Towering over trains in Park Station in Johannesburg, a billboard advertising the 30th anniversary of the formation of the National Union of Mineworkers is a timely reminder of the history of the union. Sure, that history may be a proud one. But what’s the future?
“If we were a sweetheart union we would not have lasted until now,” National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) General Secretary Frans Baleni said at press briefing at its headquarters in Johannesburg on Tuesday. NUM had called the briefing to offer their perspective on peace talks at the Lonmin mine in Marikana, as well as the latest from the Gold Fields strike at KDC East. In between, Baleni and NUM president Senzeni Zokwana berated Julius Malema for taking advantage of unsuspecting mineworkers. And yet, increasingly, it’s Malema and not NUM that is being held up as the voice of the workers.
For NUM to be fighting Malema for a claim to its own members tells of a feeling of insecurity amongst NUM’s national leadership. If Malema, a person “expelled from his organisation for ill discipline”, as he was described by Baleni, is indeed just a political opportunist with a sudden appetite for mine workers’ issues, then NUM, as the single largest trade union in the history of the country, ought to be able to shake him off with ease. But they have not been able to just ignore him and get on with what they are supposed to – namely, represent mineworkers during an especially volatile time in the industry.
Yet if NUM is to be judged on its history, then it certainly does hold the rights of the mineworkers above politics or indeed its own survival. The significance of NUM as an agent for change was not limited to the mines alone. Remember, both Kgalema Motlanthe (or Dilemma Motlanthe, as he’s known in these parts) and Cyril Ramaphosa were both general secretaries for NUM. The union has been a nursery for political and business leadership. The union has also been an agent of social change – social change that outstrips the mines. The union’s history is linked intimately with the struggle for social transformation in the country.
And however incomplete that transformation may be, NUM finds itself today as the country’s largest union, greatly advantaged by a rich, proud history in a rapidly declining industry.
The formation of NUM in 1982 was the first successful formation of a “black” mining union since the African Mineworkers Union was mercilessly quashed by the state in a 1946 strike. Since its formation, NUM certainly has done a great deal to improve the lot of mineworkers in the country. There is a semblance of humanity, a grudging acceptance from mine owners that mine workers too are human beings.
Working by the motto, “Only the best for the mineworker”, NUM created opportunities for ordinary mineworkers to contribute to the decision-making processes of the union. And as the union grew, so too did its successes. The mineworkers’ provident fund, established in 1989, is reported to be worth more than R10 billion. In many ways, NUM is not just a union. It is a political force within the ruling tripartite alliance. It is also a business in its own right. But at the bottom of it all, it is as a union that must survive.
The fate of mines is, of course, precarious. Mines by their nature have to close at some point. But as long as the Earth continues to serve up minerals, mining remains a crucial tenet of the economy – and NUM retains its significance.
In recent years, it is the demand for platinum from emerging markets that has lent the South African mining industry a new lease of life. It’s no coincidence that the greatest concentration of NUM members is in Rustenburg, and it is then perhaps also not such a mystery that it is here, in the platinum belt, that the greatest challenge to NUM is being launched.
It is some feat that NUM has remained as united as it has been until now. But what we’ve seen in Amcu’s challenge to NUM in Marikana and in the litany of complaints levelled against branch leadership in the Gold Fields strike in Westonaria is a significant splintering of the union. There is a fundamental disconnect between union leaders and members, and events in Marikana and Westonaria demonstrate the inability of NUM to bridge that gap.
NUM may well still hold the rights and demands of workers at heart – though for a trade union they do show an astounding deference towards international investment and a rather curious fondness for a “return to normalcy” – and despite the naysayers, they may well still be guided by what workers want. If indeed that is what they are trying to do, however, there has been a breakdown in communication within the union. Yes, it may be a function of social distance – the upper echelons of the union may be too prosperous to identify adequately with the ordinary miner – but it does also point to an erosion of the democratic culture of the union. Workers feel cut off from the decision-making structures, and that’s likely to pose a significant problem going forward.
NUM is itself aware of these challenges. On Tuesday, Baleni indicated that the union continued to research the attitudes of its members towards the leadership. And alongside Baleni, other senior officials of NUM conceded that there were weaknesses “at the branch level”. But even as these officials mull over how best to go forward, there is a growing impatience at that same branch level.
NUM has changed, as have the times.
And the impact of whatever happens to NUM, its success or failure to withstand these challenges, will not be restricted to the mining industry. It will be felt in the skulduggery of the ANC leadership battle, yes, but it will also point the way ahead for the rest of the country. After all, it’s not just within NUM that people feel like their leaders act without accountability to the people they are meant to serve. Whatever happens within NUM will foretell whether the government will be able to overcome its inability to communicate adequately, and to represent the needs of the people. DM