Satawu president Ephraim Mphahlele has officially resigned from his union to join a splinter group, in what appears to be the latest fall-out in factional battles ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in Manguang in December.
"Neither Cosatu nor myself gave blessing for the creation of this splinter union [Natawu] In fact they are turning their backs against Cosatu," said a bitter general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, who took to Twitter soon after hearing the news to express his dismay.
In his resignation statement Mphahlele claimed that there was an assassination plot against him, and fingered individuals in the union for financial irregularities, taking particular aim at general secretary Zenzo Mahlangu.
The transport union is a member of Cosatu, which is also divided over the issue – the federation's president Sdumo Dlamini is described in union circles as a supporter of Zuma, but Vavi is seen as favouring a change of leadership and will take Mphahlele's resignation as a set-back.
Vavi is said to be targeted by pro-Zuma leaders in the alliance, who want him removed. The union is also deeply divided in battles surrounding the multibillion-rand rail renewal project by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).
The Mail & Guardian reported last month that a faction aligned to Mahlangu wanted to oust Mphahlele at a central executive committee meeting in August. Mphahlele's faction is said by union officials to be aligned with those who want Zuma replaced as party president, whereas Mahlangu and his supporters are pro-Zuma.
Mahlangu confirmed Mphahlele's resignation on Tuesday evening. "Ja, he has left," he said. "My understanding is that he is part of a counter-revolutionary union called Natawu."
The splinter union, the National Allied Transport Workers' Union (Natawu), was formed by former Satawu Gauteng chairperson Liver Mngomezulu and his deputy Reuben Mngomezulu after they were expelled from Satawu.
Mngomezulu was expelled as the union's Gauteng chairperson for entering into an allegedly unauthorised agreement with a service provider that binds the union to monthly payments of R590 808 for five years.
Mphahlele was believed to have supported the splinter union for some time, and the move was foreseen. "We saw the signs for some time," said Mahlangu. "They are just rebellious. On the day of their dismissal they were recruiting for another union."
The Mail & Guardian was unable to immediately get hold of Mphahlele for comment on Tuesday. Mphahlele said in July that he was aware of the plans to unseat him. "At the central executive committee meeting in April, provincial members had been mobilised to support the removal of the president," he said.
Mphahlele has also been at the forefront of a campaign to have the chief executive of the rail agency, Lucky Montana, removed. But none of Satawu's other top five officials support Mphahlele because they believe his allegations are unsubstantiated. It is understood that Mphahlele is lobbying for the agency's suspended chief financial officer, Sindi Mabaso, to take over from Montana.
Mabaso was suspended after she allegedly submitted irregular financial statements. She was also previously fired as group financial officer of Transnet by former chief executive Maria Ramos.
Jockeying for tenders
Some in the union see the manoeuvring as a proof of jockeying for tenders that may flow from the agency's R137-billion renewal programme. Sandile Zungu, secretary of the Black Business Council, recently accused the rail agency of sidelining black business after the parastatal had issued a tender for train coaches.
But Mphahlele previously denied claims that he wanted Mabaso to replace Montana.
Mngomezulu has previously said it was likely Mphahlele would bring a large number of Satawu's members with him.
Vavi, meanwhile, appealed "to all those involved to reconsider the impact this will have to the vulnerable workers in transport, cleaning & security.
"Only class enemies of workers celebrate workers disunity in the name of competition. Fragmentation of unions means more power for bosses," he tweeted.
"Those who appreciate the importance of worker unity will fight to the very bitter end to keep workers united."