Lonmin violence: It’s D-day for the unions

What a coincidence that, in the week 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.

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.

Vavi on the ropes: Send us your questions

Submit questions on Cosatu and Zwelinzima Vavi for our live video chat with M&G deputy editor-in-chief and politics editor Rapule Tabane on Friday August 17 at 11am. Go here to send us your question OR vote on an existing question. We will also take your tweets sent to @mailandguardian in real time.

You can also join us via video for the live chat using Google Hangouts – a technology similar to that of Skype. To do so all you need is:

  1. A computer; a webcam, audio and mic facilities (standard on most laptops); and a reasonably good internet connection.
  2. Set up a Google Plus account which you can do using your existing Gmail account.
  3. Download the software here.
  4. Email your name, contact details and questions here and we will get in touch with you to take part in our live chat via video.

See our live chat with Phillip de Wet last week about Zumaville.


Study unpacks the ‘hidden racism’ at Stellenbosch

Students say they feel unseen and unheard at the university because of their skin colour

Workers’ R60m ‘lost’ in banks scam

An asset manager, VBS Mutual Bank and a Namibian bank have put the retirement funds of 26 000 municipal workers in South Africa at risk

‘Judge President Hlophe tried to influence allocation of judges to...

Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath accuses Hlophe of attempting to influence her to allocate the case to judges he perceived as ‘favourably disposed’ to former president Jacob Zuma

SAA grounds flights due to low demand

SAA is working to accommodate customers on its sister airlines after it cancelled flights due to low demand

Press Releases

MTN unveils TikTok bundles

Customised MTN TikTok data bundles are available to all prepaid customers on *136*2#.

Marketers need to reinvent themselves

Marketing is an exciting discipline, offering the perfect fit for individuals who are equally interested in business, human dynamics and strategic thinking. But the...

Upskill yourself to land your dream job in 2020

If you received admission to an IIE Higher Certificate qualification, once you have graduated, you can articulate to an IIE Diploma and then IIE Bachelor's degree at IIE Rosebank College.

South Africans unsure of what to expect in 2020

Almost half (49%) of South Africans, 15 years and older, agree or strongly agree that they view 2020 with optimism.

KZN teacher educators jet off to Columbia University

A group of academics were selected as participants of the programme focused on PhD completion, mobility, supervision capacity development and the generation of high-impact research.

New-style star accretion bursts dazzle astronomers

Associate Professor James O Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever are part of an international team of astronomers studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar.

2020 risk outlook: Use GRC to build resilience

GRC activities can be used profitably to develop an integrated risk picture and response, says ContinuitySA.

MTN voted best mobile network

An independent report found MTN to be the best mobile network in SA in the fourth quarter of 2019.