Business Maverick


Does Numsa actually know the damage it is causing in the Eskom strike?

Does Numsa actually know the damage it is causing in the Eskom strike?
Irvin Jim, General Secretary of Numsa. (Photo: Flickr)

How tiresome it is to be writing about Eskom again. How long does this have to go on? Who is to blame? It just seems to be endless.

Despite the endlessness of this debacle, however, it’s important to note that a big change has taken place this week. The warning by Eskom that it is moving from Stage 4 to Stage 6 for the first time since 2019 is not because of wet coal, maintenance issues or State Capture. 

The difference is that this time, the cause is industrial unrest. And there is a difference about the industrial unrest because it’s illegal. Eskom employees are defined as essential workers, since electricity is an essential service.

On the surface, it seems like just another of SA’s huge number of industrial actions. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) is demanding a 12% wage increase, while the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has demands ranging between 8% and 10%. Solidarity is demanding 5.9%. Eskom has revised its offer upwards of 5%.

But there is much more going on here. 

Numsa ‘shop steward’

My colleague Ed Stoddard reported last week about someone Numsa described as a “shop steward” at one of Impala’s platinum mines who was murdered a week ago by two gunmen. The man’s name was Mahlomola Hlothoane.

Read in Daily Maverick: Implats secures five-year wage deal with Amcu; Numsa member murdered in Rustenburg

But then the story got much more complicated because Impala searched their records and discovered that Hlothoane was not employed by the company. 

Apparently, he was a freelance labour organiser who got paid — like so many others — for recruiting union members. Numsa claims he does work for one of Implats’ suppliers, but this is not the crucial issue.

Union membership in the platinum sector is extremely high, so it’s not as though Hlothoane was recruiting miners who are not members of any union; he was recruiting members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and trying to get them to cross over and become Numsa members. 

Think about what that means. This is not a situation where the battle is between management and workers. SA’s labour relations are about rival trade unions trying to poach each other’s members. And union leaders, we presume, take this so seriously that they order a hit on anyone trying to go that route.

Union business

As I have written in the past, trade unions in SA are only secondarily concerned about wages and work conditions. They are, first and foremost, businesses. And if you are going to go into this business, you have to sleep with your pants on. SA’s union leaders are tough-minded multimillionaires.

The reason for the increased tension between Numsa and Amcu is obvious. Now that Numsa is outside Cosatu, it no longer has the high-level coverage once supplied by its political allies in the ANC. 

Increasingly, it seems to me, Numsa and its leader Irvin Jim are falling in with the RET crowd. 

It’s worth noting too that Amcu, the now very powerful breakaway from the NUM, has just signed a five-year wage deal with both Anglo American Platinum and Impala. That must irk Numsa.

Part of the tragedy revealed by the Zondo Commission, although it has always been pretty obvious, is that the ANC’s factional battles spilled over into state-owned enterprises.

ANC factional battles

What we are seeing now is the ANC’s factional battles at a union level finding their way into labour relations — and that is not good news. 

I wonder three things about Numsa’s Eskom strike. 

Do they know what kind of pain they are causing ordinary people who will struggle to make supper tonight? Or keep their homes warm. Kids will not be able to do their homework. Nobody will be watching TV. And all the other things electricity brings to life. 

Which leads to the next thing: do they know what kind of damage they are doing to Eskom? To demand a 12% increase of an organisation that is functionally bankrupt is just ridiculous. 

And the third thing is this: do they know what they are doing to themselves?

Trade union membership has been sliding across the world. In the US and a bunch of other countries, trade union membership is less than 10% of the workforce.

The reasons are complex, but one reason does stand out — communities just gradually get sick of it. It would be fabulous if trade unions had sensible mandates and kept management honest.

But, actually, all they do is cause havoc and hurt everybody, including themselves. BM/DM

LATE UPDATE: Eskom and the unions on Tuesday said negotiations were going well and called on workers to return to work. Read the latest here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dragan KostaKostic says:


  • virginia crawford says:

    Do you union bosses become millionaires anywhere else on the planet? No. The unions are corrupt businesses now: they control all contracts and tenders at mines! A very lucrative enterprise which is why it’s so hotly and violently contested. It’s also a system of capture. I suggest union finances be investigated – let’s crowd fund forensic auditors/ investigators – and banks be pressured into scrutinizing their accounts. I am sympathetic to unions but not to this crowd of self serving parasites. Eskom should be firing people for incompetence, negligence and corruption, not giving them an increase. They have destroyed thousands of jobs and tons of good had been ruined over the years. A curse on them.

    • Dragan KostaKostic says:

      Stop blaming the unions for South Africa’s problems Corrupt big business is responsible

      Every year big business, mostly transnational corporations illicitly park hundreds of billions of dollars out of the reach of tax and other regulators. This is what is referred to as illicit financial flight. It is estimated that 80% of illicit financial outflows is composed of the proceeds of tax evasion and laundered corporate transactions and not drug trading, racketeering, counterfeiting, contraband, and terrorist financing. The most important component of illicit outflows is trade mispricing that is the mis-invoicing of international trade transactions with the ultimate purpose of diverting financial resources.

      Does it make you happy that companies like Glencore Hitachi and Black and Vetch steal your money ?

  • Franco Esposito says:

    Is this another Marikana in the making? Is this strike another expression of RET sabotage?

  • William Kelly says:

    Its exactly a mirror image of government. Use the ‘people’ to grab your ‘share’ of the cash. Its endless cash, and poor people are, after all, just convenient but disposable covers for the grab to ensure #1 is looked after. And now we propose amnesty? Yeah. Its going to end well innit?

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    Many of SAs trade unions are toxic and are de facto mafias. Government has been in bed with them for so long it seems like they are unable (or unwilling?) to deal with a destructive force in SA’s economy. Finally, the statement that “Numsa and its leader Irvin Jim are falling in with the RET crowd” explains a lot. What they are doing is criminal and yet they will probably get away with it.

  • Trevor Thompson says:

    I have no issue with the concept of unionisation or collective bargaining. I do have a problem with:
    illegal strikes, uncontrolled strikes, looting, intimidation, violence. I also agree with the postulation that unions are run as multimillion rand enterprises with money being siphoned off away from workers, who should be the main beneficiaries.
    There is evidence of links between the money flows and organised crime – and government.
    If anything needs to be tightened up quickly in this country it is the politicisation of unions for nefarious ends.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The unions’ actions at Eskom have other worker effects too. At our factory complex we have partial generator capacity. This week the owner of a factory that employs over 200 women confided that without the generator the past year, they would have shut their doors for good. There are very many businesses that don’t have generators that have shut down due to loadshredding. The union bosses should put up a slogan that they destroy jobs.

  • Sheda Habib says:

    I have noticed that Irvin Jim, from the many, mostly nonsensical comments he makes, is a destroyer of jobs, a suppressor of workers and now a destructionist as well.
    Live by the sword, die by the sword is a saying he should take note of.

    • Dragan KostaKostic says:

      Ivan Jim warned about this long time ago !

    • Dragan KostaKostic says:

      NUMSA tried to help fix Eskom but their offer was refused !

      14 December 2019
      It is against this background that NUMSA calls on the President to take drastic measures against the board and ensure that Eskom has leadership with the necessary requisite skills. In the immediate the President must convene a meeting of NUMSA, NUM, Solidarity and all competent Engineers from Eskom with one item on the agenda: to put together a team consisting of Eskom engineers including all those who have been marginalised by the current leadership and those who left but have solid knowledge on how to save Eskom. Their task must be to end load shedding with immediate effect.

  • R S says:

    We should start referring to unions as “union mafias” since that’s what they are.

  • Pierre Strydom says:

    Unionism in SA has long ago lost it’s morality. Under the veneer of “ workers rights” lies a cold- blooded capitalist quest to recruit members by whatever means. At the end of the day, if a union has a majority, it controls the provident fund which can be anything between 16-20% of the payroll. That is over and above the membership fees (small change) and contract extortion (not small change).

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Unions are, in my opinion, an important part of society. However, most SA unions are leeches and are only pretending to represent the labour force. Like our political ecosystem requires a total overhaul, so do the unions. As far as Irvin Jim is concerned, I wouldn’t trust this man further than he can throw a shadow.

  • Easy Does It says:

    The workers deserve a fair increase irrespective of the financial condition of the entity. The money for the increase has been stolen and the Unions themselves were the ones supporting the thieves. Their job now is to also support the HAWKS and the NPA and spill the beans because they themselves are not innocent. I cannot condone the strike but spcertainly believe they also need a salary increase.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    The question is not if they ‘know’ … the question is do they ‘care’ ? Like the ANC in its lust for control of all aspects of the ‘state’ … while pretending to be about a ‘better life for all’ … they revealed their true intentions with state capture !

  • Trevor Pope says:

    To put the 12% demand into perspective, it is worth noting that the average wage at Eskom is around half a million Rand a year, (from the annual report) and the lowest paid general worker takes home more than a junior teacher (if I recall correctly). So these are not poverty stricken workers. Various studies have benchmarked staffing levels at Eskom at excesses of between 60% and 120% of comparable utilities elsewhere. So we are being held to ransom with the complicity of the ANC.

  • Gerhardt Strydom says:

    “Eskom must be saved, …” I am quoting myself, if I may. In the same breath, allow me to add: “… on the basis that resources must be allocated and spent, with independent oversight, to bolster the electricity generator’s capacity to deliver.” We can argue this history of the problem, and we would probably differ on it’s nature, but can we agree that we need Eskom, and we need it to be healthy and functional – the big question is “How do we achieve this?” Perhaps we should allow or empower the current Eskom chief to deploy his vision, with the aid of the current COO.

  • Gerhardt Strydom says:

    To strike or not to strike. Perhaps Shakespeare did not battle with his question, but I believe that our society has seen the option of striking as a tool to ‘get more’. The question has two parts, perhaps: “Are workers paid a fair wage, bearing in mind what they contribute and, in terms of what is affordable to the employer?” I don’t know of a single person who is content with their salary, or their bank balance. Yes, I know there probably are such mystical creatures out there, who believe they ‘have enough’ or they are ‘treated fairly’ – I just have not met any of them. I have one belief, the only one principle that really works for me: “Do waht you want, exercise your personal choices, but do not harm anyone in the process.” It is the last bit of that statement that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth when it comes to ‘asking for more’ whilst withholding services essential to the country.

  • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

    Does NUMSA actually care?

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