Marikana: Amcu and the leadership dilemma

The reporters who noticed will tell you that the "struggle" song flowing repeatedly from the Lonmin workers' lips before and after the Marikana massacre was "Le NUM siyayizonda, sizoyibulala kanjani?" (We hate NUM, how will we eliminate it?)

These are fighting words and when sung in a sea of hacked skulls and bullet-riddled torsos, they take on a literal and ominous meaning. They suggest that the blood of current National Union of Mineworkers members and office bearers will be used to wash away any traces of the workers' affiliation to their former union and, eventually, its existence.

Law enforcers, as they did with the mass killings on August 16 at Marikana, will continue to play a reactive role.

The situation has been building up from a time long before the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) began eroding the NUM's turf.

The 2009 Implats incident in which then-NUM deputy president Piet Matosa lost an eye after failing to pursuade workers to accept an Implats wage offer 4% below the workers' demands, is often cited to illustrate how the union has lost control of its own members, making its own coffin before any outside threat arrived to dig the grave.

Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa has sometimes used the incident to deflect claims that his union incite violence, and so he should, especially with the NUM's propaganda tactics shifting into auto­pilot in the week leading up to the Marikana shootings.

Emerging militancy
The day after the shootings, a contingent of Implats workers led by mineworker Nceba Gcelu descended on Lonmin to show solidarity with the striking workers. He is an archetype of the emerging militancy on shop floors across the platinum belt. He said the workers were on a quest to find out which mine paid the highest wages before rolling out action to make sure that the wages, according to grade, are standardised at all the mines.

This week's reported strike at the Royal Bafokeng Platinum Mine, where workers are now demanding R12500 a month and voicing their displeasure with the NUM, underlines the gravity of Gcelu's words.

He describes himself as the chairperson of an interim committee – one of several set up by workers in the period leading up to the violent Implats strike – while in the same breath declaring that he is now an Amcu member.

His seeming ambivalence stems from the fact that, when the interim committees are not still leading unprotected strikes and revolts against the NUM, there is usually an interlude in which their members can be recast as Amcu members.

But perhaps Gcelu explains it best: "We didn't get rid of the NUM; the NUM got rid of us. We told Amcu that they have nothing to do with our demands of R9000," he said in February, "so they can only start negotiating for us in 2013 because of an existing two-year agreement."

So, although Amcu uses the impasse to recruit members, the NUM, in turn, uses it as an opportunity to distance itself from its members, either for short-term propaganda reasons or to announce that, at that point, the relationship has been irretrievably severed.

First foothold
The NUM's internal machinations have also seen it play into the hands of the opposition. A classic example is the firing of 9 000 staff at Lonmin's Karee mine last year following an unprotected strike, apparently after a dispute between the union's regional office and the leadership of the local Karee branch. When the dust settled, 5 000 of the 7 000 re-employed workers had joined Amcu, giving it its first foothold at Lonmin.

NUM president Senzeni Zokwana's failure to convince his workers to disarm and disperse in the critical moments before Thursday's violence sent NUM general secretary Frans Baleni's assertion that the union had "an ability to persuade its members" flying out the window.

Baleni's tone at the Lonmin press conference was so resigned that calling this union rivalry is an overstatement.

"The Rustenburg pattern is the same," he told journalists. "The workers raise grumblings, they go on an illegal strike and then a union emerges and claims to represent the workers after the fact."

Even he seemed to acknowledge the autonomy that precipitates regime change. The workers are clearly aware of their role as kingmakers. The shouts of amandla awethu (power to the people) may just be beginning to regain their meaning.

The moral question for Amcu is: Will the union change the culture of violence from which it has benefited, or will its hands also become stained with blood when it is handed authority? Will it manage to control the workforce that the NUM has clearly failed and usher in a culture of disciplined striking?

If not, it will follow down the bloody path already favoured by its inherited members, which means that Mathunjwa may just become the new Zokwana if he rests on his laurels.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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