Cosatu and its embattled affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), launched plans to fight back on Wednesday. But even as battle plans were revealed, in the guise of demands for revision to a two-year deal for coal and gold miners that was inked last year, it’s clear NUM must begin a process of negotiation with its own members first – and that it must reconcile itself with its intended purpose. By KHADIJA PATEL.
The last time the National Union of Mineworkers hosted a press briefing at their headquarters in Johannesburg, General Secretary Frans Baleni and president S’dumo Dlamini both accused Julius Malema of attempting to manipulate the crisis in the mining industry for his own nefarious ends. And while Malema certainly appeared to be doing his best to rile up the NUM leadership, it was rather curious that the union preferred to focus on Malema when there was clearly so much more going on in the mines quite apart from the former ANC Youth League leader.
And the fact that NUM appeared to be unable to look past Malema and the possible political manipulations of the unrest in the mines added credence to analysts who have long derided NUM and other Cosatu-affiliated unions for focusing on ANC politics at the expense of what they are actually supposed to do, namely representing workers.
In 2010, the University of Pretoria’s Professor Sakhela Buhlungu earned the ire of Cosatu when he claimed in his book A Paradox of Victory that Cosatu had neglected its membership and internal structures to focus on political matters. Buhlungu felt that union leaders had become too alienated from their members.
“The power of the union was supposed to be in the hands of members: people working in the factory, the mines, the shops, not full-time officials, like I once was. There was a time when that was strong; it was not perfect. It was messy, but strong. Now, there are those that sit in the background completely. Very seldom do you hear a union president, who is supposed to be a worker, speaking on these issues,” he said.
Accusing Buhlungu of grounding his assessment on media reports, a Cosatu statement in 2010 responded to his criticisms, saying, “The media always headline controversial political statements by union leaders, but they never report on the hard, daily work the unions do, representing their members in negotiations with employers at the workplace on bargaining councils, defending unfair dismissal cases at the CCMA and labour court, arguing in the sectoral chambers of Nedlac, and much, much more.”
But just last month Zwelinzima Vavi himself was forced to concede that Cosatu-affiliated unions had lost touch with its founding objectives. “We have fallen far short of the targets set by the  plan, to a significant extent because of our own failure to implement agreed plans and programmes,” Vavi wrote in a report ahead of Cosatu’s national congress. “Part of the reason for this is an insufficient focus on the core business of the federation because of an overemphasis on political contestation.”
And if Vavi felt the duality in purpose of Cosatu, then Marikana demonstrated to NUM, as Cosatu’s biggest union, the dangers such a contradiction pose to itself, the federation and the ANC.
In this context, the joint press briefing on Tuesday morning appeared to be a public declaration of the first tentative step towards addressing that imbalance. And instead of Malema, it was mine bosses that NUM had earmarked for blame this time around.
NUM general secretary Frans Baleni expressed concern that the Marikana mine killings in August, as well as the ongoing violence in the Rustenburg area generally, had shifted the blame to platinum bosses, who he claimed had “systematically undermined collective bargaining and promoted division among workers” when they conceded to demands made outside of the established bargaining process.
The chief culprit, according NUM and Cosatu, is Impala Platinum, who created an expectation among workers at other mines for similar increases; as well as the precedent set in resolving the Lonmin dispute, for the illegal strikes that were spreading across the mining sector. Now, many will argue that it is rather novel for a trade union to actually be complaining about wage increases earned by workers, but it is clear that NUM is reacting to a sense of dwindling power.
Last Saturday, Vavi is reported to have addressed striking mineworkers at Gold Fields’ KDC West mine, promising that NUM would lead the way in fighting for better wages for workers in all mining sectors.
And on Wednesday Vavi, speaking alongside NUM, said a two-year deal for coal and gold miners that was inked last year urgently needed to be rewritten to avert further unrest. He insisted that “negotiations on wages and conditions of employment be reopened, or that the existing agreement lapsing in 2013 is brought forward.” The request then translates to mine owners renegotiating up to 120,000 workers’ contracts a year before they are due to expire.
NUM also appears to have wised up to the feelings of detachment among workers, and indicated all workers would be consulted on the renegotiation process.
“We have developed a programme to address and consult with all mineworkers on this process,” they said.
The request is set to be made to the Chamber of Mines on Wednesday, but as Anglo Platinum warns of job cuts amid a protracted wildcat strike, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no simple solution to the mining unrest.
Inequality, poverty and unemployment have been bugbears of development, but they have also made for highly adversarial bargaining relations – as we’re currently witnessing in the mining industry and elsewhere. Besides the mining strikes and the highly charged truck drivers strike, Toyota workers affiliated to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) in Durban are also on strike and refuse to back down on their wage demands. The challenge for NUM, then, in calling for a renegotiation of wage agreements in gold and coal sectors and a collective bargaining system in platinum, is to ensure that the ensuing negotiation process protects wages and also ensures better treatment for contract workers.
In uncertain economic times, bargaining process is a lot more than a wage negotiation; it is also a social dialogue, facilitating social stability and hopefully avoiding job losses. It’s a dialogue Cosatu affiliates also need to have internally. As Buhlungu says, “A strike is a sign of power. You can bring everything to a halt. But it can also be a sign of weakness and desperation. When members become intimidating and violent, it indicates serious weakness. It means the members haven’t been socialised properly into the ways of the organisation.” DM
Photo: Cosatu’s Zwelenzima Vavi (Reuters)
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine