Political opportunists like Julius Malema were quick to descend on the situation but the roots of the tragic events that led up to the deaths of so many people at the Lonmin mine at Marikana last week, go much further back than the recent protest. They can be directly linked to the ongoing power struggles in the ANC that started at its 2007 national conference in Polokwane.
Joseph Mathunjwa, leader of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), whose members are said to have been, the workers involved in the violent clash with the police, was a former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at BHP Billiton’s Douglas Colliery. He was apparently forced out of NUM by its then general secretary, Gwede Mantashe, now ANC secretary-general and one of President Zuma’s most loyal allies.
The entire labour component at the mine opposed Mantashe and NUM’s decision at the time and went on an underground sit-in lasting more than a week. Manstashe’s then deputy, Archie Palane, defused the situation, but Mathunjwa’s expulsion remained in force.
In response he launched AMCU and successfully recruited members on coal, platinum and chrome mines. AMCU gained a strong presence in the platinum fields of North West, especially in the Rustenburg region.
Shortly afterwards, in the Zuma-led revolt, former President Thabo Mbeki was removed at Polokwane. The charismatic and popular Palane, tipped as a favourite to succeed Mantashe in NUM but, seen as a Mbeki supporter, was also pushed out of NUM.
Allegedly Mantashe was instrumental in changing NUM’s constitution to disqualify Palane from the leadership contest on technical grounds. AMCU workers at platinum mines claim Palane had always represented them in NUM and his removal left them without a voice in the union. NUM had allegedly stopped taking care of their needs and demands.
These workers lost all faith in NUM claiming it had also grown far too cosy with mine management. Mathunjwa and AMCU quickly stepped in to fill the vacuum with extravagant pay increase promises, as was the case at Lonmin.
At NUM Frans Baleni, another Zuma supporter, instead of Palane, succeeded Mantashe as general secretary. These events, and particularly the loss of support for NUM at platinum mines, are also seen as the manifestation of allegations that for the past two decades Cosatu has been more concerned with political and economic issues and trying to dictate policy to government than dealing with shop floor organisation and everyday labour issues.
In steps Malema
The politics and power struggles of the ANC alliance have also been taken a step further by last week’s tragedy.
Julius Malema, who as leader of the ANC Youth League clashed with Zuma and Mantashe, has been without a political platform since his expulsion. This past weekend he quickly claimed the political space created by the incident, siding with the AMCU workers, slamming NUM and calling for Zuma’s head.
Amidst fears that the violence could spread to other mines or even other industries, Malema was quick to exploit this tragedy and arguably instigating more violence. He is known in the region, having previously addressed some very well-attended Youth League rallies there, and actively sought rapport with communities in the kind of impoverished informal settlements in which many of the Lonmin workers live.
The tragedy presented Malema with a golden opportunity to secure a new political platform outside the ANC. He is the only politician who has thus far been able to directly address the workers.
Already some of the workers at the mine have been quoted in the media saying that they endorse Malema’s call for nationalisation.
Aubrey Matshiqi, a research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation, told the Mail & Guardian: "I think the people of Marikana, particularly the miners, see themselves as the manifestation of the gap between mineral wealth and socio-economic conditions. The death of so many miners has amplified the extent to which Julius Malema's views on mine nationalisation resonate with the people in the area."
Malema also said the police were unjustified in opening fire on 'defenceless workers', ignoring the array of deadly weapons they carried.
Most disturbing has been his call on the striking Marikana mine workers to die for their cause, calling on other miners to join them, saying “many people will die as we struggle for economic freedom”.
The question is whether this amounts to incitement of public violence in a highly volatile situation and whether any action will be taken against him.
Review of labour laws
In the wake of Thursday’s tragedy, labour relations experts and non-Cosatu union officials across the board were calling for a review of labour laws to prevent the discrimination between unions that they believe largely contributed to last week’s tragedy.
Current labour legislation, including the issue of recognition of unions by employers, was designed by ANC law-makers with a bias in favour of entrenching Cosatu dominance, arising from the labour federation’s slogan at the time of “one industry, one union”.
That has stifled free competition from other non-Cosatu unions and has made it very difficult for employers to create structures in which they can negotiate with other unions.
Current labour legislation dictates that a union with membership of 50% plus one in a specific workforce category can insist that employers negotiate with it exclusively. That is how NUM originally achieved sole recognition on the platinum mines.
Cosatu has recently strongly opposed calls by labour experts, employers and other unions for changes to the Labour Relations Act, arguing that it will undermine collective bargaining.
At the Impala Platinum mine not far from Lonmin, NUM membership fell below 50% this year as AMCU gained ground. But NUM has delayed attempts to obtain independent verification of its membership numbers, having even tried stopping the process in the Labour Court.