This past week the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) voted to expel the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) from the organization, the decision has sent ripples through South Africa’s political and economic landscape prompting many South Africans to ask how this happened and what exactly does it mean for the country’s political future? We decode these and other questions below:

frequently asked questions

How big are the unions in South Africa?

Along with Cosatu, the ANC and SACP make up the Tripartite Alliance which many believe has allowed the ruling party to maintain a strong hold on power. Following Numsa's withdrawal of support of the ANC and the SACP ahead of the national elections the rifts within the alliance became apparent. This split of South Africa's largest trade federation will have implications for the trade union movement and the role they play in SA politics. However to best understand just how much power the unions yield you need to understand how big they are.

There are 176 registered trade unions operating in South Africa. Together they represent 25% of the SA workforce with over 3 million members.

Cosatu is the largest of the federations with 1,8 million members from 21 affiliates.

Numsa was the largest affiliate in the federation with 338 000 members.

What do unions do?

Unions principally represent members in negotiations with employers to ensure their workers are treated and paid fairly. The main areas are: working conditions, salaries, benefits and deductions. Cosatu was founded not only to look after workers' rights, but also as a means to challenge the Apartheid Government. Unions are still invested in addressing historical imbalances and so still play a political role. The split was in part because Numsa no longer believes the alliance with the ANC and the SACP are working politically for the benefit of workers.

Are they still relevant?

Changes in the South African labour market have created a shift from traditional mining and manufacturing sectors making up most of the work force to include more and more retail and service related industries. This does not change the potential for unions to operate but it does change who and why someone might join a union.

The mining unions have seen a shake up with the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) losing members to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). AMCU's more outspoken demands for higher wages during the strikes on the platinum belt last year would have played a role in that.

The complexities of not only the political situation but also the state of the economy will place pressure on unions. Depending on political affiliations, style of engagement with employers and the steady shift to information based occupations which make collective bargaining more difficult, it become more difficult for unions to attract enough members to retain their negotiating power.

Why did the split happen?

According to Cosatu, Numsa’s expulsion came as a result of several violations of the federation constitution, such as not supporting its alliance partner the African National Congress in the May general election. Meanwhile Numsa has in turn accused Cosatu of refusing to hold the special national congress requested by nine of its affiliates that would allow new leadership to be elected. However according to Free Market Foundation Economist Loane Sharpe, the real cause behind the split goes deeper than internal spats and points to more structural issues both for COSATU and the worker’s movement as a whole. Loane counts the dramatic losses of union membership, as one the biggest driving forces. More unions are becoming like businesses, while the age and wage profile of the workforce has resulted in a shift in priorities for leadership and members. Spurred by the growing black middle class the role and impact of the unions has changed. “The ANC – because of its links with Cosatu – is overwhelmingly in favour of the working class, yet the action of the 21st century is going to be the emergence of the black middle class. That is going to change politics, economics, society and everything,” says Sloane. For more on this issue and to hear the rest of Sharpe’s commentary click here.

By Colin Cullis and Kabous le Roux

Why did this happen/ How did this happen?


The Stakeholders

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  • Loane Sharpe

There is an apparent cause [for NUMSA’s expulsion from COSATU] and there is a real cause.

Last year alone, unions lost 10% of their membership which, in one year, is absolutely staggering. As a result of the loss of membership, trade unions – not only Cosatu – are transforming themselves in a way that they are becoming more and more like businesses.

The action of the 21st century is going to be the emergence of the black middle class. That is going to change politics, economics, society and everything. We can forget about Vavi, we can forget about Numsa – those are just symptoms of a much bigger pattern of events occurring in the background.

Loane Sharpe, Economist at the Free Market Foundation
  • Michael Spicer

We need a new alignment politically, and we need new ideas economically.

A clarification of the role of unions – whether they are there to defend their members’ economic interests or whether they are there to play a primary political interest hasn’t been cleared up ‘til now, and I think this will be part of the catalyst that will do that.

Labour is going to struggle whilst this plays out – and it’s not an event, it’s a process. To realise potential at the workplace – but primarily with political issues.

This kind of thing while necessary at one level, can detract from the focus of getting this economy going and growing and what we need to do to do that.

Michael Spicer, Former CEO of Business Leadership South Africa


  • Zwelinzima Vavi

I plead with you to understand that I will not be able to defend a decision that I honestly believe is contradicting and undermining organised workers and broader working class unity, a decision that will have momentous implications for years to come.

I believe that there will be no winners if we allow the Federation to fracture permanently.

Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of Cosatu

Vavi Letter ×
  • S’dumo Dlamini

They [the Cosatu Central Executive Committee] would have reached that decision [to expel Numsa] with a very very heavy hearts and with much reluctance after months of dealing with the issues.

It is not a decision celebrated by workers – not even by that Central Executive Committee. They would have tried all that needed to be done to avoid the situation.

Cosatu is not dead. Cosatu is rising up from this situation and will emerge stronger.

S’dumo Dlamini, President of Cosatu

  • Mbhazima Shilowa

This is not the expulsion of Numsa, this is saying to close on 300 000 workers that you don’t have a home anymore in the Federation.

You are going to have splinters across the entire Federation.

Mbhazima Shilowa, Former Secretary General of Cosatu

  • Karl Cloete

I join others who correctly define this as a tragedy, an unforgiveable sin…

Both the ANC and the South African Communist Party presents absolutely nothing at this point in so far as the interests of workers and the interests of the working class are concerned and therefore we are exploring the alternative.

Karl Cloete, Numsa Deputy Secretary General

  • Jay Naidoo

The focus is more looking up and how the people can get into Government or into positions of power rather than looking down and servicing the interest of members.

Even if we disagreed with decisions that affiliates made or that we have between ourselves, we focused on the shared interests rather than the divergent interests. So this is unforgiveable - to expel Numsa.

Jay Naidoo, Former Founding General Secretary of Cosatu



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