South Africa: United Front condemns union leader expulsion

Zwelinzima Vavi.

The United Front is a new organisation in South Africa initiated by the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) that held its first People's Assembly in December under the slogan “Kwanele Kwanele!” (Enough is Enough!)

It was formed to encourage and help organise resistance to the neoliberal agenda pushed by the African National Congress (ANC) government. The United Front says its aim is to “unite the working classes, rural and urban, in struggle and in which women and youth will be in the forefront. The United Front is a front of mass action and struggle.

“Across the country people in communities, workplaces, townships and villages are mobilising against poverty, inequality and corruption.

“We view our first and main task to build movements that mobilise to fight corruption, looting of public resources, failing service delivery, increasingly unaccountable governance, violence against women, children and LGBTQI people, police brutality, and anti-poor/pro-rich economic policies ('neoliberalism').”

This has brought NUMSA into conflict with the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which expelled NUMSA as an affiliate in November. Last month, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who had opposed NUMSA's expulsion, was removed from his position.

Below is a March 31 statement by the United Front in response to Vavi's removal.


As expected, yesterday the Central Executive Committee of COSATU decided to expel Zwelinzima Vavi from his position as its general secretary.

The United Front (UF) regards this decision as the final nail in the regrettable terminal decline of what was once a mighty, principled, independent and militant federation of workers’ trade unions.

COSATU will now continue as the “labour desk” of the ANC, with its militancy and independence finally killed. It is the view of the UF that at his height, Comrade Vavi was one of the most principled and committed leaders of COSATU post-1994. His expulsion will have a major impact on COSATU.

He has paid the price for sticking out his neck to fight against the rise of the predatory elite and a crony capitalist state. His principled fight against corruption made him increasingly an enemy of the corrupt trade union bureaucracy that sits on the neck of workers.

The UF regards this crisis in COSATU as a reflection of the sustained disintegration of working-class organisation since 1994.

This disintegration has primarily been driven by the failure of the post-1994 political and economic dispensation in protecting workers from systemic unemployment, starvation wages, exploitation and the neoliberal restructuring of work.

Compounding this was the failure of the trade union movement to adequately service members, organise farm workers, casual workers, informal workers and other marginalised workers. Subjectively, many COSATU leaders were also coopted by employers, the government, the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Even with these weaknesses, COSATU still remained for many years an important voice in defence of worker demands, and broader social struggles.

This was on the back of the unwavering resilience and ability of workers to consistently mobilise and fight for their rights, a living wage and broader social justice.

A collapsing COSATU can be a serious threat to workers’ rights. This is perhaps the time that capital and the neoliberal government will strike some of the most serious blows against workers, and seek to confuse and demoralise workers.

Already, this is confirmed by the government’s attitude in the public service negotiations.

Vavi’s expulsion is not the end of the story. It can be used to accelerate a process of re-organisation and re-alignment of the labour movement in South Africa.

As the UF, we put out our hand of solidarity to all workers (inside and outside COSATU) for the renewal of militant anti-capitalist trade unionism.

Out of the wreckage of COSATU can emerge a renewed labour movement capturing the spirit of principled trade unionism, working-class independence, political independence of the trade union movement, high-quality service to members, democratic workers' control, solidarity and militant struggle.

This will also require workers to rise to the occasion where they can arrest and stop internal union corruption, sweetheart relations with management, and bureaucratisation. Comrade Vavi may very well be found playing a critical role in this renewal. As he thinks about his future role, the UF also calls on him to be principled and to take responsibility and corrective measures for his own shortcomings. This applies to all activists and leaders.

The UF calls on all workers not to waste this crisis in COSATU. This is a moment to rebuild and assert working-class confidence and power. The UF calls on workers to reclaim the coming May Day into a day of powerful working-class solidarity and action and join important struggles against the major challenges that face ordinary and poor people in the country.

The UF fully supports the proposed Workers’ Summit. Such a summit will be an important moment to reflect and open the path to a revitalised trade union movement. In the UF, a renewed trade union movement will find a progressive home that unites the broad working class.

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