South Africa: Metal workers’ union clashes with Congress of South African Trade Unions

For political and class independence – Struggle, solidarity and socialism!

The outcome of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) Central Executive Committee (CEC) of 23 – 25th October, 2014, has delayed, until 7 November, 2014, the almost certain expulsion of the 340 000-strong National Union of Metal Workers Union of South Africa (Numsa) , Cosatu’s biggest affiliate and the African continent’s largest trade union. Numsa’s expulsion would be yet another seismic event, an aftershock of the massacre of 34 workers striking for a R12 500 wage increase at Marikana – the epicentre of the earthquake that continues to reshape the political landscape in South Africa today.

Ahead of its planned expulsion, Numsa has reiterated its determination to go to court to challenge its expulsion and its demand for a Cosatu special congress. Over the course of the two years or so that this drama has unfolded, sub-plots have detracted attention from the central issue: the collapse of the foundations of the political settlement on which the post-Apartheid political dispensation rests. These subplots include court cases over the suspension of Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi and calls for a special Cosatu congress, as well as protests against electronic tolling of highways in Gauteng, the economic hub of the country, led by the pro-African National Congress (ANC) Cosatu leadership against the Zuma led-ANC government. Understanding this, the Financial Mail (30/10/2014), expresses its opinion by way of an illustration of their rating of the performance of a number of political role players in a so-called “D Matrix”. They divide it into four quadrants, with Discerning at the top followed clock-wide by Delightful, Dumb and Discerning. Numsa’s secretary general, Ivin Jim’s performance is located at the mid-point of the graph of the Despicable and Discerning quadrant.

The Financial Mail illustration, at least, has the merit of being an honest expression of the attitude of the capitalist ruling class whose organ it is, to developments in Cosatu and Numsa’s centrality to them. Far from being delighted at the prospective demise of Cosatu — a foe for which they have always felt a mixture of fear and loathing — the capitalists are gripped by a sense of foreboding.

This is why Numsa’s actions are equally “despicable” and “discerning” to the Financial Mail. Despicable because Numsa’s criticisms of Cosatu shows that its embrace of the pro-capitalist ANC has reduced a once formidable opponent of the bosses and also there is possibility of the rise, Phoenix-like, of a new and far more dangerous threat – a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

What is working it itself out is the conflict of irreconcilable class interests. These are a clash of civilisations between the barbarism of a decaying capitalism and the aspirations of the working class for a society free of poverty, unemployment, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, religious, gender and ethnic bigotry and war.

The Financial Mail’s classification of Numsa’s actions as simultaneously despicable and discerning, reflects two things: (i) the ruling economic and political elite’s class hatred for Numsa; (ii) their recognition of the failure of the ANC and its allies’ propaganda that Numsa’s actions are motivated by the ambitions of an unprincipled business union bureaucracy determined to win a struggle for power against another bureaucracy in which the political and ideological issues are a mere smokescreen.

Cosatu, at its birth in 1985, represented in the eyes of the working class, as Numsa’s statement of 27 October point outs: “a revolutionary socialist, militant federation that rejected all forms of cultural male chauvinist and racist discrimination, a champion of the working class which believed in working class power, and advocated worker control not only of the progressive trade union movement, but of society as well.”

The Cosatu of 1985 and the one turning 30 next year are separated by light years. Then the apartheid regime, despite a partial state of emergency and a finger-waving prime minister PW “Groot Krokodil (Big Crocodile)” Botha at the helm, was obliged to comply when Cosatu founding president Elijah Barayi demanded that the pass laws (that every African in the urban areas were obliged to carry to prove they had the right to reside in the cities) be abolished within six months or be burned in mass action. Today’s Cosatu’s failed to muster even a semi-decent mobilisation for an e-tolls protest despite a universal hatred for e-tolling that has sparked the biggest unofficial civil disobedience campaign since the ANC came to power. It was an embarrassing public confirmation of the erosion of Cosatu’s once formidable political and class authority.

The Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) fully supports Numsa’s tactics in resisting the conspiracy to oust it from Cosatu – not to walk, even if expelled. There is neither a constitutional case to answer nor a political one. These attempts are being led by a leadership that has remained in office by defying Cosatu’s constitution, an act that amounts to a coup. This leadership fears its own membership and the prospect of being suspended in mid-air at any Cosatu Special Congress where Numsa is likely to get overwhelming support. A once great federation is on its knees with enough affiliates no longer in good standing to call into question the CEC majority. A number of affiliates are split, as a growing rank-and-file rebellion seeks to reclaim their unions from corrupt leaders like the Commercial Paper Wood and Allied Workers Union (Ceppawu), Police and Civil Rights Union (Popcru) , the South African Democratic Teachers union (Sadtu) as well as the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu). With a new public sector union ready to launch, Cosatu is dying on its feet.

We commend Numsa for reaching out to the rank-and-file of the eight affiliates supporting it in Cosatu. Before Vavi’s reinstatement, the Cosatu Gauteng Shop Stewards Council stated clearly that their support for Numsa was not limited to the Vavi issue (whose reprehensible sexual liaison with a subordinate was exploited to conceal the real issue: his trenchant criticism of government corruption) or the call for a special congress but that they supported all the political resolutions adopted by the Numsa Special National Congress in December 2013.

We believe that this alliance within Cosatu should be extended beyond the boundaries of the federation into the political initiatives Numsa has taken to prepare for the launch of a workers’ party. Numsa has proposed that the Freedom Charter (adopted in 1955 at the Congress of the People and associated with the ANC, which calls for radical reforms including the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy without explicitly a calling for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society) be debated as the possible programme of the United Front. Numsa’s Cosatu allies should be invited to participate in the United Fronts under construction and invited to debate how to subject the Freedom Charter to a socialist overhaul as the programmatic foundation for a mass workers’ party to struggle for the socialist transformation of society.

We call upon Numsa to launch a Socialist Trade Union Network to prepare a for the new federation. This could unite the entire trade union movement inside and outside Cosatu, to take forward the struggle against e-tolls, labour broking, a decent minimum wage, rising fuel prices and the escalation costs of food, transport and basic goods.

Numsa’s rejection of the ANC’s dishonest, hypocritical and self-serving intervention in the mediation is entirely correct. It is consistent with the historic resolutions of its December 2012 Special National Congress which re-tied the historical knot between the Numsa generation of 1993, a year before the country’s first democratic elections, which moved for Cosatu to form a workers’ party and not to support the ANC. The experience of the first two decades of “freedom” has vindicated the perspectives of the 1993 generation. Wasp stands ready to work with Numsa towards the historic objective of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

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November 2014