Labour Appeal Court rules NUMSA suspension of Ntlokotse unlawful

Accreditation of delegates at the union’s national congress last year also found invalid

By Tania Broughton

29 November 2023

NUMSA’s central committee arrogated powers to itself to suspend leader Ruth Ntlokotse last year, the Labour Appeal Court has ruled. Archive photo: Annie Cebulski

The Labour Appeal Court, sitting in Johannesburg, has ruled that the suspension of National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA) second deputy president Ruth Ntlokotse last year was invalid.

The court ruled that the accreditation of delegates who attended the union’s national congress in July last year was also invalid.

Acting Judge John Smith, in the ruling handed down this week, said the union’s central committee had wrongly placed Ntlokotse on suspension and had “on a whim” arrogated powers to itself that it was not entitled to in terms of the union’s constitution.

Read the judgment here

Ntlokotse, who has now stepped aside as SA Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) president, maintained that her suspension and subsequent axing (which she is challenging in court), the suspension of other members, and the decision by the central committee to place the Mpumalanga branch under administration, were politically motivated – a witch hunt against those challenging the way the union was being run.

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

She told GroundUp the appeal court ruling would now pave the way for further court action in which she and others would seek to set aside all elections and decisions taken at last year’s national congress.

“I might have been the face of this court action, but it was not about me. Staff and shop stewards are still facing disciplinary hearings. This judgment will bolster our pending case,” she said.

Court battles

Last year, just ahead of the conference, Ntlokotse and others secured a court order from Labour Court Judge Graham Moshoana, interdicting the conference until the union had complied with its constitution regarding accreditation. The judge also ruled that Ntlokotse’s suspension and that of 52 other members was not lawful, nor was the decision to place its Mpumalanga branch under administration.

NUMSA took this on appeal.

Judge Smith has now affirmed that Ntkolotse’s suspension was unlawful because the decision was taken by the central committee, not the national executive committee, as per the union’s constitution.

He also ruled that the accreditation of delegates by the central committee, not an accreditation committee, was also unlawful.

“The central committee is bound to act within the four corners of the constitution and is not allowed, at its whim, to arrogate to itself powers specifically assigned to another constitutional structure,” the judge said.

The union’s constitution was “unambiguous”.

He found in favour of NUMSA with regard to the suspensions of the other 52 members, ruling that these had been done correctly.

Regarding the Mpumalanga region, he said NUMSA had provided compelling reasons for the central committee’s decision to suspend the regional committee and take over its administration, in that for two years it had not been able to hold regional congresses.

Judge Smith said it was conceivable that circumstances might arise that required the central committee to intervene in the union’s best interests.

Ntlokotse said this issue would be raised in the pending court action “and we shall demonstrate that the collapse was engineered to steal the national congress”.

Earlier this year, Ntlokotse failed in an urgent application to overturn her axing from the union. Her main application to review and set aside this decision is also pending before the court.

In a statement, NUMSA welcomed the appeal court judgment, saying it had clarified the powers of its constitutional structures following confusion created by the Moshoana judgment.