Suspension of Saftu secretary-general deepens crisis in South African workers’ movement

Delegates at the Working Class Summit, July 2018

The attempted suspension of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) secretary-general, Zwelinzima Vavi, by National Office Bearers (NOBs) who are members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) sponsored Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP), threatens to throw Saftu and the entire workers’ movement into an even deeper crisis than it is in already. It is not just an attack on comrade Vavi but on Saftu, as a whole. This is a matter for all trade union members, activists in the working-class movement and socialists. It is not, as has been suggested on social media by leading Numsa members, a matter for Numsa members alone.

There has never been a greater necessity for the working class to unite. The capitalist class and their ANC government’s attacks have been escalated to a qualitatively new level. Whilst the ruling class is united in a common purpose, the Saftu NOBs are sowing division in the working class at the worst possible time. This is why the capitalist media has seized on Vavi’s suspension with glee. It takes place against the background of the capitalist ruling class’ most serious attack on the working class since the dawn of democracy.

  • Its executive arm, cabinet, has passed a budget of savage cuts in social spending, in health, education, housing and social welfare, whilst gifting the bosses a R6bn corporate tax cut.
  • Its judicial wing in the Constitutional Court has upheld the government’s decision not to pay the salary increases due to public sector workers in 2020.
  • In the private sector, Clover/Milco has contemptuously torn up the Competition Commission merger agreement to create jobs. They are retrenching 800+ workers and threatening 30% salary cuts.

In language dripping with class antagonism, the ConCourt echoed the views of the neo-liberal capitalist anti-working class think tank, the Free Market Foundation, denouncing public sector workers for getting “illicit” increases at the expense of the poor. Its judgement has stripped collective bargaining of all meaning. The government has announced in advance of this year’s collective bargaining that workers will get no more than the insulting increases they received in 2021 – cuts in real terms.

The world economy, still struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, is now faced with the possibility that it might be tipped into a global recession by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All the assumptions Godongwana’s 2022 budget were based on – the projected world fuel price, global interest rates, and commodity prices – have gone out of the window. Beginning with a second interest rate hike by the Reserve Bank this coming week which will increase the indebtedness of the 19 million ‘credit impaired’, leading to more house, car and furniture repossessions, the government is bound to deepen the social spending cuts in the coming period.

The actions of the Saftu NOBs are, from the standpoint of the working class, absolutely criminal politically. They are acting, as Trotsky explains in his pamphlet, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, as the “lieutenants of capital in the labour movement”. The Saftu NOBs leading this attack on comrade Vavi are experienced trade unionists. They are, moreover, as was pointed out at the Saftu-affiliate’s press conference, custodians of the Saftu constitution. They know that only the National Executive Committee has the power to suspend NOBs. Why proceed with this action knowing in advance that it has no legal force or effect? Comrade Vavi had an answer in his interview on NewzRoom Afrika on 21 March. It was a bureaucratic manoeuvre designed to present the Saftu NEC taking place in a few days’ time with a fait accompli.

Distraction from Numsa Corruption

The Saftu affiliates and comrade Vavi are correct. This is not a simple constitutional mis-step. It is a cynical attempt, ahead of Saftu’s May congress and especially Numsa’s June congress, to distract attention from the revelations of eye-watering corruption in the Numsa Investment Company (NIC) whose insurance and funeral underwriter subsidiary, 3Sixty Life, has been placed under provisional curatorship. It is an attempt to ensure comrade Ivin Jim’s re-election within Numsa, and, through Vavi’s ouster in Saftu, ensure his control of the federation’s NOBs.

Court documents reveal shocking findings by the Prudential Authority (the body responsible for oversight of financial institutions) that, amongst others, the NIC’s funds have been used to buy a laptop for comrade Jim’s daughter and fund a birthday party for himself. Outrageous as this is, the amounts involved, R15,578 (US$1,050) and R40,430, respectively, are small change compared to the regular monthly payments of R200,000 (US$13,500) to a “Numsa Benefit Fund” that does not exist, or the more than R2 million in donations to political parties disclosed by the Independent Electoral Commission in February.

amaBungane reports that “the disclosures show that 3Sixty Health Solutions, a subsidiary of the investment company, was a significant donor to multiple parties. The IEC report for the third quarter of the last financial year revealed that … Health Solutions paid R800,000 to the ANC, R600,000 to the EFF with an additional R150,000 “in-kind” contribution, and R200,000 each to the African Transformation Movement (ATM), Patriotic Alliance (PA) and Good.” (Daily Maverick 02/03/2022). As amaBungane points out the relatively small 3Sixty Health Solutions’ donations are on the larger end of the amounts declared. Even JSE-listed Naspers, which dominates the exchange, donated only half that amount.

Turning reality on its head, the pretext for the NOBs’ attempted suspension of Vavi, is misuse of a Saftu credit card for relatively small purchases of airtime and e-hailing services. No amount of financial mismanagement is of course too small to be accounted for in the labour movement. But comrade Vavi has since published all his credit card transactions on social media and there appears to be no wrongdoing. It is comrade Jim who should account to the Numsa members and SRWP members for how a union and a party that stands for socialism can hand over workers’ money to avowedly capitalist parties. The ANC, the main instrument for the post-apartheid rule, the EFF, ATM and PA leaderships are either riddled with corruption or have criminal origins and are openly promoting xenophobia.

In a 2020 letter to all affiliates following a previous attempt by comrade Jim to recall Vavi, as if he was a Numsa deployee, comrade Vavi asked which class forces does comrade Jim’s grouping represent? The same question should be asked about this attack. Which class interests does it serve? The answer to this question is that it serves those of the more corrupt of the two factions fighting to retain control the ANC – the Radical Economic Transformation faction (RET) of which comrade Jim is a public supporter on Twitter. It is a two-pronged strategy of destabilising and paralysing Saftu on the trade union front and, through the SRWP, on the political plane.

Origins and role of SRWP

These donations to the enemies of the working class underline what the MWP has pointed out are the real reasons why the SRWP was created (see our 2020 Open Letter to Saftu Members). The SRWP was created to thwart the formation of a genuine workers party as resolved by Saftu’s 2017 founding congress. It is for this reason that SRWP-supporting members attempted to collapse the 2018 Saftu-convened Working Class Summit attended by 1,000 delegates representing 147 trade union, youth and community formations. Comrade Jim threatened to lead a walk-out of the Numsa delegation from what was potentially the most important political gathering of working class formations since 1994.

It is to his great credit that comrade Vavi saved the WCS from collapse by warning comrade Jim that history would judge him harshly should he walk-out.  The Summit went ahead and adopted a declaration to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme. Since then, the Saftu NOB SRWP members, under the direction of comrade Jim, have attempted to paralyse the implementation of both the Saftu and WCS resolutions.

The SRWP contested the 2019 general elections. Its failure to win even a single seat represented an emphatic rejection by Numsa members of a party that contested the elections in their name. A historic opportunity was lost. With all the main capitalist parties in various states of crisis, and the ANC itself increasingly rejected by working-class voters, the SRWP could have won at least ten seats on the strength of Numsa’s 340,000 members alone; with their families and that of Saftu’s members and their families, it could have emerged as the biggest opposition in parliament.

Saftu’s Political Position

In the wake of these attacks, Saftu has resuscitated the Working Class Summit process and a date for the convening of a second summit will be decided upon soon. The MWP welcomes this development wholeheartedly.

Whilst it is true that the attack on comrade Vavi and Saftu have the potential to create a new crisis, it must also be recognised that Saftu has been treading water. Saftu has not met the working class’s expectations of its launch five years ago. Saftu’s membership has not outgrown Cosatu’s. Many affiliates are weak, and this problem is aggravated by affiliates competing for members in the same sector, determined to hold on to their positions as presidents and secretary generals at the expense of workers’ unity. A systematic federation-wide campaign to organise the unorganised in both the public and private sectors has not been undertaken. Yet, such a campaign, seriously embarked upon, could rapidly swell Saftu’s ranks in a short space of time. Saftu leaders must recognise that it has no God-given right to exist. It must earn it through struggle, through organising and returning the working-class movement to the ideological socialist roots of its birth in the struggle against apartheid.

The reason for the federation’s weaknesses is primarily political. Saftu has not yet offered the working class more broadly an alternative on the political plane. For example, the MWP has criticised comrade Vavi for his reformist position on the capitalist crisis in SA. He counter-poses a social-democratic heart transplant on decayed capitalism to Irvin Jim’s RET-inspired capitalism with a black face.

Saftu’s leadership, across all affiliates, appears not to have understood that the birth of the new federation was a political event. It arose out of the Marikana massacre, an event that underlined the inseparable connection between the struggle in the workplace and the political arena. Marikana drew a line between a period of political illusions in the ANC and the more conscious and active search for an independent working-class political alternative.

The MWP believes that Saftu’s “independent but not apolitical” policy is a one-sided reaction to the Tripartite Alliance experience where Cosatu surrendered its political, ideological and class independence to the ANC. The problem, however, was not the alliance with a political party in and of itself, but that it was in an alliance with a capitalist party.

The only way Saftu can insulate itself from the influence of capitalist parties is to contest the political arena by taking the lead in creating a workers’ party.  There is no contradiction between Saftu retaining its independence as a trade union federation even as it plays midwife to a new party. Such independence would be crucial to hold such a party to account.

Saftu’s founding congress resolution to establish a Political and Ideological Commission led to a clear recommendation in March 2018 to create a workers party – the obvious wish of the delegates at the Saftu congress. This overtook the “independent but not apolitical” slogan. But the blocking of the implementation of these, and later, resolutions by Jim’s grouping has meant Saftu has a confused, often contradictory, political position. This is reflected in the low level of Saftu affiliate participation in the Working Class Summit. It is also reflected in the failure to build Saftu locals where an organic connection between working-class community and workplace struggles severed under Cosatu should be re-established. In the absence of the social weight of the organised workers, the WCS process has come to be dominated by academics and NGOs. There is confusion over, and even opposition to, a workers party amongst them.

Working Class Summit Reconvening

The capitalist class’ main political parties are in various states of crisis.  Their strategists are preparing contingency plans in case the ANC’s vote falls below 50% in 2024 as in November 2021. They are sponsoring new formations like ActionSA preparing for a pro-capitalist coalition. The working class must prepare for this by creating its own party.

The attack on Vavi must be answered by Numsa members reclaiming their union and restoring its revolutionary socialist traditions. Saftu members as a whole must assert that the federation is their organisation. All issues must be placed before the membership. The members will decide who is to lead it and what its policy, including on the question of a workers party, should be. There is an urgent need to create a more organised ‘left-opposition’ within Saftu – openly declared – that stands upon clear socialist political foundations and in defence of worker-control and democracy.

The attacks from the capitalist class and the ANC-government must be answered with mass action as a counter-offensive against the savage austerity budget and the ConCourt judgment. Nupsaw’s planned action at the Union Buildings on 25 April should be replicated at all legislatures across the country. That would be the ideal way to mobilise for the reconvened Working Class Summit. It is vital that the reconvened summit should set a date for the launch of a mass workers party, e.g. May Day 2023, one year from now. Setting a date for the launch of a workers’ party well in advance would provide time for all the structures to be created on the basis of uniting all struggles in the workplace, communities and educational institutions around a common political programme. The launch of a mass workers party on a socialist programme would alter the political landscape decisively not only in SA but throughout the continent and worldwide.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!
March 2022