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Numsa: Going, going, almost gone

The simmering war within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) could see its greatest battle this week. If the federation's central executive committee (CEC) meets on Friday, it will expel its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa). But the rebel with a cause won't back down.

Numsa's fate in Cosatu has been uncertain for months, with constant delays on taking action against the country's biggest union for violating the federation's constitution. But Numsa's application for an urgent interdict in the Johannesburg High Court is clear: if the CEC meeting goes ahead on Friday, it will be expelled from Cosatu.

The federation's constitution says no affiliate can be suspended or expelled unless it has been notified in writing and the CEC "has granted the affiliate the permission to present its case to the CEC". According to the CEC, there are grounds to discipline Numsa for acting against the interests of the federation.

On 10 February, the CEC formed a preliminary view that Numsa had acted against the federation and should be suspended or expelled. In a letter informing the union of its decision, Cosatu Deputy General Secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali (Zwelinzima Vavi was still on suspension) said Numsa contradicted Cosatu's decisions by breaking with the ANC, deciding to picket at Cosatu House, withdrawing fees from Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP), and recruiting members in industries covered by other affiliates.

Suspension or expulsion has never been far away. Cosatu has been divided over its support of different ANC factions, a split between Vavi and President S'dumo Dlamini, and differences in ideology. These divisions and Numsa's decisions at a special national congress in December last year, combined with its role as Vavi's close ally, meant disciplinary action was always on the cards.

In its application to the high court, Numsa accuses Cosatu of trying it in a kangaroo court and ignoring the demands of its own constitution as punishment for Numsa's activism. Numsa notes its leading role in overturning Vavi's suspension for sleeping with an employee at the office and alleged financial misconduct. "In consequence of this judgment, Cosatu now has a political score to settle with Numsa," says General Secretary Irvin Jim's affidavit.

Numsa says Cosatu never responded to its reply to the intention to suspend the union. Nor will Cosatu engage the union's correspondence on the issue and the federation makes decisions without the union's involvement. It accuses Dlamini of stopping at nothing to deny Numsa its rights and says the decision to expel Numsa has been predetermined, citing evidence in comments from various Cosatu leaders.

"To date, Cosatu has failed to furnish Numsa's submissions to the CEC. This is an impossible and deeply unfair situation: the CEC would have to make a decision over Numsa without considering Numsa's position," says Jim.

In a cliffhanger CEC meeting last month, Numsa narrowly avoided expulsion when Cosatu decided to give the union time to consult its members about the report from the ANC task team, which said Numsa must reverse its decision to expand recruitment. "[Numsa] had been lured into a meeting under the guise of receiving an ANC task team report, when in truth the meeting amounted to a fabricated disciplinary hearing. This amounted to a trial by ambush and violation of the constitutional rights of [Numsa]," said Jim. Vavi and Cosatu's KwaZulu-Natal structures raised concerns that processes weren't being followed while the National Union of Mineworkers pushed for a vote to expel, but later withdrew to allow Numsa to talk to members, added Jim.

"I firmly believe Cosatu intends to expel Numsa as an affiliate of it on 7 November 2014 - at all costs and without due process," he contends. The union believes its expulsion is motivated by Cosatu leaders scared to go to a special national congress, requested by the requisite number of affiliates but not organised by leadership, because they may lose their positions.

Dlamini told Mail & Guardian Cosatu would oppose the application "because they have no grounds." Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven said the matter was with the federation's lawyers.

Addressing police union Popcru in Polokwane on Monday, Dlamini criticised Numsa's position and hinted it wanted to support the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). "We are dealing with an agenda that wants to replace Cosatu with something else of a man [of] a smaller organisation, which got over a million votes. Go out there and defend Cosatu," said Dlamini. "They say we fear the special national congress, saying the delegates will come and sweep us all out. We can go to the conference tomorrow and they will see the danger." Dlamini, however, has not organised the congress, which is his responsibility.

Bereng Soke, general secretary of Nehawu, one of Numsa's rivals, said on Monday that elements of Cosatu need "surgical removal". "We believe that it is simply unrealistic and untenable for Cosatu to be expected to continue to endure and tolerate a situation where the leadership of Numsa is endlessly allowed to publicly renounce and mobilise against the democratically adopted organisational, ideological and political policies," said Soke. Cosatu must "defend itself in the face of a deviant clique of Numsa leaders and officials who are hell-bent on establishing a rival centre to Cosatu itself, on the back of its affiliates," he added.

Against Numsa, affiliates have complained that the union has changed its constitution to encroach on industries covered by other member unions and its decision to launch a United Front of leftist movements and withdraw support from the ANC, in fact criticise the party harshly, violates Cosatu decisions. Numsa's also a target for supporting Vavi, who critics say elevates himself to cult status and has been critical of President Jacob Zuma.

Both Numsa and Vavi's fates could be decided this week. The application to have Cosatu's Friday meeting called off will be decided on specific points of the federation's constitution. Numsa is trying to buy time until Cosatu is forced to have a special national congress or until it goes to conference in 2015, where the union will try to win over supporters of other unions and change the federation's leadership.

However, if Cosatu is able to follow the correct procedures, a vote will eventually be called, and the numbers are not in Numsa's favour, casting the country's largest union out into the cold.

This column first appeared on _ Daily Maverick._

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