by Piet Coetzer

Trade union war threatens South Africa’s stability

Peace force will not solve inherent structural problems

Long-term stability remains elusive between mining trade unions
Minister Mildred Oliphant.jpg

There is a war raging among South African trade unions, minister of labour, Mildred Oliphant, admitted by implication last week when she said government may deploy a peacekeeping force to restore stability to the mines. True long-term stability will, however, remain elusive unless some serious structural fault-lines in the country’s legal framework governing trade unions are not also addressed urgently.

A peacekeeping force might well be needed to deal with the immediate problem of the conflict between the previously dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the fast growing Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which now holds the majority of workers in at least parts of the platinum mining sub-sector.

Last week a NUM shop steward was killed and another wounded at Marikana, following the killing of Amcu’s North West regional organiser, Mawethu Steven, at a tavern in Photsaneng, in the informal settlement of Nkaneng in May. Mawethu Steven was a kingpin in galvanising the Platinum Belt against the NUM and the death toll is now at at least 60, according to Cosatu spokesman, Patrick Craven.

Root of the problem

The root of the problem can probably be found in the winner-takes-all dispensation that rules the South African labour scene. This not only relegates the minority union to the sidelines in negotiations with employers but also brings massive perks to the union leaders of the majority union. It has turned unionism into an attractive career path for union bosses.

In the mining industry, being the major union does not only bring comfortable office space, provided by the mines but also executive-type salary packages for elected union officials, again, paid for by the mines.

It would seem that the fact that NUM still occupies offices at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana despite Amcu now claiming 70% worker membership has played a key role in the latest killings there.

The high stakes involved for career unionists also leads to other related problems such as instances of corruption.

The week before last, Lonmin suspended eight NUM officials who had tried to fraudulently boost the union’s membership numbers at the mine. This was part of a desperate attempt by the union to avoid losing even its rights to access the 28 000-strong workforce at Lonmin.

AMCU had claimed that there were some 800 fraudulent stop orders submitted by the NUM. Lonmin appears to confirm at least 200 such orders as the reason for the shop stewards’ suspension.

The unrest in the mining sector is not restricted to platinum, with Glencore Xstrata saying, last week, that it had dismissed 1 000 workers who had embarked on an unprotected strike at three of its chrome mines and that they had until 4pm on Tuesday to appeal against their dismissals.

The objective with the mooted peacekeeping force was to contain the violence which had plagued the industry, minister Oliphant told reporters at OR Tambo International Airport.

"If there is a need to deploy that peacekeeping force, we have to do so in the mining sector as a whole. We can't take a chance that since it [violence] has not happened here, probably it is not going to happen," Oliphant said.

Her pronouncement after a meeting with the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) and its affiliated NUM and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) follows on President Jacob Zuma recently drawing the line on wildcat strikes, implicitly declaring unequivocal zero tolerance on future industrial action that is outside of the law.

He tasked deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, and three ministers, Oliphant, finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and mineral resources minister, Susan Shabangu, with restoring stability and certainty to the mining sector, which he described as a “cornerstone of the South African economy”.

He was emphatic that all future strikes needed to be undertaken within what he called South Africa’s excellent legal framework and the Constitution.

You cannot allow the unions to engage in wildcat strikes,” he said in response to global news agency Reuters' question on dealing with what was described as 'the turf war' between unions.

Minister Oliphant said the government needed to be proactive in dealing with the violence which had marred strikes in the mining sector.

ANC and Cosatu's relationship

Even as minister Oliphant was meeting with union leaders the other major structural problem in the labour relations field, the formal political alliance between Cosatu and the governing African National Congress, again raised its head.

Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa after the meeting expressed disappointment that the meeting had been used to lambaste Amcu and the Nactu. He likened the talks to a meeting of the 'tripartite alliance'. He said it felt as if "we were pupils and the school principal brought us in to be disciplined" and claimed that NUM had attacked Amcu in the meeting and that the minister seemed sympathetic to NUM.

Minister Oliphant denied that she favoured NUM, saying, "I have told them that I am the minister of labour not for specific unions aligned to the ANC. When I took the oath it was for everybody."

She would be hard pressed, however, to make her claims of neutrality stick in light of the fact that one of her task team, co-member minister Shabangu, as recently as the week before last told a gathering of NUM shop stewards, “We are very much aware that you are effectively under siege by forces that are determined to use every trick in the book permanently to defeat you and remove you literally from the face of the earth.

This is being done with the ultimate goal of ensuring that no progressive trade union will be present in the mining sector that shares the same ideological orientation as the congress movement. That would be a betrayal of the proud history of struggle of the NUM.

Comrades, it is only those who are wilfully blind who will not see that these forces, by extension, want to realise one major objective: ultimately to defeat and dislodge the ANC from power and reverse the gains of the national democratic revolution that we scored as a result of the democratic breakthrough of 1994.”

By the same token the ANC's deputy president and one of NUM’s founders, Cyril Ramaphosa, in what sounded like a call for militancy, told a May Day rally in the troubled Rustenburg area that “We must stand firm and united and defend this union. We must declare Rustenburg alliance territory because this is the home of the ANC.”

While a “peacekeeping force” might help to contain violent unrest and possible social upheaval in the short-term on the labour front, specifically in the mining sector, a total rethink on the prevailing political and governing labour environment has become urgent.


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