Ranjeni Munusamy: Inside the Numsa fallout
An intriguing story involving a meeting with President Jacob Zuma at his Nkandla residence is at the centre of the ructions in the metalworkers' union Numsa, following its president Cedric Gina's resignation this week. It is one of a number of tales being circulated to explain the clash of personalities and reasons for the fallout in the Alliance. On Tuesday, the Numsa leadership hit back at its former president, accusing him of orchestrating a commotion in the union ahead of its crucial special congress next month. Gina's behaviour leading up to his resignation does seem to be quite odd, and he also seems to have played his cards out.
It was rather strange when the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) suddenly tempered its criticism of the ANC and government ahead of the ruling party's 53rd national conference in Mangaung last December. All the while it had looked as if Numsa would side with the "Forces of Change" opposing President Jacob Zuma's re-election as ANC leader, consistent with its radical policy positions. But Numsa announced that it would back the Zuma ticket and then was extremely subdued at the Mangaung conference.
That decision had apparently a lot to do with Numsa's former president Cedric Gina keeping the union onside. Gina had a hotline to Zuma himself and was also in constant conversation with the president's lieutenants at the time.
Since becoming state president in 2009, Zuma's relationship with trade union leaders had become distant and even meetings with one of his biggest campaigners, Zwelinzima Vavi, were few and far between. But Numsa, mostly through its general secretary Irvin Jim, has been the most outspoken against the government and their campaign for nationalisation and radical economic policy change was dovetailing with those opposing Zuma's second term - most notably the former ANC Youth League leadership.
It is not known how exactly the Easter 2012 meeting between a group of senior Numsa leaders and Zuma came about, but one of the reasons it took place was apparently to placate the unionists. They primarily discussed policy matters and issues of concern to the Numsa leadership, relevant to their sector.
There are two versions of a discussion at the meeting relating to the position of ANC deputy president. The version touted by Gina in the Sowetan this week is that the Jim tried to lobby for Vavi to be elected as Zuma's deputy in the ANC. Jim's allies, however, claim that it was in fact Zuma who suggested that Vavi would be a good candidate for the position of deputy president.
Gina publicised the details of the meeting this week to show why Jim was bitter and angry with Zuma and the ANC leadership for snubbing his proposal for Vavi to be the number two in the ruling party. But the move took the other Numsa leaders by surprise. Jim says when he saw the article on Monday morning, he tried desperately to get hold of Gina. He said he tried to call him but did not get a response. Jim then sent Gina a text message saying he wanted to hear his side of how the Sowetan story came about. Gina replied saying he was in a meeting.
He did not call Jim back and later that afternoon, Gina emailed his letter of resignation to the 52 Numsa local offices. Again the move caught the other Numsa leaders off guard.
"This in itself is a strange way for the former Numsa president to communicate his resignation because organisational protocol dictates that such resignation be communicated to the Numsa general secretary or Numsa deputy general secretary for the attention of the national office bearers. We suspect that this bizarre way of communicating his resignation may have to with seeking sympathy or mobilising rank and file support to bring divisions through his unexpected resignation as Numsa president," they said in a statement at a media briefing on Tuesday.
Jim refused to give details of the Nkandla meeting, saying he had to "protect" the discussions. He would only say that it was not an "opportunistic meeting" as claimed by Gina. Gina was "childish", "clumsy" and "unprofessional" by disclosing the details of this private meeting, and he did so "to launch an offensive on my persona", Jim said.
In his resignation letter, Gina sketches his relationship with Jim, which broke down last year, ahead of the ANC's Mangaung conference. He suggests in the letter that Jim wants to chart a course for Numsa away from the ANC alliance.
"I still believe that Numsa resolutions can still be pursued within the congress movement traditions and despite what the comrade (Jim) says, I don't think he is of that belief anymore and that is where my working relationship with him ends before it turns violent," Gina said in his letter.
But Jim said the Numsa leadership was convinced there was a political agenda behind Gina's actions. "We are not fools. We can see that this is a mobilisation ploy and the president wants to play a victim so that in the special congress workers must come there mobilised against … this autocratic Irvin Jim who's violent."
Jim also explained the background to this week's events. He said at a recent Numsa national executive committee meeting, Gina attacked all the decisions taken previously by the union in his opening address. Gina admitted that his opinions were not sanctioned by the other office bearers. Jim says this greatly angered the Numsa members at the meeting, and some regions called for Gina to be suspended.
Jim and Gina met to discuss this ahead of a Numsa central committee (CC) meeting on 16-17 November. Jim says they emerged united and Gina then apologised to the CC for the statements he had made previously. The Numsa leaders were therefore stunned when just a few days after the apology, Gina put out the story of the Nkandla meeting and then resigned.
"I must admit, knowing Cedric, it's very difficult to believe that this is [him] who speaks," Jim said. "He sounds like somebody who's accounting somewhere else… The level of desperation of whoever [he is meeting] … is at the centre of this political process."
"He is told what to say to you and told what to lie," Jim told the media. He would not name who he thought was behind Gina but strongly suggested that it was people in the SACP and ANC leadership. He said he also believed Gina had political aspirations and Numsa's current political posture would stand in the way of these.
Gina mentioned in several media interviews following his resignation that he did not want Numsa to leave Cosatu and that was where the union was heading. The Numsa special congress in mid-December will discuss this issue, along with the union's support for the ANC in the 2014 election.
But Jim said on Tuesday that leaving Cosatu would be a last resort for the Numsa. "It's one of the options that is being debated… I guess if you can get married, you can get divorced."
Had Gina not resigned this week, he would have opened the Numsa special congress and set the tone for the meeting. But as it stands, although he remains a member of Numsa as a shop steward, Gina cannot attend the congress. Numsa deputy general secretary Karl Cloete said last weekend's CC had already approved the credential report of 1,060 delegates who will be attending. Gina was to attend the congress in his capacity as a national office bearer and cannot do so after resignation.
So although Gina might have rattled his former comrades in the Numsa leadership through his resignation, he has no more bargaining or lobbying power within the union. He cannot participate or influence the critical discussions that will take place at the special congress. His only hope is that he has sufficient support among the accredited delegates who will advance the positions he would have taken.
If this was an orchestrated move on the part of Gina and the alleged shadowy figures behind him, it was not well thought out. He would have been more use to those trying to stop Numsa from taking radical decisions had he still been at the main table. But if it is true that all nine regions of Numsa were already fed up with him going against the grain, perhaps he jumped to save himself the humiliation of being booted out.
With Gina out of the picture, Jim is the lead act at the Numsa special congress. And all indications are that it will be quite a show.
This column appeared in Daily Maverick.