by Piet Coetzer

Tough times ahead on labour front

ANC/Cosatu relationship in urgent need of review

Deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe's mine-accord seriously threatened

The intimate relationship between the governing African National Congress and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) since the run-up to the first fully democratic elections in 1994 and the subsequent formal “governing alliance”, is increasingly emasculating government on the labour front. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe's stakeholders agreement for a sustainable mining industry is in grave danger of becoming its next casualty.

In the Leadership Intelligence Bulletin of 26 February this year we wrote: “Despite an accord reached last week between the department of mineral resources (DMR), the Chamber of Mines and certain trade unions – seek, and commit to, a framework for peace and stability in South Africa’s troubled mining sector – lasting peace and labour stability seem unlikely, unless deeper structural and legislative labour relations are addressed soon.” 

The legislative and structural reforms called for are not in sight yet and since the February accord, signed by the Chamber of Mines, the SA Mining Development Association, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), Uasa, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA and Solidarity has there not only been a number of illegal strikes but also a number of deaths in union rivalry-related attacks.

Tellingly the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), established in the run-up to last year’s violence at Marikana during which 44 people were killed, is now, among others, asking for the inclusion in the agreement of an admission that the tripartite alliance between the ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) creates “a fundamental conflict of interest on mines”.

This demand follows on verbal attacks made on Amcu by DMR minister Susan Shabangu, who brokered the February accord, and the minister of higher education Blade Nzimande, who is also secretary-general of the SACP. Both have made strong pro-NUM speeches and described Amcu as an enemy of the alliance.

Amcu asked for time to consult with its members, a tactic often used in the past by Cosatu-affiliated unions when they did not fully get their way in negotiations. In light of the fact that Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa having called last week’s agreement “just a PR exercise, the prospects for the Motlanthe brokered deal does not look too rosy.

In the meantime Cosatu already decided some time ago to again back the ANC in next year’s election despite differences on issues like the implementation of the National Development Plan (NDP), which gives it disproportional influence with government over rival union movements.

The problem of the inherent conflict of interest contained in the “governing alliance” between the ANC and Costau, with its cross holding of offices, also runs deeper than just the political sphere.

Amcu also demands a commitment that unions will have no connections to mining-related business claiming that some black economic empowerment deals are undermining the interests of workers. Mathunjwa specifically referred t Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC’s deputy president's business interests in the Lonmin mine.

The way in which the existing Labour Relations Act (LRA) structures negotiating procedures to favour majority unions to the exclusion of smaller unions, also makes for fierce competition between unions for members.

Even if AMCU signs on later, the (Motlanthe) pact does little to resolve the turf war between rival unions or moderate wage demands, and labor unrest remains likely during upcoming negotiations over recognition and wages,” Mark Rosenberg, a senior Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, wrote last week in a note to clients.

In an opinion piece for The Citizen former opposition chief parliamentary whip, Douglas Gibson, referring to the battle for members between Amcu and the Cosatu-affiliated Nation Union of Mine workers (NUM) wrote: “The two are engaged in a destructive battle that has the potential to lead to mine closures and job losses on a massive scale. They seem not to care. Winning members is all that counts. 

Trade union members are not fools. Many are unskilled and many are not highly educated but like people everywhere, they eventually realise what is in their interests.

When job losses mount and the number of unemployed former mine workers increases, the penny will drop and they will say: ‘a plague on both your houses', while turning their backs on these unions and the government tolerating this conduct.”

There are, however, huge dangers involved in this sort of scenario, as the Marikana incident of last year so tragically illustrated.

Government should ensure that i as soon as possible itgets into a position to treat the formation of Amcu as an opportunity to ensure the proper and peaceful management of labour relations in the economically all-important mining sector.

The situation last year that led to the Marikana tragedy started when workers lost faith in NUM to truly represent their interests. They initially opted for their own so-called “workers committees” and representatives to negotiate with Impala, owners of the mine.

Some semblance of orderly and well-structured negotiations only returned after the emergence of Amcu.

But this only came after mine owners, pressed by economic realities made unwise compromises outside formal structures and legal frameworks, including reinstating workers who took part in unprotected strikes. This concession has now come back this year to haunt the industry as Amcu is demanding similar treatment for workers involved in strikes recently.

Unions are one of the instruments democratic societies have available to manage competing, and at times conflicting, interests. Without such instruments functioning properly and people losing faith in their ability to protect their interests, societies could become ungovernable.

It is government’s task, and a fundamental reason for its very existence, to manage these sort of institutions in a neutral and even-handed manner.

To take sides, crush, outsmart and/or neutralise an important player in the complicated South African labour relations environment could amount to a squandering of what might be one of the last chances to avoid the social upheaval presently rampant in other parts of the world.

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