It is doubtful whether the rise of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) spells the revitalisation of the dormant National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), as the Workers' Day rally at Lonmin's Wonderkop Stadium in Marikana seemed to suggest. The rally, largely believed to have been organised by Amcu, was used by the organisationally fragile federation as a show of strength that could threaten Cosatu's position as the premier workers' federation.
"Wednesday's rally, at the level of organisation, was mainly Amcu," said Nkrumah Kgagudi, a former general secretary of the Nactu-affiliated Metal and Electrical Workers' Union of South Africa. "Nactu affiliates were not there in their numbers; it was mainly workers in Rustenburg and surrounding areas. Industrial, manufacturing, hotel, retail and public sectors were not there. So it is still failing to build working-class solidarity across all sectors.
"The challenge is whether the numbers that Amcu brings can be translated into organisational gains so that Nactu is at a level where it can influence policy-making processes," Kgagudi said.
Devan Pillay, a professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, said Nactu had no visible presence of late but even moribund federations had bounced back from obscurity. "An indication of its malaise was that it wanted to merge with a white-collar federation like Fedusa whereas it was historically allied to the BC [Black Consciousness] movement and PAC [Pan Africanist Congress]. If Amcu wants to revitalise it [Nactu], theoretically that's possible but at the moment it is in the realm of speculation."
Pillay said Amcu also stood to benefit from being part of a strong trade union federation and would not be isolated in the face of a volatile economy.
He added that Amcu's supposed apolitical stance was not as innocuous as it seemed, as the parties that had appeared at the rally were, broadly speaking, orientated to the left of the political spectrum.
Ari Sitas, a professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town, said Nactu was a part of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), so it was involved in discussions with employers, government and trade unions but it remained to be seen what effect that would have on mining where it previously had a marginal presence. "I do not think that it is articulating a politics that will lead to an alternative to where we are now. I have not seen any vision or alternative coming from its intellectual cadres. At the moment it feels like a pressure group."
At the rally, groups of mostly men, proudly displaying their green Amcu T-shirts, inched towards the threadbare Wonderkop stadium in singing groups of varying sizes.
With some waving knobkerries, they sang of their recent exploits M&G of trouncing the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in front of the whole nation, of establishing a new order at Lonmin and of their allegiance to a union they had faith in to improve their circumstances.
At the entrance, some swapped their shirts for a yellow Nactu May Day 2013 T-shirt, an act more or less encapsulating the day's agenda. About 4 000 Amcu members from across the platinum belt attended the event.
In a show of the supposed egalitarianism opened up by Amcu's emergence, several political parties were present, including the United Democratic Movement (UDM), the African People's Convention (APC), the PAC and the Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo).
Other invited guests, such as the widows of some of the slain Lonmin mineworkers, Nactu affiliates and a large contingent of the PAC members, filled the two marquees flanking the stage.
The ANC, conspicuously absent, was huddled a few kilometres away from Wonderkop in Rustenburg's Olympia Park Stadium, where Cosatu was staging its own smaller rally, at which there were less than a third of the Nactu rally's attendants.
The Wonderkop programme, a line-up of speakers interspersed with worker songs, went off without a hitch, displaying the open season declared on the hearts and minds of the politically ambivalent miners, for many of whom a break with the NUM symbolised a divorce from the ANC. It was a vacillation perhaps best expressed by Lonmin strike leader Xolani Nzuza, who has attended the Marikana inquiry dressed alternatively in APC, Amcu and UDM T-shirts.
The UDM leader Bantu Holomisa, if the crowd's reaction was anything to go by, stands to gain the most from the ANC's losses in the region. In a display of forethought, he stepped on to the podium armed with a letter he had written to the Farlam commission of inquiry into the Marikana deaths a day before the rally.
His letter urged the commission to include an investigation of the NUM's investments (allegedly using the workers' provident funds) and the distribution of dividends. Holomisa, who wrote that he had already approached Parliament and the office of the president to no avail, advised the commission "to solicit information about these investments and find out where these dividends are".
Otherwise, he warned, there would be no end to the wildcat strikes and their potential to escalate into tragedy.