KARL CLOETE: The gymnastics in NUMSA with no safe and secure landing

OPEN LETTER

What should have been an occasion to report on organisational, socio-economic, international and political work undertaken since the 10th National Congress held in 2016, the NUMSA 11th National Congress became a farcical spectacle that would go down in the history of the labour movement in South Africa as the most destructive, harmful, detrimental and damaging union activity.

NUMSA is the biggest union in South Africa and on the African Continent with a 35-year-old history which has been a shining example of democratic worker control, open, robust and frank debates with tolerance, mandating and accountability at the centre of every organisational aspect and expression.

Never was there any uncertainty of the supremacy of the NUMSA Constitution which in its preamble has the following revolutionary and progressive wisdom:

We, the members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, firmly commit ourselves to a united South Africa, free of oppression and economic exploitation. We believe that this can only be achieved under the leadership of an organised and united working class. Our experience has taught us that to achieve this goal we must:
(a) fight and oppose discrimination in all its forms within the Union, the factories and in society;
(b) strive for maximum unity amongst organised metalworkers and organise every unorganised metalworker into our national industrial Union;
(c) ensure that all levels of our Union are democratically structured and controlled by the worker members themselves through elected worker committees;
(d) encourage democratic worker leadership and organisation in our factories and in all spheres of society;
(e) reinforce and encourage progressive international worker-to-worker contact so as to strengthen the worldwide society of metalworkers.

We call on all metalworkers that identify with these principles and aims to join us and the metalworkers we represent, as comrades in the struggle ahead. We call on all metalworkers to set aside any prejudices they may have and strive for unity under the guiding slogan of the international working class:

"FROM EACH ACCORDING TO THEIR ABILITY, TO EACH ACCORDING TO THEIR NEEDS"

This NUMSA Constitution was adopted in May 1987 and remain a beacon of hope for workers and the working class alike. It is open to interpretation and debate whether there is a solemn Commitment by the NUMSA leadership, in theory and in practice, to “ensure that all levels of our Union are democratically structured and controlled by the worker members themselves through elected worker committees.”

This noble strategic objective may have been severely injured (near fatal) if the unprecedented suspension of at least 53 Shop stewards, Office Bearers and Officials in the recent past is anything go by.

CAPITALIST CRISIS AND THE CRISIS IN THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT

Since the 2007 financial crisis, we continue to see capitalism’s over-accumulation crisis and we see tendencies towards financialisation and the marginalization of investment in the real economy. Key amongst these challenges we find:

-The dominant role of financial and high-tech conglomerates,
-The spiralling debt of countries and corporations, even in non-financial companies,
-Extreme levels of inequality, poverty, unemployment and corruption,
-The stubborn hold of neoliberal policies matching the needs of finance capital in particular
-A modified role of the state as crisis manager.

The political crisis in South Africa is part of a much bigger systemic crisis of the post-Apartheid capitalist system:

(a) The post-Apartheid government’s attempt to reproduce the mineral energy complex accumulation growth model continues unabated,
(b) Engineering greater black ownership of the economy has been a dismal failure. It has been the source of intra-class conflict between an emerging black capitalist class hungry to secure ownership of the heights of the economy and the traditional white bourgeoisie desperate to restore profitability in the face of global competition,
(c) With the predatory elite dependent on the state for accumulation, the state has been further made dysfunctional as its institutions have increasingly been rendered to serve the interests of the predatory elite.

Situationally, this is what unions either cannot comprehend or the focus of Unions are elsewhere. It would also seem that members of Unions have become spectators in this brutal assault by Capital and the State which essentially resulted in Capitalism shifting the worldwide crisis they produce and reproduces onto workers and the working class. There is hope if the radical program arising out of the SAFTU 2nd National Congress can be executed with military precision.

HOW DID NUMSA ARRIVE AT THIS POINT?

Former NUMSA General Secretary, Silumko Nondwangu made a very important and telling statement in an SABC interview on 27th July 2022 when he ascribed the divisions in NUMSA to a sharp departure from NUMSA’s history of tolerance of different perspectives, open, robust, frank and democratic debate.

Of course in its 35-year existence NUMSA has seen attempts to clamp down on dissent with instances of the dismissal of critical thinkers and sidelining of certain NUMSA Regions which did not see eye to eye with the national leadership but never have we seen the big purging of at least 53 NUMSA activists.

All of a sudden it became the official line of the national leadership and the dominant faction in NUMSA to call their fellow Comrades snakes, the enemy within, counter-revolutionary, forces who want to hijack NUMSA or working with certain NGOs to split the Union and to establish a splinter. These verbal assertions and vitriol eventually found expression in the violation of NUMSA’s Constitution in the following manner:

-Overreach and interference by the national office bearers and regional office bearers in the constitutional right of local shop stewards councils to elect amongst themselves local office bearers who were paid up members in good standing.
-Intrusion of the national office bearers into how regional office bearers sought to constitutionally run their elective regional congresses to the point of collapsing the Ekurhuleni and Mpumalanga congresses because there was an assumption that the outcomes would not support the return of the outgoing leadership
-Making selections for the Local delegates permitted to attend the national congress instead of the allowing locals to constitutionally elect their delegates for the national congress from amongst the paid up members in good standing
-Suspending all leaders who were identified by their comrades as people who should stand for the positions of national office bearers in the national congress. Excluding these leaders from the National Congress was no-doubt a manoeuvre to ensure that the dominant faction in NUMSA go through unopposed in the elections. The NUMSA 2nd Deputy President, who many saw as a viable candidate for the position of NUMSA President, became one of the last victims of the unconstitutional suspensions on the eve of the national congress
-Barring the NUMSA Mpumalanga Region from attending the national congress by placing them under administration. As we now know, all of these factors resulted in Judge Moshoana of the Labour Court ruling on 23rd July;
-That the actions of placing the Mpumalanga under administration and usurping accreditation function by a Special Central Committee are unconstitutional. In the circumstances, said the Judge, the upcoming congress cannot continue until there is full compliance with the constitution of Numsa.
-Declaring that the suspensions of Ruth Ntlokotse, the 2nd Deputy President and the other Numsa members are unconstitutional, invalid and unenforceable in law.
-That Numsa is interdicted and restrained from proceeding with the 11th National Congress scheduled to take place on 25-29 July 2022, until it fully complies with the terms of its own constitution.

The appeal of NUMSA against this judgement was dismissed.

BUSINESS UNIONISM

The biggest sin of those suspended was their demand for accountability in respect of the NUMSA Investment Company who had failed to pay back a NUMSA loan which is said to be sitting at R136 million whilst 4 current and former executives were paid R95 million in preference shares in March 2022. The question of how union members benefit or are disadvantaged by the investment company requires a more detailed enunciation which space in this opinion piece does not allow.

Hopefully, leaders who have been in NUMSA since May 1987 can make a contribution to avoid the collapse of the biggest union on the African Continent and a pace setter that showed signs of a left socialist renewal in December 2013.

Karl Cloete is the former NUMSA Deputy General Secretary and writes in his personal capacity.