Sometimes It's Better Not to Overstay One's Visit: Once More on NUMSA and the Demise of COSATU

By Leonard Gentle · 28 Oct 2014

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Picture: Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and Irvin Jim, General Secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa
Picture: Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and Irvin Jim, General Secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa

The COSATU Central Executive Committee (CEC), the decision-making body of affiliate leaders, which meets between the more representative Congresses and Central Committees, held a meeting last week to decide on the fate of its biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) and to discuss the report of its General Secretary, Zwelenzima Vavi, himself the subject of dispute.

This CEC was the consequence of a decision at a postponed CEC in April this year at which time the ANC offered a Task Team to mediate COSATU’s disputes and keep the peace before the May 2014 General Elections. The April CEC was due to expel NUMSA, but postponed the decision until after the elections at the initiative of the ANC’s Task Team. Last week, the CEC heard the report of the Task Team and again decided to defer a decision to another CEC to be convened on 7 November. The latest COSATU CEC announcement, to defer a decision until 7 November, continues the long-running saga of postponements.

The ANC Task Team presented a report, which argues that having a Special Congress that NUMSA and eight other affiliates are calling for, may not be such a bad idea as long as its not an electoral congress.

The Task Team report speaks in statesmanlike language about the need for unity and “leadership” and the ANC’s commitment to a strong COSATU. However, it ignores the point that it is the ANC itself, which is the cause of COSATU’s disputes. It argues that of the nine unions seeking a Special Congress, only NUMSA disagrees with COSATU’s political alignment to the ANC. It speaks patronisingly of NUMSA’s political disagreement with the ruling party’s neoliberalism as well as its decision to break politically from the ANC and SACP, as requiring “political education”. People with functioning memories may remember that Julius Malema was also met with the offer of “political education” before the ANC finally decided to expel him.

In the mainstream media the favourite interpretation of this demise is that it is a leadership squabble amongst a few individuals - most notably about Vavi - and that this is the price to be paid for having too close a political relationship with the ANC.

So the conflicting interpretations of the significance of the implosion of the once-mighty COSATU - as a predicament not so much about COSATU, but more about the political fallout over the crisis of legitimacy in the ANC - gets reduced to petty squabbles. Just like the Marikana massacre gets reduced to “inter-union rivalry” and the on-going community struggles to “service delivery” protests or criminality.

It is now a matter of public knowledge that COSATU is in terminal decline. The only debate is the form of its demise: the continued meander to sweetheart unionism or the breakup into dysfunctional competing centres of corruption. Remember that COSATU unions are institutionally locked into investment companies, building leases, properties, industry agreements and state forums, all of which may well have a life of their own.   

This, of course, stands in stark contradiction with the myth peddled by the same sources for years now that COSATU can be blamed for obstructing more “business-friendly” government policies and “necessary reforms” that would make South Africa “competitive”, schools more functional and the labour market “more efficient”. Take your pick in the line-up of popular evils, which economists and journalists want to lay at the door of COSATU and its affiliates.

So one would think that its imminent demise should have these commentators quaffing more Champaign, but strangely enough, they are also worried about having new unknowns like the Association of Mining and Construction Workers Union (AMCU), who won’t play by the rules or a NUMSA who seems to want to invent new rules.

Then there are the commentators, liberal and left wing, who see COSATU and/or NUMSA as about to launch a new “Workers’ Party”. But a how a husk, such as COSATU has become (hardly a force for stopping more “labour market reforms”), can be material for launching a new party is not clear. So the focus falls on NUMSA.
From the side of those on the left and even some liberal commentators, COSATU’s demise is contrasted with the “NUMSA Moment” - a break with the Tripartite Alliance and the soon-to-be launch of a party to the left of the ANC. 
NUMSA’s decision has seen it face the full wrath of the ANC and its allies, with the SACP visibly leading the way in gutter politics and invective and Jeremy Cronin stigmatising Irvin Jim and his deputy, Karl Cloete, as “business partners”.
The fight against NUMSA is also being waged outside the formal meetings of COSATU. Three NUMSA shop stewards were assassinated in Kwazulu-Natal before its Conference on Socialism in August, a French socialist was detained at OR Tambo airport and summarily expelled while the union has also had its bank account attacked with its agency fees held back and the Department of Labour refusing to register NUMSA’s revised constitution, in which it extend its scope, in keeping with its decision, to welcome workers across sectors.

At the same time, breakaway NUMSA leaders like Cedric Gina have been forming a new rival union; cynically invoking the name of NUMSA’s predecessor, the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union (MAWU). Already it enjoys the support of both the ANC and COSATU.
The stakes are high.

The media continue to confuse NUMSA’s three December 2013 decisions about the United Front, the Movement for Socialism and the possibility of a new political party to contest elections or otherwise.

But this is not only the media’s fault, it is also NUMSA’s prevarication about what it understands the way forward to be and its misreading of the mood of working class activists. In this it has fallen behind the mood so well captured by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and has substituted the rough and tumble of real working class struggles with trade union timetables and constitutional structures.

From the side of Luthuli House, the strategy is to reduce this to trade union squabbles -- too petty for the ruling party to dignify by getting involved, but the ANC will at least try to help COSATU solve “its problems”. The ANC Task Team has chosen to focus on NUMSA’s decision to organise workers across industrial sectors and the fact that this is in defiance of a COSATU founding resolution. So NUMSA’s expulsion or otherwise is not about politics, its about organisational defiance.

All this overlooks one of the features of neoliberal capitalism to which the ANC is so enthralled, which is, precisely that it has broken down the old distinctions amid “sectors” between the state and the private sector, as in the commercialisation of public services, public-private partnerships, outsourcing and the like (through flexibility, labour brokers, outsourcing), and even between the workplace and the home.

These labour process changes have been accompanied by the re-configuration of the working class itself. This change has left COSATU disengaged from working class life, as its affiliates increasingly consist of upwardly mobile people moving away from the working class.

So the notion of trade unions being sectorally defined is an anachronism and NUMSA’s defiance on this question can only be faulted for being too timid, if anything.        

Now the COSATU CEC decides to give NUMSA “another chance” to present its case for not being expelled and the ANC Task Team speaks the sanctimonious line of unity. That the Special Congress may well be convened, but should not include election for office bearers, that the next COSATU Congress is in 2015 anyway and that all COSATU needs to do is “show leadership”.

But does the delay help NUMSA’s cause and is the promise of a Special Congress a card worth playing? Does the promise of likely allies in COSATU, including eight other unions that called for the Special Congress alongside NUMSA, indicate that there’s still a cause to be won?
Speculation is that all the CEC is doing is covering its behind for a likely legal challenge by NUMSA. Again this misses the political point that the dragged out saga merely paralyses NUMSA and drags it into a futile search for moral high ground within COSATU.

In all this time it has been assumed that a Special Congress would vindicate Vavi and NUMSA by convening a meeting of rank and file workers who would clean out the Augean Stables and set COSATU on a path to recovery and moral regeneration. Vavi himself seemed to entertain this idea in his prepared speech to the COSATU CEC.
Let us debunk some myths about COSATU Congresses. There has never been a vote at a COSATU Congress. At any rate, affiliates, not individuals vote and they don’t vote on the basis of size of membership. So throughout its history, COSATU has sought consensus and sent competing views or resolutions out to smaller caucuses or resolutions committees to resolve. This was done even in the most contentious of COSATU debates about the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1986.

Decisions are taken by horse-trading in advance of meetings and elections of office bearers are done on the basis of slates caucused in advance.

With the current composition of COSATU being a forum of lower middle class members at odds with the greater working class, a Special Congress could well do the reverse, i.e., endorse the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance and kick out the recalcitrant left or force it to leave not as a principled group carrying the moral high ground, but as a disgruntled group fearful of democratic sanction. 

But if we look beyond the COSATU saga and the ANC’s Task Team, then we can see that in essence, this is about the death of the old anti-apartheid movement (buried alongside the bodies of the murdered miners at Marikana) and the rise of a new movement. At the centre of this is a political rupture between the ANC, given its rapid evolution from a liberation movement to the party of monopoly capital implementing every neoliberal prescription with unabashed enthusiasm, and a new generation of activists building a new movement against this elite order.

The new movement has its newness defined not by the fact of the old anti-apartheid movement having resolved the great issues that defined it – the resolution of the national question, the land question and the establishment of a transformative democracy – all of which were laid at the door of apartheid, but in the fact that the leading forces of that movement are now in the elite without settling those questions in any meaningful way. So a new movement is fated to deal with the legacies of apartheid at the same time that the neoliberal order of today brings its own variation to that legacy.

COSATU straddled those two movements for a while after 1994, but it has simply been reduced to a husk, a “hollow man” by the journey of its Tripartite Alliance partner, the ANC, into the heart of darkness, the changing composition of the working class and its own upward trajectory into the world of BEE and middle class corruption.

NUMSA gains nothing from the charade of ANC mediation and the endless postponement of the organisational consequences of what is already a major political break. Already NUMSA has delayed much of its 2014 programme of joint campaigns with community struggles and newly formed independent initiatives of workers. Now it declares December the launch of its United Front. In so doing, it pitches its tent within the verdant fields of the new movement. There is everything to be gained there, and like the EFF, NUMSA will face every kind of demonization and character assassination. But that is the path of social justice.

NUMSA should get on with its much-postponed United Front (not to mention taking forward the debates and discussions about the meaning of socialism today). COSATU’s unending internal shenanigans and the ANC Task Team are at best a distraction and at worst, a cynical ploy to drain the energy of the union in on-going self-defeating procedures.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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