The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) is scheduled to hold a press conference on Monday to publicly respond to threats that the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (Cosatu) central executive committee is to expel it from the federation.
It comes after a stay of execution last week, when the committee decided to defer a vote on Numsa’s expulsion until it reconvened on November 7. It also follows the ANC’s report into the deepening rifts within the federation, which was presented to the committee.
Numsa is the largest affiliate in the federation, with more than 339 000 workers.
It has been increasingly critical of the tripartite alliance, notably the ruling ANC and its policies, as well as scathing of the current Cosatu leadership’s continued support for the party. It refused to campaign for the ANC ahead of elections this year, and is exploring the establishment of a United Front, seen as a potential pre-cursor to a worker’s political party.
Ralph Mathekga, political analyst at research and consultancy firm Clear Content, said Numsa was wise to tread carefully over its position in the trade federation. The union, despite its apparent strength in numbers, derived its confidence from their continued position within Cosatu, said Mathekga.
“Now they can say they are trying to save Cosatu but they cannot do that [if] they’ve moved outside of Cosatu,” he told the Mail & Guardian. They were very cognisant of the risks of leaving the federation, said Mathekga, evidenced by the fact that they had not yet joined forces with the Economic Freedom Fighters – the breakaway political party started by former ANC youth league leader Julius Malema.
“Once they are out, the dynamics change, hence they won’t easily leave,” said Mathekga.
The union had carefully been using external platforms to question the federation, however, making it very difficult for Cosatu to expel Numsa without potential backlash, he said.
Numsa had “wittingly cultivated public sympathy” by presenting itself as fighting for the soul of the federation, and acting in the interests of workers, so far failed by the tripartite alliance, argued Mathekga.
As a result Cosatu’s leadership had yet to simply expel the union because it was concerned about the public backlash, as well as how other civil society organisations would perceive what would remain of the federation.
Cosatu was aware that expelling a union standing on these principals risked Numsa garnering growing support outside of the federation, said Mathekga. Irvin Jim, Numsa’s general secretary, declined to comment on the threat of its expulsion, saying Numsa would address these issues at the press conference on Monday.
Numsa was a union “controlled by workers”, and he could not comment until he had been given a mandate to, Jim said.
A true split in Cosatu would have significant implications for South African politics, which has been dominated by the ANC led alliance. As recently as last weekend Numsa was holding launches of “embryonic United Front structures” in different parts of the country.
This was in line with the resolutions of its December 2013 congress to align trade union with community struggles, it said in a press release. Despite the divisions within Cosatu and its criticism of the ANC, the ruling party’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa has publicly stated its preference that Numsa remain within the Cosatu fold. “The ANC’s preference is that Cosatu should remain united,” the South African Press Association reported Ramaphosa as saying last Wednesday.