National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa general secretary Irvin Jim addresses the trade union's special congress in Boksburg, Johannesburg, on Thursday.  Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa general secretary Irvin Jim addresses the trade union's special congress in Boksburg, Johannesburg, on Thursday. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

THE departure of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is turning out to be long and tortured: it will not leave Cosatu voluntarily and Cosatu is wary of being provoked into expelling it.

In the meantime, the union flouts Cosatu decisions at will, inviting suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi to address it against the explicit decision of the federation’s central executive that this is not allowed and provocatively declaring that it wants to broaden its scope and recruit in other sectors.

Moving onto other unions’ turf is an unforgivable offence in Cosatu and goes against its founding principle of "one union, one industry".

"It is wrong to even contemplate organising beyond your scope. You can’t do it," says Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini.

While this would clearly be grounds enough to expel Numsa, Mr Dlamini says the federation will not do it under provocation. "If people do things in the hope they will be expelled, we won’t expel them. We want them to conduct themselves properly," he said.

But while neither wants to make the first move — whoever does will carry the responsibility for splitting Cosatu — after Numsa’s special national congress this week, the endgame is getting a little clearer.

Numsa has quite thoroughly mulled its options. First prize would be winning the battle in Cosatu. This would mean that it succeeds in compelling Mr Dlamini to convene a special national congress. Although he faces a constitutional obligation to do so, after receiving a formal request from one third of affiliates, Mr Dlamini has so far found multiple hurdles to avoid the process.

It would also mean that at such a special congress it wins and gets Mr Vavi reinstated and all the rest of the national officer bearers removed in a fresh election. But the prospects of a special national congress look dimmer by the day. Mr Dlamini holds all the cards and unless Numsa resorts to the courts, where victory is not assured, the special congress will be a long time coming.

Other processes to resolve the standoff over Mr Vavi and to settle the differences between the factions look bleak too.

While the African National Congress (ANC) and even some in the South African Communist Party (SACP) have now changed their tune and seem willing to make concessions and reach a deal over Mr Vavi’s position, the peace process has gone on so long with so little to show, it is hard to believe it will bear fruit.

With first prize not immediately in the offing, Numsa’s next move is designed to break the deadlock.

Among its likely decisions to be announced on Saturday are: a withdrawal of financial and logistical support for the ANC in the election; a resolution to broaden its organising scope; a commission to look into the establishment of a workers’ party; and a programme of strikes against the youth wage subsidy and e-tolls.

Statements by its leaders this week have also been designed to raise the temperature. Leaders of Cosatu, SACP and ANC have come under scathing attack. Mr Dlamini was called a factionalist and a hypocrite; Cyril Ramaphosa has been lambasted as a capitalist complicit in the murder of workers; and SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, despised most of all, was labelled worker enemy number one.

These are untenable positions for a Cosatu affiliate and despite its claim that it will not be goaded, Cosatu will sooner or later have to take Numsa to task. As Numsa is likely to remain defiant as ever, only expulsion or a near capitulation by Cosatu are possible outcomes.

In the expelled scenario, Numsa has laid out what its endgame would be. If expelled it is likely to seek to expand its influence even further, championing both a more militant unionism as well as giving its support to a political left-wing alternative.

As the demise of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has shown with the arrival of a more militant competitor, many Cosatu affiliates are vulnerable to competition.

Like the NUM, several have shop stewards who are embedded in cushy positions. Some of Cosatu’s other affiliated unions are riven by internal divisions and have recently splintered.

Cosatu, without Numsa, would be substantially weakened. Not only would it lose it biggest affiliate, but it could lose others as well — among them, the Food and Allied Workers Union; the South African Municipal Workers Union; and the Democratic Nurses Association of South Africa.

Cosatu and ANC leaders would be reluctant to see these outcomes. Not only would the labour relations landscape change, but so would the configuration of political power.

Numsa has put the writing on the wall. But with such enormous decisions to be made, it is little wonder the goodbye is taking so long.