This article has been jointly published with Daily Maverick.
Comrades who have been unlawfully suspended by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) have been repeatedly asked one question over the past couple of weeks: “Why is this happening?”
Why has a union which was once such a shining example of democratic participation degenerated into mass suspensions, vicious personal attacks and eviction of journalists from the congress premises — all the symptoms of a paranoid dictatorship?
What has driven this unwelcome transformation?
When we see the president of Numsa speaking to the press about those who disagree with him in the union as enemies and snakes that must be crushed, we know something is deeply wrong.
And too often we have answered: it’s because of a lack of democracy; it’s because of a lack of accountability. But this is to mistake a symptom for a cause.
What happened to the accountability of the leadership to the ordinary members? Why did it wither and die? Did it get forgotten? Was Numsa simply unfortunate to fall into the hands of naturally autocratic people? Was it to do with a generational change of leadership? Did the old democratic leadership fail to pass on the organisational culture to the next generation?
We have to ask, and answer this question. If we fail to understand what has been happening, we will fall into the same trap time and time again.
There is an answer to this question and it’s not very complicated. After all, it is a problem that has beset just about every labour movement in every country. The answer lies in the separation of the leadership of the union in crucial ways from its membership.
Not about individuals
First, we must be clear about what we mean by “the leadership”. The popular media (and social media) loves a good personal battle. It makes for a good story. People will read it.
In the red corner, Irvin Jim; in the blue corner, Zwelinzima Vavi — seconds out.
There is bad blood between them, they will say. There isn’t room for two bulls in the kraal — too much testosterone. If they’re lucky, they will find some sex in the story as well. Then it can run for weeks or months.
But this is not an explanation. And it doesn’t fit the facts. Because the facts in Numsa are the same as the facts in every bureaucratised trade union. There is no individual monster. Rather, there is a whole layer of leadership who have become isolated from their base.
Irvin Jim is absolutely correct to rail against those who demonise him as an individual. He points out very properly that he has been supported by a majority of the Central Committee. He has to take that majority with him. Without it, he is relatively powerless.
Separation of leadership
So now we are talking not about individuals, but about a layer of leadership.
In Numsa’s Central Committee, there are four worker delegates and one elected regional official for each of the nine regions. That’s the top five, in effect, from each region. Why have the majority of these worker leaders — shop stewards from the factories — supported this degeneration?
Clearly, this is not in the interests of their members. So what is it that separates them from those members? What makes them different?
Under capitalism, people are generally driven by material interests. What holds a trade union together — the glue that binds it — is common material interests. We bargain our wages and working conditions together because we share them.
For the leadership to fail to defend the interests of the broad mass of its members, some competing interest must have got in the way. And as soon as we start looking for competing interests, they are, of course, easily found.
Partly they come from the benefits of office. A union’s regional leadership has benefits simply from being in the leadership. They get regular trips to national meetings, stay in nice hotels or conference centres, eat good food and drink together.
A Numsa regional chairperson gets a car from the union; the regional treasurer gets a laptop so she/he can keep track of the electronic transactions that have replaced cheques.
Of course, Numsa national office bearers who don’t come from Gauteng get a union house in the Joburg area. A nice house in a middle-class complex or equivalent. And a bodyguard to carry the bag and go fetch something that got left behind.
But let’s go further down the chain of seniority for a moment.
Most sizeable Numsa-organised companies have full-time shop stewards. They enjoy completely different conditions of life from shop floor workers. They work in an office. Many will have (or have access to) a laptop. The full-time shop stewards together will probably have access to the use of a car. Their lives will be relatively free of supervision and discipline, the normal regime of the shop floor worker. From time to time they may well be taken by their management for a bosberaad of some sort — a “relationship by objectives” (RBO), for example — to a nice venue for a couple of days.
We saw in the case of the disputes in the platinum sector, which culminated in the Marikana massacre, that management in the mines took this too far. Sweeteners for the shop stewards ruptured their relationship with their membership.
But in moderation, they can work very well. In my first year as a shop steward in a bus company in the UK, at the first plant bargaining session, management indicated that the wages of the shop stewards would be negotiated separately, after an agreement on wages for the rest of the workers. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s not always as crude as my first experience. But it is always there. There are always some benefits (as well as burdens) to being a shop steward.
It seems to be a normal human response under capitalism that if a person has a benefit, they want to hold on to it. Sometimes at all costs.
So that is the broad scenario in Numsa in the 2000s. Some personal benefits accrued from being in the union leadership. A trade union does not necessarily become completely corrupt from this. It tends to become conservative — this layer of leadership has an interest in the preservation of the institution of the union because they personally benefit from it. So they take fewer risks.
Numsa is understandably reluctant to sanction unprocedural industrial action, for example, because it might be financially penalised for doing so. And it has substantial assets to lose.
Add investment companies to the mix
But then add into that mix the pot of gold that is the union investment company. Now suddenly we’re talking about not just a small perk here and there. We’re talking serious money.
Numsa Investment Company (NIC) had a turnover of at least R1 billion in 2018. It can afford to be generous. A few years ago, the NIC sprayed iPads around to the Numsa leadership like they were confetti. Much to the annoyance of the union’s head of IT, the iPads couldn’t hook into the Numsa network.
Then there was a car scheme. And, of course, plentiful alcohol for regional meetings. And the jazz festival tickets… and… and… and.
Add to that the business that the NIC is in. One of its main subsidiaries, 3Sixty Life, sells insurance policies. And Numsa is a fantastic potential market of more than 300,000 policy owners.
As far as the NIC is concerned, Numsa members are either actual or potential customers. The CEO explained that very clearly when he said there was a good commercial reason for paying R40,000 for Irvin Jim’s birthday party — it bought his company access to 300,000 members.
So the Numsa CEO regards Numsa’s regional secretaries and other office bearers as key figures in his business model. They are, in effect, his actual or potential regional sales managers. He meets them completely independently of the union’s structures. After all, their job for him is different. It’s not representing the interests of members (their day job for Numsa). It’s representing the interests of the company by delivering members as customers.
In a sense, the architects of the NIC may have seen this danger and tried to forestall it. Instead of Numsa owning the shares in the NIC directly, they set up a trust to own the shares. The trustees were, and always have been, senior Numsa leaders. The idea was that the NIC would not give benefits directly to members or structures of the union. It would deliver dividends to the trust. It would be the trust that would distribute the benefits to individuals and structures, not the NIC itself. That would have helped protect the union from patronage developing between the NIC and Numsa.
But for most of its life, the trust didn’t function. It was simply a proxy for the NIC itself. The NIC CEO dominated it as he dominates the company. The trust’s registered offices were the NIC’s offices. Its secretary was the NIC company secretary. It existed in name only.
Slowly, in the past couple of years, there have been attempts to make the trust functional, which represents a threat to the cosy relationship with Numsa leadership. All that cycle of benefits, the whole business model of the NIC, is threatened. If they have to pay dividends to the trust instead of benefits straight to the members, a lot of people are going to lose the perks they have become used to. And the NIC will lose its influence in Numsa.
So when the Eastern and Western Cape regions started asking probing questions about the NIC and the trust — when they tried to get the NIC to account properly to the trust — the NIC could see its business model crumbling before its eyes. It had to take action. And the rest, as they say, is history.
All those who demanded accountability were unlawfully suspended. A huge effort was mobilised by the leadership that was benefiting from all these perks to make sure that they were re-elected. To be certain, that involved manipulating attendance at the congress so that it would vote the right way.
Everything suddenly falls into place and becomes understandable. It explains what has happened over the past few years, and also what happened over the past few weeks.
The majority of the Numsa leadership — at regional as well as national level — had material interests to defend. They were prepared to go to any lengths to protect them. And that’s what they have done.
And they will continue to use up the resources of the union to defend their own material interests. Up to the Constitutional Court, if necessary, as the president said. They will exhaust the limited resources of their critics. They will out-Stalingrad Jacob Zuma, if necessary.
There’s an interesting twist to this story: the role played by maverick Caribbean billionaire, Roy Singham, with a plan to build his own Global South bloc of leftist organisations and a hefty budget to throw around. In there, we can see why the Numsa leadership is so intent on fighting for the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) to be adopted by Saftu.
As amaBhungane has begun to reveal, the SRWP is a piece of a heavily funded network that included New Frame, and still includes the Socialist Party of Zambia, the Socialist Movement of Ghana, the MST in Brazil and others. The funding creates another nexus of material interests. Why else would the Numsa leadership be willing to risk destroying Saftu for the sake of the SRWP?
How do we stop it?
So then comes the question: how is it possible to prevent this from happening to a trade union in the future? And the answer is that we must look for every example of preferential treatment that leadership has, and we must root it out and destroy it.
- We must limit all office bearers, at all levels, to a single term of office. That prevents the accumulation of benefits which people then try to defend in order to win more terms of office.
- We must reject full-time shop stewards. They have a working life different from that of their members, and they end up benefiting employers more than they benefit workers.
- We must not pay anybody who works for a trade union more than the average skilled wage in the applicable industry. The Numsa GS package is more than R1 million per year. In South Africa, that puts him into a different class, in terms of lifestyle, from his members.
- Office bearers must continue to live where they lived, or housing must be bought for them which is similar to the average housing of their members. No more Sandton complexes.
- Unions should by law be prohibited from owning or having any interest in investment companies. They have wrought havoc in the South African trade union movement. Quite simply, they have to go.
The battle against bureaucratisation is a constant one. It can only be waged… never won. But if we want to revive the South Africa trade union movement, we have no choice but to fight it.
Roger Etkind is a former Numsa official and contract worker and editor of Amandla! He worked for Numsa from 1988 to 1995, and then again on contract from 2012 to May 2022.