Numsa's ambitions spell game-changer for SA politics

Numsa is the largest affiliate of Cosatu. (Reuters)

Numsa is the largest affiliate of Cosatu. (Reuters)

It was around this time last year, when the initial signs of deep divisions in Cosatu surfaced and the ANC made its first attempts to place the proverbial lid on a sizzling pot. 

In the wake of the suspension of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, the ANC called for an “alliance summit” to discuss common interests and shared concerns over the “neoliberal path” the country was taking. In simple terms – it was an effort to cosy up to each other in the wake of Cosatu opposed to a policy decision of the ANC, the National Development Plan (NDP), and other irritants of the day. 

The most interesting bit of news to emerge from the three day meeting in Irene, Pretoria, was that the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) – Cosatu’s largest affiliate – did not attend the summit. It stood out because Numsa had rejected the entire NDP, rejected eTolls and had a bone or two to pick with the ruling party.
This would have been a good opportunity to engage the ANC.

Responding to queries about Numsa’s absence from the summit, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe was quick to point out that the ANC was not in alliance with Numsa – it was, in fact, in alliance with Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP). 

It was a small but important clarification. It helps to understand misguided reports on Monday that Numsa broke away from the tripartite alliance. Numsa was never in an alliance with the ANC, it is Cosatu who is in alliance with the ANC, as  Mantashe pointed out. 

The ANC was formed in 1912, Cosatu in 1985 and the SACP in 1921. But it was only in the early 1990s when the trio agreed to work together as a Revolutionary Alliance – known as the tripartite alliance – to push forward the National Democratic Revolution (NDR).

“Conference reaffirms the on-going relevance and role of the Alliance in the national democratic revolution. Commissions further agreed that steps need to be taken to enhance the unity of purpose of the Alliance through the diligent implementation of an agreed joint programme of action,” the ANC’s Mangaung conference resolved in 2012.   

‘Greedy capitalists’
When Numsa went to its conference in December last year, the union’s general secretary Irvin Jim said the ANC had abandoned the NDR, it replaced the Freedom Charter with the neoliberal NDP and it was run by greedy capitalists. Numsa’s opinion has not changed with Jim effectively saying the same thing. 

“We decided to break with the alliance and we resolved to form a United Front and explore the possibility for socialism in South Africa,” Jim said much to the excitement of many. 

But for Numsa to have out from the alliance it has to either withdraw from Cosatu or fight for Cosatu as a collective to decide to cut ties with the ANC and, importantly, win the fight. Based on Jim’s statement on Monday, the union is clearly prepared for the latter. They will try to keep their fight in Cosatu and push for a special national congress using the courts. 

If you probe further into their plans, Numsa plans to use the special national congress to elect a new leadership, force Cosatu to break away from the alliance and change the political realm altogether.

“Naturally, as the demand for a Special National Congress includes dealing with the Sdumo leadership collective, Sdumo and his friends (who are now illegally running Cosatu) know very well that they would not only be defeated in any National Congress to be held while Numsa still remains in Cosatu, but that the majority of ordinary delegates to such a Congress would easily remove all of them from office,” Jim said on Monday.

Taking on the ANC
In line with their plan, Numsa aims to create a workers party under the banner of the United Front, which would take on the ANC. A date of December has been set for the launch of this “front” and Jim did not rule out contesting elections. It would be interesting to see whether the frustration over the state of play within the ANC is a worker sentiment or the rigid view of the leadership of Numsa. Furthermore, workers have a right to vote for whichever political party they chose to. Neither Numsa nor Cosatu’s constitution forces workers to vote for a particular political party. 

An attempt to convince Cosatu’s 2-million members – let alone convincing the electorate – that the federation should break away from the ANC may be an ambitious plan. But on the brink of being expelled from Cosatu, Numsa is playing all the cards they have.   

‘Cosatu on the verge of collapse’
Last week the ANC presented its report to a meeting of Cosatu’s top decision making body outside of conference – its central executive committee following six months of mediation and a call for a cessation of hostilities. 

The findings and recommendations of the task team was hoped to be the prevailing sense of sanity in the federation which, by their own admission, is on the brink of collapse. The twenty page report reinforced a sentiment that Cosatu was on the verge of collapsing. 

The intervention did little to mend the rifts in Cosatu. In fact, if Numsa’s statement this week is anything to go by, the federation has become an enemy unto itself. “We reiterate our very correct political analysis that the ANC’s Task Team intervention, led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, was not only a farce, but an overall flouting of Cosatu’s constitution and founding principle of being a worker-controlled and democratic union federation of workers,” Jim said. 

He said the “ANC Task Team effectively handed over Vavi to their faction to deal with, and isolated Numsa and thereby prepared the grounds for its expulsion from the federation”. 

An attempt to expel Numsa at last week’s meeting was postponed to November 7. Numsa is not backing down. And while they are pinning their hopes on winning, they have a back up plan should they lose: form an alternate trade union federation and bankrupt Cosatu.

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