ANALYSIS | The future of SA's labour movement at stake at critical Saftu conference

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Saftu’s Zwelinzima Vavi.
Saftu’s Zwelinzima Vavi.
Photo by Gallo Images/Antonio Muchave

The opening shots of a long brewing battle about whether unions should be independently defending the demands of workers or actively be part of political parties comes to a head at the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) conference this week, writes Terry Bell.


Today could be a major watershed day for the South African trade union movement when 730 delegates and officials gather at the Birchwood conference centre in Boksburg for the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) conference.

Many months of acrimony, considerable back-stabbing and political manoeuvring should come to a head by this afternoon, if not sooner.

It is an explosive background in which allegations — and some apparently established cases —of financial wrongdoing, corruption and political purges are rife.  At stake is, to a large degree, the short- and medium-term future of the South African labour movement.  

The prime issue is whether trade unions should be independent organisations defending the democratically decided demands of workers or whether they should be adjuncts of political parties. But, in this case, not of any already established political structures: a coalition is being sought that hopes to rally the trade unions to a new political formation that would promote a form of state capitalism, China being something of a model.

Personalities also feature here to a great extent:  Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of Saftu, has consistently supported the concept of independence while Irvin Jim, general secretary of arguably the largest union in the country, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) also heads the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP). Although Numsa claims in excess of 300 000 members, the SRWP polled just 24 439 votes in the 2019 elections.

However, with 296 of the 730 conference delegates, Numsa constitutes by far the biggest voting bloc at the conference. But his is no guarantee of unanimity since some of the union’s regions, notably in the Eastern Cape and Free State have expressed severe reservations about Jim’s stewardship of the union.  The 2019 election turnout is also something of an indication.

Many Numsa members are also not happy about allegations that the SRWP has sought an alliance with the SA Communist Party (SACP). Such debates have been fuelled by the acknowledged fact that many, mainly younger, members of the SACP wish to see that party "going it alone" in elections and are seeking allies.  

At the same time, also apparently trying to ride a potential wave of disillusionment, other self proclaimed revolutionaries are attempting to hitch their ideological and personal wagons to any new movement that might emerge should a party orientated current succeed in Boksburg this week. 

Vavi, apparently the prime target of the present drive for a new, union backed political party, refused to comment.

However, over recent months, the general secretary of Saftu has made clear that he regards trade unions to be organisations of workers of all backgrounds, and beliefs, the effective "reserve army" of a working class that should not be beholden to any political party. Unions should support policies and parties as and when these accord with their interests.

In Boksburg today, the opening shots in this long brewing battle will be fired openly.  If the "workers' party" promoters fail, there should be a lull in open hostilities until the long mooted working class summit finally gets off the ground, perhaps in July.  


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