Internal tensions in the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) surfaced in June 2012 when Gauteng provincial chairperson Liver Mngomezulu and his deputy Reuben Molefe were suspended from the union. The union alleged they had signed an unauthorised contract with a service provider on SATAWU’s behalf that cost millions of rands. Mngomezulu and Molefe claimed that they were expelled for exposing corruption and ‘dirty politics’ within Satawu.
Matters intensified when, in August 2012, they launched a new, rival union, the National Transport and Allied Workers Union (NATAWU), now known as the National Transport Movement, or NTM. Shortly thereafter they were joined by Ephraim Mphahlele, the former President of SATAWU. Mphahlele resigned from SATAWU after charging the union with financial irregularities and claiming there were threats against his life. Some reports claimed that behind this was SATAWU’s dissatisfaction with his failure to support Zuma in the 2011 elections. In an interview with Amandla!, Mphahlele said that there was deep-seated factionalism within SATAWU and that the union’s financial resources were being used to support specific factions.
The sources of tension go beyond alleged financial irregularities. According to Mphahlele, there is also a lack of internal democracy within SATAWU, and an increasing social distance between SATAWU leadership and the workers. For example, after SATAWU’s General Secretary appeared before the magistrate at the commercial crimes court on charges of theft relating to the SARWU Enablement Trust, he was not suspended within SATAWU and is still able to influence delegates because he controls the finances. According to Mphahlele: ‘If SATAWU were a democratic organisation, it would convene an internal committee to consider the matter and make a decision. This has not happened.’ SATAWU, on the other hand, says, ‘We wish to put it on record that we have been aware of the tactics as applied by the rival union NTM in its bid to win membership from us since its formation by using all manner of dirty tactics. It has now become apparent that the rival group and its collaborators are threatening SATAWU for liquidation by trumping up charges…so as to damage our image and discredit the reputation of the union’s leadership.’
Mphalele, however, contends that workers are leaving SATAWU in great numbers across the country because of poor servicing of the workers by SATAWU leaders. ‘SATAWU has not been visiting workers at the shop floor level. There is a gap between the leaders and the workers on the ground. Leadership is not attending to workers’ problems.’
Despite these issues, NTM has a standing resolution calling for it to affiliate with COSATU. The obstacle, according to Mphalele, is that SATAWU has been collaborating with employers to prevent workers from registering with NTM. He argues that, ‘In fact, the ANC and the government have turned themselves into the enemy of NTM’. Mphahlele claims that the government instructed South African Airways board not to recognise NTM because it was a rival of SATAWU. He believes that the ANC had decided to protect COSATU unions at state-owned enterprises. Nevertheless, he says, ‘We would welcome any initiative on the part of COSATU to contact NTM. We would of course cooperate with COSATU if they did a lifestyle audit of SATAWU leaders and released the findings publicly. But SATAWU has been defended by COSATU and by the government (including the Ministry of Transport).’
COSATU leadership have charged that the NTM (and other non-COSATU unions) represent ‘an onslaught waged by the bourgeoisie against the living standards of the working class’. Mphahlele calls these charges ‘political hogwash aimed at deflecting attention from the internal problems in SATAWU instead of attending to those problems.’ He counters that, ‘The leadership of COSATU is living a luxurious life. We are not part of the bourgeoisie. We are ordinary workers trying to make ends meet. [They are] living in affluent areas. I’m living in a shack. How can you have leader of the bourgeoisie living in a shack?’
Nevertheless, Mphahlele calls the tension within COSATU extremely unfortunate. ‘COSATU is the hope of the workers in this country. We shouldn’t fight among ourselves. Differences should be buried in order to protect the interests of the workers. It would be the ordinary workers in the country who would suffer. We want to make an appeal to COSATU to provide political leadership to workers in a united way.’