Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I tender this apology on behalf of many journalists who have recently misled the public about the situation surrounding metal workers’ union Numsa and union federation Cosatu.
Part of the befuddlement seems to be due to confusing utterances by some members of the Cosatu executive. These have too often been taken at face value, without checking their veracity against, especially, the federation’s constitution.
As a result, contradictions abound and, throughout this week, we’ve had reports noting authoritatively that Numsa was about to be expelled from Cosatu, was about to leave Cosatu, had left Cosatu, was forming a political party.
All of these claims were wrong and nothing any of the Numsa leaders said justified them. Yet most of the reports this week emanated from a press conference held by Numsa in Joburg on Monday.
It was at this conference that Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim repeated the position taken by the union’s special national congress in December last year: that Numsa had resolved to leave the ANC-led political alliance.
The only new information provided on Monday was that Numsa planned to facilitate the launch of a socialist-orientated united front by December and that a “socialist conference” would be held in March next year.
But neither a united front nor a socialist conference do a political party make, much less a “Numsa political party”. Throughout, Numsa has stated it will remain a trade union, and that it hopes to play the role of a “catalyst”.
A catalyst is an element that is necessary to precipitate a change but remains unchanged itself.
Acting as a political catalyst, leaving the alliance and not supporting the ANC in the May elections also did not mean Numsa had left or intended to leave Cosatu. There is, in fact, no constitutional obligation for Cosatu affiliates to support the ANC or the alliance with the SA Communist Party.
What did confuse issues was the fact that members of the Cosatu executive expressed the intention to expel Numsa from the federation. This was reported as if it was solely within the executive’s power to do so. But while the constitution gives Cosatu’s executive the authority to suspend or expel any affiliate, only a national congress can make such a decision binding.
Since resignation is not an option for Numsa, the union is pressing ahead with its demand – backed by eight other affiliates – for a special national congress to be called, which should have been done more than a year ago.
Cosatu’s constitution has clearly been grossly flouted and this might explain why so little attention has been paid to the rules governing the organisation. But they are clear and binding.
As Jim warned this week: if need be, Numsa would take the matter to court since the Cosatu constitution has the effect of a legal contract. But unions – and Numsa is no exception – are reluctant to take legal action since the democratic structures and rules within the labour movement should make this unnecessary.
But by ignoring their own rules and indulging in such bitter, internal feuding, Cosatu-affiliated unions are failing their members.
Federation general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi claims this has resulted in “paralysis”.
In turn, this means more disillusionment and demoralisation.
From the point of view of union members, an urgent resolution must be sought. It can only come through a national delegate congress that decides, democratically, the way forward.
And that should include not only the question of political affiliation but the vexed issue of union investment in companies, as well as the lack of accountability and transparency within the unions themselves.
Unity should, of course, be a priority but it should be principled unity – and that should never be confused with blind loyalty.