Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Lonmin tragedy lays bare violent inter-union rivalry in SA

The deadly industrial protests last week at a platinum mine in South Africa have laid bare a fierce and violent battle for domination among trade unions in Africa's wealthiest and leading democracy.

The killing of 44 people during a wildcat strike at the Marikana mine last week highlighted the depth of internal politics between the main, and three-decades old, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the 11-year-old Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

The NUM has come under fire from workers accusing it of being alienated from day-to-day shop floor issues and having too cosy a relationship with management.

Boasting a membership of 300 000, NUM is the largest single affiliate of the 2.2-million-strong umbrella union Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), a crucial ally and support base of the ruling ANC.

Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo, a researcher with South Africa's Institute of Security Studies (ISS) said "some have argued that Cosatu… have largely come to represent a 'working class aristocracy' and are too involved in ANC elite politics to adequately work in the interest of the poor."

Some disgruntled NUM activists broke away to form a splinter independent union, Amcu in a bid to to close the gap.

But it is only in recent months that Amcu appeared to have consolidated its position. It quickly gained ground early this year after a six-week violent strike at Impala Platinum mine, the world's second largest, sitting on the same platinum belt as Lonmin.

Some 17 000 workers were sacked during the strike but then reinstated, after which Amcu said it had stripped most of the NUM membership to claim more than 50% on the its register and demanded recognition.

For a union to be recognised by law for collective bargaining purposes, it has to attain a membership of more than 50% of the workforce.

Worker solidarity
Violence and intimidation have become a culture to coerce workers to take part in strikes or join unions.

Unions survive on workers' subscriptions, often calculated as a percentage of their salaries.

The two unions denied being behind the deadly protests at Lonimn mine. ISS also said the strike was started by non-unionised labour.

But the Amcu leader Joseph Mathunjwa, accompanied by a group of praise singers, stormed into a memorial service organised for the victims of the Lonmin killins of Thursday and was given a platform to address mourners.

Some of the songs sung during the violent protests staged on a koppie in Marikana town, were anti NUM.

"It's very difficult to build a very strong worker solidarity… so you use violence to bring them together. Violence becomes a tool to achieve worker solidarity," said Crispen Chinguno, an industrial relations researcher at the University of Witwatersrand.

The violence can be linked to the post-aparthied social order, which Chinguno said bred strong trade unions, that are "covertly hostile to competition."

Workers, many of them unskilled, have openly changed allegiance to Amcu.

Black juju
"I stopped being a member of the NUM because… everyday, when we're in the strikes like this, they just told us 'go back to work' without any reason, without any answer that can satisfy us," said Joseph Motingwe, who defected to Amcu three years ago.

Belief in black juju has also taken root and was partly blamed for the workers' defiance during a standoff with police before 34 of them were gunned down.

Local media report that a video report shot by the police from a helicopter during the strike, showed naked men lining up to be rubbed with herbs that were believed would make them bullet-proof.

"The use of muti has become so institutionalised in everything they (unions) do," said Chinguno.

He said some of the 17 000 workers sacked and later reinstated at Impala believed they regained their jobs thanks to juju. – AFP.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Susan Njanji
Guest Author

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Fears of violence persist a year after the murder of...

The court battle to stop coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal has heightened the sense of danger among environmental activists

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

More top stories

Eastern Cape premier Mabuyane lives large amid province’s poverty

Oscar Mabuyane and MEC Babalo Madikizela allegedly used a portion of state funds for struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s commemoration for their own benefit

Constitutional court confirms warrantless searches in cordoned off areas unconstitutional

The law was challenged in response to raids in inner Johannesburg seemingly targeting illegal immigrants and the highest court has pronounced itself 10 days before an election in which then mayor Herman Mashaba has campaigned on an anti-foreigner ticket

A blunt Mantashe makes no promises during election campaigning

ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe told people in Daveyton to stop expecting handouts from the government

Mbeki: Social compact the answer to promises made in ANC...

Former president Thabo Mbeki urged business and government and society to work together to tackle issues such as poverty, unemployment and poor services and infrastructure
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×