In a highly significant event, delegates to the 15th National Congress of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) have voted to remove the incumbent general secretary, Frans Baleni and replace him with a clear left wing candidate, David Sipunzi. The result, which came as shock to many, is a heavy blow to the class collaborationist right wing of COSATU, the main trade union federation. This shakeup will have wide ramifications not only in the trade union movement, but also in the Tripartite Alliance.
The NUM national congress was held from the 3rd to the 6th of June in Boksburg and was attended by more than 700 delegates. This was the first congress since the 2012 platinum strikes which resulted in a sharp decline in membership of the union. David Sipunzi, the Free State regional secretary, was elected general secretary to replace Frans Baleni. North East regional secretary William Mabapa was elected deputy general secretary to replace Thsimane Montoedi. This represents a major shakeup for the 230 000 member union which has been hemorrhaging members since the platinum strikes of 2012. Here, the scandalous pro-boss policies of the union leaders wiped out much of the authority and prestige the union once had.
The vote was extremely close: Sipunzi received 354 votes - just 9 votes more than the 345 for Baleni. But this has to be seen in context. The incumbent Baleni had the support of the entire right wing bureaucracy of COSATU behind him as well as support from the SACP and from Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary general . On the other hand, support for Sipunzi came exclusively from the regions. Baleni also had the support of some long-serving shop stewards who have become used to petty perks and advantages which come with such positions. Together with this, was the fact that there was a clear attempt by the outgoing bureaucracy to doctor the congress in favour of smaller regions which were seen to be supporting Baleni. This was evident on the first day of the congress when a dispute over credentials delayed the start of the congress. The PWV and Northeast regions were complaining that smaller regions were allocated more delegates than some of the bigger regions. Despite all this, Sipunzi managed to win. His victory represents a victory of the rank and file over the leadership.
The emergence of a left wing in the NUM and the defeat of a leadership that has stood to the right of the trade union movement is a highly significant event. This is the first time in the three-year battle which have marred the COSATU unions where the rank-and-file of a union whose leadership was in the hands of the right wing had an opportunity to make their voices heard. The fact that left wing candidates has won is therefore very important.
Up until now the COSATU right wing has been desperate to keep all the battles inside the Central Executive Committee. This Committee reflects the old balance of forces and not the real situation on the ground. The outcome of the NUM congress is a serious blow to this group. In losing Baleni, they have now lost one of the main stooges of the right wing of the Alliance. He was loyal to the SACP leadership under Blade Nzimande and a close ally of Cosatu president Sdumo ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe. He was one of the ring leaders behind the expulsion of both NUMSA and Zwelinzima Vavi from COSATU.
Expelled COSATU general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi called the election results “an extremely significant development which Dlamini and may change the course of history.’’ Sipunzi and Mabapa’s election is likely to shift the balance of forces within the COSATU CEC. Both men are sympathetic to Zwelinzima Vavi and NUMSA.
Sipunzi told the Mail & Guardian that the new leadership would engage NUMSA and Vavi to find a lasting solution to the divisions within COSATU.
‘’We need to unite the labour movement. We will talk to Numsa and Vavi. There is a need for a bilateral between ourselves and Numsa leadership. You can’t talk unity within Cosatu without Numsa and Vavi. Vavi is a prominent leader in South Africa. You need to engage him,’’ said Sipunzi. (M&G 6/06/2015).
In the same article, these sentiments were echoed by Mpho Phakedi, regional secretary of PWV, the biggest NUM region: “Personally I am not happy with Vavi out. I understand the organisational processes. But what matters is to ask if that if expelling Vavi and Numsa is uniting Cosatu. I think the matter could have been handled differently. Dismissal was not the only option. You can realise what the dismissal of Numsa does to Cosatu—not only organisationally—but financially. Dismissing over 300 000 members is a blow to Cosatu. Numsa is powerful politically.’’
The outcome of the congress will have a direct influence in the raging struggles within COSATU. In May this year NUMSA and seven of COSATU’s unions won a declaratory court order which compels Dlamini to convene a special national congress of the federation. According to COSATU’s constitution, this congress should have been convened in 2014. But Dlamini and his clique has done everything in their power to prevent this from happening. The high court order now compels Dlamini to hold the congress from 13-14 July. The NUM congress is confirming why Dlamini and his cohorts are so afraid to hold a properly convened congress of the federation. If the issues are to be put directly to the ranks, it is highly likely that they will meet the same fate of Baleni and Montoedi and be booted out of COSATU, with both Vavi and NUMSA likely reinstated.
Since the order was granted, Dlamini has kept up his bureaucratic manoeuvring by insisting that the issue of NUMSA’s expulsion must be discussed at an ordinary congress of COSATU and not at a special congress! This is a blatant attempt to highjack the special congress and not to allow the metal workers’ union to take its appeal to the ranks of COSATU. This has now prompted a new court bid to compel Dlamini to put the issue of NUMSA’s expulsion on the agenda. The right wing faction is likely to pull out all the stops to prevent NUMSA and Vavi to return to COSATU, including derailing the special congress and risking a messy split in the federation.
The outcome of the NUM congress will also have wider implications regarding the class struggle. It comes ahead of tough salary negotiations in the gold sector. The union is still the majority union in the sector but it has lost significant ground. At one point it represented nearly 70 percent of workers. This has slipped to just under 60 percent. But the victory of David Sipunzi will bring a new dimension to the negotiations. In the nine years that Baleni has been general secretary, the mining bosses had access to a reliable class collaborator. But Sipunzi is completely unknown to them and since he was just elected with grassroots support, he will immediately come under pressure from the ranks to achieve results.
The NUM has a rich history of revolutionary struggle. It was born into the furnace of the revolutionary events of the 1980s. It was often at the coalface of all the struggles of the working class against the monstrous Apartheid regime and the ruthless mining bosses. At the time, this fact made the NUM a pole of attraction for millions of mine workers throughout Southern Africa, making it the biggest union in the country for decades. It was the first union to adopt the Freedom Charter and it was a founding member of COSATU. All of this, and the revolutionary struggles which it led, gave its leaders enormous authority in the trade union movement.
However, this began to recede after the 1994 elections. Because of the strength of the union and the authority its leaders enjoyed, the NUM has been the single biggest source of leaders for the ANC coming from the trade union movement. It has been producing the person of the secretary-general of the ANC every time since 1990. This could have been very positive. Had they taken the union’s policies into their positions as ANC leaders and stood for clear socialist policies, they could easily have won over the ANC to adopting and implementing socialist policies.
But the opposite happened. Under the heavy influence of the South African Communist Party to ‘’defend, advance and deepen’’ a ‘’National Democratic Revolution’’ when the objective conditions in fact demanded socialist measures, the union leaders took a wrong turn. And because they were not prepared to stand for clear socialist policies inside the ANC, they were inevitably forced to accept the politics of the ruling nationalist petit-bourgeois leadership.
This process would later receive a logic of its own, culminating in the notion that the union had become a ‘’conveyor belt’’ for high political office, while it was neglecting its core mandate of representing the mine workers.
But together with this, a parallel process developed which would further lead to the decline of the union. From leading the militant struggles against the bosses in the 1980s, some NUM leaders were completely co-opted by big Capital, to the point of becoming Capitalists themselves. The best example is Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s deputy president, who was the founding general secretary of the NUM. From leading the NUM through all its struggles against the bourgeois in the 1980s and being the conference organiser in preparations for the launch of COSATU in 1985, he now finds himself on the other side of the divide. Through his directorships of some of the biggest companies in the country like Johnnic Holdings, MTN, Firstrand Limited, Macsteel, McDonald's, Alexander Forbes and his “black empowerment” company, Shanduka, he became one of the richest men in the country. This switch of allegiance was most evident during the tragic Marikana massacre of August 2012 when he sat on the board of Lonmin as a director’, calling the striking workers ‘’dastardly criminal’’. He was deeply involved in influencing the government to take ‘’concomitant action’’ against the strikers. The same could be said of Frans Baleni. In his capacity of general secretary, he was earning a salary in excess of R1.3 million per annum which was more than 10 times the annual wage of an underground miner.
The NUM has haemorrhaged members since the Marikana massacre, losing as much as 100 000 members. It has been replaced in the platinum belt as the majority union by the once-splinter offshoot, AMCU. It has also lost members in other sectors including the gold sector and the construction industry. The union has seen a decline in membership in 9 of its 11 regions. In Carletonville, a prominent gold town which was once synonymous with the NUM, the union has lost more than 61 percent of its members during 2012-2013.
Class collaboration and the the Marikana killings
The 2012 Marikana killings hovered like a ghost over the four-day congress. This was a major turning point for the union. One of the main reasons behind the killings was the fact that the NUM leadership did not represent the workers at all. Instead, Baleni and the former president of the union, Zokwana, cosied up to big business. Baleni became a de facto spokesman for the Chamber of Mines and turned his back on the union's standing position of support for the nationalisation of the mines. The union accepted wage settlements that tied workers to years meagre increases while the Chamber of Mines granted it longstanding recognition agreements. In the meantime, Baleni was earning in excess of R100 000 per month.
It was the Marikana massacre which started the decline of NUM’s credibility amongst the workers. Throughout 2012 the union failed to represent workers in their struggles in Rustenburg and Marikana. This led to a rise in wildcat strikes in 2012 as the workers began to take matters into their own hands. The bosses however, refused to talk to the striking workers, insisting that they would only speak to the NUM leadership whom they had very close relationships with. Therefore, in addition to the state and the capitalists, the blame of the massacre must also be put at the door of the NUM leaders. This explains the almost universal celebrations which has erupted when the news of Baleni’s defeat at the congress was announced.
The NUM congress comes at a time when there is a big struggle raging with president Zuma in parliament as well as inside the tripartite alliance, to have the Farlam report into the Marikana massacre made public. Zuma has so far failed to make the report public which could implicate his close allies.
Win Back COSATU!
The enormous anger and frustrations inside the workers’ movement has until now found an echo only in the left wing like NUMSA. The same could be said of AMCU, which is independent union formed on the basis of the big wildcat strikes in the mining industry over the past 3 years. However, the NUM congress result shows for the first time since the 2007 ANC Polokwane conference that the ranks have moved to change the direction of the organisation. This is very significant and it is confirmation of what Marxists have been saying all along: there is a mood of enormous anger and frustration in the ranks of the workers’ movement and the best way to win back COSATU is for NUMSA and the left wing to take the struggle to the ranks of the other unions.
The NUM congress is also likely have a ripple effect on other unions whose leaders are in Dlamini’s right wing faction, including the teacher's union SADTU and the healthcare union, NEHAWU. However, this is not an automatic process. The real work should be to win over the ranks of these unions ahead of the special congress in July. The bureaucratic manoeuvres of Dalmini and his clique can only be defeated by mobilising the ranks of these unions.
The events surrounding the NUM congress opens a new phase in the raging battles inside the labour movement between the left wing and the right wing class collaborators. At root, this is a reflection of the class struggle. The only way to for NUMSA and the left wing to win is to adopt a clear socialist programme linked to the Freedom Charter’s call for the nationalisation of the mines, banks and big monopolies. This programme must then be taken directly to the ranks of the unions. Only by adopting a clear socialist position with regard to the struggles in the workers’ movement can the battle be won.