54 Numsa worker leaders have been banned by the current national leadership from attending the elective congress and from standing for positions. This includes Saftu president Ruth Ntlokotse, who is also the Numsa second deputy president.
Ntlokotse was suspended by a “special central committee” meeting of Numsa earlier this month, on “charges” of undermining the union by daring to stand for the Saftu presidency at the federation’s congress in May 2022 and winning the position.
She is one of an estimated 70 Numsa leaders who have been suspended ahead of the union’s elective congress next week, ostensibly to prevent them from voting in a new national leadership
Ntlokotse’s election was an embarrassment to Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim who had proposed another Numsa leader, Mac Chavalala for the position.
It is a long-established culture and practice within the trade union movement that affiliates of the union federation can nominate candidates for election to national office bearer positions. In the best of times, there were warm and collegial discussions between different unions in the months before elective congresses to pinpoint the ‘most hard-working comrades, unifying figures in the movement’. Where positions were contested, it was accepted that ordinary shop stewards from across the country would mandate their regional and national leaders to vote for the candidate of their choice.
There has never been a situation where individual unions nominate only their own leaders for election because what would be the point of a union nominating its president or general secretary for the Saftu presidency if their candidate had no support from the other affiliates? It would only undermine the unity of the federation and the candidate would also be unlikely to get enough votes to win.
What appears to have enraged Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim and President Andrew Chirwa is that Numsa and its ally, the South African Police Union (Sapu) made up 56% of the voting delegates at the recent Saftu congress. Working together with the tiny Municipal and Allied Trade Union of South Africa (Matusa), these three unions should have been able to win every position on their slate through their sheer majority.
But this did not happen, because a large number of Numsa delegates to the Saftu congress voted in line with the democratic mandate they had been given by their regions, instead of voting as instructed by the Numsa leadership on the day. And this vote was overwhelmingly for Ruth Ntlokotse as president, a position she won fair and square, defeating the Numsa head office’s chosen candidate Mac Chavalala, who is also a worker leader in Numsa.
“Where on earth can a GS sit in his office and impose a line up on a federation? He is accusing me of undermining democracy but he concocted with this lineup himself with no collective discussion. We only had one national office bearer meeting in February this year and yet he is coming out to accuse me of not being part of a collective” says Ntlokotse.
Numsa congratulated Ntlokotse for winning the position but six weeks later decided to suspend her and a further 27 Numsa leaders who had defied Jim at the Saftu congress.
Numsa’s membership has slipped to a fairly low 290 000 members, 50 000 down over the past four years.
It is also important to note that in his letter suspending Ntlokotse, Jim writes that she must return her union car and motivate for the continued employment of her bodyguards.
However, Jim himself and several other male Numsa leaders, including one former regional secretary who is under no apparent threat, have up to six bodyguards apiece, Ntlokotse says.
In 2020, Ntlokotse was hijacked at gunpoint and has had bodyguards with her ever since. She also received death threats after a particularly contentious Numsa meeting in February this year. “I was receiving threats at this time and I even had to leave home and stay elsewhere. I asked for an increase in security but instead, they said they would investigate me for fabricating threats” she said.
She has good reason to believe she is being targeted, having conveyed complaints by union members that the Numsa insurance company 3Sixty Life failed to pay out their life insurance policies. A GroundUp investigation earlier this year revealed that millions in insurance premiums had been diverted to other Numsa companies.
After the Prudential Authority put 3Sixty Life under curatorship in December last year, Jim deposed to an affidavit saying that the company had not defaulted on any claims.
Ntlokotse distanced herself from this.
“We asked him to reflect with us before he deposed to any affidavit but he never responded. Shop stewards were furious that Jim said the union had never received complaints about unpaid claims. I distanced myself from that affidavit and was later told not to inform the regional structures of Numsa because the matter was sub judice”.
Ntlokotse does not believe she should have to hide and defend alleged corruption. “If we are to defend 3Sixty Life, we cannot do that by lying to the union members. So that is the reason why I am in charged”.
Heading to the Labour Court tomorrow, Ntlokotse says she is taking a stand as a woman. Although the letter suspending her including a gag order with no legal basis, Ntlokotse says she is unafraid to speak out.
“They are also attacking me because I am a woman. Women leaders are trampled on lately in Numsa. There is no worker control to protect us anymore. The very principle behind worker control is that it is bottom up. There is no such thing as not agreeing with someone in a meeting and then suspending her after that”.
If the labour court fails to interdict the congress there might be no option but for the union’s congress delegates to make their way to Cape Town and negotiate that suspended worker leaders and officials be allowed to attend the congress and stand for positions.
After all, Jim made this very argument at the Saftu congress in May and that congress did allow all suspended workers to attend and stand.
“Workers must continue to stand up and be organised. We have already been told that the Numsa congress will be highly militarised and democratically elected Numsa worker leaders will not be allowed in without Jim’s permission” Ntlokotse says.
*Amandla 83 will have more in detail coverage of the successful interdict of the NUMSA Congress and the problems it has revealed in NUMSA. Amandla 83 will be published on August 5th.