​Cosatu president Dlamini agitates for a split of Fawu after union votes to leave

Following a groundbreaking move to disaffiliate from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) now faces a split.

Six of Fawu’s seven provinces voted to leave Cosatu at the union’s national congress in Bela Bela, Limpopo last week. But there are already calls for members to reject this conference resolution.

Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini told the Mail & Guardian: “Their members rejected leaving Cosatu and the Fawu leadership dealt with those members. The leadership has pushed for this at all costs; they took members out in a manner that undermines worker democracy. Those workers belong to Cosatu and we are ready to welcome them in whatever form. Members of Fawu must remain in the federation.”

Fawu has a national membership of 131 000; 22 000 of those in Gauteng, the union’s biggest region and 20 000 in the Western Cape. The Western Cape was the only province that objected to the union’s exit from Cosatu but is abiding by the resolution.

“Our province is not happy. We can’t leave because there are differences. I still believe it’s not the mandate of all the members in the union,” said chairperson Jacky Breda. “But they say you move with the majority because it’s six our of seven provinces. So even though we are unhappy, we have to stay (in the union),” she continued.

Fawu general secretary Katishi Masemola said Cosatu has welcomed “rogue Fawu members” with open arms. “There were a few members who were expelled by the union and have taken refuge at Cosatu’s head office. That was the beginning of Cosatu’s attempt to split us.”

Masemola said the period ahead would not be easy, adding: “These guys have resources and will go to our workplaces and blemish the names of Fawu’s leadership.”

Fawu’s decision to walk away from Cosatu follows on its public backing of Numsa, expelled from Cosatu in 2014, as well the union’s support for Zwelinzima Vavi, who was axed as general secretary of the trade federation last year. Masemola said Fawu congress delegates remain infuriated by these two decisions.

“Chief amongst the reasons for leaving Cosatu is the expulsion of Numsa and the way the federation has been silent on some unacceptable government policies,” Masemola said.

The reaction by Cosatu mirrors its establishment of alternative metalworkers union Limusa, after metalworkers union Numsa’s expulsion. Since its inception, Limusa has largely failed to lure Numsa members.

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim has now called on Fawu workers to “remain vigilant and accept their congress decision”.

He urged Fawu members to remain united. “S’dumo (Dlamini) will try to divide them and we are making a call to Fawu members to remain united within their union. Democratic centralism should prevail. Workers should unite behind the majority decision. Make sure you don’t allow Dlamini and his clique to divide you,” Jim said.

Fawu’s disaffiliation has rejuvenated Numsa’s efforts to form a new politically independent trade union federation, a plan already backed by other smaller unions.

Masemola said Fawu’s returning leadership has been “mandated to pursue affiliation to another federation”.

The food and beverages union has been largely on the fence about its Cosatu affiliation and withheld its affiliation fees, now standing at R5-million. “We are taking legal advice on outstanding affiliation fees and will comply if needed,” Masemola said.

Another important decision taken at the national meeting relates to Fawu’s endorsement of the ANC during the elections, as well as its alignment to the SACP through the tripartite alliance. While congress stopped short of ditching the alliance, as Numsa did in 2013, it resolved to assess the effectiveness of this relationship.

“The relevance of the alliance is no longer there. We must work on reviewing our political posture because we don’t see value in the (ANC-led) alliance any longer. Supporting the ANC has now been brought into question,” Masemola said.

Last week Cosatu attempted to downplay the significance of a Fawu exit from the federation, saying it would survive without the food and beverage workers.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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