Inflammatory language makes platinum belt even more volatile

| Terry Bell

At the best of times, grassroots democracy, without sound communications infrastructure and the distribution of accurate information, can be a messy business. Add to this, dollops of rumour, some perceptions bordering on paranoia, various interest groups promoting different agendas, a history of distrust and memories of recent bloodshed and you have Marikana and much of the platinum belt today.

It is an extremely volatile situation made even worse by the presence of large numbers of mainly young, unemployed men, a sprinkling of criminals and the demands of the mashonisa loan sharks and the “shack farmers”. This is not only disturbing investor confidence, it is threatening to cause major rents in the already fraying fabric of the governing ANC-led alliance. The stakes, therefore, are extremely high on every front.

What began as a rebellion as much against the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as against the mining companies — Lonmin initially — has spiralled into a potential challenge to the existing political order. That potential is recognised both by the powers that be and others that may wish to be.

So far, however, it seems still to be largely a case of workers taking matters into their own hands, and setting up strike committees without reference to union leaderships. The difference between this and several other rebellions against NUM over the years is not only the scale of the revolt, but the fact that there existed other, established, unions to which the rebels could turn.

The major desertions from NUM seem to have begun after August 16 last year when 34 miners were shot dead by the police. The majority of those protesting strikers were NUM members. Today, the majority look to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), but it is the strike committees that dictate — and, in the absence of an established chain of command, often act on their own.

A small minority union on the platinum belt little more than a year ago, Amcu took up the demands of the wildcat strikers — and the union’s membership boomed. It seemed well placed to do so, since Amcu was formed following a similar, but much smaller, defection of NUM members at the Douglas colliery in Witbank in 1998.

However, Amcu is not the only beneficiary of NUM desertions. Another Cosatu affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) has also gained, with NUM accusing Numsa of “poaching”, amid claims that threats and actual violence have forced NUM members to desert to Amcu.

But the rapid growth of Amcu has caused problems, not least with communication. The temperature has also been raised by intemperate statements on all sides, but especially by senior political figures.

ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, already widely pilloried as a director of Lonmin at the time of the Marikana massacre, told a May Day rally in Rustenburg: “Rustenburg is NUM’s home.” He added: “We must declare Rustenburg [to be] alliance territory because this is the home of the ANC.”

South African Communist Party general secretary and higher education minister Blade Nzimande has instructed Cosatu trade unionists to “defend NUM with your lives”. In a lecture earlier this month, he repeated his claim that Amcu was “financed by the bosses”.

It is a theme, taken up by NUM, that he has repeated over months. According to Nzimnande, “Employers want to kill NUM by funding counter-revolutionary formations like Amcu.”

Such comments are plainly inflamatory and come at a time when calm, reasoned talk seems vital. Especially since there are a number of practical and legal issues that will have eventually to be dealt with. These include levels at which unions are recognised for the purposes of bargaining and whether such negotiation is centralised or plant-by-plant. There are also questions about the provision by managements of office and other facilities to unions.

These matters, along with wages and conditions of employment and the retention of jobs, affect all workers, irrespective of their union affiliations. Here are the common interests that should perhaps be recognised and acted upon in unison before deciding which — if any — political orientations should be embraced.

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