'Back to work or else,' Vavi tells miners

By the time Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi came to address the workers at Implats’s shaft number six in Rustenburg on Tuesday afternoon, the writing was already on the proverbial wall.

Earlier in the day, more workers around the mining complex had donned work uniforms than those who remained in civilian clothing and virtually all the workers in the number six and eight hostels were back at work. By management’s estimation, the re-employed workforce amounted to about 50% of the total group of platinum mineworkers that had downed tools.

With the illegal strike that started on January 20 losing momentum, Vavi’s speech, which the workers in the township of Freedom Park had pretty much anticipated word for word, was fascinating only as a study in diplomacy.

The dexterousness with which he deflected the National Union of Mineworkers’ obvious fallout with its constituency was not only predictably quick-witted but almost brutal in its attempts to defend the seemingly flat-footed union.

But when Vavi made off into the grey dust with his 20-car convoy and the relieved top brass of the mineworkers’ union in tow, he left the workers at shaft number six dejected instead of inspired and empowered.

Summoning the federation’s irrepressible general secretary to douse the fire was a stroke of genius on the part of the embattled union, Cosatu’s largest affiliate. Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour session the other union leaders had failed to get in an unchallenged word. Vavi, flexing almost mystical powers, delivered a clear message: get back to work or be at the mercy of your employer.

“In 2003, an unprotected strike took place at the VW [Volkswagen] plant,” he said. “When I warned the workers to get back to work they said ‘Vavi, you are talking nonsense’. Today, whenever I’m in Uitenhage, I still come across the women of the men who were dismissed then.”

The Implats strike was sparked by a selective pay-increase scheme that excluded several categories of workers, including rock drill operators, who were the first to down tools. About a week later other mine workers joined, in a show of solidarity, bringing the number of striking workers to more than 17 000. The strike has already cost Implats more than R1.2-billion.

As the days wore on, the strike, which the union never endorsed, took a turn for the worse when a person was killed on February 15 during a demonstration. The death toll doubled this week after one more death was confirmed by early morning on Tuesday. Groups of striking workers have continued to stake out various shafts, dishing out early-morning violence against unsuspecting workers on their way to work.

Apart from the workers’ committee, which unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate directly with management, a secret committee with the express aim of meting out violence was said by some workers to be in operation. At a Tuesday morning meeting convened by striking workers on the grassy verge separating Freedom Park’s Phase One section from an informal settlement named Number Nine, workers made a series of aggressive threats, including a planned door-to-door campaign to root out those who were returning to work.

“If you insist on going to work, you’ll get rat poison,” a man among the umbrella-carrying crowd sitting in the baking sun announced. “Even today, we could kill someone. How can you be happy with R4000 if we want R9 000?”

Amid the bullhorn threats and pretensions of bravado, a man in a green Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) T-shirt worked the crowd, handing out registration forms that were being filled in by the workers. But many preferred not to talk about Amcu, an independent union, as though they had been sworn to secrecy. Others were protective of the man, keeping him away from the media.

In the expansive number eight hostel a few hundred metres away, the threat of violence was distant, though possible.

“Anything could happen and, if it does, we hope management can protect us,” said Jacob Mboshwa, a worker who had not joined the strike. “But then again, they are the ones that come here at night, ­banging down doors looking for machine boys.”

“Machine boy” and “rock drill operator” are terms used interchangeably by the workers. What Mboshwa was referring to was management’s apparent practice of weeding out striking rock drill operators from the hostels. The logic is apparently that the food and boarding do not come free and they have to go to work if they stay there. As a result, allegiance to the strike is neutered by the need for accommodation.

Some employees, steadfast in their campaign for “R9 000 after deductions”, have spilled out into neighbouring Freedom Park, with its maze of windowless shacks and RDP structures. It is from here that thousands of workers have converged every morning and, depending on the police presence, looted the surrounding shops, thrown rocks at passing cars thought to contain non-striking “rats” and planned acts of violence.

About 50 shops in Freedom Park’s Phase one—mostly those of Somali businessmen and a few owned by Chinese traders - were looted last week. “The miners said they were hungry and their managers would not give them money,” said Johannes Mogale, who lives in the area. “They were armed with everything from rocks to sticks and pangas.” His wife, Liesbet, said a group of more than 20 people, including women and children, had made off with fridges and other equipment she was leasing to the Somali traders who worked and lived across the road from their home.

On Wednesday a confrontation ensued between striking workers and others from inside the number eight hostel. According to mine management, one non-striking worker was admitted with a dislocated shoulder, but sources close to the “committee of violence” boasted of more injuries.

Further north, in the grassland, at number six hostel, Vavi’s preaching appeared to have stirred only the converted. Workers said alleged strong-arm tactics by the Protea Security company had long taken care of any thoughts of prolonged strike action. They said that, early in the morning of February 10, workers were forced to go back to work by security officials after their living quarters were ransacked and personal items removed.

“People are being forced to work by Protea Security and the South African Police Service,” said Mkhayisi Mtyana after Vavi’s address. “People have no food, no plan and no clothes, so yes, they have to go back to work.” Said another worker: “If you leave and strike, you won’t get rehired elsewhere. We have no choice but to stay.”

Implats denied the use of strong-arm tactics to force hostel dwellers back to work.

Spokesperson Johan Theron said the mining company had not blacklisted workers but had merely “prioritised re-engagement” and workers thought to have been involved in violence had been “set aside” for the time being. He said workers who felt unjustly sidelined had the option of appealing the disqualification.

Theron added that workers who were dissatisfied with their union could introduce a vote of no confidence in the leadership and elect new leaders.

“The question is, is it the leadership that they do not want, or is it the union itself? They can join any union of their choice. If any union can come to us and show us that a significant part of our workforce has joined it, then there is a legal framework that regulates that and they can come and present themselves.”

Theron would not directly point fingers at Amcu for instigating the violence, saying the level of violence and intimidation suggested that somebody was sustaining it for their own gain. He denied that force had been used to make hostel dwellers go back to work and said the intimidation and violence had been one-sided, preventing miners from going to work.

According to Theron, there had been 55 cases of assault and serious injury, including one death. The police have confirmed two deaths and 22 injuries.

Shifting allegiances

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)
Formed: 1982
Membership: About 270 000.
Recent history: In long-term decline because of subcontracting in the industry. Has lost support at Implats’s Rustenburg operations, where more than 17000 workers went on an unprotected strike without consulting the union. The situation is still not under control.
Affiliation: Cosatu
Political stance: Linked to ANC but regarded as increasingly passive.

Association of Mineworkersand Construction Union(Amcu)
Formed: Broke away from the NUM in 1998. Established at Witbank’s Douglas colliery and formally registered in 2001.
Membership: Has fewer than 1 000 members at Implats near Rustenburg. Total membership difficult to estimate.
Recent history: An unprotected strike at Lonmin’s Karee shaft last year saw large numbers of NUM members switch their allegiance to Amcu. The Johannesburg Labour Court will soon hear a case brought by Amcu regarding the unionisation of the country’s oldest gold mines, in Barberton. Amcu claims 1 000 of the 1 400-strong workforce are members, but management refuses to recognise it.
Affiliation: None.
Political stance: Regarded as militant. (Source: Business Report)


In a report published on December 15, “Speculation rife after NPA drops case against Mdluli”, the Mail & Guardian incorrectly indicated that we had approached advocate Lawrence Mrwebi for comment but that he had not responded by the time of going to print.

In fact, the spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority was approached for comment but did not respond.

No direct approach was made to Mwrebi, who, the story noted, had signed off on the ­withdrawal of fraud charges against former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli.

We apologise to Mrwebi for the mistake.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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