Three weeks after the National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) were expelled from Cosatu, the rifts in the federation have only deepened. Numsa, its allies and their opponents in Cosatu have cemented their positions. Everyone's preaching unity, yet division is here to stay. By GREG NICOLSON.
The venue for Thursday’s press conference was telling. Numsa and the seven affiliates on its side could have hosted the media in one of their offices. Instead, they called us to Liliesleaf Farm, one of the most historic locations in the struggle for democracy, associated with the country’s most venerated leaders and their commitment to the values of the Freedom Charter under an unjust, oppressive state.
They wanted to make a point. The South African Commercial Clothing and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu), Communications Workers Union, Food and Allied Workers Union, South African State and Allied Workers Union, Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa, Democratic Nurses Organisation of South Africa, and South African Football Players Union are continuing to defend Numsa and remain outside Cosatu’s executive body. On Thursday, the coalition had expanded to include other unionists from the SA Municipal Workers Union and the SA Democratic Teachers Union, alleged to also be victims of factionalism. As the battle continues, Numsa and its allies are looking to shame the leaders of Cosatu, the ANC and SACP while taking the fight to the shop floor.
After meeting last weekend, the affiliates once again agreed: “There is no Cosatu without Numsa and no unity in Cosatu without Numsa.”
After Numsa’s expulsion caused a split in the federation, Cosatu’s leadership resolved to take the problems to the ANC task team on Cosatu. On Thursday, the unions rejected the proposal, suggesting they did not trust the ANC-led mediation. No engagement, formal or informal, should be held without first reinstating Numsa unconditionally, they said.
Claiming to be fighting for the heart of Cosatu, the unions plan to go to court on three issues. They will challenge the expulsion; demand a special national congress be convened by March; and challenge Zingiswa Losi’s position as Cosatu’s second deputy president, a position she has kept despite shifting from Numsa to Popcru. Numsa will also appeal its expulsion within the required 30 days.
The unions called from Cosatu President S’Dumo Dlamini to resign. “We are of the firm view that the Cosatu president, as head of the federation, must resign with immediate effect because he no longer enjoys the confidence of workers in the private sector of the South African economy and the public sector,” said the unions in their statement. Dlamini has been blamed by the unions for dividing the federation. This week, he issued a press release explaining his interpretation of the constitution and how it must be upheld. Numsa and its allies, meanwhile, claim they have acted within the constitution and it’s Dlamini who is flouting the rules.
Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was also discussed at the briefing. Vavi refused to sign Numsa’s expulsion letter and to attend the press conference announcing the federation’s decision, but in an apparent about-turn later appeared at a Cosatu briefing confirming the expulsion. “If there is one thing that we remain happy about, which boosted workers’ resolve and everyone else, [it] is that Zwelinzima Vavi issued a letter distancing himself from Numsa’s expulsion,” said Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim.
On Vavi’s about-turn, Jim said he was “between a rock and a hard place”. “If we must be brutally frank, we know for a fact that he was next on the list to be expelled,” said Jim. He believes Cosatu’s leaders are trying to use Vavi to bring Numsa’s allies back into the fold and isolate the metalworkers. “From where we stand, there is no problem between us and ZV,” said Jim, adding that it’s easy to judge Vavi from the outside while he is under immense pressure. Vavi is still likely to face disciplinary action for sexual indiscretion at work and allegations of mishandling the sale of the old Cosatu House as his enemies seek to have him removed as a leader of the federation.
Numsa and the seven other affiliates have been calling for a special national congress, a more radical Cosatu, and the dropping of charges against Vavi for what seems like an eternity. Without any success. Now they have more bargaining power as the future of Cosatu hangs in the balance. But even the splitting of the federation seems unlikely to change the minds of Dlamini and his allies, hell-bent on punishing Numsa.
A long-term split looks even more likely as the breakaway unions are twisting the knife. On Thursday, they insulted the SACP, mentioned Nkandla as an example of corruption and pointed to examples of Cosatu’s decline, namely the platinum strike, led by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, and what they claimed was a lack of support from Cosatu for the postal strike and metalworkers engineering strike.
Now the battle is moving to the shop floor. Jim said the unions were not participating in the boardroom battles of Cosatu but were inviting all Cosatu-affiliated members to meetings to discuss the current situation. Since Numsa’s expulsion, workers are flocking to join the union, he claimed, as they seek to expand their scope of organisation across different sectors of the economy and build a federation from below. “It might be that Cosatu might be united in a long march in the future,” said Jim, possibly suggesting a new federation should be formed to challenge Cosatu in the meantime.
In the last two weeks, the eight unions have been consulting their members. “We are aware that our rank and file membership, have already drawn a line in the sand with respect to moving on from Cosatu to a new, independent, worker-controlled and democratic federation. However, the leadership as represented in the joint [national executive committees] of the affiliates is of the view that we have a historic mission to reclaim Cosatu,” said Numsa and its allies, a clear warning of things to come. Cosatu, meanwhile, is said to be working to replace Numsa with a new metalworkers’ union.
Everyone is talking unity, running through the processes so as not to look like they are abandoning South Africa’s most important labour movement – while they move ever further apart. DM
Numsa Allies: No Numsa, no Cosatu in Daily Maverick;
How Cosatu lost the PR war, and why Vavi refused to face the media on Numsa in Daily Maverick;
Cosatu’s Divide and Conquer: Vavi gets reprieve, Numsa gets dumped in Daily Maverick;
All Gwede’s horses and all Gwede’s men… can’t put Cosatu back together again in Daily Maverick
Photo: Numsa and seven other affiliates of Cosatu address media on Thursday. (Greg Nicolson)