The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s (Numsa) congress, set to get underway next week, hangs in the balance amid court action by its suspended leaders.
The suspensions have been used as “a tool to frustrate the democratic process”, according to an affidavit filed at the labour court this week.
The affidavit, by Numsa’s suspended second deputy president Ruth Ntlokotse, is part of a court bid to declare the suspensions invalid and allow the members to participate in the congress. In the absence of such an order, the suspended members want the congress interdicted until their disputes with the union are heard.
Ntlokotse, according to her affidavit, was placed under precautionary suspension after she contested the position of the presidency of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) at its congress in May.
Saftu was formed when Numsa broke away from labour federation Cosatu. Internal divisions were laid bare at the federation’s four-day congress, as Numsa fought to lift the suspensions of four national office bearers. Their suspension came after they tried to suspend Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who was ultimately re-elected.
By contesting the position, according to Numsa’s special central committee, Ntlokotse broke rank with the union, which backed Mac Chavalala, who was among the four suspended prior to the Saftu election. Ntlokotse defeated Chavalala by 91 votes.
Ntlokotse contends that her suspension is unlawful and “stifles democracy”. She states that Numsa’s constitution does not provide for precautionary suspension and that it only envisages a suspension as a sanction following due process.
“I submit that the precautionary suspension of office bearers and shop stewards is used as a tool to frustrate the democratic process through elimination of office bearers and shop stewards who stand to be successful in contesting positions,” Ntlokotse says in her affidavit.
“I am a good example of such a candidate as Mac Chavalala will be contesting for the same position I intend to contest. The fact that I won the election in Saftu makes me the most likely candidate to triumph and become the president of Numsa. The other reason for the mass suspensions is to eliminate those who may vote in favour of certain delegates.”
The union, its general secretary Irvin Jim and the chair of the special central committee are listed as respondents in the matter. Ntlokotse is seeking an interdict against the respondents who, she contends, “have engaged in undemocratic acts and unconstitutional conduct”.
Numsa is expected to file its opposing papers by close of business today. The matter is set to be heard on Friday.
The court bid comes amid a battle for the heart of the country’s single-largest union, which has been hit with allegations of factionalism and financial abuses. As this skirmish plays out, the positions of about 30 elected Numsa leaders, including shop stewards and officials, have come under threat.
The suspensions, according to one camp, come at the hands of the Amajita faction, allegedly led by Jim. In a statement, the suspended members accused the faction of manipulating attendance at the congress to secure their victory and “continue looting”.
According to the statement, the members were suspended for speaking out over the Numsa Investment Company, which is owned by the National Manufacturing Workers Investment Trust, but has allegedly never paid it any dividends. “Instead, it has exercised patronage by giving benefits directly to Numsa individuals and structures.”
The workers’ trust was at the centre of a 2020 investigation by Deloitte, which uncovered that 3Sixty Life — a life insurance company owned by the trust — had made a number of payments that benefitted Numsa leaders, including Jim.
The operating expenses in the company’s 2018 audited financial statements lists one expense as “Numsa support”, worth R358 000. Expenses included R40 430 for Jim’s birthday party and R15 578 for a laptop for his daughter. Jim has maintained that the birthday celebration was a surprise.
Last December, 3Sixty Life was placed under curatorship, a decision Numsa is challenging.
The union responded to the allegations in a press release posted to the union’s Facebook page. In the release, issued on Jim’s behalf, Numsa responds to a number of questions posed to it by a Sunday World journalist.
The release accuses Ntlokotse of spreading “malicious and mischievous propaganda presenting the leadership of the union … as a leadership that has been bought by the investment company”.
It further notes that Numsa’s special central committee, not Jim, decided to take disciplinary measures against all of those, including Ntlokotse, for standing against the decisions of the union.
In a separate statement, Numsa stated the suspended “seek to undermine the structures of the organisation”.
“The suspensions are in line with the policy of the constitution … Numsa is guided by the constitution. We will not be distracted from our work, nor will we stand back and allow the union and its resolutions to be attacked. We will defend this organisation from those who seek to implode it for their own narrow selfish agenda.”