Watershed moment for labour relations

Johannesburg - The acrimonious relationship between trade union federation Cosatu and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) has been on the boil for some time.

This is a watershed event in the history of labour unions as the largest Cosatu affiliate has now exited the federation. There is an increasing ideological divide emerging in the tade unions which is exacerbated by a deterioration in labour relations within the country.

With falling growth rates and a resulting stagnant economy, there is increasing dissatisfaction on the ideological Left that the ANC's economic policies are not working.

The adoption of the national development plan (NDP) has further exacerbated an internal ideological battle within the ANC, with competing views over the contents and content of the document. Numsa's assertion that the NDP is a 'cut and paste" of DA policy might be an exaggeration, but it reflects a dramatic lack of internal policy and ideological consensus within the broader ANC alliance.

The push and pull or pragmatists on the centre (broadly supportive of the NDP) and leftists (unionists) is now an open wound within the larger ANC alliance.

As South Africa's economy has stagnated and following the disastrous deterioration in labour relations, many within the ANC are seeking a more acquiescent labour movement which is more compliant and less disruptive. For future economic growth, foreign direct investment will largely be dependent on a number of policy and infrastructure factors, but a disruptive labour movement is clearly detrimental to economic growth.

From an ANC prospective, therefore, Numsa was a boil within the movement that somehow needed to be lanced and the expulsion from Cosatu effectively isolated the movement in what is a politically risky move. Numsa has tried to effectively hijack the broader labour movement through the cross-poaching of members and attempt to steer the political discourse away from the NDP to a more workerist philosophy.

Again, Numsa's anti-ANC (increasingly anti-Zuma) rhetoric has done it no favours within the broader alliance.

The question of whether Numsa can take its battles into the political arena came to the fore over the weekend. Should it be able to organise an alternative federation, create a political party or movement and ally itself with a growing list of alternatives on the left of the ANC (viz the Association of Mining and Construction Union and the Economic Freedom Fighters), a leftist or workerist movement can gain enough electoral traction to further disrupt ANC control - especially with local government elections looming and already fragile majorities for the ruling party in Gauteng and Nelson Mandela Bay metro (Port Elizabeth). 

Vavi still a pivotal political personality

However, Numsa will have to reach out to forge a broad church of consensus among all these disparate groups should it wish to try to damage the ANC electorally. Key to this is Zwelenzima Vavi, who remains a pivotal and pre-eminent political personality in the country. Numsa and its affiliates will increasingly need someone of his stature to join their ranks.

This split clearly weakens the effectiveness of labour as a lobbying group. Infighting is a serious distraction from its agenda. And the deep ideological rift over economic policy fleshed open by this split brings to the fore competing economic visions for South Africa.

The lack of cohesion and competition for membership can have a further negative effect on labour stability in the country as competing unions and ideological positions disrupt the workplace in new ways. Already, Amcu has tried to 'outpopulist' the National Union of Mineworkers and one can expect a similar battle to emerge in other sectors as Numsa tries to increase its footprint without the constraints of being part of Cosatu.

Ultimately for the ANC this split offers both opportunity and immense political risk. By hiving off one of its most important affiliates, it unleashes a vocal and intellectual component motivated to take on the ruling party which in so doing, can whittle away further ANC support at the polls.

On the other hand, if the ANC is serious about kickstarting the economy it needs a supportive labour movement and getting rid of those that seek to undermine this (and the NDP) may be an essential political risk the ruling party needs to take. There is no doubt that whatever the eventual outcome, the ANC alliance has been weakened.

But ultimately, South Africa's economy - and its politics - may be strengthened by a pending debate on real economic policy issues and the possible implementation of some aspects of the NDP which are urgently needed to improve investor sentiment within the country.

 - Fin24

* Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy based in Cape Town and is a noted keynote speaker on the South African, African and global political economy. He is author of Tracking the Future (Tafelberg). His website is www.danielsilke.com and you can follow him on Twitter at DanielSilke.

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