Numsa head quits, raising questions on Cosatu's unity
On Monday evening, the President of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), Cedric Gina, confirmed that he had "given his resignation to the structures and members of the union". He also hinted that his fate now rests in the hands of Numsa members. This is a clear sign that Gina is more than unhappy at the direction Numsa is taking, as it prepares to leave the alliance, and probably Cosatu itself. But it's also an indication of the very real tensions within Numsa, over what is probably the biggest, and most risky, decision it will ever make.
This was a resignation that had a bit of a ramp-up, as it was not entirely unexpected. For some time Gina has appeared to be out of step with Numsa's general secretary Irwin Jim and his deputy, Karl Cloete, the two public faces of metalworkers' union's push towards what looks like an inevitable split with the alliance. While technically this decision will only be made during the union's special congress next month, Jim and Cloete, more than anyone, have pushed the union down this path. In particular, Jim has appeared to go out of his way in his insults to Cosatu, and sometimes the ANC. He's also been the main praise-singer and defender of Cosatu's suspended general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
In short, Numsa's conflict with Cosatu has been Jim's move. In his version, the alliance is broken, and Jim isn't going to fix it, he's going to leave it; preferably before the National Development Plan is implemented.
But Gina sees things differently. His Monday was turbulent indeed: Earlier in the day, he was quoted in The Sowetan, claiming that the real reason Jim wanted to leave the alliance was because President Jacob Zuma had refused to take up his suggestion that Vavi be elected Zuma's deputy within the ANC at Mangaung. If it's true that Jim did actually go to Nkandla and make this demand of Zuma, he is certainly a brave man: that's ballsier than taking a picture of Nkandla's "security features". But he would always have been on a hiding to nothing. Zuma has no love for Vavi, his most vocal critic inside the alliance since 2007.
Then, in an interview with Eyewitness News on Monday afternoon, Gina went on to say that "I don't believe we should leave Cosatu" and that it would be better for Numsa to stay in the alliance. In his view, "it would be more effective" to stay in the tent, rather than to leave it.
Clearly, by Monday night, he'd had enough, and it was time to go.
All of it in one day.
In essence, when the three-movie saga of Cosatu's split goes straight to video, this first act will be called Cosatu Split's First Victim: The Cedric Gina Story. After all the speculation around Vavi after his suspension, it turns out that Gina is actually going to be the first union official to lose his position permanently.
But in the tangled web of union politics, his resignation might not be the end of him. Firstly, the timing of the move, just a couple of weeks ahead of that special congress, could be quite deliberate. It gives him time to mobilise and lobby, and perhaps, just perhaps, that conference could see Numsa members refusing to accept his resignation. It's a big ask, but if he achieves it, it would be very similar to the moment at the ANC's 2005 National General Council, when ANC members refused to allow Zuma to resign as the party's deputy president. With the benefit of hindsight, that was the moment Thabo Mbeki ceased to be in charge of the ANC. Were that to happen here, it would probably spell the end for Jim.
Then there's the possibility of another, similar union career, but at Cosatu House. If you were Cosatu, and planning for the long term now, you'd probably want to start preparing to create another metalworkers' union. And who could possibly be better placed to help you do that than someone who has led one before?
However, the real story in all of this, perhaps inevitably, is that it shatters the myth that Numsa is united behind Jim in its quest to leave the Alliance, and Cosatu. This shows that there is more than just tension over the union's future direction, there is outright anger and frustration.
But the big question is: what is the balance of power within Numsa itself? Who has more support, Gina or Jim? And this is just a proxy for the real fight, which is over whether or not Numsa should actually leave the alliance. And the fact Numsa didn't seem to mobilise overly much against Zuma in the run-up to Mangaung may point to the fact that Gina does have significant influence.
Even if the balance of forces is in Jim's favour, it still means he will have to use time, energy and political capital to fight against Gina's supporters inside his own union, just as he needs every resource he's got, to take on the alliance itself. It's bad news for him, either way.
It's also bad news for Vavi. The way the politics is poised at the moment, he and Jim seem almost joined at the hip; what's bad for one is bad for the other.
The other big sign-post this gives us is that it appears to be complete confirmation that if Numsa does leave the alliance, it will itself split. In other words, it won't be all of Numsa peeling off from the alliance and Cosatu, but rather a part of it. Presumably the part that decides to stay will be led by Gina. This again goes to confirm the theory that a split in Cosatu will actually lead to a split in most of its unions. It won't be Cosatu splitting along union lines, it will be unions themselves splitting individually, along with Cosatu.
In some ways, it's to be expected that the union that seems to be about to be the first to leave the alliance would also be the first one to split itself. This is a tough decision to make and execute, and the stakes are extraordinarily high. People have long-running ties to alliance leaders, and will have different agendas to some of those who want to leave. Add to that the stress that comes with being the first to go, and there was always going to be fraternal blood on the floor.
Gina has been part of Numsa since 1993. He knows it well. Which means he probably knows exactly what he's doing. It does not take much of an imagination to understand that before this movie is over, far more blood could flow.
Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News . Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes
This column appeared in Daily Maverick.