Subscribe to the bi-annual report
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

SAM Cosatu[Source: by Andrew Engels.]

The crisis blighting South Africa’s governing alliance deepened on Monday when seven unions pledged their support to the powerful metalworkers union, Numsa, after it was dramatically expelled from the main trade union federation over the weekend.

The removal of Numsa, the largest of 19 affiliates of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), marked the biggest split in the grouping since Nelson Mandela led the African National Congress to victory in the first democratic elections in 1994.

In a sign that the federation could further fracture, the seven unions on Monday condemned Cosatu’s decision “as irrational and vindictive” adding that it “laid bare a shameful episode in our history as a labour movement”.

Cosatu is part of the ANC-led tripartite alliance, which also includes the communist party. Formed in the 1980s, the federation played a crucial role in the struggle against apartheid and, along with its affiliates, has traditionally been an important source of funding and voter mobilisation for the ANC.

The seven unions said they would suspend their participation its top decision-making committees in protest. Their leaders claim to represent more than 900,000 members, including those belonging to Numsa, and say they are “fighting for the soul” of Cosatu.

Cosatu leaders voted 33 to 24 to expel Numsa after a meeting on Saturday that followed months of infighting that is seen a reflection of broader factionalism in the ANC.

Numsa, which has been accused of contravening Cosatu’s rules, has been an increasingly outspoken critic of the ANC and President Jacob Zuma. It took the unprecedented decision not to endorse the ANC ahead of May elections and also called on Mr Zuma to step down over a scandal involving R246m of taxpayers’ money spent on his private Nkandla homestead.

“This has been a sad and shameful week for the South African trade union movement,” said Katishi Masemola, general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers Union. “Cosatu, once a militant and profoundly democratic trade union federation . . . has been reduced to a factional shell of its former self.”

Numsa is considering whether to form its own political party. It is planning to launch a workers’ movement, the United Front, next month, which it says will be a “weapon for uniting the working class”. The union has also hinted that it could contest local government elections in 2016, when the ANC’s hold on key municipalities, including Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, is expected to be severely tested.

Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary-general, described Numsa’s expulsion as “disappointing and tragic”.

“It’s bad for Cosatu, it’s bad for the ANC, it’s bad for the alliance, it’s bad for progressive forces and society in general,” Mr Mantashe said. He added that a Cosatu split would “only help the historic enemies of the alliance, from the right and the left”.

Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu’s general secretary, described Numsa’s expulsion as a “guillotine of +350 000 workers [that] is a game changer and will have profound political and organisational implications” in a comment posted on Twitter.

Mr Vavi is seen as a supporter of Numsa and is a critic of Mr Zuma and his administration. In a sign of the organisation’s factionalism, he was suspended by Cosatu last year for having an extramarital affair with an employee. A court later overruled the suspension.

According to William Gumede, chairman of Johannesburg-based Democracy Works foundation, Numsa’s expulsion could create instability in the labour market as rival unions compete for members and push for more militant demands. It could also add to political pressure on the ANC in the run up to the 2016 local elections, he said.

“This is a defining moment,” Mr Gumede said. “The unions have money, have structures, they have paid-up people, it’s very significant . . . It’s going to have a knock-on effect. This is the most significant break since 1994.”

South Africa at a Glance
58 780 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in June 2019 (CPI) & +5.8 y/y in June 2019 (PPI)
-3.2% q/q (1st quarter of 2019)
More information: Click here!