(Originally published in the Weekly Worker.)
As the Congress of South African Trade Unions edges towards a formal split, one of the central underlying questions that has helped to fuel the Cosatu crisis is currently the cause of renewed tensions in South Africa.
I am referring to the commission of inquiry into the police massacre of 34 platinum miners at Marikana in August 2012, whose report was handed to president Jacob Zuma on March 31. His failure to release it has added to the political tension and exacerbated divisions not only within the union federation, but within the African National Congress-led alliance, of which Cosatu is a part, together with the South African Communist Party. The SACP, along with other ANC apologists, refused to condemn the slaughter of strikers at Marikana (some individual SACP members even attempted to justify it), saying that the inquiry should be allowed to run its course.
Finally, after almost three years, the commission has completed its work, but the president is refusing to release its report. In response to growing demands for its publication, Zuma stated on May 10:
The commission has made some serious recommendations that require careful consideration. Therefore, it is important to apply my mind carefully, so that our response ensures that the events that took place in Marikana are not allowed to happen again in our country. Everything is being done to ensure that the matters are concluded as soon as possible.1
That, of course, completely avoids the question of why the report cannot be released immediately – obviously that ought not to depend on the formulation of a carefully worded response to its recommendations (how about ‘Don’t send out lethally armed police to shoot down militant strikers’?). The delay is adding to the speculation that Zuma is negotiating behind the scenes to have the most embarrassing and shocking details ‘amended’ or removed altogether. And now, more than two weeks after the last official statement, the presidency is merely repeating Zuma’s pledge to release the report “in due course”.
As a result, more support has been forthcoming for the legal challenge that was lodged on May 19 under the 2000 Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). A lawyer acting for mineworkers who were injured and arrested during the Marikana shooting put in a PAIA request a week ago and stated that if the president failed to come up with a satisfactory response by May 23 he would have no option but to approach the courts. PAIA requests must be answered within 30 days.
The Marikana Support Campaign, Right2Know and the South African History Archive had grouped together to support the request. And now the anti-ANC United Front – set up by the main oppositional and largest trade union, the 350,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) – has joined in: “President Zuma has avoided all questions around when he will be releasing the report to the public,” read its statement. “The delay in the release of the Marikana report is unacceptable. This delay is likely to affect accountability from those responsible for the Marikana massacre.”2
But, of course, Numsa is no longer a Cosatu affiliate, having been expelled from the federation in November 2014 by a vote of the central executive committee. Its crime? Withdrawing support from the ANC and Communist Party!
Traditionally Cosatu and its affiliates have been dominated by the SACP, which claims 170,000 members. The SACP’s role in Cosatu has been to keep union militancy within safe bounds, so as not to risk undermining the ANC-led “national democratic revolution”, which it claims is the “most direct route to socialism” in South Africa. The fact that the ANC, ably assisted by SACP government ministers, is imposing a programme of cuts and privatisation, and has presided over a regime of stable capitalist accumulation and an increase in relative impoverisation, is irrelevant apparently.
Numsa too had been run by SACP members, but it, along with eight other affiliates, had requested a special national congress of the 19-union federation shortly after the suspension from office of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in August 2013. Vavi had been disciplined ostensibly for having an affair with an office worker he had recruited, but in reality the SACP loyalists were looking for an excuse to get rid of a man who had become increasingly critical of the ANC. He was eventually dismissed from his post on March 30 2015.
The fact that nine out of the 19 affiliates were now demanding a special congress (regular congresses are held only once every three years) is an indication of the growing concern – driven in part by rank-and-file discontent – over the direction of Cosatu under SACP control. However, SACP hack and Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini refused to comply with the federation’s constitution, whereby a special national congress (SNC) must be called on the request of one-third of affiliates. At first he agreed to call an SNC, but cited “practicalities” and “expense” as reasons for not doing so straightaway. But within weeks the loyalists were bluntly stating that an SNC was unnecessary and would not be convened.
This led to a legal challenge by Numsa and six other rebel unions, and on May 11 2015 the Gauteng high court instructed the seven applicants and the two respondents (Dlamini and Cosatu itself) to come to an out-of-court settlement. Once the largest union had been expelled, the loyalists had felt they were better placed to win a congress vote and said that they would indeed convene one after all. But no details were forthcoming, so the rebel seven went ahead with their legal challenge, forcing the loyalists to strike a deal.
The resulting high court statement stipulates that notice of the SNC must be given by June 28 at the latest, but Cosatu was scathing about the rebels’ claim that they had won a victory. It declared: “The announcement which was made today is … not a court ruling, as purported by the Numsa leadership, but a product of the agreement between two parties.”3 However, the court statement reads:
By agreement between the parties, the following order is made: … the first respondent [Dlamini] hereby undertakes to issue a notice under clause 220.127.116.11 of Cosatu’s constitution notifying the second respondent’s [Cosatu’s] affiliate unions of the special national congress to be held from July 13-14 2015 (my emphasis).
But, as if to stress that they intend to stay in control, come what may, the loyalists added: “Numsa will not be part of the special national congress, since they are no longer a Cosatu affiliate.” This controversy is now the subject of a second legal case – Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim wrote to Cosatu on May 22, demanding that the metalworkers be allowed to attend. Jim said that the basis of the demand for an SNC was two agenda items: “unity and cohesion” in the federation; and the election of office-bearers. Under the first item the appeals of both Numsa and Vavi against their expulsions should be heard, he stated.
According to Ranjeni Munusamy, writing in the online Daily Maverick, Jim added:
In addition to the aforesaid, we are of the view that, since there has been no final and binding decision made by the national congress on Numsa’s expulsion, in terms of clause 14.3.2 of the Cosatu constitution, we may still exercise our rights as a member of the federation.
In light of the above, the pending court proceedings to review our expulsion and the pending internal appeal, which we hereby request to be heard at the special national congress, we may further be entitled to partake in the activities of the [SNC] as an active member of the federation.4
I feel this argument is far less compelling than the demand for an SNC itself – in that case there was a clear breach of the constitution, whereas with Numsa’s expulsion, through a vote taken on Cosatu’s leading committee, things are less certain.
But Munusamy points to another factor:
This first problem is Cosatu does not have the money to hold a special congress. The expulsion of Numsa, its biggest affiliate, saw a major source of its funding chopped off. And in order to get back into the black Cosatu has to readmit Numsa as an affiliate. The dominant faction would rather have Cosatu bankrupt than have Irvin Jim and his crew back in the federation.
By “dominant faction” he is referring to the SACP loyalists, of course – it is important to stress that the ANC leadership majority has been trying its utmost to prevent Cosatu cleaving in two. It is convinced that a Numsa-led rival federation would be far more difficult to contain than the same unions would be in Cosatu, where the loyalists would continue to act as a counterbalance.
However, even in the loyalist-led unions the leadership is being challenged by sympathisers of Vavi and Numsa. For example, the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) appears to be in turmoil. Two years ago oppositionists seemed to have won control, for Samwu was one of the nine signatories to the demand for an SNC. But then the loyalists came to the fore again and its leadership welcomed the dismissal of Vavi. As recently as April of this year the leadership took court action of its own to prevent rebel members, who were campaigning under the banner of Save Our Samwu (SOS) with the support of Vavi and Numsa, from using the union’s name and logo. Yet just a few weeks later Samwu was one of the seven applicants for an SNC!
The truth is, every one of Cosatu’s affiliates are wracked by this basic division between loyalists and rebels. Take the loyalist-led South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). It too obtained a court order in April to prevent the organisers of a rebel-called provincial shop stewards council from using Sadtu’s logo and name. Unfortunately some former Sadtu members have now set up a rival breakaway: the South African Public Service Union (Sapsu).
But loyalist breakaways from rebel unions are actually being sponsored by the Cosatu leadership. That is the case with the newly formed Liberated Metalworkers of South Africa (Limusa). Following the May 11 court order upholding the demand for an SNC, the federation declared:
Numsa can only become a Cosatu affiliate if it reverses the resolutions it took in opposition to Cosatu existing policy [in support of the ANC]. Until then, we are calling on metalworkers to join Limusa, a newly admitted Cosatu metalworkers union. When the Numsa leadership decide to do the right thing, only at that time will we consider internal discussions about what is to be done. For now we are heightening the recruitment campaign for Limusa and servicing our members.5
To think that one of the most prominent claims in the loyalist campaign to expel Numsa had been that it was guilty of membership poaching and was therefore breaching the principle of ‘One industry, one union’!
A statement on Limusa’s own website reads:
The decision to establish the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa (Limusa) came after a long period of internal resistance and struggle against the reactionary direction taken by the Numsa leadership, which opportunistically imposed its will over that union through various forms of despotic manipulation. While calling for dialogue and democracy elsewhere, that leadership ruthlessly stamped on dissent within its ranks.6
It has to be said that such claims against Numsa are exaggerated at the very least. It is well known that Numsa’s December 2013 special congress, which was attended by over 1,000 delegates, voted unanimously to break from the ANC/SACP and set up the United Front. There were no allegations made at the time along the lines of Limusa’s website claims.
As I write, a special two-day meeting of Cosatu’s central executive committee is being held in Braamfontein to discuss arrangements for the July special national congress. No doubt its SACP-loyal leaders will reiterate the positions already stated and do everything possible to shore up the party’s control at virtually any price. Assuming the SNC does take place, whether or not Numsa is allowed to attend, what if the loyalists lose the vote? Do you think they will accept the verdict? No, they will walk. The SACP is prepared to split the workers’ movement rather than abide by the will of the majority.
As for the rebels, they, of course, have at long last realised that the alliance with the ANC is a dead end. But to really go forward they need to ditch their illusions in the ANC and SACP of old, and opt for a policy of genuine working class independence rather than a revamped Freedom Charter. As I have said, the rebellion has been partly driven by rank-and-file discontent, but the union membership as a whole needs to establish its own control, rather than rely on the bourgeois courts, in order to reforge a union movement worthy of the name.