Although Frans Baleni did not lash out at a new breed of worker lacking "class consciousness", it is safe to say that there are things to which even a relaxed National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) general secretary will not concede on home turf.
Chief among these is the defeat of an organisation he has pledged allegiance to since its formation in 1982 – the same organisation that stands to lose the most members as a result of the unprotected strike action that has swept the gold and platinum sectors in the past few weeks.
"If we can't save 1 500 people at Gold One then we would have lost members, because 75% of those people are our members," he said.
"At Amplats we are the majority union, with over 70% membership – about 12 000 in Rustenburg and 8 000 in Limpopo. That's a lot."
Perhaps predictably, Baleni sees no victory resulting from the unprotected strikes – only restructuring, which, he said, would result in the closure of marginal operations and increased mechanisation to counter labour costs.
"Both Impala and Lonmin [hit by protracted strikes this year] have cancelled programmes that would have employed about 3 000 people. About 20 to 25 gold mines have been in decline. AngloGold is launching a mechanised five-kilometre project. So there's already a shift from intensive labour."
Baleni said that 30 years of existence called for, among other things, introspection on its progress, its changing membership profile and the effects of the prevailing 50%-plus-one threshold, which has resulted in smaller unions being squeezed out of bargaining processes. But it had been hampered by the rolling strikes and the only problems the organisation faced were those born out of its own success.
"As a union we've tried to have as much resources as we can. Previously, in the executive committee, it was only the general secretary that was [a] full-time [staff member of the union]. Now, the entire exco is full-time. We have elected branch committee members who earn a wage. There are now perks involved – a salary of R16 000 [a month] and a car. So when you lose an election and you're taken back to R6 000, you are part of an army of grumpy people and can make other people's terms ungovernable. So that's been the situation in places like Carletonville, Rustenburg, et cetera."
Is Baleni's theory not dangerous in as far as it sees workers as helpless pawns, only helpful in advancing factions in the NUM and not their own circumstances?
"The bottom line is that there has been a political project to capture the soul of the NUM … I think it's natural that people wanted people who would say what they wanted them to say, but they failed through the congress process. So you find that some of the committees have been unhappy. This campaign of bana bamo [communities calling for mining companies to hire the local population] started in Limpopo, then it spread to Marikana, to Angloplats, to Virginia and the Northern Cape. It's easy to spread this fire. They go to the local community and say: 'Support this strike until they're fired.' They go to the strikers and say: 'Strike until you get this money.'"
Even as the platinum sector is holding talks to establish a central bargaining body in the face of unprotected strikes led by an autonomous joint strike co-ordinating committee, Baleni is adamant that an autonomous workers' body cannot be party to the discussions.
"We don't think it's appropriate for them to have representation without a legal body. We've seen in the communities where mines engage bodies and then another one comes along. It's like liaising committees. They are not sustainable. In most cases these workers are associated with the mother union. For example, in Lonmin, workers have been saying 'maybe later we'll associate with another union', which suggests that people are clearly protecting themselves."
Although that can be read as a veiled attack on the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which has gained numbers in areas such as Lonmin and Implats where the NUM has lost ground, NUM president Senzeni Zokwana has been more critical. He said the union "found it strange" that only NUM members were being killed after a Lonmin peace accord that Amcu refused to sign. This caused Amcu to walk out of the central bargaining forum talks on October 10 and demand a public retraction, a suggestion at which Baleni scoffed.
"All parties have been making statements in the media. It could be tit for tat. All these things can be discussed separately, or we can go the legal route."
Going the legal route is something the union has been considering as a response to the Implats verification debacle, where, according to Implats, NUM membership has dropped from 70% to 13%, with Amcu benefiting. The NUM argues that violence at the mine, the intimidation of the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, which was appointed to head the ill-fated independent verification process, and Implats's complicity scuppered a legally sanctioned process. Two weeks ago, the union marched on the Implats office and delivered a memorandum.
"We're not allowed to operate at Impala," Baleni said. "Our shop stewards were shot at and others were hospitalised. Impala is saying they can't guarantee our safety and they can't bring in armed personnel, and we want a safe environment to operate in … Forty-three percent of the workers haven't joined a union. We just can't embark on a process to regain our membership under those circumstances."
Although Baleni appears confident that the union can regain lost ground by embarking on an organisational review that will focus on increasing the representation of rock drill operators in the branch committees, he has no plan for how that might happened. Instead, he turns to history.
"We're looking at scenarios where we're losing members and we know we'll come back. Principles always shine when the dust is settled. At one stage we had lost all membership at Amplats in a situation involving Mouthpiece [Workers Union]. Eight people were killed in 1999. It took us 18 months to recover at Amplats. We'll lose, but we'll come back."
Baleni's comments do not take into account how widespread discontent is with the NUM, or that the workers themselves are expressing it.
During the lead up to the Marikana shootings Baleni downplayed the union's slide, still quoting the obsolete figure of 32 0000 NUM members, although a 2011 Cosatu secretariat report had put the figure at roughly 50 000 less. This suggests that denial is perhaps the strongest gun in the NUM's arsenal.
l The Chamber of Mines and the NUM announced an agreement on Wednesday that will result in entry-level gold miners earning R8 000 gross (including benefits) and rock drill operators getting R12 000 a month (including benefits). The increases vary between 11% and 20.8%.