Saftu national shutdown hits first snag as Numsa says it cannot financially back strike

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Zwelinzima Vavi.
Zwelinzima Vavi.
Photo by Gallo Images/Luba Lesolle
  • The National Union of Metalworkers told the South African Federation of Trade Unions that it could not provide financial support for its national shutdown.
  • Numsa blamed its financial constraints on litigation, deadlocked wage talks, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on membership numbers.
  • Numsa secretary-general Irvin Jim and Saftu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi have also been at loggerheads about the leadership of both institutions. 
  • Get the biggest business stories emailed to you every weekday, or go to the Fin24 front page.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) has it its first major snag in plans for a national shutdown next week as its largest and richest member affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) says it cannot back the mobilisation financially.

A letter from Numsa to Saftu, which Fin24 has seen, states that the union faced a range of financial problems which did not allow it any spare funding to support Saftu's planned national shutdown. Saftu resolved to hold the national shutdown on 24 August at its Working Class Summit earlier this month.

The national shutdown will protest against the rising cost of living, fuel price hikes and load shedding, amongst other things. While the union claims its reasons for not providing financial support to the action are purely financial, this setback underscores the antagonistic nature of the relationship between Numsa and Saftu.

Numsa secretary-general Irvin Jim and Saftu secretary-general Zwelinzima have been at loggerheads about the union's leadership and the federation's strategy. While Jim believes the federation should align itself with a political party or establish a party to contest political power, Vavi believes Saftu should not sacrifice its independence.  

READ | Irvin Jim accuses Saftu leaders of trying to 'sabotage' Numsa's interdicted congress

Saftu's president, Ruth Ntlokotse, is a formerly suspended Numsa member who successfully took the union's national congress to the Labour Court last month and successfully interdicted it. The national congress went ahead anyway and Ntlokotse made a contempt of court application, which will be decided on next week. 

Numsa deputy secretary-general, Mbuso Ngubane, told the federation in a letter that the union was beset with financial challenges, including the litigation from members who interdicted the union's national congress. As a result, Ngubane said, the union "finds itself in a very challenging moment to meet the logistics required".

"Mind you, we are currently busy with negotiations and already the motor sector has deadlocked which suggests that we must find a way to budget for a possible strike and we do not know what to happen in other sectors where negotiations are under way.

"All of the above is competing with the day-to-day operations, and therefore we regret to inform you that our financial position at the moment does not allow us to avail or approve budgets towards this important campaign of the federation," Ngubane's letter read.

READ | Numsa's lawyers say the special meeting will solve issues, and allow congress to go ahead

Ngubane said while financial resources were in short supply, the union would encourage its more than 330 000 members to "partake in the campaign where possible without expecting financial support from head office".

While Numsa spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola did not comment on the letter, Saftu spokesperson Trevor Shaku confirmed to Fin24 that the union sent the letter to the federation.

Ntlokotse told Fin24 that Numsa was represented at the Working Class Summit where the federation's National Executive Committee (NEC) resolved to hold the national shutdown.

"When Saftu NEC took a decision to go out on the 24th, Numsa was present in that meeting. They never raised any objections," said Ntlokotse.

Saftu is not the only labour federation facing uphill battles when mobilising for workers' interests. Last year, Cosatu - which Vavi used to lead before his expulsion in 2015 - held a national shutdown, but had little discernible market impact. Cosatu will be protesting rising costs and load shedding on the same day as Saftu.

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