South Africa: 'Labour movement is at a crossroads', nine COSATU affiliates declare

NUMSA members.

[For more on COSATU, click HERE. For more on South Africa, click HERE.]

November 5, 2014 -- Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

By the nine COSATU affiliates

A. Our objectives

After the 11th COSATU Congress in 2012, the Federation was gripped by a paralysing ideological, political, administrative and organisational crisis. We have analysed this crisis, and at our first joint press conference, stated the following, as the basis of our common approach:

1. To explicitly clarify what the progressive forces inside COSATU are campaigning for and what they are seeking to achieve.

2. To provide a clear set of demands to serve as the basis for mobilising a majority of workers in COSATU for a decisive break with class collusion and for trade union independence.

3. To regenerate a vibrant worker controlled organisational culture in COSATU with a leadership that is committed to the highest democratic and accountable processes.

4. To campaign for the reinstatement of the COSATU GS and the convening of a Special National Congress as part of the transformation of COSATU and the broader trade union movement.

While Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi has since returned to COSATU as the general secretary after a decisive court action, efforts to remove him, are clearer still part of the agenda for elements within the Federation.

From the outset of this crisis, we have declared that we are not prepared to remain silent as we observe our Federation, built by the blood, sweat and tears of millions of South African workers experience its greatest danger since its formation 29 years ago.

We are convinced that if workers who are members of the affiliates of COSATU do not stand up, speak out and defend their federation, it will end up in the dustbin of history. COSATU must be defended against those who want to disempower the working class by transforming our movement into a toothless giant. Purging the Federation of particular Unions, and allowing some unions to purge their own members by unconstitutional suspensions and expulsions is not part of the democratic tradition of COSATU. These are the desperate actions of those prepared to destroy COSATU and its affiliates in order to maintain control, and deliver COSATU and its affiliates to their political masters.

The South African labour movement is at a crossroads: It can either yield to the forces that are resisting the need for a fundamental change of our society and the economy or it can implement its own policies, and fight for a radical transformation based on the needs of our class. This is the dividing line today, and in our view, this is at the heart of the crisis that is paralysing COSATU today.

We unapologetically stand for fundamental change and transformation of our society and economy. We will defend, to the very end, the unity of the 2.2 million members of affiliates of COSATU and of COSATU itself. As committed trade unionists we are convinced that no sane trade unionist can be so careless as to weaken and destroy the principal weapon we have available to defend the working class, and to ensure an end to exploitation and oppression.

We call upon all members of all affiliates of COSATU to join us in our efforts to stop the destruction of the Federation both through the suspension or expulsion of NUMSA, and through the growing spate of unconstitutional, factional and divisive suspensions and expulsions of members of COSATU affiliates that is taking place.

We want the country and the world to know that we will fight to the end for a militant, revolutionary, socialist, worker controlled, independent, united and democratic COSATU. These values we hold dear, they are not just rhetorical slogans, but essential prerequisites to defend the working class that we are determined to represent to the best of our ability.

B. The agenda of the November 7 COSATU CEC

It is widely recognized that COSATU has been effectively paralysed, by an internal struggle in its Central Executive Committee, soon after its 11th Congress in September 2012.

So acute has been the paralysis of COSATU that we are now faced with the possibility of the largest manufacturing union in Africa and the largest affiliate of COSATU itself, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), being expelled from the Federation it played a key role in building, at the upcoming COSATU Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting scheduled for the 7th of November 2014.

Informed by the ANC Task Team Report, the COSATU CEC agenda will include the following:

1. NUMSA to be given an opportunity to make a presentation as to whether or not it should be suspended or expelled from the federation;

2. The status of the COSATU 2nd deputy president;

3. The COSATU president’s response to the call for a Special National Congress;

4. An update on the disciplinary processes involving the general secretary and a staff member;

5. An update on litigation against COSATU; and

6. A report from the national office bearers on whether or not to proceed with the Central Committee scheduled for November, given that the CEC did not have time to consider the Secretariat Report.

We want to be completely clear about what we see as the intentions of the CEC, and to make this known to the entire working class. The CEC meeting has but three purposes. The first is to expel NUMSA from COSATU.

The second is to begin a process of removing the General Secretary, Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi from COSATU. The third is to ensure that COSATU becomes nothing more than a labour desk of the ruling party, nothing less. This is driven by a faction within the leadership of COSATU that has abandoned any commitment towards COSATU being a force for real transformation.

This is what the same faction failed to do in the 21 – 23 October 2014 Special CEC which was supposedly called to receive the report of the ANC Task team but instead turned into a kangaroos court to dismiss NUMSA and begin to lay the ground for dismissing Comrade Vavi. Without our determined efforts, they would have succeeded.

The faction in the CEC, which is determined to expel NUMSA from COSATU now believes it has done everything necessary and in accordance with the constitution, to expel NUMSA from COSATU on the 7th of November, and to then proceed to rid the Federation of Comrade Vavi.

What crimes has NUMSA committed to merit losing its constitutional right to belong to COSATU?

In order to set the record straight, we briefly outline below, the supposed reasons, emanating from the NUMSA Special National Congress in December 2013, why they say NUMSA warrants expulsion from COSATU:

a. NUMSA is accused of having made the decision to call on COSATU to break with the African National Congress Alliance. NUMSA is perfectly within its rights, in a properly constituted congress, to take such a decision. There is in fact is nothing new about such calls.

b. NUMSA is accused of taking a decision to organize a march to COSATU House to coincide with the 1st CEC of February 2014. Neither the constitution of COSATU nor the South African Republican constitution forbids such marches, when they are lawfully done. In fact, the march never took place!

c. NUMSA is accused of deciding to hold back paying affiliation fees until the COSATRU Special National Congress is held. Numsa has not withheld paying its affiliation fees. However, quite a number of affiliates are in arrears and COSATU has not moved to dismiss them.

d. The decision to cease to pay its contribution into the COSATU/SACP levy. It is not a precondition for unions to pay the political levy to join COSATU. Some unions, it can be shown, have never ever paid any such levy at all, others pay as they wish, but NUMSA in the past has been a generous and large contributor!

e. The decision to extend its scope. Many, if not all COSATU affiliates, it can be shown, have either extended their scope or now organize in the same sectors as other affiliates of COSATU. This is a reflection of the existing and ever-changing nature of workplaces both in the public and private sectors. Research has revealed how for example a predominantly nursing union organizes transport workers (drivers of ambulances are not nurses!) or a mining union organizing cooks (these cooks may or may not be working in the mine canteens) and so on.

f. The South African economy has dramatically changed over the last period. Supply chains have crisscrossed former organizing boundaries, in private and public work places as neo-liberal capital accumulation and privatization has intensified, and combined with our untransformed colonial labour structure has fractured traditional scope areas. In the private sector, massive changes have taken place in the past 30 years to work places, and unions must adapt to these changes or become irrelevant. What is needed is an honest and frank discussion of these changes, and what they mean for union organizing, and not knee jerk responses based on defending turf.

NUMSA has in fact supplied COSATU with a 59 page response, and demanded specific charges. Thus far, it has not received a response from COSATU national office bearers. It is unclear if all COSATU affiliates have received NUMSA’s response from COSATU national office bearers.

The class struggle unfolding in South African society is playing itself out in COSATU. The faction intent on destroying the power of COSATU is avoiding, calling a Special National Congress of COSATU, despite the constitutional requirement to do so, to resolve the ideological, political, administrative and organisational crises confronting the federation. They have instead opted to use the CEC, where they have a voting majority, to pursue a mandate they have not obtained from their own members. This is a scandalous dereliction of collective and democratic responsibility.

We are convinced, and past practice confirms this, that the upcoming CEC of the 7th of November will not avail NUMSA a legitimate and just process, nor will it be managed according to the letter and spirit of the constitution of COSATU. The unions whose leaders want to expel NUMSA have publicly stated what their intentions are. Some have stated that NUMSA must be ‘surgically‘ removed from the Federation! Given the breaches of the COSATU Constitution that they have previously fallen foul of, and which were exposed in the High Court, they will now be trying to enact the expulsions without contradicting the constitution, but they know they are vulnerable, both in legal terms, and in terms of reporting back to their own constituencies.

Our demand is that such moves will destroy COSATU and must be prevented from taking place.

C. Comrade Vavi

Comrade Vavi has had now nine charges concocted against him, ironically, these came soon after being unanimously elected to office!

It is impossible for the national office bearers of COSATU who have currently shown their hand, to accord Comrade Vavi a fair hearing. As things are, the national office bearers are not the structure to proffer charges against Comrade Vavi, neither should they have been directly responsible for the disciplinary process. COSATU has clear guidelines on how to handle such cases.

Behind the nine charges, lies the most obvious fact: Comrade Vavi has been a thorn in the side of the post 1994 ruling elites in his outspoken and immensely popular crusades against corruption and the fight for decent work for the working class.

He has faithfully demanded a radical implementation of the Freedom Charter, as contained in agreed COSATU policies and resolutions. He is correctly viewed as a dangerous obstacle to the wanton accumulation and unbridled career prospects of an aspiring elite that sadly includes some leaders in COSATU, who have decided he must, by any means, be removed from office. The fact that he commands the highest respect of workers and stands as a beacon of hope for the working class and the poor infuriates them all the more.

The CEC on November 7 is designed to start a calculated process of formally dismissing comrade Vavi from COSATU. We are however not prepared to allow this to happen with a determined response.

D. Our Demands

  • We the union’s party to this statement refuses to sit idly by and watch the destruction of our federation through boardroom machinations and behind the scenes political manipulation. Ordinary private and public sector workers created the federation through painstaking work and sacrifice. We will do whatever it takes to return COSATU and its affiliates to their rightful owners and to what it must be: a united, militant, revolutionary, socialist, independent, worker controlled, democratic movement.
  • It is the mass unity of workers based on an agreed radical programme of transformation that make trade union federations powerful, and this cannot be achieved by bureaucratic, unconstitutional suspensions and expulsions of members and affiliates! These actions serve our class enemies not the cause of the working class!
  • We have reinstated our court case to compel COSATU to hold a Special National Congress as the crisis can clearly only be resolved by the owners of the federation – the ordinary members of affiliates of COSATU. They must be given the opportunity to decide what type of Federation they need, and what its direction should be.
  • We reject any moves at dismissing Comrade Vavi from COSATU. A Special National Congress must attend to all the matters now raised against him. We demand that workers be given the right to decide his fate, not those with political ambitions behind closed doors.
  • We support NUMSA in its efforts to prevent the unconstitutional actions of the current national office bearers of COSATU and their supporting affiliates in the CEC to expel them from the Federation. Only a properly constituted Special National Congress of COSATU as we have constitutionally asserted, can deal with the matters NUMSA has raised, and map out a united way forward for the entire Federation.
  • We call upon all members of affiliates of COSATU to exercise maximum vigilance to defend and protect their Federation, and prevent it from being used as a political pawn by antagonistic class forces. COSATU belongs to the organized working class, and not to those who want to enhance their careers or private wealth!
  • We will, accordingly, take all necessary measures to advance our objectives as stated in this statement. For us there is no turning back. The responsibility we have to the working class presents no other alternative other than to take this principled road, to defend the gains of workers, and reject the defeatism of our detractors. Ours is a noble cause, and we refuse to surrender it!

Thank you,

On behalf of the nine unions

Communication Workers Union

Democratic Nurses Union of South Africa

Food and Allied Workers Union

National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa

Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa

South African Commercial and Catering Workers Union

South African Football Players Union

South African Municipal Workers Union

South African State and Allied Workers Union