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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Rapule Tabane
Guest Author

Related stories

Nedlac struggles with inclusivity

The labour council has battled to defend its representation of workers’ interests, given that union membership is on the decline across the country

Cosatu rejects above-inflation tariff hikes to bail out ‘drug addict’ Eskom

Nersa is holding public hearings over the next three weeks, relating to Eskom’s application for the regulatory clearing account (RCA) balance.

Marikana talks stagger on

Those negotiating for miners’ families say the state has been nothing but bloody-minded

Paradise for corporates and ultrarich

The Paradise Papers highlight the need for enforcing regulations to stem tax avoidance

Sons and daughters of the soil seek to claim the land that shaped them

​There are plans to build a memorial to honour the 44 men who died during the unprotected strike that culminated in the Marikana massacre.

Big stink: How Lonmin paid R20m for just two toilets for Marikana workers

The mining company is accused of ‘undermining black lives’ by leaving a toilet project unfinished.

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

‘Battle-tested’ vs ‘kind and fair’ — DA candidates’ last push...

John Steenhuisen and Mbali Ntuli both acknowledged the problems faced by the party over the past year, with each of them offering their own leadership vision.

A Landie icon is born

Replacing one of the most-loved cars in history, the new Defender pulls off the near impossible task of doing almost everything better

NSFW: The tricky business of OnlyFans

In an increasingly digital world, OnlyFans has given online creators a new way to make money on their own terms

Q&A Sessions: ‘Keeping quiet is not an option’ — Charlotte...

More than a decade after a brief stint on the opposition benches, Charlotte Lobe is helping to fly the South African flag as a senior public servant in the department of international relations and co-operation

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday