South Africa

A NUM-sized headache, and no-one else to blame

By Mandy De Waal 24 October 2012

NUM swears blind it is not suffering any kind of credibility crisis, despite rising unrest and conflicting reports of whose interests are being served. The denial runs deep, but given workers’ attitudes, the union is in for a very dramatic wake-up. By MANDY DE WAAL.

“The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)? We’ve lost all faith in them,” Anglo Platinum wildcat strike leader Evans Ramokga tells Daily Maverick. He explains that workers have presented a memorandum of demands to the union’s branch leaders, but that they never even responded.

Ramokga and his comrades escalated their concerns. “We went to the region and asked them if they can come and help us, because we told them the branch that controls us doesn’t have any contact with us. Even the region didn’t come back to us.”

This kind of complaint is one you hear frequently in the North West. There are many different variations, but ultimately mine workers are saying pretty much the same thing over and over again.

One Amplats striker told this journalist that there was a period when workers felt proud to wear the NUM T-shirt in the streets. But he said that time had gone, and that people who risked walking around Marikana with that T-shirt risked being attacked.

A former NUM leader, speaking to Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity, said the problem was that the union lacked leadership: “Everyone can see there is lack of leadership. They could have handled the Marikana saga differently. What they needed to do was to call all stakeholders, irrespective of who was involved, to find a resolution in the interest of stability. You need injection of leadership. What I observed is reluctance to respond to the situation. When they are in crisis, people take to hiding.”

“NUM is in big trouble, and it is not an AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) issue. It is a NUM issue, because the union has lost credibility amongst mineworkers,” says political analyst Justice Malala. “The 300,000-plus members that it says it has on its books… I wonder what the true picture looks like. I think that NUM is imploding, and out of the claimed 300,000 or so members, its real membership is probably a lot more like 150,000.”

Malala says mine workers in Rustenburg may be paying their dues to NUM, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are loyal to the union. “What we have seen on the mines is independent direction coming through. At Implats (Impala Platinum’s Rustenburg mine) AMCU made some headway, but at Lonmin and Amplats what we saw was the organic emergence of leadership that drove the wildcat strike movement.”

But despite what people on the ground are saying, and what analysts declare, NUM doesn’t believe it’s got a problem. “We don’t believe that NUM has lost credibility. If you look at the so-called loss of credibility, there are a number of factors involved, especially in Rustenburg. People there were taught what to say, and when to say it. One of the things they were taught to say is to utter that they are not aligned to the NUM when, in actual fact, the opposite is true. If people are not uttering what they are taught to utter in those areas now, they are threatened,” NUM’s spokesman, Lesiba Seshoka, explains to Daily Maverick on the phone.

“We will regain control,” Seshoka says of Rustenburg and the North West, where wildcat strikes have undermined the National Union of Mineworkers’ credibility. “The first thing is that the violence must go away. We will have a show of force in Rustenburg and we will bring everyone from the NUM to Rustenburg. We will capture and retake Rustenburg to ensure the hooligans come out running.” His tone, ahead of the 27 October march, is upbeat and brim-full of confidence.

But labour lawyer John Brand firmly believes that it is going to take a hell of a lot more than a road show to sort the situation out. The Bowman Gilfillan partner, who assisted with the formation of NUM and was involved in legitimising collective bargaining in the seventies, thinks South Africa needs a radical overhaul of its labour laws and practices to fix what is a disturbing, systemic problem.

“There’s no doubt that NUM has lost credibility and standing. I don’t think anyone disputes this,” says Brand, adding that the complex range of reasons for NUM’s implosion includes the union’s alienation of its membership and its growing bureaucracy.

He believes a core problem was the exclusive centralisation of collective bargaining which ignored the interests of distinct communities of workers (like rock drill operators), who no longer got the attention they wanted. “NUM has a policy of non-differentiation between categories of workers, and the union insisted on a uniform increase for all workers at Implats,” Brand says.

Brand states that centralised collective bargaining played a decisive role in the strike violence that broke out at Implats at the beginning of 2012. Management wanted to pay rock drillers and skilled miners more because this class of workers was in short supply. “Rock drilling is very arduous and very difficult work. These workers are lowly graded even though the market is demanding that they be paid more.”

With skilled workers in short supply, the wage impasse meant that Implats was losing its miners hand-over-fist to other employers in the Rustenburg area. Implats wanted to stop this, and so a perfect storm was created where NUM was fighting to hold down the wages of these categories of workers by demanding an across the board, one-size-fits-all deal.

Once a deal was struck between the mine and the union, Implats couldn’t differentiate between workers. “On my information, Implats approached NUM and implored them to do something, but NUM wouldn’t budge. That’s when AMCU stepped into the breach.

AMCU was established in 1999 by Joseph Mathunjwa, who was fired from NUM after a dispute with ANC heavyweight Gwede Mantashe. This story is detailed the Miningmx Mining Yearbook which states that after Mathunjwa was dismissed, all 3,000 workers at the colliery, where he was a shop steward, held a sit-in. The 1999 occupation of the Douglas Colliery in Witbank lasted 10 days.

Two high-ranking NUM officials went to investigate and found Mathunjwa innocent. He was reinstated and the occupation was ended. But Mantashe demanded a disciplinary, and the man who went on to found AMCU was given the boot for bringing NUM into disrepute.

“Mathunjwa was, however, very popular among the workforce. Among other notable successes, he forced the management of Douglas to implement a bonus system for underground workers. When a worker had died under mysterious circumstances, Mathunjwa forced management to not only deliver the body to the family in Mozambique, but also to accompany the body and explain in person the circumstances surrounding the death,” details Miningmx. And so AMCU was born when the entire colliery workforce of 3,000 resigned from NUM.

After it was registered as a union in 2001, AMCU retained Mpumalanga as its strongest region. “I think the North West is growing strongly. The numbers (there) may soon overtake the membership in Mpumalanga,” Mathunjwa told Miningmx. In a recent interview with Mining Weekly, Mathunjwa claimed a membership of 50,000 and turnover of R700,000 a month.
Back to Implats, where Brand says the allegation is that shop stewards turned a blind eye to Implats giving a bonus to the miners. The rock drill operators heard about this and were furious, lambasting NUM for holding down their wages, but allowing miners to get more money. In February and March this year AMCU stepped into the breach and won influence at the mine.

“The learning is that if you over-centralise bargaining, you can’t look after distinct communities of interest, and the unions become over-bureaucratic and removed from the actual workplace,” says Brand.

Despite this, NUM and its federation, Cosatu, refuse to listen to experts and evidence regarding the damage that centralised bargaining is doing to South Africa. Au contraire, bargaining is becoming even more centralised.

“You have this situation where in order to maintain their position and keep AMCU out, NUM is colluding with employers to establish a platinum bargaining council. This will only remove them even further from the ‘coal face’. I am not saying that there isn’t a place for centralised bargaining, but what’s happened in South Africa is that centralised bargaining has become corrupted,” Brand explains.

Centralised bargaining is supposed to deal with flaws, or setting minima below which wages are not supposed to fall. This was to be supplemented by allowing actual and greater amounts to be negotiated with distinct communities of interest. This dual system was used in South Africa up until 1995 when it Cosatu did away with the employer’s duty to bargain at an enterprise level.

“Prior to ’95, there was an open-ended unfair labour practice jurisdiction that presided in the labour courts. Lawyers acting for the union brought cases on behalf of unions like NUM and argued that it was an unfair labour practice for an employer to refuse to negotiate with a representative in an appropriate bargaining unit, being an appropriate community of workers,” explains Brand. “We won those cases and established a duty to compel employers to recognise unions and negotiate with them.”

“For reasons that remain inexplicable to me, Cosatu did away with that duty and said that they believed that the right to bargain should not be won through the courts, but should be done through the use of power through strike action,” he adds. The problem, however, is that South Africa’s working class is relatively weak, having emerged from centuries of colonialism and decades of Apartheid. Labour action is not as effective here as it is in other parts of the world, where the collective muscle is more powerful.

“This is why South Africa has the highest number of strikes in the world and the most violent strikes. Workers are hopelessly trying to improve their lot with strike action in a situation where capital is much more powerful than they are.” The local unemployment rate and poverty only adds to this power.

Brand says a record of national strikes in 2011 showed that in all but one minor exception, workers lost more than they gained in strikes. “They lost so much that in some cases they will never recover it, and in others it would take them three to four years.”

After 1995, employers pulled out of voluntary bargaining councils and demanded that unions abolish the two-tier system. “Cosatu agreed that whatever was agreed at a centralised level was the end of the story, and that unions would not seek any better at enterprise level,” says Brand, adding: “This was manna from heaven for employers who then fixed actual wages at the lowest common denominator for the strongest employers, but at the highest level for lower-grade workers.”

The decision has had a major impact on competitiveness and unemployment in the sector, because it has effectively locked emerging miners out of the industry, decreased competition and increased unemployment. “By setting a wage that is too high to manage, you keep employers from moving into the marginal mines and emerging miners from coming into the market,” says Brand. But the union looks good because it is setting a minimum floor wage which is relatively high.

“The collective bargaining system is in crisis, and I don’t see any signs of change; if anything, the problem is being aggravated because dissatisfied people are not being heard at the bargaining table,” Brand argues.

Brand tells Daily Maverick that the irony of NUM is that it was started by Cyril Ramaphosa, who brought down the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA) which had been around for about forty years, precisely by appealing to rock drillers and by paying attention to distinct groupings or grades of workers. TUCSA was white, removed and had alienated itself from workers on the shop floor, and created a vacuum that Ramaphosa stepped into. The founder of NUM grew in power as he focused on enterprise-level negotiating and zoned in on particular work groupings like the rock drillers.

Another problem with NUM is that once unionists become shop stewards, their employee grading is changed. “They can immediately be elevated… On a worker’s standard this makes a shop steward fairly wealthy. They get smart cars, mobile phones, and a nice office.” Brand says this contributes to NUM shop steward becoming alienated from the work forces.

Then there’s the issue of living conditions. “Although rock drillers may appear to be relatively well paid, the reality on the ground is that they suffer enormously because of the service delivery failure in areas like Rustenburg.” Another issue is NUM’s allegiance to the tripartite alliance which sees it clumped with the ANC, councillors and mayors who fail to adequately deliver local services.

NUM’s Seshoka seems unconcerned. When asked about the dire conditions that miners live in that have contributed to the rebellion against NUM on the North West, Seshoka says: “We are in the process of establishing a commission of enquiry with the mining houses to make sure we find out what the real living conditions are together, so that we can correct this.” Then he changes tack, and directs some mud at AMCU.

“I was told that at Impala our guys were visited by five guys who said to them, ‘Resign your membership of NUM or else when we come back we are going to kill you.’ They are AMCU guys, those five guys,” Cosatu’s spokesperson adds, admitting that being a union is quite a lucrative business.

Daily Maverick asks about the firing of a shop steward at Lonmin’s Karee mine in May 2011, an event many see as the first tension point in the build-up to the Marikana massacre. Workers downed tools on Thursday 17 May, bringing the mine to a standstill, to protest NUM’s dismissal of local branch leaders. The entire workforce at Karee (some 9,000 workers) was fired exactly a week later.

“You must also look at it this way. The shop stewards were fired at Lonmin’s Karee mine… well, the reason for that is because the NUM has a constitution that people must use as the basis for their operation,” explains Seshoka, adding: “There you have someone who had run office for more than five terms, which is not a problem as long as people have still got a mandate to do that. But the one who had lost the mandate to run for office… well, this person carried a gun, moved around and threatened everyone that there would be no NUM conference to elect a new leadership. We had to make an intervention, discipline the person and fire him.”

What followed in the wake of that decision, says Seshoka, was an escalating level of violence. “People being threatened, and being given forms to fill in for AMCU. That cannot be said to be a loss of credibility. And discipline needs to be carried out whether people like it or not. Leadership is about carrying out unpopular decisions.”

A very unpopular decision NUM made in recent times was to recreate itself as an investment corporation and to get into bed with the mining companies. Union levies are automatically deducted from workers’ pay, and in 2011 the NUM got some R209 million from 310,820 members. The union has an investment trust (the Mineworkers Investment Trust) and an investment company (the Mineworkers Investment Company). Then there’s a property company, Numprop, which is also owned by the Mineworkers Investment Trust.

Author, academic and political analyst William Gumede calls NUM’s leaders ‘management’. “The NUM leadership is now in top management. Its leaders occupy senior leadership positions in the ANC, business and government,” Gumede told Mail & Guardian.

“They own shares in the mines. Ironically, the decision to reinvent itself has become its Achilles heel. Worse, the mining companies have not done proper empowerment of their mineworkers in the past or offered them a stake in the mines. Instead of empowering the miners, they empower black economic empowerment types who are politically connected with the ANC elite,” adds Gumede.

Despite NUM’s denial regarding investment in mining sectors, it has been verified that Numprop is in bed with Xstrata in Limpopo’s Burgersfort in a development project called the Tubatse Estate, which is valued at some R750 million.

Meanwhile the Mineworker’s Investment Company (MIC), established in 1995 by the Mineworker’s Investment Trust “to create a sustainable asset base for the benefit of mine, energy and construction workers and their dependents”, is doing serious business. MIC’s value rose 80% to 2,2bn during the 2011 financial year. MIC was started in 1995 with a mere R3 million worth of seed capital from NUM’s investment trust.

Malala says miners might not be seeing MIC’s balance sheets, but they are seeing the fancy cars and the accruements that come from working for what is a very wealthy organisation. “Most of their leaders of the NUM are relatively well educated, relatively at the top of the earnings pile. What you have is that you have a trade union movement with managers, because these unionists earn managers’ salaries.”

“In the case of MIC, there you have an entity which makes loads of money. Many of the leaders sit on the board and so take home very tidy board remuneration. (Frans) Baleni (NUM General Secretary) makes R1,4 million a year, so it is inevitable that there is a divide between the well-heeled, and the workers.”  DM

Read more:

  • One Marikana after the other unless underlying causes tackled, says labour doyen in Mining Weekly;
  • The rise and rise of Amcu in City Press.

Photo: A man looks on as he and striking miners listen to an address by their leader at the AngloGold Ashanti mine in Carletonville, northwest of Johannesburg October 19, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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