Written by Rapule Tabane
What a coincidence that, in the week The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) conceded to a growing distance between trade union leaders and their members, workers chased away union leaders who wanted to address them and became involved in one of the bloodiest labour disputes the post-1994 era has seen.
This week many people, including two policemen, have died in a dispute at a Lonmin mine in North West where rock drill operators are demanding that their salaries be increased from R6 000 to R12 000 a month. The seemingly frustrated workers embarked on an illegal strike and made tough demands on mine management. For the most part, they were leaderless and refused to be addressed by anyone except management – and only to announce that their demand would be met.
That prospect was always slim, but it led to a protracted and ugly battle.
However, the workers at Lonmin and other platinum mines near Rustenburg seemed to be rejecting, in particular, the leadership of the Nation Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which historically was the leading and most well-respected union.
It is now coming across as a voice of reason and is expected to mop up after “reckless” actions of radical workers.
But, although it might still command the respect of mine management, which wants the impasse resolved, and of broader society, which wants the killings stopped, it does not command the respect of the people who matter most in all of this – the workers.
Ceding its majority
The union must ask itself how it reached a position where it has lost control of the mineworkers and is ceding its majority to an even more disorganised unit calling itself the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.
In the political report prepared for Cosatu’s national congress on September 17, general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi points out the trends and scenarios the unions are facing. In particular, he warns about the social distance between workers and the leaders: “Different lifestyles and material realities are creating a leadership which is not fully in tune with what members are facing,” he writes.
“Crises faced by working-class communities, for example, in the areas of dysfunctional hospitals, the textbooks saga, the winter electricity cut-offs, prepaid water cut-offs, etcetera, do not appear to be taken up by our unions working in those sectors with the same vigour as if there had been a problem with wages. If they were, we could expect to have seen strikes, or at lease high-profile campaigns, erupt around some of these crises.”
He also warns that the battles relating to the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December could be having a negative effect on the unions, with some of their leaders paralysed by the fear that their actions could be interpreted as supporting one or the other faction.
Other unions also caught up in political battles have failed to notice that they have labour-related duties to perform. The Communication Workers’ Union, which has been vocal on SABC matters, often trying to dictate the choice of board members, has been deregistered by the labour department.
An episode that can only be embarrassing for the labour movement is taking place in the transport union, Satawu, in which part of the conflict is about who should be benefiting from the massive multibillion tenders under way at the passenger rail agency, Prasa.
The union’s battle with management has nothing to do with the interests of workers. This week the resignation of Satawu president Ephraim Mphahlele to form a rival union was attributed to fights about how the transport union should relate to Prasa.
One can only imagine that Prasa management, which has been accused of corruption, is not too distressed about the mudslinging in Satawu. And the management of Lonmin was content this week to attribute the impasse at the mine to a turf war between rival mine unions.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) holds its congress in three weeks’ time and this might just be one of the most crucial platforms it has ever had to redirect its focus.
Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian’s political editor.