South Africa

Numsa raises the stakes on Cosatu special congress

By Ranjeni Munusamy 25 May 2015

It’s another decisive week for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The federation holds a special central executive committee (CEC) meeting, with some affiliates still refusing to attend until metalworkers union Numsa’s expulsion is reversed. This week’s meeting has to finalise details of a special Cosatu congress that must be held in July according to a court order. Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini is being boxed in to convene the congress that could vote him out and reverse the decision to axe Zwelinzima Vavi. And now Numsa is demanding to participate in the congress and have the delegates decide on its expulsion. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

When the South Gauteng High Court issued an order earlier this month instructing Cosatu to convene a special congress on 13-14 July, the federation’s leaders tried to dispute that this was a victory for unions that had demanded the congress. Numsa, now expelled from Cosatu, and eight other unions requested last year that a special congress be convened to deal with the infighting and paralysis in the federation. They want the congress to elect new office bearers, gunning in particular for Dlamini.

But Dlamini and Cosatu unions in his corner claim that the court order merely confirmed what they had already agreed to. They said the CEC had already accepted Dlamini’s proposal that a special congress be held in July and preparations are underway.

This week the CEC will have to confirm those arrangements, in line with the court order. But this will be easier said than done.

This first problem is Cosatu does not have the money to hold a special congress. The expulsion of Numsa, its biggest affiliate, saw a major source of its funding chopped off. And in order to get back into the black, Cosatu has to readmit Numsa as an affiliate. The dominant faction would rather have Cosatu bankrupt than have Irvin Jim and his crew back in the federation. So now Cosatu’s dilemma will be how to abide by the court order without the finances to host the congress.

The next problem is what will be on the agenda of this congress? The nine unions who asked for the congress wanted leadership elections and some hard talking about the failure of the current leaders to implement the 2012 congress resolutions. Although all the office bearer positions are up for re-election at the scheduled national congress later this year, allowing elections a few months prior at the special congress would be perceived as surrender to Vavi and Jim.

Dlamini’s faction, with backing from the South African Communist Party and some ANC leaders, fought a hard fight to get Numsa and Vavi out of Cosatu. It would all be pointless if, after all that, the special congress re-elects Vavi into the leadership.

The third big issue is who will be able to attend the special congress. From their side, Numsa has upped the stakes ahead of this week’s CEC meeting. Apart from going to court to challenge their expulsion, the metalworkers’ union now wants the special congress to overturn the CEC decision to boot them out of Cosatu.

Jim wrote to Dlamini and acting general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali on Friday about Numsa’s participation at the special congress. In the letter, Jim says the unions that called for the congress agreed on two agenda items: Unity and cohesion in the federation, and the election of office bearers. Jim said that under the first agenda item, Numsa and Vavi’s appeals against their expulsion should be dealt with.

“In addition to the aforesaid, we are of the view that since there has been no final and binding decision made by the National Congress on Numsa’s expulsion, in terms of clause 14.3.2 of the Cosatu constitution, we may still exercise our rights as a member of the federation.

“In light of the above, the pending court proceedings to review our expulsion and the pending internal appeal, which we hereby request to be heard at the special national congress, we may further be entitled to partake in the activities of the (special national congress) as an active member of the federation,” Jim said in the letter.

This letter will no doubt raise hackles at this week’s CEC meeting. The CEC is still being boycotted by some of the affiliate unions backing Numsa and Vavi. Without Numsa’s supporters in attendance, it looks unlikely that the CEC will give in to the metalworkers union’s demands. However if they remain steadfast against Numsa, they will continue to alienate the other boycotting unions, which they want back in the fold.

The other consideration for Cosatu’s leaders is that they cannot be seen to be taking unreasonable positions in dealing with the federation’s problems. President Jacob Zuma has called for an alliance summit in June in order to help Cosatu manage its problems. Cosatu’s leaders will not want to open themselves up for criticism and would want to be seen as the rational ones. It is not yet clear whether Numsa and Vavi will be invited to the alliance summit.

This week’s meeting has some tough choices to make. If Dlamini’s faction was of the view that getting rid of Numsa and Vavi would eliminate their problems and give them free reign over Cosatu, they clearly underestimated their opponents’ determination to fight to the bitter end.

While Cosatu’s internal problems will dominate the agenda, the CEC meeting will be closely watched for the federation’s reaction to the new e-tolls dispensation. Cosatu has been a fervent opponent to e-tolls and Dlamini said last week that the CEC would deliberate on the new e-tolls package announced by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. It will be interesting to see whether the now tamed down Cosatu will continue to defy the e-tolls system.

And considering that Cosatu is a federation representing workers’ interests, perhaps there might be discussions on the Marikana commission of inquiry and some pressure on the president to release the long-awaited report.

But this is a federation that has been stuck in a state of paralysis for almost three years, during which time it also failed to act on its own resolutions on Marikana. And that is why, should a special congress be convened, Cosatu’s leaders will be in for a beating. They will be very mindful of that fact as they make decisions this week. DM

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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