Cosatu & Numsa: The divorce deferred, again

On Thursday night Cosatu's Central Executive Committee put off the inevitable. Again. Instead of grasping the jugular, and holding a vote on whether to expel the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), it decided to simply adjourn. Which means there will be another meeting. At some point in the future. Which will no doubt again back off from the brink of kick-starting a very real political re-alignment. Why is breaking up so hard to do? And surely Cosatu is over, passed on, an ex-federation at this point anyway?

As Numsa general secretary Irwin Jim emerged from Cosatu House on Thursday night, uttering what is now the tired refrain of "Numsa remains an affiliate of Cosatu", you could be forgiven for thinking it was Groundhog Day. We've all been here before. Six months ago, back before the May elections, Cosatu was about to vote to expel his union, and Cyril Ramaphosa was able to persuade everyone to push the pause button. He and his task team investigated, spoke to everyone involved and produced a report. The result of which was that everyone was now back to where they had started, about to vote Numsa out.

It's important to know just how close they actually came to doing it on Thursday. The voting preparation process had actually started. And then, suddenly, an adjournment was called. Almost immediately the speculation started. Had there been a phone call from Luthuli House? And considering that Number Two had done his best, who could still have the power to intervene at this late stage? And why? Perhaps the call came from the Union Buildings itself. While it's a short walk from Sauer Street to Cosatu House, the bad weather was unlikely to tempt Gwede Mantashe himself to make the trip. Unless of course, he used the tunnel between the two buildings. (Now Stephen, that's not true, and you know it. That's just how rumours start - Ed).

No matter what happened here, it's clear all the people involved lack guts. They are indecisive. Everyone, and really, everyone, knows divorce is on the cards here. There is no way back. Just a cursory reading of the ANC task team report will show you how the divisions between the two top Cosatu leaders, its president Sidumo Dlamini and its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, are too deep to cross. How even minor procedural issues such as agendas have to be agreed to by a vote, because every single conversation ends in a deadlock. And how this can't be fixed through a mere leadership election because of the autonomous nature of the organisations involved.

Now, bear in mind this is not a report from some wishful journalist hoping for the drama of a newsworthy political break-up. This is from the ANC, which has a huge vested interest in keeping Cosatu together.

So, when this vote is put on hold, it indicates not only that the various personalities can't make up their minds, but it also shows they are politically impotent. The two are, of course, related, and indecision is never sexy. If the vote was put on hold because the anti-Numsa group doesn't believe they have the votes they need, they're weak. If it was because of a phone call from the ANC, they are weak. And if it's because they just don't really want to do it, well then, grow a pair.

That may seem harsh, considering that no one here wants to be the Cosatu official on whose watch Cosatu broke up. But this divorce is the result of historical forces, not personalities, so there is simply no point in standing in the way.

Numsa, and its members, wants something different from the rest of Cosatu, and its members. That cannot be resolved, it won't be resolved, and thus someone has to do the honourable thing and put us all out of our misery. As tough as that might be. And in politics, if you can't act because of emotion, well, please see the advice from two paragraphs above.

It is also time for all involved to consider the consequence of not acting.

As Vavi, and many others, including the ANC, have noted, Cosatu has not been able to implement any of the resolutions it agreed to at its conference in 2012. It has done nothing since then. Because this Numsa issue paralyses it. Quite understandably, if you have an 'enemy' in your meetings, there is really no point in holding the meetings. And this is what is happening all the time. As a result all the unions, and all of the members of those unions, are suffering. No progress is being made. While the administrative day-to-day stuff of these unions might still be performed, nothing else is. And Cosatu can't go ahead with its Central Committee until Numsa goes, because otherwise Numsa would have the biggest delegation there. Which means there can be no proper large-scale gathering of any kind until the expulsion.

So, then, what is the point of Cosatu right now?

Still thinking? Me too.

Which is an incredibly harsh thing to say about the federation, and particularly it's leader, but it surely is hard to argue against that proposition. And until Cosatu's leaders work up the guts to expel Numsa, this is how it is going to be.

And let's not forget, there is a strong case to expel Numsa. It has, quite obviously, broken Cosatu's rules. It is poaching members from other unions. It has decided to withdraw its support from the ANC. That's not really in question. Of course Numsa has a case as to why it's done that, but that's not the point; it's broken the rules, and thus there is a case for it to be thrown out.

There have been long, endless, conversations about the future of the tripartite alliance, whether it would ever end or break up. Consider this. The South African Communist Party (SACP) has been reduced to a Zuma lobby group (and I defy any member of the party who denies this to publicly oppose the privatisation of our highways. Name the time and the place, Jeremy Cronin, and I will be there with a microphone in hand). Cosatu can't actually do anything.

Which surely means the alliance is now dead, in all but name.

_Stephen Grootes is 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 first appeared on Daily Maverick.