Key union faces deregistration

Something to shout about: The fees of Fawu members have apparently been used to fund the union’s investment wing, Basebenzi. (Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images)

Something to shout about: The fees of Fawu members have apparently been used to fund the union’s investment wing, Basebenzi. (Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images)

The Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), shaken by factional battles and a multimillion rand financial scandal, faces deregistration because of poor corporate governance and alleged mismanagement of membership fees.

Last month, Fawu, the second largest affiliate in the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), fired its long-serving general secretary, Katishi Masemola, for misconduct regarding a R19.2-million write-off at its investment wing, Basebenzi Investment Group.

Masemola’s dismissal came after two years of behind-the-scenes battles between a faction supporting him and a rival grouping backing Fawu president Atwell Nazo and the acting deputy general secretary, Mayoyo Mngomezulu. Masemola was also charged with the use of an additional R20-million of union funds to pay Basebenzi’s rent and other operational costs.

Masemola was served with a notice of dismissal last month after a union inquiry found him guilty of misconduct in connection with the write-offs at Basebenzi, of which he was a director and former acting chief executive officer between 2006 and December 2018.

Several of Masemola’s supporters have been suspended in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape ahead of the union’s elective conferences in the two provinces.
He has said the move is in a bid to prevent them to stand for election and to purge the faction from the union.

In May the crisis regarding the union’s finances reached a head when the labour relations registrar, Lehlohonolo Molefe, threatened to deregister Fawu or go to the labour court to have the union placed under administration. Fawu had failed to submit its annual financial statement for 2017/2018 and submitted its 2015/2016 statements — for which it received an audit disclaimer — to the registrar only in April 2018.

It had also failed to put in place a system of internal controls for more than R73-million in membership fees.

With nearly 126 000 members in the retail, hospitality and agriculture sectors, Fawu is a key player in Saftu, to which it moved in 2017 after the expulsion of metalworkers’ union Numsa from labour federation Cosatu the year before.

Nazo told the Mail & Guardian that Masemola had been fired because of charges emanating from the use of Fawu membership subscriptions to fund the activities of Basebenzi — including paying his own salary.

“This money was used without the knowledge and authorisation of the leadership of Fawu,” Nazo said. “This is in addition to the R19.2-million we lost on the investment side.”

Nazo said an acting general secretary was likely to be elected at the end of November when Fawu’s national executive committee meets. A permanent replacement would be elected at the union’s elective national conference next year.

Nazo said the union had submitted the outstanding financial statements as instructed and were finalising those for 2018/2019.

Several other officials allied with Masemola, including August Mbhele, a head office official sent to KwaZulu-Natal, and Eastern Cape provincial secretary Mthunzi Madondo, have also been served with suspension notices.

Mngomezulu told the M&G that Mbhele was facing “very serious charges”, claiming he had “presented himself” as the Fawu KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary, when in fact he did not occupy the post.

Mbhele was also charged for making comments in the media about retrenchments at Tongaat-Hulett when he had no mandate to do so.

Mbhele declined to comment.

Masemola said he was in the process of making a condonation application that would allow him to challenge the dismissal at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration on procedural and substantive grounds.

“I will win this thing,” he said. “I want my name to be cleared and to get my reputation back.”

He said he had been dismissed in his absence because he had called for the recusal of the chairperson at his disciplinary hearing, who he claimed was “deeply conflicted”.

Masemola said the write-offs and the funding of Basebenzi’s operating costs by Fawu had been done with the proper mandate from the union.

“I have copies of the resolutions [authorising the decisions],” he said.

He claimed that he had been fired because of a “factional problem” in Fawu, which he conceded had negatively affected the union’s ability to service it members.

“This not political or ideological. It is essentially a factional problem,” Masemola said.

“I have been general secretary for more than

15 years. Perhaps I have overstayed my welcome.”

He added that the union’s members were suffering because of the infighting. “This is not sustainable. At some stage it will all unravel. In the meantime, rival unions are starting to eat into our membership. At the end of the day, the members are going to suffer from poor service if people are preoccupied with jostling for positions.”