Inside Labour: Cosatu crisis has massive implications

2014-11-17 13:45

It is no exaggeration to say South Africa is in the midst of the most important political development since 1994.

The decision by the majority of the executive of union federation Cosatu to expel the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) kicked off a process that is in danger of becoming a train smash that could seriously damage our fragile democracy.

As Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi noted in a letter to the Cosatu executive released on Tuesday night, “the magnitude of the decision is not only of historical importance but has momentous implications”.

If the country’s largest union federation fragments in chaos, it will indeed have profound effects across society.

Any hopes the executive and its supporters in the ANC and SA Communist Party (SACP) might 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.

The SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) was the eighth and three of its four delegates to the Cosatu executive defied the union and voted for Numsa’s expulsion. Now, after a court battle that saw a purged group of leaders reinstated, it seems likely Samwu will again align 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 constitutionally correct and the only way out of this looming disaster has widespread support.

But 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’s 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 the usual three-year cycle.

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 the acceptance of undemocratic behaviour.

There have been fierce disagreements at Cosatu congresses in the past and 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 supporting the alliance even though affiliates are not bound to do so.

But Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini listed Numsa’s decision to break with the ANC as one of five reasons for expulsion, only one of which might arguably be valid.

He also noted that the executive had expelled three unions in the past. But these were all for not having paid their subscriptions. Numsa is fully paid-up.

Dlamini also failed to mention that Cosatu offices were instructed to provide a desk for the expelled and impecunious domestic workers’ union organisers to work from, something the latter still does today.

The one reason listed that might have some validity is the accusation that Numsa went beyond its scope and poached members from other unions, when Cosatu’s policy is “one industry, one union”.

This concept has never worked because individual workers decide for themselves which union they want to belong to.

With calamity looming, democratic decisions by rank-and-file workers seem to be the only solution.

And if that results in a breach with the alliance that would damage the ANC and SACP politically and financially, so be it.

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