Saftu’s division laid bare at congress

The election of a new leadership was a hotly contested affair that overshadowed workers’ issues, but the leaders claim that this was democracy at work.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) has its first woman president after Ruth Ntlokotse, 49, emerged victorious at its second elective conference, which was held from 23 to 26 May and marked by high emotion and intense battles for leadership positions.

Ntlokotse’s prior experience in national leadership drove many to tick her name on the ballot. “The times we are faced with require experienced leadership,” said Vusi Ntshangase, general secretary of the Democratised Transport, Logistics and Allied Workers Union (Detawu). 

Having served as the second national deputy president of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) since 2016, Ntlokotse boldly stated that “the role of the president is not something new to me”.

The roots of her activism stretch back much further, though. “I grew up in the dark streets of Soweto; I know poverty. I grew up with four siblings and I was raised by a single mother, so I know what it means to go to school without shoes, without food.” As a result, she said, activism is “in her veins”. “I felt that it was necessary for me to stand up and not be a passive worker, a passive citizen, or even a passive parent.” 

26 May 2022: The newly elected SAFTU President Ruth Ntlokotse during the closing of SAFTU’s 2nd National Congress. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee

A chaotic start to the conference seemed to justify the view of many that Saftu is a divided federation. Yet at its conclusion, Ntolokotse’s advocates were of a mind when it came to what makes her worthy of leading the young federation. 

“We need tried and tested leaders in the federation,” said Mayoyo Mngomezulu, general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu). “We believe that [with] comrade Ruth, with the experience she is bringing, we are not going to collapse and have a time of paralysis like it happened last time.” For Stephen Motingoa, general secretary of the Tirisano Transport and Services Workers Union, “the profile of Ruth speaks for itself”.

Ntlokotse gathered 390 votes of the 689 valid ballots cast to defeat the outgoing Mac Chavalala, who had been suspended along with other three national office-bearers since March for having brought the federation into “disrepute” and violating its constitution. Their suspension came after they had tried to suspend Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who has now been re-elected. 

Internal strife

The suspension of the four was merely the tip of the iceberg of what Ntshangase said was the “baggage” Saftu had brought to the conference, which was characterised by internal tensions and strife with its largest member union, Numsa.

Saftu’s national leadership comprises six people, and three leaders each from two opposing slates were elected. Ntlokotse, Vavi and deputy general secretary Luzipo Nontembeko were mainly backed by Fawu, Detawu, the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa and the Commercial Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), as well as a Numsa faction calling itself “Numsa 2,” among other unions.

Numsa, meanwhile, has the support of the South African Policing Union (Sapu), National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw), Municipal and Allied Trade Union of South Africa (Matusa) and others, all of which opposed Vavi quite strongly. Throughout the conference they chanted that he “must go”. Vavi, however, prevailed as he enjoyed the majority support.

23 May 2022: A turbulent opening to the conference saw Irvin Jim, centre, the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, threaten court action against a faction supporting Zwelinzima Vavi. 

“Comrade Vavi is a seasoned trade unionist, a seasoned administrator, a workaholic, an ideologist who can take this federation to where it’s supposed to be going,” said Motingoa. “We can only be robbed by age on his side, but he’s somebody that the working class in this country can rely upon. 

“For these particular reasons, we thought that no one of all the candidates put up against him could do the type of work that Vavi is doing. We did not want to rob Saftu of that wealth of experience.”

Other Vavi-supporting unions echoed similar sentiments. “You must appreciate that comrade Zweli has done everything for the workers of this country,” said Mngomezulu. “We so wish that we could work towards having a team that will be mentored by him so that after four years he’s able to leave with a new machine [in place].”

Expect robust debate

Numsa remained unapologetic in its decision to rally behind the ousted Chavalala, following a failed attempt to have him and the other three suspended national office-bearers reinstated. The union was joined by Matusa in forming Ntlokotse’s opposition.

“What you are witnessing here is the workers’ parliament under way … and it is very, very political,” said Numsa spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola. “Every time when labour movements congregate for electoral congresses, some members of the media get carried away with the robustness of the debates. But they forget that it’s political and we are not destructive – we are here because we are mandated by the workers to deal with the political question of who will lead them.”

The general secretary of Matusa, Kurt Ziervogel, said this “battle of ideas” should not be misinterpreted. “We voted for Mac, but you must understand that we must honour the democratic principles and processes that have unfolded.”

26 May 2022: From left, the newly elected Saftu leaders are Luzipo Nontembeko, Zwelinzima Vavi, Ruth Ntlokotse, Thabo Matsose, Mosima Maredi and Lecogo Motshwari. 

According to Ntshangase, Chavalala was not re-elected because he had failed to live up to the expectations of those who voted for him in 2017. “Junior as he was, we had confidence that he’d rise to the occasion, but he could not rise. Under his leadership, the federation completed his entire term of office plunged into divisions after divisions. We spent a high amount of time facilitating unity among the leadership and he was at the centre of those who were driving the division.”

Fawu and others share this view. “Fawu was so specific as to say bring us the best and [most] trusted leader, and they gave us a reasonable leader – comrade Mac. And all these years we have been in turmoil, in a crisis,” said Mngomezulu.

For the time being, Ntshangase said, Chavalala has some homework to do. “Mac must continue to acquire experience and grow as a worker leader. Personally, [I think Chavalala] is very intelligent and I think he’ll probably become one of the best trade union leaders in the near future.” 

The Numsa slate did get its fair share of preferred candidates rising to the top, including Matsose Thabo from Sapu as the first deputy president, Maredi Mosima from Nupsaw as second deputy president and Motshwari Lecogo as the national treasurer.

Actions, not words

Despite the deep divisions, Ntlokotse set her presidency into motion with a loud and clear call for unity. “If we honestly reflect on what happened at this congress, and in the run-up to it, a process of healing is required. A process of healing must start now,” she said. “There are no winners and losers – only the federation remains victorious.”

Yet Ntlokotse and her slate’s talk of unity contrasts strongly with what was a fiercely contested election and an even more contentious four days, with proceedings being disrupted before they even began. “Unity is not declared on podiums. Unity requires all of us as individual leaders to go an extra mile and [make the] effort, including making sacrifices and compromises, in the process to achieve unity,” Ntshangase said, offering a word of caution.

While the election of a new leadership took centre stage, it was just one of many items on a long agenda. Ryno Philander, president of the CSAAWU, left wondering “what will I report back to the workers”. For Philander, it was “a shame that people want to put their own agenda and fight for them rather than for the issues of workers”.

Despite this, Ntshangase feels the conference can be viewed as a success. “We debated and adopted the secretariat report and the financial report, and we debated and successfully elected the leadership. Very few issues were deferred to a special central committee in appreciation that we were not as thorough as we ought to have been on the issues and that we’ve not developed a five-year plan in terms of campaigns, recruitment and repositioning the federation.”

26 May 2022: Saftu’s re-elected general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, during a moment when the electricity in the hall went off while he was giving a speech.

In the end, all the member unions appreciated the value of the democratic process that guided the conference and they congratulated the newly elected leaders. “I am encouraged and I am very hopeful that the future of Saftu looks bright … As from today, we should be starting a new chapter,” said Ntshangase.

The federation issued a 12-point declaration featuring, among others, the commitment to recruit more workers, especially from the 76% of working-class people who are not organised in unions. Beyond this, the federation declaration said that it hopes to tackle the “increasing levels of outsourcing, subcontracting and other forms of precarious employment – such as expanded public works programme and community health workers – and the failure of the labour movement to adequately respond to this trend”.. “We must also reach out to informal sector workers and migrant workers … This is our historical task and an urgent priority.”

The federation has urged unity in action because capitalism, it said, cares little about worker affiliation. Being seen taking part in protests is one way to champion the interests of workers, Ntlokotse said, but there’s more that Saftu needs to do. “We should be there to influence policies. We must be creating a safe working environment,” she said.

26 May 2022: Saftu members sing outside the hall in Ekurhuleni, venue for the federation’s second elective conference.

Correction, 30 May 2022: Luzipo Nontembeko’s was previously misspelled.

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