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The Humpty Dumpty of South African trade unionism has fallen off the wall. And all Emperor Zuma’s horses and all Emperor Zuma’s men never will put Humpty together again.

Callooh, callay, oh frabjous day! On balance, the exit of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) from union federation Cosatu is a damn fine thing for South African democracy.

Ignore all the crocodile tears from the ANC government. Despite its hypocritical breast-beating and rending of garments, many in the party are delighted to see the back of Numsa, a fierce critic of the Zumatocracy’s corruption and incompetence. If the ANC really had cared, given the influence it exerts on Cosatu directly and through the other alliance member, the South African Communist Party (SACP), it would have stalled the expulsion.

The government, however, will not be enchanted that a number of smaller unions have provisionally followed Numsa from the alliance. What the ANC wants is a pliant union federation that will put party interests above worker interests. What the ANC doesn’t want is some kind of united front between those unionists who have left and the Economic Freedom Front, which was conceived under similar circumstances — the ANC ousting of a faction that had become too stridently critical.

Similarly, ignore the lefties weeping over the disintegration of the spearhead that was meant to bring about the world’s last socialist spasm, SA’s so-called “National Democratic Revolution”.

Unionists are particularly fond of emotional rhetoric about solidarity, despite the class, professional, ethnic and political cleavages that exist within their ranks. But the historical truth is that in SA, workerist interests have repeatedly – at least three times – been hijacked by liberation leaders and sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

It happened in the 1930s with the hijacking of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). It happened again in the early 1940s when the CPSA was reluctant to use the leverage offered by the Second World War’s ramped up demand for labour, because following the entry into the war of the Soviet Union, the CPSA was reluctant to disrupt industrial production. Finally, during the early years of the National Party, the ANC in 1961 effectively abandoned the South African Congress of Trade Unions, jettisoning the powerful force of incremental worker advances to embrace the armed struggle.

Despite these grim auguries, Cosatu has all too readily post-1994 subordinated itself to ANC political whims, rather than taking care of shopfloor matters. The violent birth at Marikana of the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) was one result of that neglect.

None of this is to diminish the important role that the unions have played in creating and trying to nurture SA’s democracy. Under its now suspended general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi particularly, it was fearlessly outspoken about despotic creep, here and in Zimbabwe.

But neither should one forget the profoundly anti-democratic tendencies of an elitist trade union movement that is cosseted with legislated privilege while rarely being held legally accountable for its excesses. In the past 20 years, hundreds of strike breakers have been assaulted and in the 2006 security industry strike alone, about 60 strike breakers were murdered, with no convictions ever being obtained.

Millions of rands of property damage has been wrought with impunity by rampaging hordes of strikers. At times Cosatu has deployed its members against the ANC’s political opponents – on the spurious justification of the old union adage, “an injury to one is an injury to all” – including against peaceful demonstrations by the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

One of Cosatu’s powerful constituents, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), has destroyed the future of almost two full generations of black schoolchildren. Through endless strikes, their protection of absentee and incompetent teachers, and their recently uncovered racket of selling teaching and principalship posts to the highest bidder, Sadtu truly has laid bare the ugly nature of unfettered unionism.

Cosatu’s seismic splintering is a unique opportunity for the government to end the destruction of the economy by the union movement. To start, curb the unsustainable state wage bill through staff cutbacks and inflation-only increases and legislate a secret ballot for industrial action.

This is the hour. Soon we will find out whether the ANC has the man.

Follow William Saunderson-Meyer on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye.

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  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.

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William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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