South Africa’s biggest union has been expelled from the main trade union federation in the biggest split in the so-called tripartite alliance since the ANC swept to victory at the first democratic election in 1994.
The metalworkers union (Numsa) was expelled from the federation (Cosatu) in the early hours of Saturday following months of toxic infighting that has plagued the African National Congress-led governing alliance.
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Bitter factionalism has blighted the alliance, which also includes the communist party, for the more than two years, fuelled by battles between supporters of President Jacob Zuma and critics who accuse him of corruption and poor leadership.
Numsa, which has more than 320,000 members, has complained that the alliance has betrayed it leftist roots and failed to represent the interest of the workers, describing the battle in Cosatu as one between the forces of capitalism and forces of socialism.
In turn, it has been accused of contravening Cosatu’s rules, in particular recruiting across different industries, while also calling for the federation to leave the ANC-led alliance. Ahead of May elections, Numsa refused to endorse the ruling party, which it has been highly critical of, and called on Mr Zuma to step down over a scandal involving R246m of taxpayers money spent on his private Nkandla homestead.
Numsa leaders have raised the spectre of the union forming its own political party and are planning to launch a workers’ movement, the United Front, which they say is needed to act as a “weapon for uniting the working class.” They have hinted that they could contest local government elections in 2016 when the ANC’s hold on key municipalities, including Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, is expected to be severely tested.
In the general election in May, the ANC’s share of the vote in Johannesburg dropped to 54 per cent, while it fell to 49 per cent in Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality, which includes Port Elizabeth. The latter is a traditional ANC heartland and hosts several vehicle manufacturers, where Numsa boasts a large number of members.
The union also has the benefit of a ready made organisational structure and a secure source of income from its members’ fees.
The labour sector has become more fragmented in recent years, most notably in mining, where the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) has grown rapidly to become the dominant union in the important platinum sector. Amcu is locked in a bitter rivalry with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the traditionally dominant union in the industry and a key Cosatu member, and is steadily increasing its representation at gold mines.
It lead an unprecedented five month strike at the world’s three top platinum producers – Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin – this year as workers have become increasingly frustrated with their salaries and poor living conditions.
“The clearest economic implications (of the Numsa expulsion) are that union rivalries will continue to drive labour instability, especially in metalwork, mining and construction,” Mark Rosenberg, a director at Eurasia Group said in a note.