Numsa conference: Digging deeper into a tripartite alliance split?

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim. (Gallo)

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim. (Gallo)

Having temporarily suspended its very public spats with the ANC for the duration of the 10-day national mourning period following Nelson Mandela's death, things go back to where they left off for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), which announced this week that its three-day special national conference would go ahead on Tuesday.

While the union was coy about the agenda for the congress this week, movements within Numsa and the broader tripartite alliance before Mandela's death made it clear: movement away from the ANC is on the table.

"As is our custom, the special national congress [SNC] will receive a presidential address from [acting] Numsa president comrade Andrew Chirwa. Furthermore, the SNC will also receive a detailed and composite secretariat report from Numsa general secretary comrade Irvin Jim," Numsa's national spokesperson Castro Ngobese said on Monday.

Ngobese said the congress was called by Numsa's central committee to discuss, among numerous issues, "the paralysis that has emerged within Cosatu".

Following the leaking of an internal Numsa document spelling out the possibility of a breakaway from Cosatu, Jim admitted in November that the option of leaving the trade union federation was being discussed. He said the leaked document would be explored further at the special congress.

National elections
The week's congress would also determine the workers' position on the 2014 national elections, "among other urgent matters", Ngobese said.
The union might conclude not to support the ANC in the 2014 elections, or, at the very least, give the party an ultimatum to that effect.

Ngobese said more than 1 200 delegates would attend the congress. He added that partner unions from overseas, including Latin America, would also attend.

Dirk Hartford, a freelance journalist and former editor of Cosatu News, predicted recently the congress could have radical implications for South African politics should Numsa follow through on its threats to walk away from the alliance.

Writing for the Mail & Guardian on the day of Mandela's death, Hartford said:

"It will be the first time ever that an organised workers' congress of this size, representing more than 320 000 industrial workers, will meet to decide on the most fundamental question facing the liberation movement for a century: in whose interests is the struggle, the rich or the poor? The 1% or the 99%? The capitalists or the workers?

"The workers who will decide are representatives of the largest, most militant and most experienced trade unions in the country. Numsa is organised in all the key sectors of the industrial economy, including the sophisticated, foreign-owned motor manufacturing sector. If the labour movement had an equivalent meeting to a gathering of the 'captains of industry', a Numsa congress could well fit the bill."

Fate of Vavi
Numsa's other "urgent matters" would most likely include the fate of suspended Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi, as well as a recent spat with the third alliance leg, the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Numsa is challenging Vavi's suspension in court.

Mere hours before Mandela died, the SACP's Solly Mopaila called a press conference to announce a slew of allegations, this time involving supposed financial impropriety against Numsa.

Three days after Mandela's death, the SACP called on the union to stick it out and stay together, in the former president's name.

"Their [Mandela's] generation struggled to build and cement the unity of our alliance and we therefore owe it to the memory of Cde Madiba to preserve the unity of our alliance," the SACP said in its newsletter, Umsebenzi Online.

But Numsa's issues with the alliance go deeper than mere personal spats, and this week will shed some light on whether calls for unity will be enough to paper over the cracks.

Numsa wants the ANC to scrap the National Development Plan (NDP) in its entirety before the elections. It also wants the party to swing leftwards and adopt radical policies on the economy, including the nationalisation of key sectors, a banning of labour brokers and the end of e-tolls.

But Numsa's statement suggests the union will keep its debates tidy, and no factional material will be allowed during the plenary congress sessions.

Ngobese said congress rules "prohibit the distribution of any material or pamphlets that are divisive, factional, or not sanctioned by the special national congress steering committee.

"Unless accredited, no organisation or trader will be allowed anywhere near the vicinity of the congress. Further, in order to protect delegates from undue interference and pressures, no circulars, leaflets, pamphlets or any publication are allowed to be distributed at the congress venue, without prior written authorisation from the national office bearers," Ngobese said. – Additional reporting by Sapa

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