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The 11th Congress of the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) held in Cape Town on Wednesday was marred by clear political divisions which included booing, threats and a walkout by the Western Cape and some Ekurhuleni region locals. The Congress, which was supposed to start on Monday and run until Friday, was interdicted after 50 officials and shopstewards including the unions’ second deputy president, Ruth Ntlokotse, were suspended and barred from attending the congress.

In the interdict, Judge Graham Moshoana ruled that the suspension of Ntlokotse and others was “unconstitutional, invalid and unenforceable in law” and that the congress cannot proceed “until it [Numsa] fully complies with the terms of its own constitution”.

On Wednesday morning, the union after an urgent meeting of the central committee on Tuesday, announced that it had complied with the terms of the interdict and was going ahead with the congress, though it has filed a leave of appeal. The suspended members, according to the union, were invited to participate in the congress. The congress started around midday with the checking of credentials.

Rising up from the floor, Numsa’s provincial secretary in the Western Cape, Vuyo Lufele said that they cannot participate in the congress as it is in contempt of court before staging a walkout. Lufele, who is one of the 50 union members who were suspended and barred from attending the congress, marched out of the venue followed by delegates from the Western Cape.

Pandemonium broke out as they were joined by some locals from Ekurhuleni in the walkout while being booed by delegates from other regions.

“We are not mad comrades, the organisation has been in crisis for a while now. The money that they are using to fight us is coming from the very same investment company. But it is given to few and if we leave this thing now, we will never get the organisation right. The organisation has been stolen and if the general secretary wants to challenge me, he can come. I can provide evidence of corruption. I could not entrust the information with the Trust because it is controlled by the very same people. The chairperson who is now at this national congress chairing is the chairperson of the Trust,” said Lufele as he was addressing the workers after the walkout.

“Audited financial statements are not given to us as Trust members. Now, during the case of 3Sixty, things were revealed as to why we were not given the financial statements. We have got regions that are benefiting, that just continue to move and second whatever is said. They were going to vote against our resolutions. Those who want to raise their voices against this thing are suspended and banned from attending the congress as they will awake others,” Lufele said.

Western Cape secretary, Vuyo Lufele addressing the delegates that stormed out of the congress venue. Video by Sharon Mckinnon

The Ekurhuleni region, according to a Numsa member from Makhudu Pheko local, Hloniphani Dlamini, is divided on the issue: “Delegates from Fuzile Khesa, Ladlokova and some from Manyathi locals have stayed behind and they are supporting the current leadership which cannot account,” he said.

Dlamini was threatened with violence by some delegates as he was trying to persuade delegates from other Ekurhuleni locals to leave the congress.

Numsa president, Andrew Chirwa (red jacket) officially opened the congress on Wednesday.

Responding to the walkout, Numsa spokesperson, Phakamile Hlubi-Majola said that the agenda of the Western Cape and some locals from Ekurhuleni was to collapse the congress. “The agenda here was not about participating. I think the agenda here was about collapsing the congress because if it was participation, they would have stayed,” she said.

“We held a special central committee yesterday and they were in that meeting and other regions. We discussed this and we resolved as the organisation that we are going to appeal the judgement [because] there are aspects of the judgement that are simply impractical. They have made an allegation that we have not complied with the court judgement and it would have been impossible to fully comply with the judgement in the short space of time. There are elements of the judgement that make no sense. For example Judge Moshoana said the central committee of Numsa has no right to place Mpumalanga under administration. That was an error. Mpumalanga as a region is dysfunctional; in fact, they asked to be placed under administration because they have intense internal battles and the level of dysfunction in that region means that the workers are not being serviced. So, if we were to do what Justice Moshoana said in full, it means that Numsa would have to abandon the workers in Mpumalanga and that is a decision that a union cannot possibly make,” said Hlubi-Majola.

Meanwhile inside the venue, Numsa’s general secretary, Irvin Jim told the delegates that if those who staged a walkout feel strongly about the decision to go ahead with the congress then they must appeal.

Numsa’s first deputy president, Basil Cele said that the congress was quorate, with the inclusion of those who walked out.

The congress has been compressed to three days and the election of the new national office bearers was completed on day. Irvin Jim has been re-elected secretary-general and Andrew Chirwa, president of the union.