After court halts Numsa congress, some members say union on brink of chaos

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After court halts Numsa congress, some members say union on brink of chaos

The events that have played out leading to the now-halted congress spell for some a “purge” of unprecedented proportions as expressed by former leaders of the union on Sunday.

Numsa president  Andrew Chirwa is addressing delegates at the national bargaining conference on 11 April 2022. Picture: @Numsa_Media/Twitter.
  • NUMSA
  • Labour Court
  • Irvin Jim
  • South African Federation of Trade Unions Saftu
  • Andrew Chirwa

JOHANNESBURG – As leaders of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) contend with what to do next after the Labour Court put a stop to its congress this week, many in the labour movement have cautioned that the union is on the brink of total chaos.

Numsa insiders have been telling of the undermining of democracy in the union under the leadership of its general secretary, Irvin Jim, and president, Andrew Chirwa, for years now.

However, the events that have played out leading to the now-halted congress spell for some a “purge” of unprecedented proportions as expressed by former leaders of the union on Sunday.

The Labour Court ruled that the congress cannot continue as it would not be properly constituted when it lifted the suspensions of dozens of shop stewards and second deputy president, Ruth Ntlokose.

At the heart of the fierce infighting at Numsa are two fundamental issues – the character of its current leaders and the union’s finances.

Members say they have watched on for years now as the relationship between the union and its once celebrated investment arm became blurred to a point where shop stewards received instructions from the company’s executives.

Irvin Jim and other leaders struggled to nip the problem in the bud in its infancy, leading to the dissent that is now an open conflict.

The largest region, Mpumalanga turned against the leaders first and called for lifestyle audits and for a forensic audit to be commissioned.

In March, GroundUp reported that Jim enjoyed a lavish birthday party in the past that was funded by the investment arm’s 3Sixty Life – an insurance company that is under curatorship.

The organisation’s leaders have been stalked by suspicion of abuse of funds in both the union and the investment arm for over a decade now but have not taken up the opportunity to disprove the allegations.

Insiders say the union’s regions; the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Hlanganani which includes, Limpopo and Pretoria, and Ekurhuleni followed in Mpumalanga’s footsteps, complaining about how the organisation is being managed by Jim.

The reaction of Numsa leaders to the growing discontent was to carry out mass suspensions through the central committee structure which has now been declared invalid by the court as they were unconstitutional.

Zwelinzima Vavi, a former close ally of Jim and the leader of Saftu, the federation Numsa belongs to, described Jim as a person with a “twisted version of democratic centralism”.

Jim, Numsa president Chirwa, and other top leaders intended to stand for re-election in the now failed congress.

But so did Ntlokose, whose suspension was lifted by the Labour Court when it issued the judgment that forbade the convening of the congress.

Sources say Jim and his group want her replaced by former Saftu president, Mac Chavalala, who was among the leaders that wanted Vavi out of the federation.

Another crisis that compounds the problems in Numsa is what follows if Jim gets voted out by workers.

There are those in the union who fear Jim may never loosen his grip on power as his future prospects in the labour movement or political landscape in the country begins and ends with Numsa.

They posit that if Numsa was not expelled from Cosatu, he could be deployed to the government or another lucrative post through the alliance with the African National Congress (ANC).

However, with that option not viable and Saftu in shambles amid financial problems, Jim has nowhere to turn.

His presence at Numsa has, however, also seen the decline of the largest union in the country with over 330,000 members.

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