Answer to union turmoil is democracy

Posted on November 2, 2014


Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I tender this classic apology on behalf of many of my fellow journalists who have recently misled the public about the situation regarding South Africa’s National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) and the Cosatu federation.

Part of the blame does, however, seem to lie with the confusing utterances by some members of the Cosatu executive. These have too often been taken at face value, without checking their veracity against, especially, the Cosatu constitution.

As a result, contradictions abound and throughout this week, we have had reports in all media noting authoritatively that Numsa was about to be expelled from Cosatu; was about to leave Cosatu; had left Cosatu; was forming a political party.

All of these claims were wrong and nothing any of the Numsa leaders said, justified them. Yet most of the reports this week emanated from a Press conference held by Numsa in Johannesburg on Monday.

It was at this conference that Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim repeated the position taken by the union’s special national congress in December last year: that Numsa had resolved to leave the ANC-led political alliance. The only new information provided on Monday was that Numsa planned to facilitate the launch of a socialist orientated united front by December and that a “socialist conference” would be staged in March next year.

But neither a united front nor a socialist conference do a political party make, much less a “Numsa political party”. Throughout, Numsa has stated that it will remain a trade union; that it hopes to play the role of a “catalyst”. And a catalyst is an element that is necessary to precipitate a change, but remains unchanged itself.

Acting as a political catalyst, leaving the alliance and not supporting the ANC in the May elections also did not mean that Numsa had left, or intended leaving, Cosatu. There is, in fact, no constitutional obligation for Cosatu affiliates to support the ANC or the alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP).

What did confuse issues was the fact that members of the Cosatu executive expressed the intention to expel Numsa from the federation. This was reported as if it was solely within the executive’s power to do so. However, while the constitution gives the Cosatu executive the authority to suspend or expel any affiliate, only a national congress can make such a decision binding.

Since resignation is no option for Numsa, the union is pressing ahead with its demand — backed by eight other affiliates — for a special national congress to be called. It should have been — more than a year ago. The federation’s constitution has clearly been grossly flouted and this may explain why so little attention has been paid to the rules governing the organisation. But they are clear — and binding.

As Jim warned this week: if need be, the union would take the matter to court since the constitution has the effect of a legal contract. But unions — and Numsa is no exception — are reluctant to take legal action since the democratic structures and rules within the labour movement should make this unnecessary.

However, by ignoring their own rules and by indulging in such bitter, internal feuding, the Cosatu unions are failing their members. Federation general secretary Zwelinizima Vavi claims this has resulted in “paralysis”. In turn, this means more disillusionment and demoralisation.

From the point of view of union members, an urgent resolution must be sought. It can only come through a national delegate congress that decides, democratically, the way forward. And that should include not only the question of political affiliation but also the vexed issue of union investment companies and the lack of accountability and transparency within the unions themselves.

Unity should, of course, be a priority, but it should be principled unity — and that should never be confused with blind loyalty.