The COSATU And NUMSA Divorce: The Five Parties We Just Have To Blame

2014-11-13 00:06

Someone once said there are always two sides to a story. I’ve long since realised, in my short time in politics, that there are more than two sides to a story and that deeper analysis of any issue unearths more than what meets the eye. This is clearly the case in the COSATU-NUMSA debacle.

Many have criticized the role of COSATU leaders in the expulsion of NUMSA from what is the biggest workers’ federation on the continent. Some have blamed NUMSA leaders for NUMSA’s own expulsion from the federation. And some, well, just don’t care. I, for one, refuse to reduce the debate to merely blaming one side over the other (and not caring) and believe an attempt must be made to isolate the ringleaders and their respective role in what is clearly the downfall of NUMSA and the weakening of COSATU.

Perhaps I should emphasize: the expulsion of NUMSA from the giant COSATU weakens their (NUMSA’s) political power and bargaining dominion. While they are the biggest trade union in South Africa (a very important accolade, no doubt), COSATU is far, far bigger. But on the other hand, COSATU loses a bit of its own dominance in the metalworkers’ industry as well as losing a lot of political capital and respect as we all get front-row seats in the public show of factionalism and bitter, petty squabbles amongst its leaders. Honestly, we no longer view COSATU as a force to be reckoned with (especially on the issue of e-tolls and labour brokers), but a mere topic for newspaper headlines and blog opinion pieces (yes, like this one).

  So who is to blame? Let us bring in the suspects.  

  1. S’dumo Dlamini
As the President of the federation the buck should stop with him. He has demonstrably failed to provide much-needed leadership in what Vavi refers to as “the most painful period in [COSATU’s] entire life. If anyone should take the significant portion of the blame for the increasing impotence of COSATU it should be him. “Sister Dlamini” has failed.  
  1. Zwelinzima Vavi
His position as General Secretary also puts him on the same boat with Dlamini; as the leaders of COSATU they must take ultimate responsibility. It is worth noting that Vavi displayed superb maturity and political astuteness when he stood by his principles and beliefs by refusing to sign NUMSA’s expulsion letter (a letter which ended up being a shocking, puny and feeble half-page scrawny note signed instead by Vavi’s excited deputy). Nonetheless, it must be said that as the federation’s face and its highest-serving official, Vavi could have done much more to save NUMSA and ultimately COSATU. (Remember when Irvin Jim went around fighting tooth-gap and nail for Vavi’s return?) Surely Vavi could have been more vocal and more committed to fighting to keep NUMSA. But he didn’t or didn’t seem to. He, too, must shoulder some of the blame.  
  1. Irvin Jim and Karl Cloete

This is the dynamic duo that represents the leadership of NUMSA. How much blame can we allocate to these “victims of expulsion”? Well, quite a lot actually. Jim and Co refused to conform to the leadership of COSATU. While this is undoubtedly a heroic and noble stance, it is tantamount to disrespecting the incumbent leadership of COSATU and what COSATU currently believes in. The fact of the matter is that NUMSA did not command the necessary numbers to change COSATU policy internally. And so, they embarked on a very public campaign which effectively delegitimized the Federation and its sitting leadership. They openly decided not to support the ANC in the 2014 elections and have publicly declared their ambitions to form a new political party. All this is clearly inflammatory behaviour. It must be emphasized that although this shows independence of mind and character, this is precisely the kind of behaviour that no political movement anywhere in the world would tolerate. The ANC acted in the same way when they expelled Julius Malema, who had became a serious thorn to the leadership of the ANC. NUMSA committedly demonstrated that they have different thinking and character to COSATU and thus became an unbearable thorn to the COSATU leadership.

Please note that this is not a discussion on whether COSATU’s current trajectory is right or wrong. The fact remains that they, COSATU, were well within their right to dispose of elements which contradict the current posture of the federation. Wouldn’t any of you?

  Whatever the case is, it would be irresponsible of us not to allocate some of our muddy, blame cake to NUMSA’s leadership.  

  1. Frans Baleni and Co

The General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, Frans Baleni and his friends in other COSATU affiliates are accused of leading the onslaught against NUMSA. It is no secret that there is no love lost between Baleni and Jim. Baleni has admitted that the expulsion of NUMSA has weakened COSATU, but has also stated that the federation will “consolidate” and become stronger. Surely these are not the words of someone mourning the loss of an important affiliate and friend-in-arms. The sheer inability of Baleni and Co to rise above their personal differences with Jim and Co in a politically mature manner, led to the expulsion of NUMSA. They get to share a significant portion of the blame for allowing their own squabbles with Jim and Co to cloud their judgment.    

  1. Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC top leadership

Ramaphosa, the ANC Deputy President was called in to help save COSATU. As a former high-ranking unionist, we all had high hopes. Well, he managed to broker a paltry “ceasefire” of sorts which led to some stability within COSATU, albeit short-lived.

Irvin Jim is on record saying that the ANC Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe orchestrated the NUMSA expulsion. While this assertion is made without any evidence, it is very hard to ignore the fact that the ANC leadership may have very well known about the imminent NUMSA expulsion. In any case, the ANC leadership could have and perhaps should have done more to save NUMSA and COSATU; but they, with all the influence and political capital of the ANC behind them, chose to do nothing at all; and therefore, they too must share some blame.

Clearly there are many players behind this and all of the above parties must shoulder responsibility (of course, some more than others). Be that as it may, it seems inescapable that the workers will bear the brunt for the political games played by those at the top. The expulsion of NUMSA is of no importance, really, if the workers’ needs are protected and their issues taken of. Sadly, it seems likely that their issues, at least for now, will be secondary, and this is why the NUMSA expulsion issue is a crucial game-changer and must be put to bed.

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