Trade unionist Gwede Mantashe speaks to Karen Harverson about his appointment to the Samancor
For the first time in South Africa’ s turbulent management-worker relationship, a trade unionist has been appointed to the board of directors of a major listed company.
Ferro alloy producer Samancor has appointed 45- year old Gwede Mantashe, assistant general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to its board, signalling perhaps the new direction to be taken in future by big companies.
Mantashe, born and bred in the former Transkei, describes himself as a trade unionist “through and through”, first becoming involved in the union movement in the early Eighties.
He says the appointment is an experiment which if successful could point the direction of future industrial relations in the country. “The implications are clear — for the first time — labour has access to decision making structures and can influence changes before they reach the implementation stage.”
Sensitive to any criticism that his position as a defender of union rights may be compromised by his new position, Mantashe is quick to point out that he will stay on the board only if it has clear benefits for labour not himself. “The money paid to board members doesn’t come to me, it goes to the union. I see myself not as an individual but representing a collective viewpoint.” Mantashe feels that bringing unions to board level is part of the process of democratising the private sector in the same way as it is important to democratise national utilities.
“This step brings unions closer to the co- determination stage which is necessary to bring about a socio-democratic economy,” he says, adding that it is in no way the final stage of
The next step for Samancor, he says, is to start defining the stakeholder representation of the board. “To say, not that Mantashe sits on the board, but that organised labour has, say three seats on the board and various communities in which certain mines are situated also have seats. This will enable those communities to raise issues at board level which directly affect them, such as the environmental implications of an opencast chrome mine in their particular area,” says Mantashe.
He says the problem with negotiating these kinds of issues in collective bargaining structures is that by the time negotiations begin, the decision is already concrete.
Mantashe joined NUM in 1983, listing his greatest achievement as his appointment to assistant general secretary last year.
While reluctant to discuss his qualifications, “I think it’s an artificial status in society,” Mantashe holds a diploma in accountancy and feels confident that he can hold his own in financial issues discussed at board level. “In my position at NUM, I constantly deal with the financial statements and reports of big companies including Samancor’s — so though not a financial guru — I do understand financial matters.” He thinks Samancor’s decision to appoint a unionist to board level may soon be the norm in a couple of years. “I think it’ll happen first in the Afrikaaner companies because they are committed to the national interest of South Africa and last in the big liberal companies such as Anglo American.” He advises young people to “join unions as when you act collectively you have optimal power.” He warns against individual fulfilment which he says “breeds elitist groupings in society”.
Ever the unionist, Mantashe lists scabs — people who replace striking workers — as his greatest
Monopoly is no simple game
Debating the topic of whether the monopolistic structure of local business makes it uncompetitive, Anglo American’s Bobby Godsell, denied that South African economy could be defined as monopolistic.
Speaking at the Parktonian Parliament, a monthly forum on topical issues, Godsell said the term monopoly should not be confused with size, racial exclusivity, and diversification (or
“A monopoly exists where one business effectively controls an industry or market — I do not think this is true of the South African economy, apart from De Beers which operates in the world economy.” He defended the image of Anglo American as an “octopus stretching its tentacles into all sectors of industry”, arguing that each sector it was involved in was very competitive.
“In the gold industry alone, there are five intensely competitive groups in the market as well as a number of smaller producers.” He argued that the local automotive industry is known to have too many producers. “So in a small economy such as South Africa’s, there will be size constraints to the number of participants in any sector.” It was inevitable that the major companies in that economy would diversify.
Perfect Malimela, director of a local business consultancy, argued that conglomerates had raised the barriers of entry into markets for small businessmen and in effect owned both small and big business in the country. “The economy is still in the hands of a few.” He scoffed at the notion that to compete internationally, South Africa needed big businesses. He said conglomerates ignored small business when it wasn’t a threat and destroyed it when it competed. He warned that “whites have no future if blacks don’t have any”, adding that the big conglomerates’ future would be secured in the security of small men.