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African National Congress Struggle To Contain Union Conflict

African National Congress Struggle To Contain Union Conflict
COSATU’s General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi raises his fist as he arrives to address striking members South Africa’s National Union of Metalworkers

AFRICANGLOBE- South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is struggling to contain the fallout of a conflict between labor unions that have underpinned its political dominance since apartheid ended.

Divisions within the 2.2-million-member Congress of South African Trade Unions came to a head on Nov. 8, when the federation expelled the 350,000-member National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa for its decision last year not to back the ANC in elections. Seven of the federation’s 20 other affiliated unions yesterday suspended their involvement in Cosatu and called for Numsa’s reinstatement.

“This is one of the most important political events of the post-1994 period,” Daryl Glaser, head of the political science department at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said by phone yesterday. “It’s the culmination of a long period of tension and debate about the extent to which the unions should remain independent. The ANC will be quite worried.”

Numsa is considering forming a new political party that would challenge the ANC in municipal elections in 2016. The union accuses the ANC of pandering to the interests of companies and not doing enough to reduce poverty and a 25 percent unemployment rate.

ANC Support

Cosatu was formed in 1985 and helped mobilize protests against White-minority rule. Its financial and organizational support for the ANC helped the party win more than 60 percent support in every election since 1994. ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader, failed in a bid to heal the rift within Cosatu.

If Numsa wants to appeal the expulsion, it must provide written notice of its intention within 30 days, a Cosatu deputy president, Zingiswa Losi, told reporters today in Johannesburg. An appeal would be heard at Cosatu’s next congress in September, she said.

The ANC will ask Cosatu to reverse its decision to expel Numsa, party Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe told reporters yesterday, saying “having a weaker ally is not good for the ANC.”

Numsa’s expulsion is “disappointing and tragic,” he said. It’s “bad for Cosatu, bad for the ANC, the alliance, as well as for society in general.”

Numsa’s backers include seven unions representing about 600,000 members, according to Katishi Masemola, general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers Union. They plan to boycott Cosatu’s central executive committee meetings for the next three weeks. They reiterated a call for Cosatu to convene a special national congress to plan a way forward for the federation.

Union Infighting

“With the local elections coming up and Numsa saying they want to form a political party that may contest elections, this is the beginning of the change in the political landscape of the country,” Allister Sparks, an author of five books on South African politics, said by phone from Johannesburg.

Union infighting could cost the ANC control of some towns in the 2016 elections, said Pierre du Toit, a politics professor at the University of Stellenbosch, near Cape Town.

“The electoral conveyor belt which brought in a lot of votes from the African working class is being split,” Du Toit said in a phone interview.

Cosatu’s unraveling may also heighten labor tensions in Africa’s second-biggest economy, which is already reeling from the impact of protracted strikes by platinum miners and engineering workers as well as power shortages. The National Treasury forecasts growth of 1.4 percent this year, the slowest pace since a 2009 recession.

Strike Costs

The world’s largest platinum producers including Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum Holdings and Lonmin Plc lost about 24 billion rand ($2.1 billion) in revenue from a strike that ended in June. It was the second prolonged stoppage at the mines since the Marikana massacre that saw 34 workers killed by police on a single day in August 2012.

Cosatu also faces increased competition from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which led the Marikana strike.

South African unions are losing membership and influence because young people entering the job market are less willing to negotiate collectively and the African middle class is growing rapidly, said Loane Sharp, a labor economist at Free Market Foundation.

Tensions Flare

“In the short run, this means more militant unions, but in the long run the disintegration of the union movement means more cooperation with employers,” he claimed by phone from Johannesburg.

Tensions within Cosatu flared when the federation’s leaders tried to oust General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in August 2013, suspending him for allegedly having an extra-marital affair with an employee.

The High Court in Johannesburg overturned his suspension on April 4.

“What we are observing is a seismic event in the labor movement and has very little to do with Cosatu, Numsa or Vavi,” Sharp said. “Those are simply the actors, playing out a drama over which they have no control.”


By: Amogelang Mbatha And Mike Cohen

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