20/20 vision for the kingdom of the blind.
31 October 2014 18:13 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane

From the NUM's ashes, AMCU will rise and rise

  • Sipho Hlongwane
The writing is on the wall for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Whatever the outcome of the widespread unprotected strike action in the mining industry, they are very unlikely to survive with their reputation or vast numbers. They are repeatedly being singled out as the baddies in this long, sorry saga, and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is sweeping in after them because the workers trust them and think that they are on their side. The myth of the world ending in 2012 may be suspect for the rest of us, but the NUM should be very afraid. 

Most workers downed tools on Thursday at Marikana after the police harassed them for days and arrested their leaders. They were determined not to go back to work unless their demands were met, with firm determination to make Friday a complete stay-away.

At the KDC West operation of Gold Fields, many workers did not report to work by the deadline of 14:00 on Thursday – the time set by the company following a court interdict declaring the industrial action unprotected. The workers faced immediate dismissal and the twin crises looked hopeless.

Yet by Thursday night, workers at KDC West and Marikana were prepared to go to work on Friday. The catalysts for change on both these occasions were the interventions of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). At both places, all it took was one meeting, and a promise. Right now, the angry miners trust the new union far more than they do the establishment, which includes the companies they work for, the old unions and the government. 

While AMCU may have been happy to take a back seat in the immediate aftermath of the Marikana massacre, it has upped its presence in recent weeks and the rewards have been immediate. 

In Marikana, following the arrest of several people who were prominent in the wildcat strike, workers were genuinely angry and threatened to go on strike once again. (We all know how it ended the last time.) However, an AMCU representative and the union’s lawyer managed to convince the people that another strike wasn’t the sensible way to reach their objectives. They convinced Marikana’s workers that the new union would represent them competently. 

At the KDC West operation of Gold Fields in the West Rand, a similar exchange occurred. When we arrived on Thursday afternoon just before the deadline was due to end, the word was that the strike would not end unless the demands of the workers were met. We were told that for work to resume, all workers would need to be bumped up one pay grade, all suspended workers would need to be rehired, and that those arrested some hours before in a night raid by the police would have to be released. We talked not only to the strike committee members, but other Gold Fields employees who repeated the same message to us. The distinct impression we got was that the wildcat strike wasn’t about to end any time soon.

We were about to leave when a Mercedes Benz sedan pulled up towards the meeting area. As it drew closer to the crowd, they began to cheer wildly. The AMCU general secretary, Jeffrey Mphahlele, had apparently arrived. We were too far away to see if it indeed was him, but at least three separate sources identified him as the man in the car.

According to Aubrey*, who was at the meeting area at the time, Mphahlele managed to convince the Gold Fields workers to go back to work on Friday. He said that AMCU would be able to fight on their behalf provided that they all quit NUM and joined the new union. The workers agreed to that, and said that they would go back to work with the belief that their new labour representatives would be able to negotiate the R12,500 net pay that they consider to be the final prize. 

The acceptance of AMCU could not have been more different to the hostility with which NUM president Senzeni Zokwana was spoken of. He was described by various miners as a thief, a liar and a stooge for “the white bosses”. 

To say that NUM is distrusted at KDC West would be an understatement. 

The same thing happened at Marikana. The Cosatu-affiliated union was seen as conniving with the bosses to undermine workers. On Tuesday, a strike committee member who called himself Pro said that they no longer trusted NUM because it was compromised. “We do not want to be represented by people who have shares in mining companies,” he said. “Do you know what happens when they go and negotiate for us? They are told, ‘If we give these guys so much money, what will happen to your shares?’ So we want to be represented by people who go down the shaft with us every day and know what our daily lives are like.”

According to the Mail & Guardian, the salary of NUM general secretary is in the region of R1.4 million a year, putting him far above an ordinary mine worker.

The M&G said: “NUM general secretary Frans Baleni has come under fire for a whopping R40,000 increase in his salary, taking it to R77,000 a month, while ordinary mineworkers are struggling to make ends meet. If you add travel expenses, a housing subsidy and pension, Baleni earns more than R1.4-million a year, more than double that of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. The increase, which is likely to raise eyebrows at the union’s national congress at Gallagher Estate next week, makes Baleni one of the highest-paid unionists in the country.”

If we were to consider the R12,500 per month demanded by miners to be a gross pay, Baleni would still be earning about six times more on a monthly basis before allowances. 

The dislike of NUM runs deep. According to the SABC, only 20 people showed up at the memorial service of Daluvuyo Bongo, the local secretary for the mineworkers union who was killed some days ago in Marikana. 

The union can no longer legitimately claim to be speaking with one voice with the workers it ostensibly represents.

On Wednesday, President Jacob Zuma announced a plan that would finally and conclusively tackle mining crisis. It had several glaring holes in it. Although AMCU was supposedly represented at the talks, the union’s influence was not felt in the final document. That raises questions about the union’s ability to affect change in the mines across Gauteng, the Free State and the North West, never mind a somewhat airy policy document at the highest office in the executive wing of the government. 

Right now, there is no question that AMCU has almost universal approval at trouble spots. The real test for the union will, however, be its ability to secure at least one company or operation where it has a clear majority, and then deliver on worker demands. It has a clear chance to do so at Lonmin and Gold Fields, where NUM is desperately floundering in the mud and unable to convince the workers that they should stay with their old union.  

It has been very easy for AMCU to piss on the tent from outside. Once the long-wanted power finally arrives, though, it remains to be see what they will do with it. DM 

*Full name not disclosed at his request

  • Sipho Hlongwane
sipho hlongwane BW

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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