OPINION: Where to next, NUM and Cosatu?

Our politics is so full of 'game-changing moments' and 'catalytic events' that sometimes we get a little numb. After all, we are a nation that appears to have 'made a payment' with the end result of securing a football World Cup (no one calls it the Fifa World Cup anymore), and yet the person most involved with that payment still gets to run a city. But over the weekend the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) served up an election result that threatens to completely change almost everything we thought we knew about our unions, Cosatu, and perhaps in the longer run, the very direction of the ANC itself.

Frans Baleni has long been a feature in our politics. He's been one of the prime movers and shakers behind the decision by Cosatu's central executive committee to expel metalworkers union, Numsa. He's also stood firmly behind decisions to remove Zwelinzima Vavi. As head of the most influential union (but not the biggest, that's Numsa nowadays) within Cosatu, as leader of the union that did more than any other to seed Cosatu in the first place, he almost epitomised 'union establishment'. In some ways, during interviews, he would come across almost more like a manager than a worker.

It may be an unfair criticism from a class point of view, but he is the kind of guy who absolutely understands that at the bottom of every mining issue is the need for the mine, and the owners of that mine, to make money. It helps that he is also affable, friendly, and to my knowledge, always honest. He fitted in totally with the production line of leaders the NUM has given us: Cyril Ramaphosa, Kgalema Motlanthe, Zwelinzima Vavi, Gwede Mantashe. And until this weekend, he seemed to be almost sure of a big role in a national political organisation in the future.

No longer. By just a handful of votes he lost the leadership battle to former NUM Free State leader David Sipunzi, who is now in the most powerful leadership position in the most powerful union that is still in Cosatu.

And the crucial difference between him and Baleni is that he believes the expulsion of Numsa was wrong.

Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini probably didn't sleep much on Friday night. Up until this point, the NUM has been the only union within Cosatu that had anything approaching the number of members that Numsa has. This meant in the boardroom battle of the central executive meeting (CEC), they were evenly matched. When Numsa was finally expelled, its allies were overpowered in voting terms by the other unions that opposed Numsa, but with the big giant of the NUM against them. With the ascent of Sipunzi the voting maths could have been changed. Suddenly the votes that were solidly against Numsa and Vavi could swing completely behind them.

This huge shift may explain one of the oddities of the last few months. Despite all the rhetoric from Numsa, and the impassioned "don't mourn, organise" tweeting from Vavi, they haven't really done very much. In fact, at Cosatu's last CEC meeting Dlamini crowed that some of the Numsa-supporting unions who had boycotted previous meetings had come back. The tide seemed to be turning, at least from Dlamini's vantage point.

Now it seems that perhaps those unions only went back, only participated, because they knew this shift could come from within NUM, and thus they had to make sure that they could not be expelled, because their numbers would be needed. This suggests that their intelligence on the ground within NUM is pretty impressive. It also suggests active lobbying from Numsa leaders, and presumably Vavi himself. Which in itself could demonstrate that his campaign to mobilise workers rather than leaders is working.

This could have huge implications for Cosatu's special congress, which is now due in July. While Numsa is going to court to argue that it should be allowed to participate, the participation of the NUM is guaranteed. Votes that would have been destined to support Dlamini's decisions could now go the other way. And if Numsa and co. manage to get Vavi's reinstatement on the agenda, anything could happen.

Imagine what would Cosatu be like with Vavi back in the main chair, but without the constraint of the Dlamini faction. He could be publicly critical of the ANC, of Zuma, of government, in a way he has never been before. The newly emboldened Cosatu could even mobilise behind a candidate for the ANC's leadership election in 2017. In policy it would also try to push the ANC further to the left, which could in itself lead to longer-term change.

All of that said, perhaps the biggest implications of this weekend's vote are to do with the NUM's own future.

It's clear firstly that this result is a repudiation of the policies followed by Baleni. It's not about popularity, it's about policy. And the policy that is being criticised is his opposition to Numsa and Vavi. However, this vote was close, Baleni lost by just nine votes, out of over 700 cast. This shows that the NUM is itself divided on what the biggest issue is facing the union movement right now.

These divisions could not have come at the worse time: Baleni's report to the congress showed how it's losing members, as the Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu) is gaining them. Financial pressures on the mining industry are growing, not many people are investing in platinum right now, and the gold price is under huge pressure.

Then we have the situation within the top leaders of the NUM. Sipunzi appears to be against the expulsion of Numsa and the removal of Vavi. But the person who was the acting president of the NUM while it supported all of these decisions, Piet Matosa, has been confirmed in this position. Which means it's possible that the NUM's top leadership are split on the biggest issue facing Cosatu.

Imagine, for example, what could have happened, had Zuma and Mantashe disagreed publicly on whether or not to expel Julius Malema from the ANC? That division alone could have led to a much bigger split within the ANC.

These divisions could well lead to the general, or even sudden decline of the NUM. It could mean that energy that should be spent fighting Amcu is instead going to be used fighting internally. And nothing is as exhausting as an internal fight. (Ask Mantashe after he finally expelled Malema.)

But, should the NUM decline, there are huge implications for our society as a whole. As a unified movement, it has managed to create Cosatu, oppose apartheid, help workers, formally negotiate with the Chamber of Mines, and generally, create stability. Without it, Cosatu could splinter, workers will receive less support and negotiations with mine bosses could be a lot more complicated, lot more violent.

In the run-up to the ANC's Polokwane conference, perhaps the biggest single indicator that Zuma was going to prevail was the decision by the Gauteng ANC, two weeks before, to back him. At the time, it was difficult which way to predict things would go, and the announcement of that decision meant it was suddenly possible for Zuma to win, and for Mbeki to lose. This weekend has a little of that flavour. Suddenly, it's possible for Vavi to win. And for many other things to change along the way.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis.

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for _ Eyewitness News _ and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes