Just after 2am yesterday, Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), and his lieutenants got up and walked out of the first-floor boardroom at Cosatu House – probably for the last time.
It was the culmination of a dramatic day at the trade union federation’s headquarters – a day that ended with the expulsion of Cosatu’s biggest affiliate.
Earlier, an SMS circulating among members of the triumphant unions that led the successful charge against Numsa urged them to hurry up and conclude the meeting because Champagne was “on ice” at the nearby Parktonian Hotel in Braamfontein, Joburg, in preparation for Numsa’s expulsion.
The fate of Numsa was decided at a 16-hour Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting, dubbed “the night of the long knives” by some delegates.
In one corner were the nine Cosatu affiliates that supported Numsa and wanted it to remain in the fold.
In the opposing camp, teachers’ union Sadtu, state workers’ union Nehawu and transport union Satawu argued strongly that Numsa had been given enough time to mend its ways and it was now time to boot out the union.
Numsa’s foes wanted it kicked out for, among other things, poaching members from fellow affiliates, defying official Cosatu positions and taking a stand against the ANC, which is the leader of the tripartite alliance.
The battle began immediately after the day’s vice-president, Tyotyo James, opened the meeting at 10am and general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi tabled the agenda.
Members of the CEC told City Press that pro-Numsa delegates immediately objected when they were informed that the issue of credentials – which determines who can participate in a meeting – would only be the eighth item on the agenda.
This would have been after the question of Numsa’s expulsion had been addressed. Led by the Communication Workers’ Union, they demanded that the credentials first be dealt with because they wanted to raise the issue of the presence of Cosatu’s second deputy president, Zingiswa Losi, in the meeting.
The unions argued that Losi should not be in the meeting and should have lost her position as one of Cosatu’s national office bearers when she was disciplined and fired by Numsa.
Losi has since joined police union Popcru, a move her supporters say entitles her to remain in Cosatu.
“We wanted to know who employed her, where she works and who elected her as an office bearer. Does she work for Popcru, or is she employed by the state in an area where Popcru organises?” asked a CEC member whose union supported Numsa.
Supported by the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA and the SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union, the debate lasted for most of the morning before the meeting broke for lunch between 2pm and 3pm.
After more deliberations, the issue was put to a vote.
Numsa abstained from voting, but its supporters lost the first round – an indication of what was to come later.
Next on the agenda was whether Numsa should be expelled or allowed to remain in the federation.
Numsa’s Jim – who prepared a 29-page presentation on why it should not be expelled – was given three hours to state his union’s case.
Jim was scathing of the CEC and the threat to suspend Numsa, describing the process as “a sham”.
He accused the ANC and the SA Communist Party of being behind the moves to get Numsa kicked out of Cosatu to silence the federation in its outspokenness against the ANC.
“At a crucial point in the history of the South African class struggle, the most consistent voice of the working class and the poor over the last 25 years has been silenced. The silencing has been a deliberate act of the ANC/SACP leadership.”
He said the ANC and the SACP were protecting the interests of the capitalist class in South Africa at the expense of the working class. Jim said this was evident in the ANC’s suppression of the debate on the nationalisation of mines.
“How do you expect them to support nationalisation when they own shares in the very companies that will be nationalised?”
He said the pact between the ANC, SACP and the capitalist class was “consummated” with the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy president.
Jim defended his union against claims that it was stealing members from others, saying it was a practice that was long established in Cosatu when unions competed for members in sectors where they overlap.
He said Nehawu president Mzwandile Makwayiba was a cleaner at a hospital, but had been allowed to join the health workers’ union instead of his natural home in commercial and allied workers union Saccawu.
By the same token, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini – a nurse by profession – belonged to Nehawu instead of nursing union Denosa. This drew laughter from anti-Numsa unionists.
“It was a deliberate provocation,” said a CEC member from an anti-Numsa union.
When Jim ended his presentation, Communication Workers’ Union president Clive Mervyn and general secretary Aubrey Tshabalala pleaded with the other affiliates, saying delegates needed to take Jim’s presentation back to their members to study it before a decision could be taken on Numsa’s fate. NUM general secretary Frans Baleni interjected, saying the federation had reached a point of no return.
He was supported by Cosatu deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali, who said the question of whether Numsa should be suspended had been on the table since February and could not be delayed any longer.
After a supper break at 11pm, it was back to work. Nkosana Dolopi, deputy general secretary of Sadtu, said Numsa office bearers had accused the CEC of being made up of “criminals, gangsters and thugs” at a press conference on Wednesday, the day before its failed court bid to prevent the CEC from sitting.
He accused Numsa of arrogance and using its money and its membership size to threaten other affiliates.
At about 1am, it was time to vote and, after two rounds supervised by Cosatu staffers, the results were in. Thirty three CEC members voted to expel Numsa and 24 opposed it. There was a brief moment of silence in the room after the decision was announced.
A stunned Vavi told the meeting that as much as he did not agree with Numsa’s poaching of other members, he was saddened that the union no longer had a home in Cosatu.
Dlamini said it was a “heavy decision”, but they hoped it would unite the unions that remained in Cosatu – a statement that drew laughter from the unions backing Numsa.
A brief debate followed about whether Numsa should be allowed to stay in the room. Shortly thereafter, Jim led his Numsa delegation out of the room. They were followed by the CWU and later Saccawu. It was official. Cosatu had split.