On 8 November 2014 the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting eventually voted 33 to 24 to expel the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) after a very public tiff that has lasted most of the year. Tensions bubbling under the surface for years have seen the cracks widen in Cosatu, leveraged by the Marikana tragedy and the massive platinum strikes that rocked the mining sector and accelerated the erosion of the Tri-partite Alliance coherence in the labour sphere.
The attendant discord can simplistically be reduced to tensions between the ANC and the unions over the ruling party’s alleged pro-capitalist policies, manifest in parallel divisions in Cosatu between the pro-ANC camp, led by president and SACP Central Committee member S’domu Dlamini, and a more critical camp led by General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa. A lot of this was left unsaid until December 2013 when Numsa announced that it would not support the ANC in the May 2014 general elections.
The melodrama and emotion attendant on the expulsion is both striking and telling. Founding Cosatu member Jay Naidoo told a national radio station it was like someone had “stuck a knife in my gut” and described the decision as unforgivable. Numsa leader Irvin Jim sneered at ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s crocodile tears, blamed him for engineering the expulsions and suggested he jump off “the nearest cliff” – the discretionary “what happens in the Alliance stays in the Alliance era” is over.
The ubiquitous question is what will happen next. Numsa has rejected the possibility that it will apologise and return and it will now consult its corps on whether to take the matter to court. Seven affiliates (who together with Numsa constitute at least one third of Coastu’s membership) have suspended their participation in the CEC in support of Numsa while they consult their members on the way forward. Cosatu is forging ahead with plans to set up a rival union to Numsa. Numsa meanwhile says the possibility of a new federation remains an option; the “United Front” of left-leaning organisations will still be launched in December; and, a conference on socialism will be held next year to which the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will be invited.
The Tri-partite Alliance is looking shaky indeed and a new one could be emerging on the left. The extent to which it consolidates in a credible and threatening alternative to Cosatu and the ANC in labour and political terms is still unclear but several game changing impacts are indisputable. For example:
• Numsa is unlikely to get its expulsion overturned and any challenge will have to be premised on the CEC’s failure to call a special national congress. Either way, the political chasm has deepened and Numsa has crossed over – there can be no real going back.
• Cosatu is going to weaken further as affiliates split, new unions compete for members and temporarily forgotten forces such as the powerful non-Cosatu affiliated Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) fight over the spoils of the battle.
• The disconnect between labour and government is starker than ever with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa widely regarded as a “capitalist fat cat” with the blood of workers on his hands from his Lonmin tenure.
• Labour unrest will spike, negotiations will be tougher, more volatile, and mediation will require new master stokes as inter-union hostility makes membership-drawing wins imperative.
• Numsa has emerged as the good guy having successfully projected itself as having fought a good fight to stay in the Cosatu fold, pushed out by the ‘gangsters’ and ‘bullies’ of the Dlamini camp and its pro-ANC backers. Vavi’s plaintive testimony explaining his absence from the media briefing on the expulsions was almost touching: “…I plead with you to understand that I will not be able to defend a decision that I honestly believe is contradicting and undermining organised workers and broader working class unity, a decision that will have momentous implications for years to come.” He is right – and he, and Numsa, are proving effective self-marketeers at present.
• Talks of labour and political unity between Numsa, the EFF, Amcu and others have yet to occur officially but the possibility of some kind of counter Alliance is eminently possible and Jim’s rousing rhetoric suggests that the union is victorious in anticipation: “We want to make one thing clear to you: inside or outside Cosatu, we will not stop mobilising the working class on the road to socialism. We will not give you any peace as we expose the miserable failure of the class alliance you are entangled in and how it compromises your ability to lead the working class.”
It is a call to arms that marks an emergent political paradigm that will have a defining impact on the shape of labour dynamics and power configurations on the road to 2016 local elections. It is assisted by the fact that there is a clear enemy – the ANC and its remaining lapdog unions in Cosatu. The real challenge will come later when decisions on leadership have to be made, and it is here that contending egos on the growing left fringe will make cohesion evasive.