Why was NUMSA expelled?

November 17, 2014

After months of conflicts, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa has been expelled from the country's main union federation, which is aligned with the ruling African National Congress, the head of the South African government since the fall of apartheid. Ashley Fataar, a South African socialist and member of Keep Left, explains the background to this rupture--and the hopes for building an independent working-class movement.

THE COALITION of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), South Africa's largest union federation, expelled the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) on November 8. NUMSA was COSATU'S largest--and most politically militant--affiliate.

Two days later, in disgust and protest at the expulsion, seven other affiliates withdrew from COSATU's executive. The rank-and-file membership of an additional two other unions have also come out against NUMSA's expulsion, standing against their union leaders decision. So, too, has the leadership of one of COSATU's regions.

That all this has happened is really no surprise. It is part of the political realignment that began at the end of the 1990s when township protests erupted across South Africa. This was the background to Thabo Mbeki losing his bid for re-election at the African National Congress' (ANC) congress in 2007.

The re-alignment took on a life of its own following the Marikana massacre of August 2012, when 34 mineworkers were killed during a wildcat strike opposed by the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, which is aligned with the ANC. Less than a year later came the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a left-wing political party formed by expelled members of the ANC's youth organization. The realignment also explains the crisis in COSATU.

Members of NUMSA demonstrate outside COSATU headquarters
Members of NUMSA demonstrate outside COSATU headquarters (NUMSA)

The expulsion of NUMSA is not simply one group of unions pitted against another set of unions in COSATU. COSATU and some of its affiliates are riven with internal fighting. Many COSATU meetings cannot take place because of the divisions and disagreements.

For example, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) has been expelling and suspending members en bloc this year to keep the lid on a potential revolt by the rank and file. The South African Municipal Workers Union just lost a court bid to do the same against its members. Disheartened with the attacks by their leadership, hundreds of members of SADTU are forming a new union, leaving SADTU almost decimated.

Speaking at a press conference, NUMSA Secretary General Irvin Jim stated, "COSATU is consumed by internal battles between those who support the ANC and those who consciously fight for an independent, militant federation which stands for the working class." And he is right. Disgracefully, sections of the COSATU leadership, along with the Stalinist South African Communist Party (SACP), defended the massacre at Marikana.

Since then, NUMSA has constantly and openly challenged both the ANC and SACP. The SACP is in a political alliance with the ANC. Cracks in COSATU began emerging when NUMSA was openly attacked by the federation leadership.

FIGHTING WITHIN COSATU and the disgust at union leaders' defense of the Marikana massacre reached the boiling point in late 2013. In December of that year, NUMSA held a much-anticipated special congress and came up with two major decisions. First, NUMSA decided it would not campaign for the ANC in elections. Second, it began the process of launching a united front against the ANC-SACP alliance, with the aim that it will lead to the formation of a workers party.

As Irvin Jim argued once COSATU leaders decided on the expulsion: "We have been rejected by COSATU, but we have not been rejected by workers."

NUMSA is also seriously considering forming a new, more radical union federation. NUMSA led a victorious strike earlier this year, so a new union federation would certainly attract hundreds of thousands of workers from inside and outside COSATU. And mass strikes by new unions not affiliated to COSATU, such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, have exposed how conservative the main unions leading COSATU have become.

COSATU was established in 1986 to fight the former apartheid regime. But now, it is closely associated with the ruling ANC, as part of the tripartite alliance that had governed since Black majority rule was won in 1994.

The way forward is also going to require lots of intervention and arguing. The seven unions that support NUMSA have not broken their relationship with the ANC-supporting leaders of COSATU. They also show no signs as yet of mobilizing to reorganize COSATU or get rid of its present leadership.

Furthermore, full engagement with the rank-and-file membership of these unions has not been achieved, even in NUMSA itself. Many unions have a top-down approach, so it is not yet fully clear how this move has gone down among NUMSA's 340,000 members or the members of the other unions. We need to hear more of their voice and those in and around the Alliance, in COSATU and the SACP.

As the left-wing Democratic Left Front stated, "COSATU will degenerate further into essentially a sweetheart and bureaucratized union." It went on to argue that the left:

must regroup around the leadership of NUMSA and fight for a new COSATU that is militant, democratic, worker-controlled, independent and socialist. This will open a new chapter in the history of the workers' movement in South Africa. Now is not the time to mourn. We must organize.

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