Numsa: Death threats and politically motivated resignations

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Tensions within trade union federation Cosatu took a new twist on Tuesday, with the federation's largest affiliate National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) saying its general secretary Irvin Jim has once again received death threats – this time from a senior Gauteng leader belonging to another Cosatu affiliate.

Numsa deputy general secretary Karl Cloete told journalists on Tuesday his union would lay a complaint against a member of the provincial executive committee of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) Steve Phiri Matsemela, who posted a message on Facebook on November 26 2013 threatening to kill Jim.

Matsemela's Facebook message, which Numsa distributed to journalists, reads: "All of you can write what you like and say all manner of things ... it will never deter us from our strategic alliance with the ANC. I'm saying it now that Irvin Jim is the most vitriolic political amoeba [sic] and must be expelled within our ranks.
Thugs and criminals must be out rooted from society even if it means its [sic] yourselves who are chatting here we must deal with you to the extent of killing you if you pose threat to life. No apology".

Cloete said the union was worried that leaders of Cosatu found it easy to threaten to kill someone.

"If you can have somebody who can easily suggest leaders must be killed – then we are in trouble. We are reminded of the Marikana [massacre] – where workers were killed [by police] for demanding wage increases and better working conditions," said Cloete. He said Numsa expected nothing but harsh action against the leader who called for the killing of Jim.

"We hope by this evening [Tuesday], this man must be arrested," said Cloete. 

​Popcru spokesperson Theto Mahlakoane refused to comment, saying the union would only release a statement on Wednesday. 

Previous death threats
Jim, who has been a thorn on the side of the ANC and the government, has received death threats before. During the South African Communist Party's (SACP) conference in Richard's Bay last year, Jim claimed he was followed by a car with false number plates. When confronted, the occupants of the car produced a false photocopied police ID and claimed to have mistaken him for someone they were meant to be protecting. Cloete said the union has since beefed up security for Jim and it would continue to conduct a risk and security assessments with the aim of adjusting it whenever the need arose. 

Numsa and Popcru have been at the centre of the factional battles in Cosatu over the past months. Popcru is aligned to Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini and is the main complainant of financial impropriety against suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.  Numsa is a staunch supporter of Vavi and the union has taken Cosatu to court to overturn the federation's decision to suspend Vavi after her admitted to having sex with a junior staffer at Cosatu offices.

Meanwhile, Numsa national office bearers said nothing would stop the union from convening its special congress in two weeks to decide, among other things, whether or not to split from Cosatu. The top Numsa officials came out in defence of Jim, who was singled out by the union's former president Cedric Gina as the proponent behind the suggestion that Numsa should consider pulling out of Cosatu and the alliance.

Numsa's national leaders denied that the union was divided and said they believed Gina's decision to resign was intended to cause confusion and divisions within its structures.

"We are not fools. We can see that this is a mobilisation ploy and the president [Gina] wants to play a victim so that in the special congress workers must come there mobilised against ... this autocratic Irvin Jim who's violent," he said.

"The truth of the matter is ... we think there is a political agenda. There are people out there voting within the [South African Communist Party] and [ANC] who are extremely worried about [Numsa]'s political position."

'Bizarre'
​Numsa handed a copy of Gina's resignation letter to journalists on Tuesday. In the letter, Gina said he had to end his working relationship with Jim before it turned violent. Cloete said Gina had not sent his resignation letter to the union's national office bearers, but had e-mailed it to the union's 52 local offices, and this was seen as a ploy.

"We suspect that this bizarre way of communicating his resignation may have to do with seeking sympathy or mobilising rank and file support to bring divisions through his unexpected resignation," he said.

"What confirms this suspicion is the fact that comrade Gina's media statements suggest that he shall await the decision of 'Numsa structures' on his resignation."

Removed
Cloete said Numsa wanted to take the opportunity to announce that Gina was no longer the union's president because he removed himself from the position.

"We wish to advise all Numsa members and Numsa structures ... [the effect of] comrade Cedric Gina's removal from office by his own resignation is that no individual in Numsa, or constitutional structure or organ of Numsa can reinstate [him]," he said.

Jim said it needed to be asked why Gina was behaving in this way.

"I must admit, knowing Cedric, it's very difficult to believe that this is [him] who speaks.

"He sounds like somebody who's accounting somewhere else ... The level of desperation of whoever [he is meeting] ... is at the centre of this political process."

It seemed Gina had other political aspirations, and that Numsa's current political posture was not favourable, said Jim.

"What can you do? The best way is to demonstrate to both the ANC and the SACP that I'm doing my best to fight Numsa's political position, and I think the president has just done that with his political career," he said.

Good relationship
In his resignation letter, Gina said he had had a good relationship with Jim until last year.

"We campaigned together, we agreed politically on key issues, until one meeting towards Mangaung where he shocked me," Gina wrote.

"I tolerated [it], hoping it was just as he told me later when I confronted him; just an unmandated reflection that he was making in that situation."

Gina claimed to have protected Jim in certain situations.

This included when Numsa's national executive committee insisted Jim accept nomination to the ANC's national executive committee (NEC).

"He defied the NEC. I took the flak and protected his defiance," he wrote.

On another occasion, Gina said he refused to sign the Absa relationship deal when certain issues were not clear, and Jim "shouted at me like I was his child".

"I later signed the deal for the sake of the working relationship," he said.

On August 19 2011, Numsa announced a five-year partnership with Absa.

This would give the union's members access to mortgage and vehicle finance, and savings and investment services.

Jim said Numsa did not anticipate Gina's resignation. But there were no hard feelings – Gina remained a Numsa member and a shop steward. – Additional reporting by Sapa

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Matuma Letsoalo is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003, focussing on politics and labour, and collaborated with the M&G's centre for investigations, amaBhungane, from time to time.In 2011, Matuma won the South African Journalist of the Year Award and was also the winner in the investigative journalism category in the same year.In 2004, he won the CNN African Journalist of the Year prize – the MKO Abiola Print Journalism Award. Matuma was also a joint category winner of the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the year Award in 2008. In 2013, he was a finalist for Wits University's Taco Kuiper Award.
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      Matuma Letsoalo is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003, focussing on politics and labour, and collaborated with the M&G's centre for investigations, amaBhungane, from time to time.In 2011, Matuma won the South African Journalist of the Year Award and was also the winner in the investigative journalism category in the same year.In 2004, he won the CNN African Journalist of the Year prize – the MKO Abiola Print Journalism Award. Matuma was also a joint category winner of the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the year Award in 2008. In 2013, he was a finalist for Wits University's Taco Kuiper Award.
    • Read more from ML
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