THE African National Congress (ANC) is worried. Events unfolding in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) pose a clear danger to the one-party hegemony enjoyed by the party for the past 20 years.

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim, delivering the Joe Slovo Memorial Lecture in the Eastern Cape on Sunday, drew a line in the sand for the party. He told ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu members that the ANC did not regard black workers as "full human beings".

"Our bosses and the ANC government want us to survive on low, savage and violent colonial wages, and meanwhile we must remain humble, be gentle, nonviolent and easy to manipulate and handle during strikes.

"They are so convinced we are subhuman beings who must be happy with our poverty wages," said Jim.

He also said that the SACP had been made irrelevant by the presence of its leaders in the government.

Strong words from Jim, who is leading Numsa (a large Cosatu affiliate) into a special national congress in December to mull its continued role in the alliance. Decisions there will be strongly influenced by the fate of suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. The domino effect of Vavi’s possible removal could be catastrophic for the ANC.

While Jim’s opponents have been speculating that he has been ready to split from the alliance for months, his comments on Sunday have cemented that view. The true danger for the ANC would be Numsa aligning itself with new radical leftist formations now active in the political space — such as Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), or perhaps the Workers and Socialist Party, which was founded after the labour unrest in the mining sector last year.

An ANC task team and a motley crew of former Cosatu leaders are now hard at work in an attempt to broker a deal to prevent further descent into a situation that could become untenable for the ANC. Rumours of deals to appease Vavi and others are rife, with talk of a possible deployment and other such enticements. But there is a sense that it may be too late for such a pact.

If it were up to Vavi’s opponents in the federation, his removal would be a done deal by now, but for the intervention by the ANC and former federation bosses.

Malema would benefit greatly from any alliance with Numsa. He is the driving force behind his fighters, but no strong, credible ANC leaders are willing to join his party yet. At present, his party at best risks suffering the same fate as the Congress of the People — unless some serious alliances, with strong organisational muscle, are formed. Numsa and the EFF would make cosy bedfellows and pose a formidable challenge to the ANC.

ANC provinces are in a mess. The ANC’s traditional stronghold, Limpopo, is limping its way towards a delayed provincial congress; North West has a serious leadership crisis; and the national leadership no longer trusts the party’s most organisationally sound province, Gauteng.

The ANC Youth League is also hobbling along, rebuilding the structures that were obliterated under Malema’s leadership. A gaffe-prone president doesn’t help.

A rudderless, divided Cosatu at risk of a split with its largest affiliate is therefore cause for serious concern.

The next three months and how events in Cosatu play out are critical for the ANC and the alliance ahead of the general elections next year.

Numsa’s choices will not be easy, particularly as they may have to be made before Vavi’s fate is decided. The union is relying on the Cosatu special congress next year to remove those it sees as wanting to deliver a pliant federation to the ANC, and bring Vavi back into the fold.

"Where do we go from here, then?" asked Jim on Sunday. "It is very clear that the South African black and African working class are faced with two extreme options." Succumb or fight were the options he outlined.

"I am convinced Comrade Slovo would have no problem in deciding which way to go: to continue to bravely and fearlessly soldier on in the fight for a socialist republic of South Africa."

This will be cause for sleepless nights for the ANC; it could mark the beginning of it losing its grip on power.

• Marrian is political editor.