A glimmer of democratic hope

Posted on May 30, 2022


(First published on Fin24 and in City Press, May 29, 2022)

A destructive political bloodbath was avoided at the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) second elective conference in Boksburg last week.  But while no issues were finally settled, the underlying problems, some of which have festered for years, were laid quite bare.  Aluta, as the old saying goes, will certainly continua

But, amid the considerable skirmishing that triggered a swirl of rumours and allegations, a degree of democracy seems to have been the real, although almost entirely publicly unacknowledged, winner.  Delegates, considered by some observers to be mere voting fodder for different factions, proved that they can — and do  — think and vote independently.

This provides a glimmer of hope.  However, there was some worrying evidence of deep seated animosity.  At one stage,  a large group of National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) delegates disrupted the conference, singing “ungayiyijahi impi, iyabulala” (Don’t call for war or you will die).  But this largest delegation at the conference also did not appear to be a united voting bloc.

As a result, Zwelinzima Vavi was returned as general secretary, defeating the KZN regional secretary, Moses Mautsoe, who was nominated by Numsa.  And Ruth Ntlokotse, suspended by the Numsa leadership, won the presidency against Mac Chabalala who was nominated by the union that had axed her.

However, at the start of the conference, it seemed that the Numsa promoted demand that Vavi be unseated might win.  Numsa, with 296 voting delegates and apparently backed by the likes of the SA Policing Union, with 88, and some other, smaller unions, looked to have a 60:40 advantage.

Yet it did not turn out that way.  There were obviously several breaches in the various union ranks, for all the allegations of undemocratically hand picked delegates.  And while the issues at stake were complex, this battle, for the most part, was portrayed in the media as a tussle between Vavi and Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim.

While individual egos and some “follow the leader” mentality certainly played a part in the often bitter wrangles that took place at the Birchwood conference centre, Vavi and Jim were not the root cause of the divisions that emerged.  The situation was much more complex than a leadership contest or even a simple two-way split.

As Mametlwe Sebei,  president of the General Industrial Workers’ Union (Giwusa), noted:  “The whole question here involved political and ideological  orientations.”  In other words, a range of influences, beliefs and convictions.

Here were echoes of the days, 50 and more years ago, when militant unions, often linked with the communities from which their members came, began to develop highly democratic structures.  Central to this was the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union (Mawu) that was the core of the amalgamation that became Numsa.

Then, as now, there were calls for the formation of a workers’ party to represent the interests of the sellers of labour in a post apartheid South Africa.  But, in the past, there was majority agreement that an alliance with the ANC and its Communist Party (SACP) ally was the way forward in a united fight against apartheid.

Significantly, in 1993, with the ANC-led alliance clearly about to come to power, it was Numsa that led — and lost — the call for the union movement to leave the alliance.  Numsa pointed out that, once the ANC was in government, it would become the largest employer in the land:  labour should not be in bed with bosses.

Today, the biggest difference is that support for, let alone affiliation to, the ANC is a call on the margins, with one delegate referring to the post Marikana ANC as “a bloody anti-working class party”  But the basic issue of party political affiliation or the maintenance of an independent voice for the sellers of labour, united in diversity, remains the fundamental argument.

From this come debates about whether or when labour should back political parties or  even help establish one.  This has opened the door for various ideologues — inside and outside Saftu —  who seek to influence the direction of what they hope will b e a future revolutionary movement, supported by the bulk of labour.  

Into this must be factored the existence of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, launched effectively by Numsa.  But so far, there has been no has been resolution although the 2017 Saftu resolution of union independence remains in place.

Nothing is clear cut.  The situation is complicated and quite messy, but at least there is evidence that change is demanded in what remains a bruising and, as yet, unresolved political and ideological battle, both within Saftu and in the wider labour movement.

However, given the evidence of independent thought and voting by delegates at the Saftu conference and the recent unity in action by striking workers, there is room for optimism about future union unity..  After the conference, Vavi also raised the long neglected issue of union involvement with part-time workers, the jobless and communities.

Such issues may well be fully aired should the much mooted worker/socialist summit take place.  But whatever happens, there is a glimmer of hope at the end of what promises to be a long, hard haul to ensure the relevance of the union movement — essential to democracy — in the years ahead,

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