/ 13 November 2014

Cosatu split: How the ANC will suffer

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has given the trade union federation an ultimatum to pull expelled metalworkers’ union Numsa and the seven affiliates that support it back into the fold – or he packs his bags.

“If I can’t get Numsa back and the decision [to expel Numsa] is permanent and other unions are not coming back, I can’t stay,” an angry Vavi told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday.

“If we manage to pull everyone, including Numsa, back, then I will stay [in Cosatu]. But if not, I can’t stay with people who have so many disagreements. How do I stay in one room with a union like [police union] Popcru, which continues to insult the public protector?”

The threat from Vavi, who himself faces expulsion from the federation, comes in the week that Numsa was purged from Cosatu, with seven affiliates joining forces with the metalworkers’ union in suspending their participation in the federation.

Further developments in what is seen as the darkest week in Cosatu’s 29 years of existence include:

  • The formation of a pro-Numsa workers’ party is becoming a stronger reality and it is feared that it will eat into ANC support in the country’s metros during the local government elections;
  • Plans by pro-Numsa unionists to form an alternative labour federation are gaining momentum;
  • A new metalworkers’ union is being formed by anti-Numsa forces within Cosatu; and
  • Cosatu is becoming a federation dominated by public sector unions.

The ANC and its tripartite alliance partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and what remains of Cosatu, are likely to be the biggest losers following last weekend’s purge of the powerful Numsa.

Cosatu managed to get rid of Numsa after a long standoff, but in the end the federation is likely to pay a heavy price politically, financially and even at the polls, where it plays a supporting role to the ruling ANC.

Moreover, its alliance partners are set to suffer much more: the ANC has benefited from Cosatu’s well-organised campaign machinery since the advent of democracy and the SACP depends on Cosatu for resources such as accommodation and organisational assistance.

There have been minor splits in Cosatu affiliates over the years, but the expulsion of Numsa became the largest single exit so far, at about 17% of the federation’s total membership.

It is, however, unlikely that all 350 000 Numsa members will follow the leadership of the outspoken Irvin Jim. Cosatu is ready to admit the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa (Mawusa) as its new affiliate to replace Numsa.

Mawusa was established by a faction of Numsa led by former president Cedric Gina, which broke away a year ago. Gina told the M&G that Mawusa was attracting metalworkers who did not subscribe to “Numsa’s political ideas”.

Numsa treasurer general Mphumzi Maqungo and general secretary Irvin Jim exchange greetings with the union’s then-president Cedric Gina, who has formed rival union Mwamusa. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Other recent breakaways within Cosatu include that of the National Transport Movement, formed by former South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) president Ephraim Mphahlele, and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, formed by former National Union of Mineworkers leader Joseph Mathunjwa. 

Vavi said he hoped Cosatu leaders would put the interests of workers first and rethink Numsa’s expulsion.

“I can’t throw away hope,” he said.  

Cosatu receives just over R6-million in monthly fees from 19 affiliates. This year Numsa’s monthly subscription fee was R1.1-million, and the seven unions aligned to it paid a total of R1.4-million every month to Cosatu.

Numsa’s exit, coupled with an anticipated walkout of the affiliates that support it, could change the nature of Cosatu and turn it into a predominantly public sector union federation.

This is how individual alliance partners are likely to be affected by the Cosatu split.

Cosatu has lost the “sugar daddy” of the federation. Numsa’s exit could cripple the already ailing trade union federation’s finances, as it would lose close to R14-million a year in subscription fees. The metalworkers’ union has also helped to pay some unions’ subscription fees and has bailed others out during their congresses. Numsa and its supporter unions collectively pay R2.5-million a month in subscription fees.

Jim confirmed that his union helps unions that struggle financially, but said this only happened occasionally.

“When those unions struggled, say with a venue [for conferences], we [Numsa] would assist them,” Jim said. “It was not a desperate [offer of] help so that they could support us … They say we are poaching workers, but some unions like Satawu have been dismissing workers left and right. Those workers have now found a new home at Numsa.”

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has said he will quit if Numsa is not reinstated. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

By losing most of the 350 000 Numsa members and possibly a good percentage of members of the affiliates that support Numsa, Cosatu’s membership will be drastically reduced. This will diminish its political power to influence things in the ANC-led alliance.

With Numsa’s well-recorded organisational strength, the new federation is also likely to be more coherent, more powerful and threaten Cosatu more aggressively because it understands how the labour federation operates. 

The formation of a new federation to compete with Cosatu will automatically result in the emotional bond between some workers and the ANC being broken.

Although trade unions and Cosatu don’t necessarily have to donate cash to the ANC directly, the ruling party has benefited from labour’s support during election campaigns that has ranged from funded rallies to giving platforms to ANC leaders. Affiliates such as Numsa have paid for campaign banners and T-shirts, as well as buses to transport supporters to events, and have provided shop stewards to campaign for the ANC.

It is also not clear whether Numsa members who follow the union to its new home will continue voting for the ANC. One of Numsa’s biggest problems with the current Cosatu leadership is that it has failed to hold the ANC accountable for promises made to workers and for government policies perceived as anti-worker and anti-poor. Numsa refused to contribute financially and campaign for the ANC in this year’s national election.

If the workers’ party gets off the ground, it is likely to attract a significant number of Numsa members away from the ANC. The most immediate evidence of this will be seen in the 2016 local government election, especially in the five most industrialised metros. The workerist union has strong support in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Buffalo City.

A workers’ party, particularly one driven by a powerful and well-organised Numsa, will probably be strongest in the areas where the ANC has struggled in the two recent elections.

In Ekurhuleni, for example, support for the ANC was at 61.6% in 2011 and only 55% of the metro’s voters chose the ANC when casting their ballots for provincial leadership in this year’s elections.

The party is housed at Cosatu House, the federation’s headquarters in Braamfontein, and has, over the years, depended on the workers to bail it out financially.

As the largest affiliate in Cosatu, Numsa contributed the most (R631?000 last year) to the political fund, which helps to support the SACP. If Cosatu suffers a financial blow, it is likely to start cutting its expenses on the SACP’s side. The SACP has long prided itself on being the genuine workers’ party, but losing almost half of Cosatu to a new federation threatens to dilute that ideological stance.

Cosatu’s finances already seem stretched. Cosatu House sources said things have been deteriorating so badly that the federation has been unable to honour its obligation to assist the SACP financially, despite several commitments that were made through congress resolutions.

Sources told the M&G that, despite several pleas by the SACP for Cosatu to pay the political funds due to the party, nothing has been forthcoming in the past three years.  

“Over time there has been problems with that political fund. For around three years now there has been tension around the political fund,” said the Cosatu House insider and SACP sympathiser.

A senior Cosatu leader confirmed that the federation was in a dire financial situation. The source also confirmed that the union was un-able to service its R500 000 monthly rental – now sitting at R18-million after three years in arrears – as the money was used for maintaining the new building and other services. 

The SACP will be hard hit by Numsa’s expulsion. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The Cosatu official said one of the reasons the union federation was financially stressed was that most of its tenants, including the SACP, were not paying rent.

“The SACP is the worst culprit. They owe Cosatu millions of rands. We are doing everything for them –from renting photocopy machines to paying for water services. We are paying their rent every month. The reason they are so involved in internal Cosatu politics is that they want to continue living the parasitic life. Without Cosatu, they [SACP] are dead.

“No one can tolerate someone who does not even pay for water services,” said the Cosatu leader.

The source said the federation’s high legal expenses over the past few months had drained its coffers.

The union has been in and out of court as factions sought legal reprieve. The Cosatu leader expressed fear that the federation might be forced to retrench staff if the situation continued.

SACP deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila said party leaders were not convinced that “ideals” were at the centre of the dispute in Cosatu. They pin the fights down to money, political ambitions and ego.  

Another SACP leader admitted that the blurring of lines in money matters between Cosatu and the SACP was at the core of the divisions plaguing the federation. “This new building is where the trouble started,” he said.