It is no exaggeration to say that South Africa is in the midst of the most important political development since 1994. The decision by the majority of the Cosatu union federation executive to expel its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) started a process that is in danger of becoming a train smash that could seriously damage the country’s fragile democracy.
As Cosatu general secretary Zwelizima Vavi noted in a letter to the Cosatu executive, “the magnitude of the decision is not only of historical importance but has momentous implications”. Should the country’s largest trade union federation fragment in chaos, this will have profound effects throughout society.
Any hopes that the executive and its supporters in the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) may have had of isolating Numsa and carrying on as before have also been shattered. In the first place, seven of the eight Cosatu affiliates that had originally backed Numsa, reiterated their support at a Press conference, along with a call for a special national congress of worker delegates.
The SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) was the eighth and three of its four delegates to the Cosatu executive defied their union policy and voted for Numsa’s expulsion. Now, following a bitter court battle that saw a purged group of leaders reinstated, it seems likely that Samwu will again ally itself with Numsa.
Explanations by Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim and representatives of the seven about why they opposed the expulsion have apparently been favourably received. And their call for a special national congress as being both constitutionally correct and the only way out of this looming disaster has widespread support.
However, the response of ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and that of the Cosatu executive once again introduced confusion, with Mantashe maintaining that a special national congress is not a national congress. This is also the spurious argument taken up by the executive majority.
But a national congress is a national congress. A special meeting of this kind merely refers to the fact that it is summoned to deal with matters of critical importance outside of the usual three-year cycle. And the request is covered in clase 3.3.2 in the federation’s constitution,
Anyway, anyone who thinks the situation facing Cosatu right now is not critical, must be delusional. And when Mantashe maintained that to hold such a congress now would mean a “split” in Cosatu, he indicated acceptance of undemocratic behaviour.
In the past there have been fierce disagreements at Cosatu congresses; these have been put to the vote and the majority decision accepted. A classic example was the 1993 Numsa resolution to withdraw from the ANC-led alliance once the ANC became the government and a major employer.
That resolution was lost, but Numsa remained in the fold. And the union continued to support the alliance even although affiliates are not bound to do so.
However, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini listed Numsa’s decision to break with the ANC as one of five reasons for expulsion. But there is no constitutional requirement for a Cosatu affiliate to support the ANC, SACP or any political party. In fact, the banking union affiliate, Sasbo, has a clause in its constitution that prohibits affiliation to any political party.
Dlamini also noted that the Cosatu executive had expelled three unions in the past. But these were all for the reason of not having paid their subscriptions while Numsa is fully paid up. He also failed to mention that Cosatu offices were also instructed to provide a desk for the expelled and impecunious domestic workers’ union organisers to work from, something they still do today.
The only reason advanced by Dlamini that might arguably be valid is the accusation that Numsa went beyond its “scope” and was “poaching” members from other unions, when Cosatu’s policy is “one industry, one union”. This concept has never worked and, at one stage, Cosatu had, for example, three affiliates porganising nurses. Now there are two. Individual workers also have the right to decide for themselves which union they wish to join.
With calamity looming, democratic decisions by rank and file workers at a national congress seem the only solution. And if that results in a breach with the alliance that would damage both the ANC and SACP politically and financially, then so be it.