29 October 2012

South Africa: War Is Not Going to Return NUM to the Top


On Saturday, leaders of NUM, Cosatu and the Communist Party marched in Rustenburg to reclaim the territory. The march didn’t exactly go as planned; the tactic of confrontation rather than talks rarely brings lasting results. To find its way back to the top of the mining sector, NUM will have to do much more than just fight.

On 16 October, several thousand workers gathered on a hilltop inside of Gold Fields’ sprawling KDC West operation just outside of Carletonville.

It was the day that the company handed down an ultimatum to all workers: quit striking or lose your jobs. Company reports stated that most obeyed, but about 1,500 didn’t. They were waiting for Senzeni Zokwana, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to come and formally make them an offer.

It was one actually made by the Chamber of Mines on behalf of the company, but the striking workers wanted their union to make the offer.

Zokwana had also apparently promised to come and speak to the workers.

What he didn’t seem to grasp was that this was Last Chance Saloon for NUM. He didn’t pitch up, but his opposite number – a fierce rival at the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) – did. Joseph Mathunjwa met the miners and managed to convince most of them to join his union.

Then came reports claiming that NUM had been booted from the premises.

Management had come around and locked the offices, we were told, and the union was suspended because more than 90% of the staff had joined AMCU.

It sounded quite improbable. For one thing, unions are usually given about six months to regain their 50% + 1 majority before losing the status of bargaining partner. Phone calls to the company and NUM quickly quashed that rumour. But the fact that the workers we phoned wanted us to believe that the old union was dead and gone away was telling in and of itself.

In many of the places where wildcat strikes have broken out, we have gone to talk to people, and very few of them are willing to entertain NUM anymore. At Lonmin, the sentiment is one of profound hatred. What had happened is that the old union negotiated a pay rise last year. Then a demand for R12,500 sprang up, and somehow the miners believed that AMCU were the people who could get it for them. Not NUM, whom they thought were a block to a better wage. That’s quite amazing. Things got to a point where people like Daluvuyo Bongo, the NUM secretary at Lonmin, were murdered.

The demand that NUM must go is an integral part of many of these wildcat strikes. The atmosphere in the area has been anything but peaceful. The decision by Cosatu to march in Rustenburg was therefore always a brave one, but not necessarily a clever one. Predictably, it didn’t go well.

NUM people got engaged in a heavy physical struggle with striking Anglo Platinum workers. The rally only went ahead because of a heavy police presence that forced NUM's way through to the Olympia stadium.

Just before the rally commenced, Cosatu said: “Right at the heart of where the mining crisis began – Rustenburg – on 27 October 2012, we will be convening a Workers Rally, which will kick-start with marches on various challenges that beset our society. Through the Workers’ Rally, we will mobilise our members to stomp the length and breadth of the country, mobilising society towards solidarity protests which will be anchored around the Section 77 Notice, whose primary aim is to achieve radical transformation in the economy through the full implementation of the Freedom Charter.”

From the perspective of the striking Amplats workers, the decision by NUM and Cosatu to march in their newly-established turf was a declaration of war. The union is seen to be on the side of the companies and the government, and thus inherently opposed to the demands of the workers. Can they really be surprised that they were greeted with rocks and jeers?

It would have been a better idea for Cosatu and NUM to try to reclaim their majority and privileged position in the mining sector by negotiating their way back into the hearts of the workers. Exactly the things that they haven’t been doing since the uprising began.

At the rally on Saturday, South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande said, “NUM is the only best capable union to represent mineworkers in South Africa.” But is it for him to say? The rejection of the “only best capable union” has been strikingly clear.

Cosatu’s aggression is understandable in the face of the persecution of its local leaders. The deaths of men like Bongo cannot go unanswered.

But the march did not purport to mete out justice. Rather, it claimed the far more difficult task of regaining lost ground by reclaiming jaded and disillusioned hearts. And as such, it couldn’t have been a bigger failure. It simply served to reinforce the narrative of belligerence and arrogance that the workers have written of the mineworkers’ union.

If Cosatu and NUM are serious about reclaiming the platinum belt, then they need to go to the workers hat-in-hand and ask them how they want to be represented. The time for issuing orders and platitudes is over. If they don’t, AMCU will make sure that the workers know that the ANC-affiliated unions called for the police to arrive, rather than for the workers to get what they wanted. The very same way every miner in the country will find out that the NUM is supporting SAPS application to the Farlam Commission.

The truth is that AMCU is untested as a union. But NUM has been tested and failed, and workers are clearly raring for change. It will be almost impossible for NUM to force its way back to the hearts of the miners it lost.

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