NUM bleeds both workers and lives
A slow, sure, violent implosion appears to be building in South Africa's largest and formerly most powerful union - the National Union of Mineworkers.
So far this year, 13 shop stewards of the NUM have been killed, according to the union's spokesperson, Lesiba Seshoka.
This implosion is happening as unprotected strikes in the industry have become increasingly violent, especially in the North West platinum belt. A strike wave involving an estimated 100 000 mineworkers has engulfed the country.
Although many of these workers still belong to the NUM, they have opted for independent representation by workers' committees, rejecting the union's leadership. But many workers have gone further, also distancing themselves from union federation Cosatu and its alliance with the ANC. This was further exacerbated by expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema's recent prosecution on money laundering charges following the Marikana massacre in August in which police killed more than 30 workers.
On Thursday, it was reported that two minibus taxis were torched near Rustenburg as Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) workers gathered in an attempt to stop operations at Bathopele mine, the only Amplats mine operating in Rustenburg since the start of unprotected strike action at the company's mines on September 12. A man was found burnt to death near one taxi. Taxis are being targeted by strikers because they are suspected of transporting non-striking miners to work. Also at Amplats, more than 40 strikers were arrested for public violence.
In the same area, another man was allegedly killed by police after he was said to have participated in acts of intimidation. Amplats workers allege that more workers have died than has been reported, but police are reluctant to confirm this.
Earlier this week, hundreds of Amplats workers descended on the NUM's regional headquarters in Rustenburg demanding the immediate cancellation of their union membership. But the march was illegal and dispersed by the police.
Unprotected strikes have spread to all the provinces where mining occurs. Most of them are outside union control and are co-ordinated by strike committees. A tiny but militant Trotskyite organisation, the Democratic Socialist Movement, is said to be a small hand stoking the fire. "The strikes are becoming more tactical and are growing from narrow shaft-by-shaft committees into committees that are nationally united," said movement executive member Mametlwe Sebei.
The coalescence of events such as the assassination of office bearers of the NUM, a verification fiasco at an Impala Platinum mine and the increasingly violent strike at Amplats present a wall of setbacks that the already bleeding union may be unable to scale, should it embark on the road to recovery.
October began with the news that the union's widely reported demise at Implats might, in fact, be a reality. In a letter Implats sent to the union, the company informed the NUM that its membership at the mine had dropped to 13% (from a peak of 70%).
The letter followed the dissolution of a Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) independent verification process out of which the Association for Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) had pulled, citing the volatile situation in the platinum belt. Implats told the Mail & Guardian that the membership figure represented office-based subscriptions verified by an independent auditor.
"The Implats situation is just crazy," said Seshoka. "It's mad. You have people that were being forced to fill in forms. As a result, a lot of those forms bear one handwriting.
"Then there was the fighting over the verification process. The CCMA was appointed and then Amcu pulled out and now management wants to conduct the process unilaterally." The NUM plans to challenge the process in court.
Meanwhile, representatives of the NUM feel the anger at ground level.On October 5 Daluvuyo Bongo, an NUM branch secretary at Lonmin and a witness at the now adjourned Marikana commission of inquiry, was killed at his home. The following day, the cousin of an NUM shop steward was killed by gunmen, who were looking for the unionist. A NUM branch chairperson was also killed in a recent attack and another lost his wife in an attack on his home.
The backlash against the NUM has been occurring on a large scale. Describing the march by workers on the union's office in Rustenburg earlier this week, an NUM regional organiser, Mxhasi Sithethi, told the M&G: "We saw people coming to our offices and we were a bit surprised because they were coming from all angles. They realised that there was no one to talk to them and they were advised to disperse. We consider some of them to be our members, because some we spoke to later said that they were forced to come."
Sithethi said Amplats' management told the NUM it had dismissed about 12 800 employees, 7 000 of whom had made representations and were finding ways of going to work. However, the workers leaving the offices of the NUM on Wednesday vowed to continue staking out shafts for any sign of workers, which could explain the mounting violence.
The NUM has lost tens of thousands of members, but it is unclear what the exact figures are. Many workers simply turn to independent strike committees to help them without officially resigning from the union. At Lonmin and Implats, though, disgruntled workers have joined the Amcu fold. The NUM has lost at least 20 000 members at these two mines alone.
As an organiser in the Rustenburg region, Sithethi is at the coalface of the union's changing fortunes. "We are facing a major challenge in terms of violence on our leaders. Access to our members is a problem. They can't wear their T-shirts and we can't hold mass meetings, so we can't communicate to members on the ground."
Damage to property and violence is escalating in the previously calm Amplats strike. On Tuesday, a worker interviewed by the M&G said the destruction surrounding Thembelani hostel near one of the mine's shafts, where at least two business complexes were razed to the ground, was only a sample of what strikers would do if management went ahead with dismissals.
At a nearby hostel, Entabeni, a gutted vehicle stood at the entrance as a reminder to those considering breaking the month-long strike.
Workers at Amplats have treated dismissal as an empty threat at best or, at worst, a dare for them to unleash their unrestrained wrath.
"We are not bothered by the SMSes [from the company threatening them with dismissal]," said Anthony Ntshalintshali from his windowless two-room shack at the Siza informal settlement. "We have people we send to talk on our behalf and I trust them because we work together underground. They know our situation."
Ntshalintshali said he had been a miner since 1981 and had known about the NUM since the early 1980s when it was established. "It was vigorous then, but now it belongs to the whites. They prefer to eat and drink with the whites and don't want us to go to them."
As far as mine informal settlements go, Siza is among the bleakest. Its terrain resembles a desert outpost and many shacks have no windows because of what Ntshalintshali describes as unbearable crime levels.
It did not take long to find personal evidence of the veracity of Ntshalintshali's words. On the way to Thembelani Hostel, the M&G passed a man tied to a pole in the yard of a spaza shop.
Surrounded by a crowd that included children, his bloodied face marked him as the recipient of the street justice that now rules the day in much of the platinum belt of North West.