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17 December 2017 16:10 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

South Africa: No country for new unions

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

The events in Marikana this year raised new and important questions for all South Africans who are concerned with our political trajectory. Based on last week’s no-show, the NUM and the ANC have provided a perfect opportunity for Julius Malema’s continued participation as the people’s hero in Marikana. The community is now a no-go area for the ANC at a time when a Mathunjwa-Malema alliance could give real teeth to the EFF project by providing it with a home base beyond Malema’s Limpopo province. The question remains, why would the ANC allow this to happen? The answers indicate that, in their eyes, SA is no country for new unions.

Many of us who watched the massacre on television last year believed that it was the result of a police operation gone wrong. As such, we thought that the Farlam Commission would simply be a tactic to “protect a government from popular outrage,” by putting off the inevitable admission of police culpability before ultimately indicating at some distant point in the future that better police training would be necessary to prevent another tragedy of these proportions.

If this straightforward interpretation were correct, then why would the ruling party and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) have boycotted the commemorative events?

Carol Paton has argued the state demonstrated callousness in dealing with the families. Paton is onto something, but I don’t think she goes far enough. In addition to callousness, the state and the ANC have demonstrated absolute contempt towards the families whose husbands, sons and fathers were gunned down by the police. The question is, why? Where does the contempt come from and why is it so stubborn in the face of public sentiment to the contrary? What would the ANC and the NUM have lost by showing up and demonstrating their empathy for the fallen miners and their families last week?

In order to answer these questions it must be clear that the state’s refusal to provide Legal Aid to the families of the miners, and the refusal of the NUM and the ANC to attend the commemorative ceremonies represent a single coherent act. Although one decision (the refusal of legal services) was carried out by a state organ, and the other (the boycotting of the event) by political structures, they both position the miners as enemies of the state and/or the party. The families – the wives and sisters and brothers of the miners who were killed by the state – have been treated as though their husbands and sons were terrorists rather than citizens with rights to representation and freedom of association.

To understand why a group of men who earned between R2,000 to R4,000 a month could become seen as enemies, you must first know the story of Joseph and Gwede and the battle for the soul of the NUM. If you have not heard the story (it is no secret, it was covered by a number of press outlets in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, but has not been referenced often since then) it will be hard to understand that the seeds of the Marikana massacre were sown 15 years ago when a fiery young man called Joseph Mathunjwa was dismissed from the Douglas Colliery in Mpumalanga.

Mathunjwa was enormously popular as the leader of the local branch of the NUM and his dismissal in September 1999 led to a massive strike. Three thousand workers took over the underground sections of the mine for two weeks in protest against his dismissal, halting operations through their show of solidarity for their leader.

The mine was forced to reinstate Mathunjwa, but he was faced with disciplinary action from the union bosses of NUM in Johannesburg. So serious was Mathunjwa’s infraction that he was called to order through a disciplinary process that was chaired by the general secretary of NUM, one Gwede Mantashe. The process that Mantashe presided over led to Mathunjwa’s expulsion from NUM.

Mathunjwa’s departure from the union under these acrimonious circumstances triggered a mass resignation. The 3,000 men who had backed him against the mining bosses were the first recruits to the new formation that Mathunjwa set up. Thus the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) was created.

In the decade since it was officially registered, AMCU has eaten considerably into the traditional membership base of NUM. At the same time, NUM has undergone significant changes. An in-depth report in MiningMx notes that NUM’s members are “literate, well spoken and wealthy compared to the general workers and machine operators underground.”

AMCU’s membership on the other hand, comes from the ranks of those employed by mining contractors, the most insecure labourers in the market.  Even within the traditional mining houses, AMCU’s membership has grown. It is now present in five provinces and is growing rapidly, especially in light of its public role in Marikana.

In the months leading up to the Lonmin strike the tensions between AMCU on the one hand, and NUM and Lonmin on the other, were palpable. Despite AMCU’s control of the majority of the workers, NUM had (and continues to have) considerable political clout. In addition to having Mantashe on side, Cyril Ramaphosa (who sent “dastardly” emails on behalf of Lonmin) was a member of the company’s board and served as the first Secretary of the NUM. As such, Lonmin’s intransigence in dealing with the striking AMCU workers was understandable: the company had two of the most powerful members of the new elite on their side, and if Ramaphosa’s emails are anything to go by, they had access to many more.

Where does this story lead us? It is clear that sides were chosen in the Marikana battle long before the police marched in to quell the violence. The massacre was about the very legitimacy and survival of AMCU and NUM and the police were used by the ANC in much the same way that one might instruct a private militia to protect the interests of its members. Rather than forestalling further violence, the use of force by the police in Marikana sent a strong and chilling message to AMCU.

Irrespective of these theories, which will need testing through a legitimate and objective process, based on last week’s no-show, the NUM and the ANC have provided a perfect opportunity for Julius Malema’s continued participation as the people’s hero in Marikana. The community is now a no-go area for the ANC at a time when a Mathunjwa-Malema alliance could give real teeth to the EFF project by providing it with a home base beyond Malema’s Limpopo province.

This background is important as South Africans collectively try to understand the meaning of Marikana.  It also might explain why a President who has never missed a populist moment was in Malawi shaking hands with Mugabe while an angry nation mourned. DM

For a fuller analysis of AMCU and NUM acrimony, see The Rise and Rise of AMCU, on the MiningMx website and Marikana shows dangers of populist leaders by Carol Paton on the Amandla website.

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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