Cheeky newcomers challenge union giants

The Commercial, Services and Allied Workers’ Union (Cosawu), a small Western Cape-based union with fewer than 2 000 members, is slowly making its presence felt in the increasingly volatile platinum mining sector in North West.

When hundreds of former Murray & Roberts employees descended on Arbour Square in Johannesburg earlier this week for what they expected would be the start of a landmark Labour Court case against their former employer, they were stunned to learn that the Metal and Electrical Workers’ Union of South Africa (Mewusa) — which had offered to help them when they were dismissed after an abortive strike at the Aquarius Kroondal and Marikana mines in 2009 — had thrown a spanner in the works.

Mewusa is believed to be in a tailspin over a gradual defection of potential members to the smaller, more militant Cosawu, a union with which it had discussed a merger two years ago.

Mewusa, which is affiliated to the leftist National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), effectively asked for a postponement of the case, claiming that its legal representative was not ready, allegedly despite having known of the court date for at least seven months. The move seemed to show a lack of commitment to the cause of the workers it had rescued from the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) following a dispute over a wage agreement offer.

In 2009, under the leadership of the NUM, more than 4 000 workers from the Kroondal and Marikana mines went on strike for higher wages. The union, after agreeing to an offer with management without the workers’ mandate, pleaded with its members to return to work. They ignored the plea and were summarily dismissed. Some of them later opted for re-employment, while others sought work elsewhere, leaving about 1 400 workers still unemployed.

When Mewusa took on their case a few months later, it was apparently largely due to the enthusiasm of the then-media campaigns manager and co-ordinator, Mametlwe Sebei, who was also a member of the Democratic Socialist Movement. Sebei wrote in a letter dated December 6 2009: “Seeing a more militant leadership and also the opportunity to remain connected to other workers, the workers renounced their NUM membership and the entire branch joined Mewusa en bloc.”

Around that time, discussions took place about merging Mewusa, which had a membership of about 100 000 members, with the smaller, equally feisty Cosawu, which was also affiliated to the Democratic Socialist Movement. “The discussions were on the basis that we wanted to have a worker-controlled union, a force to ensure that we could take these ideals further to the society at large,” said Michael Helu, president of Cosawu. “We had some people in Cosawu who were also members of the Democratic Socialist Movement.

Mewusa was more established and older; we also shared views politically. But then Mewusa had its own internal problems and the discussions never continued.”

Mewusa’s internal storms culminated in the dismissal of the “socialist movement faction”.

“The split was also because of our commitment to assist these workers who were [technically] not our members,” Sebei said. “We felt that solidarity was the basic condition of the trade union movement. If there is any meaning to the slogan ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ then this was the time to show that.”

The departure of Sebei, Witwatersrand regional organiser Never Tshuma and several administration staff who later joined Cosawu, took the steam out of Mewusa and seemed to signal a slow but steady demise, but it had the opposite effect on Cosawu.

Mewusa’s website bears some testimony to this. Its news section was last updated in November 2010 and all updates on its campaigns have virtually ground to a halt.

Outside the Labour Court on Monday, the shift in allegiances was obvious. A Mewusa contingent of about 10 people, containing more office bearers than rank-and-file members, shuffled away from the scene. But Sebei addressed throngs of attentive workers for the better part of an hour. Although he was desperate to stave off the postponement, he felt that Cosawu had scored a small victory by officially being allowed to be party to the proceedings.

“We had been interdicted since May and couldn’t intervene officially,” he said. “Mewusa still wants to maintain the membership without showing a commitment to the same politics that brought them there.”

Dismissed mine worker Obed Mashaba said: “After Mewusa had offered to help us, we discovered that it was only certain individuals who wanted to help us, not Mewusa as a whole.”

Speaking the day afterwards in his office, Mewusa president Daniel Lengoabala said: “It was the judge that proposed the postponement to give us time.

“Cosawu is only based in Cape Town and does not have the scope of metal [workers’ union]. These workers were our members — I don’t know why they were being represented by Cosawu.

They are not even employed.” Lengoabala said he had been informed about the court case only on Monday and added that his door was open to all members to raise their grievances.

Lucien van der Walt, a lecturer in sociology at Wits University, said splinter unions were growing at a time when bigger unions were struggling in terms of what to do in the current economic climate. “Smaller unions bring with them an energy and a new way of doing things that attract workers,” he said.

“That they are seen as independent counts in their favour. Cosatu is seen as too close to the ANC and therefore can’t fight for their rights.”

‘Green’ party growing pains
Delegates who attended the conference that led to the formation of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) a year ago have expressed very different views about its progress and future prospects.

DLF spokesperson Vishwas Satgar said: “The DLF was born within the context of the crisis of the national liberation project and to build solidarity with social movements on the ground.

“The liberation crisis has deepened and the rise of [President] Jacob Zuma has entrenched authoritarian politics, with moves to constrain the press and the way the Constitutional Court has been configured,” he said. “Traditional authorities have been entrenched and there is no fundamental shift away from the interests and security of capital.

“So the crisis has deepened, resulting in an ongoing assertion for the necessity of the DLF. With social movements, our approach has been to work with them, support and strengthen them.”

Although many were optimistic about its potential to coalesce community struggles and establish a political alternative to the ruling party, others saw it as susceptible to “imperialist forces”.

Nick Tucker, the Socialist Party of Azania’s head of publicity and information, said that organisations that pushed social movement programmes were easily subverted, to the extent that grassroots people, who were desperate to rise above the political morass caused by a lack of service delivery, found themselves in a very difficult position.

“The whole notion of green politics promotes the view that we can change the world by planting our own food, when the primary position of the black working class is subservience to capital economic interest,” he said. “The nuance from the NGO [non-governmental organisation] sector makes us feel like we can change capitalism into a more humane society, whereas capitalism is a rapacious system that leads to workers becoming expendable commodities.”

Trevor Ngwane of the Socialist Group said the DLF was getting a hostile reception from the South African Communist Party (SACP) because it viewed it as the enemy.

“It’s a pity because we are fighting for socialism,” he said. “We have asked fundamental questions about the political path of the ANC, which means the SACP may continue to demonise the DLF.”

Bobo Makhoba, an organiser of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, said the DLF had made some advances in the provinces and had built solidarity with struggling communities, but it needed to strengthen its presence on the ground. — Kwanele Sosibo

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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