When Cyril meets Irvin
Sometime in the near future, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim will have to sit across the table from each other. They will not be alone, of course. Ramaphosa will be accompanied by the rest of the African National Congress (ANC) task team, whose job it is to assist the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in navigating the troubled waters it has drifted into. Jim will be flanked by the rest of the Numsa leadership, credited with making the waves causing the turbulence in the trade union federation. This will not be an easy meeting. Numsa has withdrawn support for the ANC and is in the process of setting up a political movement in opposition to the ruling party. So, what's there to talk about, then?
The biggest news this week concerning Numsa is not its role in the battles besetting Cosatu. It is the fact that the union is on the verge of declaring a massive strike in the engineering and metal sector following collapsed talks with employer bodies. Numsa represents over 210,000 workers in the sector and the strike could spell disaster for the South African economy, at a time when analysts are warning that the country is already in a recession.
The demands Numsa has on the table shows that this is not a straight-up wage dispute. Cosatu's biggest affiliate is putting its money where its mouth is and has made a range of other demands to advance its ideological war against the status quo. In its cache Numsa has included policy issues, which the ANC has implemented despite Cosatu's fierce opposition. Apart from a 15% increase, Numsa is also demanding a total ban on labour brokers in the engineering and metal sector. It also wants employers to reject the youth employment tax incentive - formerly called the youth wage subsidy - which is now government policy.
Numsa is clearly flexing its muscle, knowing that such a massive strike in a key sector will cause further fright at a time when the economy is contracting for the first time since the 2009 recession. While there is now hope that government intervention might help settle the protracted strike in the platinum sector, the launch of another big strike is sure to further dent investor confidence.
Numsa is to announce on Thursday how its members have responded to the collapse in wage talks and whether it will undertake a full-blown strike. At this media briefing, the metalworkers' union is likely to be bombarded with questions about its response to the other burning issue, the standoff in Cosatu.
Following a Cosatu central executive committee meeting last week, it was announced that all the issues of contention in the federation are being put on the backburner for a month to allow the ANC to continue with mediation efforts. This includes the court action initiated by Numsa and seven other unions to compel Cosatu President Sidumo Dlamini to call a special national congress. Among the reasons the ANC requested more time was to meet with individual unions to consult on their perspectives and grievances.
The resolutions adopted at the Cosatu CEC left individual unions with little room to manoeuvre, and violations of the agreements will be policed by the ANC's deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte and Cosatu's deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali.
Numsa is in a strange dilemma after this meeting. It has stated previously that it does not see the ANC as an impartial arbiter in the Cosatu battles. In fact, it said after a central committee meeting in mid-May that the ANC's task team intervention was an election ploy, and "the ANC and the SACP have themselves always been part of the problem".
However, Numsa sat through last week's Cosatu CEC where the decision for a "cessation in hostilities" was taken and did not issue a disclaimer about this resolution being "unanimous'. The metalworkers' union, however, held a national executive committee meeting on Sunday to discuss the Cosatu resolutions. In contrast to their usual modus operandi, they did not come out immediately in defiance of the Cosatu positions. The Numsa leaders were apparently prevailed upon by Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi to abide by the ceasefire agreement for now.
But the situation is now untenable for Numsa. They have gone the distance in the fight with Cosatu, particularly on Vavi's behalf. It is difficult to roll things back, especially with pending legal action. Vavi either believes that there can be some negotiated settlement out of the ANC mediation or wants to make sure that all avenues were exhausted before all hell breaks loose.
Numsa has the added problem of what to do with its own special congress resolutions while it is in this holding pattern. The December congress mandated the Numsa leadership to forge ahead with the formation of a United Front and Movement for Socialism to advance working-class struggles. It is not possible to undo this resolution and support the ANC again. How then does Numsa go into a bilateral meeting with the ANC having declared that it does not support the party and wants to set up a new organisation to break the ANC's dominance?
This is the challenge for both Irvin Jim and Cyril Ramaphosa as they scan their diaries for a date on which Numsa and the ANC can meet. This is the meeting which will make or break the mediation process.
Numsa cannot simply bail out of the process, as they run the risk of losing the support of other unions they have been working with to force the Cosatu special national congress. None of these other unions have taken resolutions saying they no longer support the ANC, neither have they rejected the ANC intervention. If Numsa acts impulsively, this could jeopardise future co-operation and alliances with their sister unions.
The ANC must also tread carefully around this meeting. Although they must be incredibly irritated with Numsa for withholding electoral support and then criticising the ANC's performance after the elections, they cannot antagonise the union any further. In order to keep up appearances that the ANC task team is a neutral arbiter, they must give Numsa the opportunity to vent and try to incorporate their perspectives in whatever final package they present to Cosatu. That means they need to take a hammering from Jim about how the ANC continues to pursue neoliberal policies and upholds a capitalist colonial economy.
But what, then, is the endgame?
The ANC wants to keep Cosatu as a pliant alliance partner and wants by all means to stymie Numsa's plans to form a working-class movement that will capture the left of the political spectrum. Dlamini and his allies want Numsa and Vavi out of Cosatu so that they can continue to play nice with the ANC and SACP. Numsa wants Dlamini and his allies out of Cosatu, so that they can be the dominant force in the federation, carrying over support from sister unions into its new political formation. Numsa also wants to break the alliance with the ANC and SACP. Vavi wants to go back to 1985 and relive the romance of Cosatu when it was launched.
Ramaphosa and his crew must stitch together a settlement from all these diverse positions, in one month, and make it stick. But first he must sit across the table from Jim and exchange pleasantries.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.