The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA)


The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) was launched in May 1987 at a three-day congress in Crown Mines, Johannesburg. NUMSA was formed as a result of a merger of metal workers’ unions in the run-up to the launch on 23-4 May 1987. The union was the second largest labour union within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), with approximately 130,000 paid-up members, second to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), with 261,901 paid-up members. As of 2015 they are the largest union in the history of the African continent with over 360,000 members.  

Four metal-workers’ unions merged to form NUMSA from the engineering, steel, energy, motor, and auto and tyre sectors, some of whom had formed unions in the 1960s and 1970s. These include the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), the Motor Industry Combined Workers Union (MICWU), the National Automobile and Allied Workers Union (NAAWU), and the United Metal, Mining and Allied Workers of South Africa (UMMAWOSA). The largest portion of NUMSA membership was made up by MAWU with 70,000 members, while MICWU brought in the second largest number of workers with 40,000 members. The third largest union to merge with NUMSA was NAAWU, which contributed 23,977 members. Two other COSATU unions also ceded their metal-worker members to NUMSA, the General and Allied Workers Union (GAWU), and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).

By 1983 MAWU was the largest trade union in the country with 80,000 members, but it was unable to make any meaningful impact on the metal industry as a whole. It was this consideration that led to the formation of NUMSA.NUMSA aimed to unite all metalworker unions, engineering unions and automobile manufacturing unions in the same formation. NUMSA’s strength was to forge a national metal worker’s identity as a union which transcended geographical and cultural divides through a strategy which was able to mobilise workers at a national level. The administrative failings and weaknesses of unions were to be resolved through uniting at a national level.

The union’s origins can be traced back to the 1973 Durban strike-wave, the so-called ‘Durban moment’, where 61,000 workers embarked on a series of unprecedented wildcat strikes which set into motion a series of events which gave birth to the modern South African trade union movement. The spontaneous wave of strikes in Durban led to the renewal of union activity in the country. The state was unable to stem this renewal, and indeed it conceded that Black unions were here to stay when it appointed the Wiehahn Commission, and implemented the commission’s recommendations to allow Black unions to become registered for the first time since 1956.

The years from 1973 to 1985 saw a surge of unionism unprecedented in South African history. The Trade Union Advisory Co-ordinating Committee was formed later in 1973, and got a huge injection of members following the strike wave early in the year. The launch of the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU) in 1973 was followed in 1974 by that of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). The formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) in 1979, of which MAWU was a founding member, and of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985, saw the union movement move from strength to strength, eventually becoming a major force in the dismantling of the apartheid structure.

During the 1980s, a series of debates took place in the trade union movement between so-called “workerists” and “populists” which involved many key activists and intellectuals who would play a crucial role in the foundation and development of NUMSA.  Steven Friedman, a key figure in these debates, defines ‘Workerists’ as those who ‘wanted a union movement independent of the ANC and its ally, the United Democratic Front (UDF). They feared that a nationalist political movement would use workers and unions for its own ends ”” if the labour movement became its ally, unions would become a “conveyer belt” for the ANC, doing what it wanted rather than what workers wanted’. Populists were those who believed that ‘the biggest problem facing workers was white minority rule ”” only the ANC and its allies could defeat it and so their “workerist” opponents were playing into apartheid’s hands by weakening the fight against it’. According to the veteran unionist and former-NUMSA member Dirk Hartford, ‘the workerists generally congregated around the principle of worker independence and control, and embraced a variety of political tendencies including revolutionary Marxists, syndicalists and even anarchists’, while populists ‘congregated around the principle of loyalty to the ANC-SACP alliance, and included African nationalists and SACP members’.

NUMSA and its predecessor MAWU were generally seen to be on the ‘workerist’ side of the debate, but it was the populists who eventually won the debate, leading COSATU to an alliance with the UDF in the form of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) in 1988.  Later COSATU, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC formed a bloc that was to become known as the tripartite alliance.

The engineering sector strike, in which between 16 000 and 20 000 workers in the Eastern Cape are expected to take part, could see wheels screech to a halt in the automotive and component manufacturing sector, said National Union of Metalworkers of SA(Numsa) Eastern Cape’s Vuyisile Makupula.Source

After the formation of NUMSA in 1987, the member unions moved out of their old head offices into Cosatu House, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in order to centralise the administrative functions of the unions. With approximately 130,000 paid-up NUMSA members, Daniel Dube was elected the first President of NUMSA in 1987, holding the position until 1991. David Madupela was elected NUMSA’s first Vice President, while Percy Thomas was elected Second Vice President. Moses Mayekiso, who was serving 33 months in detention, was elected Secretary-General in absentia in 1987. In December 1988, he was released on R10, 000 bail and in April 1989 he was acquitted and took up his Secretary-General post. NUMSA was the first union to recognise the need for dedicated resources to focus on the conduct of campaigns both in its own ranks and in COSATU. In 1988, for example, it was involved in the ‘Release Mayekiso Campaign’, the anti-Labour Relation Act (LRA) Campaign, and the Living Wage Campaign.

In addition to these campaigns, NUMSA embarked on a series of initiatives aimed at strengthening organising at a local and regional level, as well as in its national head offices. The key part of this process was the unification of organisations in the regions among the different unions that formed NUMSA. It was during this move that the MAWU and NAAWU reputation for strong worker came to prominence under the NUMSA identity.

NUMSA’s rise and rise

In 1993, under the leadership of Moses Mayesiko, a figure always scornful of compromises with nationalists, NUMSA passed a motion proposing that COSATU should split from the tripartite alliance after the Constitution was finalised, to form a workers’ party. This motion eventually was defeated at a COSATU congress. Opposition to it was spearheaded by NUM, then COSATU's biggest union, and NUMSA eventually backed COSATU’s support of the ANC in the 1994 elections

In the post-apartheid period, the union supported the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) as a policy to address poverty and inequality in South Africa. The Reconstruction and Development Programmewas a South African socio-economic policy framework implemented by the African National Congress(ANC) government under the leadership of Nelson Mandela in 1994. The ANC's main aim in developing and implementing the RDP was to address the huge socioeconomic problems produced during the apartheid period. From its beginnings, NUMSA initiated a series of industrial actions, with members demanding better wages, better working conditions, and other benefits such as housing allowances.

In 2010, workers in the retail motor industry and petrol attendants affiliated to NUMSA joined a nationwide wage strike in an attempt to force their employers to meet their demands, which included a 20 percent wage increase. Other NUMSA demands included a 4.33 percent annual bonus, a 15 percent afternoon shift allowance, a 20 percent night shift allowance, reduction of the working day to 40 hours per week without loss of pay. NUMSA also demanded that all labour brokers be banned. The strike ended with the signing of a three-year wage agreement. Petrol attendants would receive an increase of 10 percent in 2010 and 9 percent in each of the next two years. Workers in the component manufacturing sector would receive a 10 percent increase in 2010 and 8 percent in each of the next two years. Workers in other parts of the industry, such as panel beaters, would receive a 9 percent increase in 2010, an 8 percent increase the next year and a 7 percent increase in the third year.

In 2011, about 170,000 workers from NUMSA, the Metal and Electrical Workers Union, and the SA Equity Workers Association embarked on countrywide industrial action. The workers demanded wage increases of 10 to 13 percent and a ban on labour brokers. Several other unions from the chemical, transport, petroleum and energy sectors joined the strike. In the end, NUMSA agreed to a settlement offer by the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA (SEIFSA) and other employers. The settlement included a possible wage increase of 10 percent for general workers.

In 2013, workers at the BMW plant in Pretoria went on strike demanding a wage increase of 20 percent across the board, but the demand was lowered to 14 percent. The company, BMW, was offering a 10 percent increase plus R1.07 an hour for the first year”š and then inflation-related increases plus a further R1.07 an hour for each of the following two years. The strike spread to major car manufacturers across the country, including the East London-based Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA) plant – which employed close to 1,700 blue collar workers at the time – and the Uitenhage-based Volkswagen SA (VWSA) in the Eastern Cape.

On 1 July 2014, thousands of NUMSA members in the metal and engineering sector went on strike in Johannesburg demanding a living wage, and more than 220,000 metal workers went on strike throughout the country. NUMSA’s demands, presented in a memorandum to SEIFSA and the National Employers Association of South Africa (NEASA), included a total ban on labour brokers, as well as a ban on the implementation of the Employment Tax Incentive in the metal, engineering and steel industry, and Numsa demanded a housing allowance of not less than R1, 000 per month.

NUMSA and the Crisis in COSATU


By 2013, it was clear that COSATU was facing the biggest crisis in its history, its largest affiliate, the NUM, had effectively collapsed in the Platinum Belt after the Marikana massacre and lost tens of thousands of members to a rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union(AMCU). COSATU was paralysed by disputes between NUMSA and allied unions, an alliance centred on the figure of COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, and unions seen as closer to the president of COSATU, Sdumo Dlamini. The conflict came to a fore in March of 2013, when there was move forwarded by the NUM at a COSATU CEC (Central Executive Committee) meeting to expel Vavi for his perceived undisciplined and factional stance towards the ANC. This move failed as the majority of affiliates remained unwilling to support such a move, which could potentially trigger a split in the trade union federation.

Secretary-general Irvin Jim summed up NUMSA’s political position: ‘We have always said the government should implement fully the Freedom Charter. From where we are sitting, it is suicidal to allow the continuation of the special type of colonisation we have in South Africa – where the coloniser is inside the country. Basically you have white monopoly capital, corporate multinationals and the white population who dominate the South African economy. The Freedom Charter in this case is very clear. It says mineral wealth, the soil, banks and monopoly industries must be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole. That is the cornerstone for non-racialism and non-sexism. To leave the existing economic conditions intact is basically to allow racial supremacy to continue.’

Before its expulsion in November 2014, NUMSA was the largest COSATU affiliate, and COSATU has been in the Tripartite Alliance with the SACP and the ruling ANC. Since the first democratic elections in 1994, NUMSA had been supporting the alliance with the intent to improve workers’ lives through forming a relationship with the ANC in which the worker’s movement could influence government policy. The union had respected individual members’ rights to vote for the political party of their choice. NUMSA had announced on several occasions that it would reassess this alliance to see if it was achieving this objective. Since 1994, NUMSA has become known within the Tripartite Alliance for its refusal to remain silent on controversial ANC policies such as the 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy(GEAR) – especially its promotion of privatisation and its failure to end mass poverty in South Africa. As of January 2014, NUMSA was the biggest metalworkers’ trade union in South Africa, with more than 339,567 members, affiliated to COSATU, the largest trade union federation in South Africa.

In March 2013, NUMSA threatened to organise mass action over the National Development Plan (NDP), which the union sees as a product of ‘neoliberal’ ideology – against the interests of workers. NUMSA leaders raised concerns that the NDP was a deviation from the Freedom Charter and the RDP. NUMSA regards the NDP as a failed neoliberal version of the 1996 GEAR policy, and the NDP would leave intact and protect the power relations of colonialism of a special type in post-1994 South Africa.

In December 2013, during a Special National Congress the union elected to withdraw from the Tripartite Alliance and cease its political and financial support for the ANC and SACP –however, they decided to remain in COSATU. Other resolutions taken at the congress included a call to recruit members from other sectors which had traditionally been the domain of other COSATU affiliates such as NUM; a call to establish an investigation and discussion centering around building a movement for socialism; and calling for the launch of a United Front against neoliberalism together with social movements and progressive elements of ‘civil society’.

The resolutions taken at the congress set NUMSA on an inevitable collision course with the leadership of COSATU and several of the other affiliate unions most affected by NUMSA’s expansionist strategy – wooing members of COSATU affiliates. The NUM and the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers' Union (CEPPWAWU)in particular campaigned vehemently for NUMSA to be expelled.

Later in 2013, information was leaked to the media to the effect that that Vavi was facing rape charges after he had allegedly secured a job for a young woman and had sexual relations with her in his office in January 2013. Vavi claimed the relations were consensual and that the woman had tried to extort R2-million from him, in return for keeping quiet about their affair. On 14 August 2013, Vavi was suspended by COSATU, but after a lengthy legal challenge to his suspension he was reinstated on 4 April 2014.

NUMSA was officially expelled from COSATU on 11 November 2014 after a COSATU special CEC meeting. At the meeting there were 33 votes against NUMSA's expulsion and 24 in favour. After NUMSA's expulsion, seven other COSATU unions suspended participation in COSATU in a protest against the expulsion of the federation's largest union – these included the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (DENOSA), the South African Football Players Union (SAFPU), the Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (PAWUSA) and the Communication Workers Union (CWU). A faction of the South African Municipal Worker's Union (SAMWU) – called the Save our SAMWU (SOS) campaign which arose after many SAMWU leaders were suspended from the union after raising serious allegations of corruption against the leadership – also joined the seven other affiliates.


The process of forming the United Front (UF) – called for in NUMSA's 2013 resolutions – began in December 2014 at a summit in which a National Working Committee of 20 persons was formed; the United Front has since embarked on several campaigns in 2015. NUMSA proposed that the Movement for Socialism has yet to lead to the formation of a new socialist political party. In 2014, shortly after the expulsion of NUMSA from COSATU, ex-NUMSA president and close ally of COSATU president Sdumo Dlamini, Cedric Gina, announced the formation of a new metalworkers’ union, known as the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa (LIMUSA). LIMUSA has applied to join COSATU.

NUMSA’s current leadership consists of Andrew Nditshe Chirwa as the president, Christine Oliver as the first deputy president, Basil Cole as the second deputy president, and Irvin Jim as the secretary-general, supported by Karl Cloete as deputy secretary-general. Mphumzi Maqungo is the National treasurer.

• Fogel, B, “COSATU a House Divided”, Amandla Magazine available at[accessed on 27th March 2015]
• Forrest, K, (2011), Metal that will not bend: The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, 1980-1995. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
• Friedman, S (2013), “COSATU standoff revives battle of 30 years ago” in Business Day, Available at [accessed on 27th March 2015]
• Munusamy, R. (2014) Numsa strike: it’s about politics, stupid! In Daily Maverick, Available at: [accessed on 4 March 2015] 
• Staff reporter (2010). Numsa strike against retail motor industry ends, Mail & guardian online, available at:[accessed on 4 March 2015]
• Terblanche, S., (2014). South African labour scene set to change dramatically, from The Intelligence Bulletin, 05 November [online]. Available at[Accessed 21 October 2010]
• South African History Online, COSATU, from South African History Online [online] available at [accessed on 27 January 2015]

Last updated : 01-Apr-2015

This article was produced by South African History Online on 01-Apr-2015

Support South African History Online

Donate and Make African History Matter

South African History Online is a non profit organisation. We depend on public support to build our website into the most comprehensive educational resource and encyclopaedia on African history.

Your support will help us to build and maintain partnerships with educational institutions in order to strengthen teaching, research and free access to our content.