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African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe voiced ANC concern this week at increasing disunity in trade union federation Cosatu, telling leaders to "have the courage to lock themselves in one room and deal with the contradictions."
Mantashe told the central executive committee meeting of transport union Satawu that although the ANC government had brought in progressive labour laws to protect workers, the government had to look after "the interests of the broader working class, not only the organised section."
It has provided basic services that were denied or minimal under apartheid, including water services, electricity, social grants, free education, school meals and the introduction of national health insurance to ensure universal access to quality health care.
Mantashe urged organised labour to be "constructive" in backing government measures to create jobs through the National Development Plan (NDP), which has drawn varying degrees of criticism from Cosatu affiliates.
Metalworkers' union Numsa, which spearheaded a defeated drive in the 1980s and early 1990s to create a "workers' party" in opposition to the ANC and South Africa Communist Party, has raised this issue once more.
Numsa, which is now the largest Cosatu affiliate, has warned that it will refuse to back the ANC if the NDP appears in its manifesto.
The situation is further complicated by a disciplinary case against Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi for having a sexual relationship with a junior staff member on the federation premises and for financial impropriety linked to the sale of its old offices.
Numsa and some unions close to it back Vavi and have demanded a special congress to reinstate him and settle other issues of contention.
These could include Cosatu relationships with the ANC and SACP, threatening the continuance of the revolutionary alliance that underpinned the united struggle against apartheid.
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim seems unperturbed about the danger of Cosatu or Numsa distancing itself from its alliance partners.
"If you can get married, you can get divorced," was his flippant comment.
Numsa will hold a special national congress on December 13-16 in Boksburg to consider the future.
The union held a major policy workshop earlier this month, where three of its regions backed Numsa involvement in establishing a workers' party, three others proposed giving the ANC a final ultimatum before doing so while the remaining three favoured research into whether it should support a workers' party or a coalition of left-wing groups.
Not that Numsa represents monolithic unity. The sudden resignation of national president Cedric Gina last weekend would belie that.
In his resignation letter Gina suggested that he could no longer work with Jim and had to end the relationship before it turned violent.
Jim's view was that Gina's "political agenda" was dictated by "people within" the SACP and ANC worried about what was happening in Numsa.
Mantashe, who is pivotal to the issue, having been a previous NUM general secretary and having stepped down as SACP chairman to concentrate on his ANC position, would certainly be someone worried about developments in Numsa.
He took a lot less sanguine view of the drift to disunity, telling the trade union movement on Wednesday: "If the price you must pay for pursuing Vavi is to split Cosatu, it is not worth the price. Try something else."
SACP online publication Umsebenzi entered the fray yesterday with a special Red Alert article under the nom de plume Aluta Mzebenzi, who is identified only as "all-round Alliance member of a Cosatu-affiliated trade union, the ANC and the SACP."
She quotes struggle hero Joe Slovo in support of her thesis that the trade union movement has to be part of the broader revolutionary alliance.
Failure to do so would, as Slovo wrote, mean "surrendering the leadership of the national struggle to the upper and middle strata."
Mzebenzi recalls earlier efforts within Cosatu and its forerunner Fosatu to counterpose workerism to national liberation and sees this tendency "emerging in a new form," to the benefit of the class enemy.
She highlights long-standing Cosatu recognition of "the true political leadership role of the vanguard of the working class - the South African Communist Party," which prioritised building the revolutionary trade union movement.
That's why so many communists occupy leading positions as shop stewards, provincial and national leaders, as well as officials, advancing day-to-day demands and building class-consciousness.
Msebenzi identifies "workerism" as a trend designed to divide the unions and the working class from their vanguard party and from the ANC and raises the watchword "unity" to counter it.
Unity has to mean collective leadership, a common alliance programme, abiding by democratically arrived-at decisions and isolating splitters.
Above all, she stresses, it means "unconditional support for ANC decisive majority victory in 2014."
Support for the ANC in by-elections remains strong, but the danger persists that turmoil in the trade union movement could damage the revolutionary alliance, benefiting only big business and its political proxies.
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