When trade federation Cosatu holds its national conference next week, one of the items on the agenda will be the election of a general secretary to replace Zwelinzima Vavi, who was expelled earlier this year.
The conference is important as Cosatu has suffered a membership drop from 2.1 million last year to 1.8 million at present as a result of metal union Numsa’s expulsion and the National Union of Mineworkers shedding members.
Acting Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali should be the obvious successor, and has the support of some national office bearers, but his bid is unlikely to be smooth sailing.
There is strong lobbying for second deputy president Zingiswa Losi to become the first woman to take over the powerful position of general secretary.
But Cosatu leaders are also worried that a bitter contest between the two could cause further fractures in Cosatu – something that the federation wants to avoid.
When she was expelled from Numsa, Losi was immediately catapulted to police union Popcru, even though she was not a Popcru member, to ensure that she did not lose her deputy presidency.
Ntshalintshali was Vavi’s deputy, but there are questions about his abilities as a leader, and concerns have been raised that he lacks public charm and charisma.
To cover his tracks, those who support him want to elect a “younger and more militant” candidate as his deputy.
Deputy general secretary of Denosa Oscar Phaka is said to be the favourite and has been earmarked to be his right-hand man.
Furthermore, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) is said to be divided over whether to lose its general secretary Mugwena Maluleke.
A dark horse is Cosatu’s regional secretary in North West, Solly Phetoe. It’s understood that Phetoe could get massive support from Vavi’s supporters in Cosatu, although that could also be to his detriment.
The former taxi owner became a unionist in 1981, serving as a shop steward for Chemical Workers’ Industrial Union (CWIU) at Sasol. He was elected deputy general secretary of the CWIU in 1994, but left for the UK a year later to study. He returned in 1996 and was part of talks that led to the formation of the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union in 1999 (a merger between CWIU and other industrial unions). That same year, Ntshalintshali became Cosatu’s organising secretary.
Losi, a trained soldier, cut her teeth in politics at Cosatu while she was still at school. After serving for three years in the army, she resigned and became a became a shop steward for Numsa when she got a job at car manufacturer Ford in Port Elizabeth. She was elected into the leadership structure of Cosatu in 2012 as second deputy president.
The former Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa) provincial secretary in North West is a surprise inclusion. There was talk that a group within Denosa (from KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng) were not happy about the prospects of him being parachuted to the national office. However, the fighting seems to have died down. Phaka has been vehemently opposed to his union forming part of the nine unions that are fighting for Numsa and Vavi to be reinstated.
The former teacher and principal has been a member of Sadtu since its inception in 1990 and has worked as the deputy secretary of Sadtu in Gauteng. He later became the national treasurer at the union – a position he held for 10 years. In 2009, he was elected as the general secretary at the National General Council.
The Cosatu North West provincial secretary became active as a unionist in 1983, and was a shop steward for the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union, which later merged with other unions to give birth to Numsa in 1987. In 2000, he resigned as Numsa shop steward and was then an organiser for Sadtu in North West. He has been a champion of farm workers in North West, mostly opposing evictions.