Cosatu split to boost opposition to ANC
Johannesburg - The expulsion of South Africa’s biggest labour union from Cosatu will boost opposition to the ruling African National Congress and may fuel labour unrest at a time when economic growth has already been cut by strikes.
Cosatu expelled the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), which has about 350 000 members, on November 8 after it withdrew support for the ANC because it said the government’s economic policies are failing the poor.
Numsa plans to hold mass meetings, attract more members and set up a “national united front” that may form a political party to contest 2016 local-council elections.
“Guillotine of +350 000 workers is a game changer and will have profound political and organisational implications -- what is to be done?” Zwelinzima Vavi, who backs Numsa even though he is the general secretary of Cosatu, said in a Twitter post.
“Don’t mourn. Organize,” he said in a later posting.
The expulsion from Cosatu came after Numsa withdrew its support for the ANC four months before May 7 national elections, which the ANC won with a reduced majority of 62 percent.
The union led a four-week strike of about 220 000 workers in July.
This month Numsa failed to halt the expulsion through an interdict filed at the South Gauteng High Court.
Cosatu, which had 2.2 million members before Numsa’s exit, was formed in 1987 and helped mobilise protests against apartheid.
It has, together with the South African Communist Party, backed the ANC in elections since Nelson Mandela led the party to victory in the country’s first all-race vote in 1994.
Numsa’s expulsion is problematic for the ANC, yet it is very difficult to predict how electoral support for the party will be affected, said Dirk Kotze, a politics professor at the University of South Africa.
“Once should not make an assumption that all members of Numsa will follow the trade union” into a new political party, he said by phone from Pretoria.
“There is not an absolute correlation between union choices and voting behaviour.”
Eight labour unions, who are members of Cosatu, will hold a press conference today to announce “initial decisions” taken by their leadership following the expulsion.
They represent workers ranging from nurses to professional soccer players.
Thirty-three Cosatu officials voted to expel Numsa while 24 voted against.
Numsa has already been expanding the industries that it represents and has begun to compete with Cosatu affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers, for members.
“The clearest economic implications are that union rivalries will continue to drive labour instability, especially in metalwork, mining and construction; and the upcoming public-sector wage negotiations will be more difficult for the government,” Mark Rosenberg, an Africa analyst with New York-based Eurasia Group, said an e-mailed note to clients.
“Numsa leadership will crisscross the country” to speak with workers, general secretary Irvin Jim told reporters in Johannesburg yesterday.
“We make a clarion call to all workers interested in a militant, worker-controlled union to join Numsa. We are going to launch a national united front in December. Numsa will pursue a revolutionary agenda.”
Africa’s second-biggest economy is forecast by the National Treasury to grow 1.4 percent this year, the slowest pace since 2009, undermined by a series of strikes and a power shortage as government struggles to rein in unemployment of more than 25 percent.
Tensions within Cosatu came to a head when the federation’s leaders tried to oust Vavi in August 2013, suspending him for having an extra-marital affair with an employee.
The High Court in Johannesburg overturned his suspension on April 4.
Vavi has admitted to the affair and apologised for his behaviour.
Numsa, which says it’s convinced Cosatu will dismiss Vavi, hasn’t decided whether to challenge its expulsion in court, Karl Cloete, deputy general secretary of the organisation, said in the same presentation yesterday.
Other unions will come out in support of Numsa, he said.
“The labour movement must be independent and not aligned to a political party,” he said.
“We are working towards a workers’ party.”
While ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa acted as a mediator between Cosatu and the affiliated unions after the elections, he failed to forge unity within the federation.
“The pro-ANC faction of Cosatu accelerated the expulsion to stymie Numsa’s attempts to gather support from within the federation for its United Front and to elect a more politically independent Cosatu leadership,” Rosenberg said. - Bloomberg News