Court dismisses expelled NUMSA official’s urgent application

“The fact that the applicant wants the matter heard urgently does not make it urgent” says judge

By Tania Broughton

24 August 2023

President of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) and former deputy president of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), Ruth Ntlokotse, has lost her urgent legal bid to set aside her expulsion from NUMSA. Archive photo: Annie Cebulski

Expelled former second deputy president of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) Ruth Ntlokotse has failed in her legal bid for an interim order to set aside her expulsion from the trade union and have it declared unlawful.

This means that her Presidency at the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) also hangs in the balance and, in all likelihood, she will be removed from the position.

Ntlokotse was expelled from NUMSA in early June this year, following internal disciplinary proceedings.

Ntlokotse has been outspoken against the leadership of NUMSA, including general secretary Irvin Jim. She said during a press conference in July that the current NUMSA leadership was corrupt and was not acting in the interest of its members.

Jim has been under fire for, among other things, hosting a birthday party paid for by the union-owned funeral insurance company 3Sixty Life. The company has since been placed under curatorship.

Last month, Ntlokotse approached the High Court in Johannesburg with an urgent application to have her expulsion set aside. This was pending the outcome of an application to review the decision.

But when the matter came before Judge Avrille Maier-Frawley on Thursday, Advocate Mark Meyerowitz for NUMSA said the case was not urgent and Ntlokotse could obtain substantial redress “in the normal course”, when the review application is heard early next year.

For the court to grant urgency, he said, Ntlokotse would have to show that if the application were not heard today, “all will be lost, the bomb will have gone off and the ship would have sailed”.

He said she failed to show that anything will happen between now and early next year. “She says she will not be able to participate in NUMSA and SAFTU activities. But even in cases, where employees have been fired in breach of their contracts, the courts have found that urgency is not justified and they will be recompensed in due course,” he said.

“If this court finds grounds to grant urgency, every dismissed employee will automatically get an urgent hearing and the labour courts have specifically warned against this.”

Advocate Sinclair Nhlapo, for Ntolokotse, argued that his client’s Constitutional rights were at risk, and that she had a right to associate and participate in the union of her choice, which she had done since 2006.

He referred to the outcome of a recent SAFTU NEC meeting, in which it had resolved to take legal advice, and await the outcome of this hearing before finally resolving what to do about Ntolokotse.

“SAFTU is waiting for the outcome of this urgent application, which is the prudent response. If this is just dismissed on the basis of urgency, Ms Ntolokotse will be expelled from SAFTU,” he said.

Judge Maier-Frawley said in order for the matter to be heard on an urgent basis, Ntolokotse was required to outline explicit circumstances for why she would not get substantial redress at a later hearing.

“The test is not whether she will be inconvenienced…the fact that the applicant wants the matter heard urgently does not make it urgent,” the judge said, striking the matter from the roll.

In a media release dated 24 August, SAFTU said its NEC had debated at length over the expulsion of Ntlokotse. “The federation remains neutral and will not take the side of the President against its affiliate NUMSA.”

SAFTU stated that should the High Court affirm the decision of NUMSA to expel her, the Federation would have no choice but to abide by the decision, which means the President will no longer be able to lead. In this case, a special NEC should be convened to take this inevitable decision.

“A debate has become necessary going forward. SAFTU is a democratic federation … the members have a right to participate in this democratic organisation. A debate should be taken as to how SAFTU should engage with this principle when its autonomous affiliates take decisions that may undermine the very nature of SAFTU as a democratic formation,” the statement said.