David Sipunzi: new man

Another blow against the loyalists

The grip of the SACP over the unions continues to weaken. Peter Manson comments on the congress of South Africa’s NUM

In an astonishing few days for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the top leaders of Cosatu’s main pro-African National Congress affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers, have been replaced by oppositionists. Meanwhile, the main anti-ANC union has lost its latest legal bid to be allowed to attend Cosatu’s forthcoming special national congress.

The loyalist leaders who were turfed out by union delegates were Frans Baleni, general secretary of the NUM, and his deputy, Tshimane Montoedi. The NUM, the largest Cosatu affiliate following the expulsion in November 2014 of the oppositionist National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), had been regarded as the most reliable and dogged supporter of the pro-ANC alliance that is cheered on by the South African Communist Party. Baleni, a member of the SACP central committee, had been the most outspoken amongst the Cosatu leaders in favour of expelling Numsa for the ‘crime’ of withdrawing support from the ANC/SACP in December 2013.

In the early hours of June 6, at the very end of the NUM’s 15th national congress, Baleni was defeated by the narrowest of margins by David Sipunzi, the union’s secretary in the Free State, who picked up 354 votes to Baleni’s 345. Soon after his election, Sipunzi said: “We need to unite the labour movement. We will talk to Numsa ... There is a need for a bilateral between ourselves and the Numsa leadership.”1 He also referred to the popular former general secretary of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi, who was dismissed from his post for being too outspoken in his criticisms of the ANC: “You can’t talk unity within Cosatu without Numsa and Vavi. Vavi is a prominent leader. You need to engage him.”

Vavi himself, together with Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim, were jubilant over the change at the top in the NUM. Vavi tweeted: “Election of David Sipunzi as GS of NUM is an extremely significant development which may change course of history.” He added: “I hope election of the new NUM leadership may be what we need not only to save NUM but Cosatu from destruction.”

Remarkably, at the start of the congress only two of the NUM’s regions were known to be opposed to Baleni, whereas at the mineworkers’ previous congress in 2012 there were four who wanted him out. So most commentators assumed that Baleni, who had been general secretary since 2006, was a certainty for re-election. The NUM has been regarded as an unbreachable stronghold of the SACP - the party has traditionally dominated all the Cosatu unions, but its control seemed virtually absolute amongst the mineworkers. With most delegates marshalled by SACP bureaucrats, it seemed unthinkable that Baleni would lose.

But it appears that the SACP had miscalculated the support felt amongst the rank and file for Cosatu’s former general secretary. Sipunzi had said: “I am tired of being shouted by members asking when is Vavi coming back. I can no longer close my ears to those calls.”2

According to the International Marxist Tendency,

there was a clear attempt by the 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 ... The PWV and North East regions were complaining that smaller regions were allocated more delegates than some of the bigger regions.3

Still in charge

The IMT may be right about this, but it is certainly wrong to imply, as its article does, that the left has now taken over the NUM. While oppositionists gained three very important top posts, most of the national officers were re-elected unopposed and the loyalists are still in a clear majority. This is evident in the NUM’s post-congress statement, which expresses exactly the opposite view from that of the newly elected general secretary: “Congress fully supports the decision taken by Cosatu to expel Numsa and Zwelinzima Vavi respectively,” it reads, and adds ominously: “ ... congress is calling upon the Cosatu leadership to remain resolute in enforcing discipline.”

The statement continues the pretence of particularly the SACP that Numsa was expelled not just for opposing Cosatu support for the ANC, but also for “poaching” the potential members of rival unions by announcing it was trying to recruit workers from outside as well as inside the metal industry. The NUM majority states: “… should Numsa reverse its December 2013 resolution that undermines the federation’s founding principles of ‘One industry, one union’, the NUM will be the first union to call for Numsa’s reinstatement.”

The problem with this is that just about every other Cosatu union has branched out beyond its original remit, but this has hardly been the cause of inter-union rivalry - trade unionists account for only around 30% of all employed workers and the main difficulty is recruiting them to any union. But the NUM statement goes on to refer to the tiny Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa (Limusa) set up by Cosatu loyalists to replace the 350,000-strong Numsa as an affiliate. It states without a hint of irony: “Congress warmly welcomes the acceptance of Limusa to the Cosatu fold as a new home of metalworkers of South Africa. Congress further calls on all metalworkers to join a Cosatu union: join Limusa.”

What was that about ‘One industry, one union’?

And, if there was any doubt about who still controls the NUM leadership, here is what they have to say about first the SACP and then the ANC:

Congress reaffirms the SACP as the only vanguard party of the working class capable of prosecuting the struggle for socialism and ultimately for communism. Congress believes that the SACP’s five-year programme, the South African road to socialism, is the best method in taking forward the SACP’s programmatic slogan, ‘Socialism is the future: build it now’.

Our 15th national congress reaffirms the ANC-led alliance as the best-placed organisation to lead radical economic transformation currently underway. Against this background, the NUM shall campaign across the country for the ANC’s landslide victory in the forthcoming local government elections in 2016.4

If Sipunzi or the new deputy GS, William Mabapa, are allowed to represent the NUM on Cosatu’s central executive committee, then it is true, as the IMT states, that this would change the balance within the federation. But, taking into account the above statements and the two new officers’ known opposition to them, that is a big ‘if’.

In its own statement the SACP congratulated the NUM on a successful congress, which it thought augured well for the “tasks and challenges to rebuild a strong NUM”. The party laughably claims it “did not have any preferences or favour one candidate over another in terms of the positions which were contested” and instead declared:

As the SACP we wish to condemn in the strongest possible terms the factionalist, divisive and opportunistic posturing by the former general secretary of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi, on the outcomes of the NUM congress ... it is irresponsible in the extreme for Vavi to be celebrating the election of a section of the NUM leadership, instead of encouraging the unity of its entire leadership and membership as a whole.5

The Young Communist League also wished to “welcome the outcomes of the National Union of Mineworkers’ national congress”, while at the same time speaking out against “the misplaced triumphalism by the sworn enemies of our revolution, who see the election of the new national office-bearers as their victory”. After all, “it is the resolutions and policies that make an organisation, and not individuals, as some would like to have us believe.” And anyone can see that the NUM still supports Cosatu’s loyalist leadership. So “Let us not be misled by the self-defeatist triumphalism of these political opportunists, who want to divide the workers and profile themselves as their messiahs.”6

Start of a process

We can conclude that, while the left has most definitely not taken over the NUM, last week was part of a wider a process of change. While discontent is palpable in other loyalist-led unions, within the NUM there is a deep internal crisis following the devastating loss of around 100,000 members over the last three years, relegating it to the second-largest union (after Numsa).

That was very much linked to the failure of the NUM to represent its members in any meaningful sense. Under the ‘guidance’ of the SACP and its concern not to derail the ANC-led “national democratic revolution” (NDR) by making ‘excessive’ demands on employers or pushing disputes too hard, there was a mass revolt amongst the union’s membership, especially in the platinum belt. As a result, thousands defected to a newly formed rival union and the NUM was forced to lead a militant strike itself, which culminated in the police massacre of 34 miners at Marikana in August 2012.7

Greg Nicolson, writing in the online Daily Maverick, quotes the NUM’s defeated general secretary as saying: “The Marikana story has obviously been a big problem for us.” Nicolson goes on:

That’s an understatement. The NUM has been accused of being partly responsible for both systemic and direct causes of the Marikana massacre. NUM was labelled the ‘National Union of Management’. Workers claimed local and national union leaders failed to represent their interests and looked to use their positions to advance a company or political career.

The Marikana commission of inquiry heard local NUM leaders failed to take up the grievances of the rock-drill operators and even fired on the workers when they marched to the union offices on August 10 2012 - the first shootings in a week that left 44 people dead. NUM president Senzeni Zokwana had to address workers from a police vehicle because it wasn’t safe to stand in front of them ... Not only did the NUM lose its credibility in the platinum belt to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu): a number of its members were killed that week and in the reprisal murders that followed.8

Last week’s congress was the first since the events of 2012 and in one sense can be seen as a delayed (and evidently insufficient) response to Marikana. The dissatisfaction has begun to make itself felt at the very top of the union.

It needs to be stressed that it is SACP control of the union in the service of the NDR that is the underlying cause of this crisis. While this has left NUM members with poor wages and bad conditions, the tops have greatly benefited. NUM leaders have found lucrative careers, the most well known being Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s deputy president and committed capitalist, renowned for his directorships of some of the biggest companies in the country.

Legal setback

Meanwhile, Numsa’s jubilation at having found new allies at the top of the NUM was tempered on June 9 by the failure of its latest legal move in the battle for control of Cosatu.

Numsa had sought to reverse its expulsion through an “urgent application” in the high court, challenging the right of the Cosatu leadership to exclude it from next month’s special national congress. The judge ruled that the application was not urgent at all, as it could have been made months earlier. He struck the case off the roll and ordered Numsa to pay Cosatu’s costs.

Perhaps this will make the rebels think twice about relying so heavily on the courts, which had ruled in favour of the oppositionist unions in two previous cases. Firstly, led by Numsa, they had forced Cosatu to reinstate Vavi to his post of general secretary in April 2014 after the loyalists had been found to have improperly suspended him (he was later dismissed). Then last month the high court ordered Cosatu and the oppositionist unions to agree the details of the July special national congress (SNC) to discuss the ongoing crisis - Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini had claimed he would convene an SNC in line with the constitution after over a third of the federation’s affiliates had demanded one, but in practice nothing had happened.

But now, following the latest ruling, Numsa will not be able to attend the congress and it seems certain that the loyalists will (for the moment at least) retain control. And to think that just a day before this reversal Numsa, together with the eight other Cosatu affiliates backing the legal move, had been so confident.

In a statement issued at the June 8 press conference by the rebel nine unions Numsa declared it felt “emboldened by the revolutionary and principled articulation by [the NUM’s] newly elected general secretary, comrade David Sipunzi, on forging maximum unity within the progressive trade union movement, particularly Cosatu”.

In regard to the following day’s court action it confidently stated:

We are certain that we will once more emerge victorious, and such a victory will be appreciated by all class-conscious workers, as we continue our revolutionary task of reclaiming Cosatu to be an independent, worker-controlled, democratic, class-orientated, anti-capitalist and militant federation of workers - as opposed to a paralysed conveyor-belt of neoliberal, anti-working class policies that serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful in our society.9

Obviously these are very militant and left-sounding phrases, but it has to be said that revolutionary rhetoric is no substitute for sound, principled theory. Numsa may have seen the light over the SACP’s absurd claim that loyalty to the ANC in the name of the “national democratic revolution” is the “most direct route to socialism” in South Africa, but it is still under the illusion that that answer lies in the social democratic platitudes contained in the Freedom Charter of old.

The unions are, one by one, gradually freeing themselves from the stultifying grip of the SACP and ANC loyalists, but where is the principled, Marxist alternative? Its absence is the real challenge that needs to be taken up in the South African working class movement.



1. http://mg.co.za/article/2015-06-06-new-num-leaders-have-a-mountain-to-climb.

2. http://m.ewn.co.za/2015/06/08/New-NUM-General-Secretary-vows-to-unite-his-union.

3. www.marxist.com/south-africa-frans-baleni-kicked-out-a-heavy-defeat-for-the-cosatu-and-num-right-wing.htm.

4. NUM statement, June 7 2015.

5. SACP statement, June 9 2015.

6. YCLSA press statement, June 7 2015.

7. It is worth noting here that president Jacob Zuma is still refusing to release the report of the official inquiry into the Marikana massacre, despite having received it more than two months ago, on March 31, and the outcry from many sections of South African society demanding that he do so.

8. www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2015-06-07-num-the-end-of-the-age-of-frans-baleni/#.VXWzM89Vikp.

9. Numsa statement, June 8 2015.