Bongani Hans and Loyiso Sidimba
THE SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) is heading for another bruising battle after its president, Ruth Ntlokotse, was expelled by its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) this week.
Until July last year, Ntlokotse was Numsa’s second deputy president but was suspended on the eve of the union’s national congress at which she intended to stand as a candidate for president.
A defiant Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the country’s second biggest trade union federation, yesterday maintained that Ntlokotse was still Saftu president despite Numsa’s decision.
”She remains president of Saftu and will remain the president until Saftu decides otherwise! Saftu is not even aware that she is no longer a member to start with,” Vavi told the Sunday Independent.
However, Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said the move was not personal and had nothing to do with the ongoing rift between the union and Saftu but this was after Ntlokotse had been found guilty on charges laid by Numsa.
He also said the expulsion meant that she was no longer the federation’s president.
“First she was a member of the union (Numsa), she is the shop steward, you don’t just become the president of Saftu from the air. You must be loyal to your Saftu union before you can be loyal to anybody else (Saftu) as there is no federation without the affiliates. You cannot be a president of Saftu if you are not a member of an affiliate,” Jim said.
During her disciplinary hearing, which Ntlokotse did not attend last week, Numsa accused her of defying the majority of its members by accepting a nomination for the position of Saftu president.
Numsa said the majority of its members wanted its Numsa deputy president, Mac Chavalala, to be retained as Saftu president but she defied the union.
But Ntlokotse disputed this, saying there was no provision in the Numsa constitution stopping her from standing for the position if nominated and that the union never meted out similar punishment to men who had stood for positions despite not receiving its backing at previous national and provincial congresses.
Jim said after being summarily dismissed from Numsa, Ntlokotse was given seven days to appeal her dismissal “if she wishes to do so”.
In response, Ntlokotse said: ”I will definitely be appealing”.
Ntlokotse also expressed her disappointment that Numsa expelled her while she and other shop stewards were representing nearly 400 workers facing retrenchment at Johnson Matthey, a British multinational manufacturing catalytic converters for vehicles and refining platinum group metals, mainly for the automotive industry.
“The Numsa leadership have demonstrated their contempt for the interests of workers by holding the ‘hearing’ at the very same time that I together with my fellow shop stewards represented 387 workers in a CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration)-facilitated Section 189 (of the Labour Relations Act) process,” she said, adding that the workers were threatened with a mass retrenchment and the company’s possible closure.
According to Ntlokotse, the Numsa leadership was so hell-bent on expelling her at the earliest possible opportunity that they insisted on giving her a choice between representing herself and representing members facing retrenchment.
She said expulsions within the union would continue in the coming period in order to silence all those who were demanding internal democracy, worker control and accountability by the Numsa Investment Company, and respect for its constitution.
”The struggle to win back the union from this bankrupt leadership continues regardless of this decision to expel me from Numsa,” Ntlokotse said.
She described the charges as frivolous and baseless and that her expulsion was an unfortunate situation as it occurred in May, which is Workers’ Month, and without being given an opportunity to defend herself.
Ntlokotse said she still wanted an opportunity to deal with the allegations against her at the disciplinary hearing and that proceedings be made public for Numsa members to follow.
”I was ready for the disciplinary hearing and I’m still ready,” she said.
It is believed that Ntlokotse has been vehemently opposed to Numsa’s campaign to oust Vavi as Saftu general secretary.
The rift threatened to ruin the relationship between Jim and Vavi, but Jim denied this.
“The matter of Zwelinzima Vavi has got nothing to do with me, [but] has to do with how he has conducted himself as a deployee of Numsa. It is not a personal issue,” he said.
He also denied media reports about differences between him and Vavi.
“Zwelinzima Vavi has to be on good terms with Numsa, the union that deployed him to Saftu and not Jim as an individual,” he said.
Ntlokotse insisted that Numsa’s national congress in July last year proceeded despite being interdicted by Labour Court Judge Graham Moshoana after she challenged her being prevented from participating.
The matter is still pending before the Labour Appeal Court.