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South Africa’s trade unions face difficult choices

The metalworkers and miners are supporting each others’ strikes – but other divisions could tear them apart

South Africa’s two major trade unions, the metalworkers of Numsa and the NUM mineworkers, are engaged in strike action to win pay rises for their members.

Both affiliates of the Cosatu federation have issued firm declarations in support of the other’s action.

But they are also protagonists in an internecine struggle that could see Cosatu split asunder.

Around 30,000 Numsa members in the car industry walked out on August 20, demanding a 14 per cent across-the-board pay increase and no loss of income in the event of short-term or temporary lay-offs because of breakdowns in the just-in-time supply of components.

“Workers are tired of being sent home when the logistical system breaks down and not receiving salaries. These workers have no other employer and so they must be paid while companies have put them on short-term or temporary lay-off,” said chief negotiator Alex Mashilo.

Numsa national motor sector co-ordinator Elias Kubeka hailed the 100 per cent closedown of the car industry by his members.

He complained that major employers, “including giants Toyota, BMW, General Motors and Nissan, are only offering 6 per cent, an increase which does no more than make up for what they have lost through inflation, which is currently estimated in the consumer price index at 5.9 per cent.”

National Union of Mineworkers general secretary Frans Baleni spoke out in full support of the Numsa claim.

“The time to deliver to the working class is now. It is now or never. The working poor cannot wait any longer,” declared Baleni.

His union has a dispute in the gold-mining sector, demanding 15 per cent for most workers, with a hefty increase of around 60 per cent for entry-level miners.

Spokesman Lesiba Seshoka insisted on an uplift of 2,300 rand (£144) for entry-level workers to bring them up to 7,000 rand (£470), with a 3,000 rand (£188) increase to a minimum rate of 8,000 rand (£501) for those working underground.

Seshoka said that the NUM had urged the employers’ federation to “move away from apartheid wages” but had been told that this had to be done gradually.

“Gradual? This is 2013. Where are you?” he responded.

Seshoka said that nothing less than a double-digit increase will satisfy NUM members, 80,000 of whom are on strike.

Numsa national leaders expressed their “unflinching and worker-to-worker solidarity with the striking gold mineworkers under the leadership of our revolutionary and fraternal trade union — the National Union of Mineworkers” on Thursday.

Numsa officials called on “striking workers to use this strike not only for wage increases and demands but also to forge maximum unity among workers and also to defend their hard-won right to bargain amid the sustained ideological offensive by the greedy mining bosses to undermine our collective bargaining dispensation, as promulgated by our nascent democratic regime.”

So far so good in the world of South African revolutionary trade unionism, with the two main Cosatu affiliates backing their own and each other’s membership in the struggles against transnational capital that dominates the country’s major extractive and manufacturing sectors.

But NUM and Numsa are locked in a conflict over Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who was suspended over an affair in the federation offices with a junior member of staff whom he had recruited — allegedly without going through normal procedures.

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim accuses ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande of stoking the campaign to remove Vavi and to split Cosatu.
Mantashe, who was Baleni’s predecessor as NUM secretary-general and stood down last year as SACP chairman, was characteristically blunt in rejecting Jim’s accusation.

“A divided Cosatu is to the ANC disadvantage. Only a fool will want to divide Cosatu,” he retorted.

The ANC secretary-general said that union leaders lining up behind Vavi on the one hand or Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini, viewed as close to Nzimande, on the other “are creating a cult of personality. We can’t have this,” he said.

“Nobody must worship personalities. It is a danger to our movement,” Mantashe added.

However, unless the impasse over Vavi is dealt with satisfactorily, there are dangers that the Cosatu colossus could be irreparably damaged.

Numsa has taken the matter to law, filing papers in the High Court in Johannesburg and claiming that the federation’s “internal and democratic processes are being undermined and flouted.”

Its stance is supported by the Food and Allied Workers Union and the Football Players Union.

The controversy over Vavi reflects the much bigger question of relations within the revolutionary alliance, especially since Numsa has publicly accused ANC and SACP leaders of wanting to neuter Cosatu and to create “a toothless labour desk.”

It has scheduled a delegate conference for December to discuss whether to remain a Cosatu affiliate.

Nzimande used his address to the Popcru police and prison officers’ union conference to warn against any union walking out of the federation.

“Those who do so or are planning to do so are part of the enemy to destroy our revolution. There can be no problem that is bigger than the unity of Cosatu,” he declared.

The question is whether Numsa members will share this viewpoint.

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