In Marikana over the past seven years, the NUM union has been a highly endangered species which some observers may have regarded as extinct. So on Sunday 17 November it was like a flock of dodos had suddenly appeared on Mauritius when busloads of NUM members clad in their trademark red shirts arrived at a community hall in Marikana for a rally.
The date is not without significance as it is the birthday of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, NUM’s founding leader who was a Lonmin director when the Marikana massacre took place in August 2012 during a violent wildcat strike against the now extinct platinum producer.
The mood it must be said was light-hearted ahead of the rally, with a small group of NUM members toi-toiing on the street in front of the venue, which was monitored by a heavy contingent of police. One man in the green shirt of Amcu strolled past but there was no no sign of an impending brawl between the rival unions.
NUM had hoped to hold the tally at the Wonderkop stadium where Amcu holds its rallies, but the union could not get permission to do so. The community hall appeared to have been a compromise.
NUM’s intentions in holding the rally were clear: it wants to show it won’t be intimidated and to start clawing back the ground it lost to Amcu in 2012, when the latter dislodged it as the dominant union on the platinum belt. Amcu’s allegation was that NUM had become too close to capital and management. NUM maintains that Amcu used violence and intimidation to muscle its way into the platinum shafts, and that it has held its ground through such gangster methods.
Both unions deny the allegations they level at each other, but they hardly seem far-fetched. Amcu strikes are almost always violent affairs, while NUM’s founder famously become a rand billionaire.
There is also a air of menace around Marikana. A NUM member was gunned down two weeks ago, and those who live in Marikana spoke of their fears.
“When you are a NUM member in Marikana you are like an animal. About this rally, we want to pass a message: Give us a chance. Don’t kills us. Even if you kill us you will never kill NUM,” Zamile Gasa, 38, a NUM shop steward at Marikana, told Business Maverick.
Seated in the local library ahead of the rally, NUM president Joseph Montisetse said in an interview that NUM has been “outclassed by violence” in 2012.
“The meaning of this rally is to encourage our members in this area start robust recruitment,” he said. A national task team will monitor the union’s progress in Marikana.
Outside the community hall, Isaac Gaonakalu, Bojanala regional secretary with the alliance partner of both NUM and the ANC, the SACP, said workers want to join the union but are scared of the potential repercussions.
“People are willing to join NUM but intimidation and threats in this area are too high. No one in South Africa can be told there is a no-go area,” he said. Amcu might retort that its own members have also been slain in recent years.
The ANC was also represented, with former ministers David Mahlbo and Senzeni Zokwana – the latter a former NUM president – in attendance. The union rivalry in many ways mirrors South Africa’s turbulent politics. Amcu is not officially allied to any political party, but its African nationalist ideology and strident calls for class conflict make it a union proxy for the EFF.
The rally’s speakers included Lizzy Monene, the sister of one the policemen killed in the violent days that preceded the 2012 massacre by police. They are often the forgotten victims of that chilling week.
“We were never heard, we were silenced, it seemed our loved ones deserved to die,” she said.
It remains to be seen how this new recruiting drive pans out. Three-year wage deals have just been signed with the main platinum producers, which all unions in the sector have accepted. Against that backdrop, what can one union offer that would entice someone to cross over? Certainly not a better wage package, at least for the next three years. And the platinum mining workforce is in decline. Indeed, Sibanye-Stillwater, which now controls Lonmin’s old assets, is in Section 189 talks regarding lay-offs at the Marikana mine.
But for unions, a shrinking workforce raises the stakes. If your pool of potential members is in decline, you want every union card you can lay your hands on. BM