At about 2:30am, the lift doors in the foyer at Cosatu House opened and the leaders of metalworkers’ union Numsa walked out. General secretary Irvin Jim was in the middle of the group and had a slightly bemused look on his face when he saw the huge contingent of journalists waiting to hear the outcome.
It had been a long day for everybody, with the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meeting running on for over 16 hours. But the Numsa contingent did not really look like a defeated legion returning from the battlefield. If anything, the journalists looked worse – red-eyed and bedraggled from the long wait outside the building in unforgiving weather. Numsa knew their expulsion was inevitable but, together with their allies, they were not going to make it easy for their enemies in Cosatu to kick them out.
“We can confirm to yourselves and the rest of the country, and to our members, that those affiliates of Cosatu that were hell-bent on making sure that Numsa was expelled, there was no amount of advancing logic… which would stop them on their pre-determined decision,” Jim said in doorstop briefing with the journalists. He said he had led his contingent out of the meeting, even though their expulsion was not yet in effect, due to hostility to their presence demonstrated by Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini and others.
Earlier, news had been filtering out of the meeting of the close to three-hour presentation Jim had made to dissuade the CEC from expelling Numsa. The only evidence that Jim had put up the fight of his life in a room charged with tension and animosity were the veins throbbing visibly on the side of his head and neck.
The last part of Jim’s presentation was a mouthful.
“We have reviewed the so-called charges against us, as far as we know what they are, and we have shown that at the bottom of them all is one thing: you, the Cosatu leadership, remain loyal to the ANC, SACP alliance, despite all the evidence that this loyalty is misplaced. In fact you are more loyal to this class alliance than you are to your working class brothers and sisters.
“You want to expel us because we constantly remind you how you are failing to protect the interests of the working class,” Jim said.
And the parting shot: “We want to make one thing clear to you: inside or outside Cosatu, we will not stop mobilising the working class on the road to socialism. We will not give you any peace as we expose the miserable failure of the class alliance you are entangled in and how it compromises your ability to lead the working class.”
Despite Numsa’s allies trying to argue that the meeting to refer Jim’s presentation back to the structures for discussion, their opponents would have none of it. Thirty-three people voted in favour of the expulsion and 24 opposed it.
The rest of the CEC agenda, including the disciplinary action against Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, was set aside to a later date as the 16-hour battle over Numsa had drained everyone. It is not clear whether the faction aligned to Dlamini made it to the nearby Parktonian Hotel where champagne was rumoured to be on ice to celebrate finally being able to give Numsa the boot.
By the time the Numsa leadership addressed a media briefing on Sunday afternoon to formally react to their expulsion, they were infuriated over new developments. National Union of Mineworkers general secretary Frans Baleni, one of the main proponents of Numsa’s expulsion, had been quoted in the media as saying that Numsa could return to Cosatu if it changed its resolutions and apologised. These resolutions, taken at Numsa’s special congress in December, included withdrawing electoral support for the ANC and forming a United Front of left-leaning organisations.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe had also said in reaction to Numsa’s expulsion that Jim had been driven by hatred of the ANC and had therefore embarked on a Damascene road away from it.
At the media briefing, Jim blasted Mantashe, South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande, Baleni and Dlamini as being behind a co-ordinated manoeuvre to expel Numsa. Now Mantashe and others’ reaction to the expulsion was like “crying in the wrong funeral”, Jim said.
“Gwede Mantashe can look for the nearest cliff and jump,” he said later in his tirade. He also warned that Vavi was next in the firing line and would be effectively gagged for as long as he remained in Cosatu.
“What we must give them credit for is that they managed to achieve what the apartheid regime failed to do, which was to destroy a federation that had been both a shield and spear in the hands of workers and in the consciousness of the nation,” he said.
Numsa president Andrew Chirwa said they were not expelled by Cosatu as they knew it but a group of 33 “gangsters”. He said in plotting the way forward, Numsa had to avoid fighting for an “empty shell” as Cosatu might have died a long time ago.
Numsa is now taking their battle to a ground-level offensive. They will convene mass meetings and shopsteward council meetings as part of a consultation process on the way forward.
Numsa deputy general secretary Karl Cloete said they will also hold a central committee meeting within the next few days to decide, among other things, whether to challenge the expulsion in court. They also need to decide whether to revive their court application, which they had initiated with a group of allied Cosatu unions, to force a Cosatu special national congress. However this application might be dicey in light of their expulsion as they might not have the legal standing to approach the courts on the special congress if they are no longer a member of Cosatu.
Seven unions that aligned themselves with Numsa will hold a media briefing on Monday to react to the expulsion. These are the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), Democratic Nurses Union of South Africa (Denosa), Public and Allied Workers Union of SA (Pawusa), SA State and Allied Workers Union (Sasawu), SA Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu), SA Football Players Union (Safpu) and the Communications Workers Union (CWU). It seems that the municipal workers union Samwu, which had initially sided with Numsa, has now changed allegiances and did not vote in their favour at the CEC.
While the other seven unions are clearly sympathetic to Numsa, they cannot take any dramatic decisions to follow Numsa out of Cosatu until their receive mandates from their respective members. It remains to be seen whether they can keep up the pressure within Cosatu, particularly on Vavi’s issues, without Numsa there to take the lead.
The next few weeks will see much more tension and fracturing in Cosatu and within individual unions. Already a new metalworkers’ union, led by Numsa’s former president Cedric Gina, is beginning to organise in their sector and is looking to take their place in Cosatu. But as Numsa charts its way forward, recruiting across sectors and holding talks with other unions and labour federations, other Cosatu unions might splinter to join them.
“We have the capacity to form a new federation. That possibility remains an option,” Jim said. He also announced that the United Front of left-leaning organisations would be launched in December. A conference on socialism would also be held next year. In response to a question about possible co-operation with the new political organisation also agitating to the left of the ANC, Jim said Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters would be invited.
But it will be the not-so-public interactions Numsa holds in the coming weeks and months that will be interesting. If there is one way they could get back at Mantashe, Nzimande, Dlamini and Baleni, it would be to bring all their arch-enemies into some form of cooperation. For Mantashe and Nzimande, that would be Malema, for Dlamini it would be Vavi and for Baleni it would be Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union president Joseph Mathunjwa.
Even though there have been no formal talks with Malema and Mathunjwa, it would be in all their interests to forge an alliance. Vavi remains hanging halfway out of the Cosatu bus, waiting to be booted or fall out. He needs to make a decision whether he steps forward to help pioneer the Numsa initiatives, or keeps hanging on to Cosatu pending the outcome of his disciplinary process.
Either way, Numsa is not hanging around waiting for Vavi. They have an axe to grind and a mission to accomplish. And just like with Malema and his crew, their exit from the alliance might be something the ANC lives to regret. The belief that there is no real alternative to the ANC might be challenged as soon as the group of people who were all hounded out of alliance structures find themselves in the same room.
If there is any group of people who have the collective potential to change the political ballgame in South Africa, it would be Messrs Jim, Vavi, Malema and Mathunjwa. DM
Photo: Numsa GS Irvin Jim outside Cosatu House on Saturday morning after the expulsion. (Greg Nicolson)
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