Metalworkers’ union Numsa is set to come under increasing pressure next year after its decision not to endorse the ANC for the elections, says Marianne Merten.
While the resolutions of last week’s Numsa special congress stopped short of cutting ties with Cosatu, the seeds were sown for the possible establishment of a new federation in the long term and a new political home rooted in socialism and workers’ interests, which the metalworkers say the ANC has abandoned.
Carefully worded resolutions talk of working with workplace and community structures on socio-economic issues under a “united front” while exploring a movement for socialism, but also for Numsa to be “alert to gains that may present possibilities of either the new united front, or any other progressive coalition or party committed to socialism, standing for elections in future”.
In the long term, the resolutions could shake up South Africa’s political landscape in an unprecedented way possibly as early as the 2019 elections.
In the shorter term, they are part of the intricate politicking, which has unfolded throughout the year in the federation, and are rippling through Cosatu’s alliance partners: the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP).
Political and labour commentators agree Numsa’s decision not to endorse the ANC for elections for the first time since 1994 was devastating.
The decision not only means the governing party is losing the traditional organisational muscle, but also financial support.
It is understood the ANC election coffers could be at least R3.6 million short.
Similarly Cosatu’s purse will suffer. As its largest affiliate with 338 000 paid-up members, Numsa decided to withhold the more than R800 000 monthly affiliation fees to ensure a special Cosatu congress is held in the first three months of next year.
The question now is whether the Numsa resolutions – including organising workers along value chains in contravention of Cosatu’s “one union, one industry” motto and Numsa’s own programme of protests on socio-economic issues – will prod Cosatu into expelling the metalworkers.
A call for “decisive action” against Numsa, described as “turncoats”, has already been made by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) – long opposed to the metalworkers in the rift over suspended outspoken Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
However, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said expulsion was not a given. “Numsa has yet to take its resolutions to Cosatu.
“As Cosatu we will engage.
“If they (Numsa) are an affiliate – and they still are – then they abide by the federation’s principles and policies,” Dlamini told Independent Newspapers.
With the door open to a special meeting of Cosatu’s highest decision-making body between congresses, the central executive committee, next month, a month before its regular February sitting, Numsa will find itself under increased pressure to toe the official line.
Numsa was not ignorant of the impact of its decisions at the end of a year described as “difficult” and “odious”. Its decisions were described as “serious resolutions which have far-reaching implications” by its president Andrew Chirwa in his closing address.
A call through an SACP open letter to the 1 200 delegates to “take back” their union from leaders with frustrated ambitions, referring to Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim, clearly backfired.
Instead, the SACP was ditched as the political home for workers.
A hint of the pressures to come emerged with Chirwa speaking of “threatening and disparaging” messages sent as Numsa’s special congress met.
“We wish to say to them (who sent those messages): They can harm us. They can kill us. But they shall never destroy this organisation… This Numsa will remain for decades,” he told delegates to rousing applause.
With remarkable unity displayed at the special congress, Numsa has also the financial muscle to back up its decisions.
The special congress cost R10.5m paid from members’ subscriptions, according to its deputy general secretary Karl Cloete, who added that a total of R22m had been set aside for that gathering and for the Cosatu special congress.
While cautioning against splinters in the federation, a Cosatu special congress to resolve divisions has now become the make or break meeting in what Numsa calls its efforts to reclaim the federation from outside, anti-worker interests.
Independent labour analyst Terry Bell said as the Cosatu special congress was called for by the constitutionally-required one-third of affiliates, it had to take place.
A Cosatu special congress cannot be isolated from the federation’s internal politicking as it would also elect new leaders – a move calculated to allow Vavi to return to his post on the back of rank-and-file popular support.
Vavi was suspended in August over an extra-marital office affair, six months after being under investigation for allegations of financial and administrative mismanagement.
However, for the past three months Cosatu has cited logistical and financial constraints to holding a special congress, although it is understood a September date is mooted as Cosatu appears to kick for touch.
This clearly is unacceptable to Numsa as it’s readying itself to parry political and other pressures in the current stand-off. Numsa has member numbers and finances on its side and the likely backing from others like the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu), municipal workers union Samwu and, very possibly, even from among the rank-and-file of trade unions opposed to its direction.
The impact of these upcoming manoeuvrings will be felt across the political landscape.
* Marianne Merten is
senior political correspondent for Independent Newspapers.