights in Cosatu. Numsa could embark on further court action to overturn its expulsion but it would have already lost all its lobbying power within the federation.

The eight other unions would then be sitting ducks, having made enemies with the remaining affiliates in Cosatu but unable to leave unless mandated to do so by their own members.

It is clear that in the heat of the conflict, not everything has been thought through to its logical conclusion. Now that the political process has failed, the entire Cosatu battle has been dumped on the courts.

But there is one last tango on Friday as Cosatu as we know it meets for the crucial CEC. After that, it’s a free-for-all. DM

Photo: Secretary-general of metal workers’ union Numsa Irvin Jim is seen during a Numsa media briefing on the outcomes of its NEC meeting on Thursday, 11 July 2013 in Johannesburg. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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