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LABOUR PAINS

NUM suspends General Secretary William Mabapa amid reports of internal probe

NUM suspends General Secretary William Mabapa amid reports of internal probe
NUM General Secretary William Mabapa. (Photo: Twitter / @NUM_Media | Image sharpened with AI)

The man who made peace with rival Amcu is no longer in charge of the National Union of Mineworkers, raising questions about labour stability in the mines.

For the first time in its four-decade history, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has suspended its general secretary. William Mabapa was suspended with pay by the union’s Nation Executive Committee on 26 July amid reports of an internal investigation into the alleged mismanagement of funds. 

NUM spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu confirmed Mabapa’s suspension but told Daily Maverick that he could not disclose the reasons. An acting general secretary has not yet been appointed and the union’s next elective conference is not scheduled until 2025.  

According to a report in Business Day, Mabapa has been subject to an investigation related to the alleged mismanagement of funds which has divided the union.  

The newspaper reported that he is suspended with full pay pending the outcome of the probe in apparent relation to his authorisation of a delegate’s flight from the Eastern Cape to attend a conference of the union’s youth wing in Johannesburg. The report said Mabapa’s supporters in the NUM had dismissed the charges as “absurd” and “frivolous”.  

Mabapa became deputy general secretary in 2015 and then stepped into the top role, initially in an acting capacity, when General Secretary David Sipunzi died suddenly after a short illness at the end of 2020. It is the first time in the union’s four-decade history that it has suspended a general secretary, a post previously held by the likes of President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe.  

An earthy unionist who had worked his way up the ranks, Mabapa has a plain-speaking style which seemed to resonate with the NUM rank and file. His legacy includes ending the brutal turf war with the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which in 2012 dislodged the NUM as the dominant union in the platinum shafts against the bloody backdrop of the Marikana Massacre.  

Mabapa and Amcu’s firebrand president, Joseph Mathunjwa, struck up an unlikely rapport that saw the unions bury the hatchet, paving the way for a new era of labour stability in the mining sector after years of often violent unrest. This reduced a major risk factor to investment in South Africa’s mining sector. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Unions once again present united front — this time in Sibanye wage talks 

The two unions in recent years united with others to seal multiyear wage agreements with mining houses, mostly without any industrial action or bloodshed. One big exception was a prolonged downing of tools last year at Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold operations, but at least that was peaceful, in stark contrast to past mining strikes.  

If Mabapa’s suspension becomes permanent, it will raise question marks about NUM-Amcu cooperation in the future, which could have chilling implications for labour stability in the shafts.  

NUM infighting also has political implications ahead of the 2024 elections. The NUM has long been a key political ally of the ruling ANC, and Mabapa, it must be said, often seemed to take less interest in politics than his predecessors. A divided and rudderless NUM does not bode well for the ANC at a time when its political star is already failing along with the withering state the party presides over. 

The NUM certainly has noble elements in its history, including its role in the struggle against apartheid and the fight to provide black mineworkers with dignity and union recognition after decades of ruthless exploitation. 

But labour now finds itself being undermined on a number of fronts, including the corporate embrace of the ESG – or environmental, social and governance – agenda. South Africa’s mines are no longer the death traps they once were, and the workforce has had more than two decades of wage increases that have exceeded inflation. With less to fight for or against, the NUM now seems to be fighting internal battles. DM

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