'Factional games in Cosatu'

Embattled National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) general secretary Silumko Nondwangu has accused trade union federation Cosatu of playing a factional role at the ANC’s Polokwane conference instead of being a unifying force.

In a document prepared for Numsa’s congress next month, he also warns that trade unions should not be used as “conveyor belts” for politicians.

Nondwangu currently faces charges of serious misconduct for having participated in the ANC nomination process in Polokwane, where he appeared as one of the nominees for the national executive committee (NEC).

But the underlying dynamic of the battle between him and Cosatu leaders is that he appeared on the Mbeki camp’s NEC list when Cosatu took a decision to support Jacob Zuma.

Although it has served him with the charge sheet, Cosatu has decided to postpone the disciplinary hearing until after the Numsa congress, which takes place from October 13 to 16.

Sources in Cosatu said that pursuing the charges ahead of the congress could create the impression that Cosatu was trying to scuttle his chances of being returned as Numsa secretary.

Nondwangu does not see eye to eye with many Cosatu office-bearers who support ANC president Zuma and fears that they want to purge him from the union movement as they did with former Cosatu president Willie Madisha.

Numsa could see a contest for Nondwangu’s position from Eastern Cape Numsa regional secretary Irvin Jim at the October congress.

Nondwangu’s report for the congress warns that there has been a marginalisation of trade unionists associated with the “1996 class project”, a term used to refer to those associated with Thabo Mbeki’s political role in the past 10 years.

Nondwangu reiterates a key theme of his message in recent years that workers should guard against unions being turned into an instrument for politicians.

He writes: “What has happened is a consistent marginalisation and castigation of the trade union cadre perceived to be associated, in one way or another, with the 1996 class project. It goes, ‘you are either with us, or with them’, thereby, instead of uniting, crudely dividing workers and acting against the achievement of socialism.

“The fundamental question that arises, which our eighth national congress must answer, is what dangers are there that the trade union movement is turned into a conveyor belt for an ‘elitist interest’ and that, unknowingly, it is reduced over time into a ladder to amass wealth, stature and access to positions of power and privilege in the state, the private sector and the trade union movement itself?”

Nondwangu says Cosatu has lost an opportunity to stay above the fray and is, instead, immersed in factionalism.

“We have recently acknowledged in the federation that we took sides in the factional battles in the ANC on the basis of marginalisation, exclusion, style of leadership and the perceived dominance of the 1996 class project ...
thus we formed part of a faction in the ANC against another, thereby limiting space to intervene without allegiance to any faction.”

He asserts his concern that the divisions at Cosatu’s last congress, in 2006, had nothing to do with internal differences but were linked to larger political battles.

“It is also a fact of history that Cosatu’s ninth national congress was divided over the question of the presidency, largely due to external factors foreign to the determination of leadership in the trade union movement, with factions and groupings within and outside lobbying for their preferred policy positions and candidates.”

Nondwangu expressed fears that, within Numsa itself, there is a lobby group intent on changing the union’s agenda. Its intention was to “save Numsa from a neoliberal, anticommunist, anti-militant agenda” and to “dislodge the 1996 class project in the trade union movement”.

He said these were dangerous assertions that could plunge the trade union movement into a state of paralysis.

“Political blocs in whatever form are not permissible in Numsa, and neither should we project ourselves as one revolutionary left-wing grouping or faction facing a right-wing conservative faction.”

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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