Plans to form a new labour federation that will rival Cosatu appear to be gaining momentum. With the expulsion of Cosatu’s largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), this week, disgruntled union leaders are working to form a new federation.
The former president of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), Thobile Ntola, is at the forefront of establishing a new public sector trade union that will work closely with Numsa to build the new federation to rival Cosatu. Ntola was expelled from Sadtu earlier this year after he defied Cosatu’s instructions to deny then suspended general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi a platform to address workers in the Eastern Cape.
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Ntola told the Mail & Guardian this week that plans to establish the new union were at an advanced stage and that a detailed announcement on its formation would be made by the end of November.
Ntola claimed many workers were dissatisfied with trade unions, “particularly in Cosatu because of the brutality that they are being dealt with when they hold different views”.
He said there was “lack of openness and freedom of speech” in Cosatu and that talks were at an advanced stage with the seven Cosatu affiliates that have continually supported Numsa in its fight with the anti-Numsa faction in the federation. In the meantime a new union to serve social workers is being formed at social development departments across the country, Ntola said.
It is set to develop into a general union that will service workers in the public sector and then later be involved in forming a trade union federation in opposition to Cosatu.
Public sector workers
The co-ordinator of the new union, Paul “Bazooka” Mbele – who was also expelled from Sadtu last year – told the M&G that, although the new union was initiated by disgruntled Sadtu members, they were creating a formation open to every public sector worker. This means it would not recruit teachers only, but also those workers aligned to Cosatu in unions such as the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union.
Cosatu’s public sector unions are closely aligned to the pro-Jacob Zuma faction in the federation and include its president Sdumo Dlamini, who is originally from Nehawu.
“[The union] will not have limitations,” Mbele said. “Anybody that is employed in the public sector should be able to join. The meeting is talking massive here, not sectoral. Its context is that you must unify all the workers in the public service under one umbrella and be able to pursue all their interests and protect their rights within the embodiment of an organisation that is fully representative of everyone.”
Jihad Seonya, another co-ordinator of the yet-to-be-formed union, said: “In the whole endeavour, we’re not proving to anybody that this is the power that we can build. We’re merely responding to the outcry of members on the ground.”
Mbele added: “These [disaffected members] are [the ones] building the union on the ground. It is the members that are going to own and shape this organisation. It’s not going to be shaped by those that were in this meeting. Those in this meeting are co-ordinating on the basis of a clarion call made by people on the ground that they want a better life. Not a better life for a few but a better life for the majority.”