New hope for peace in Cosatu?
When David Sipunzi left his dusty village of Willowvale in the Eastern Cape 30 years ago to work as a migrant labourer in Welkom in the Free State, little did he know that one day he would be at the helm of one of the most influential trade unions in the country – the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Sipunzi took many by surprise when he defeated the experienced Frans Baleni for the powerful position of NUM general secretary at the union’s national congress in Johannesburg last week – this after he had unsuccessfully contested the position of deputy president in 2012.
His election is expected to shift the balance of forces in the Cosatu trade union federation.
Sipunzi’s predecessor, Baleni, was aligned to a faction supporting Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, which pushed hard for the expulsion of the former Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).
Sipunzi said he would work for the reinstatement of both Vavi and Numsa. He was quick to dismiss the suggestion that he is Vavi’s man and said he is a leader whose interest is the unity of Cosatu and the alliance as a whole.
‘Mission to unite’
“There is no way you can unite Cosatu without Vavi and Numsa,” he said. “My mission is to unite warring factions within NUM and Cosatu.
The divisions in Cosatu have got nothing to do with ideology, but they have everything to do with personalities. It is going to be a mammoth task.
“But I can’t start working towards that before I start. I believe in persuasion. If I fail, it will be for the membership to judge,” said the soft-spoken Sipunzi, who has served as the NUM regional secretary in the Free State since November 1999.
A father of four, his leadership role in the union started in 1985 when he was elected as a shop steward at the President Brand mine in Welkom, soon after he joined the company.
Among the people who influenced his love for politics is former president Nelson Mandela, whom he met for the first time at the NUM national congress in Pretoria in 1994.
Sipunzi was also inspired by former NUM leaders, such as ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.
When Sipunzi first became the regional secretary of NUM in the Free State, Mantashe was the union’s general secretary and Sipunzi asked him to become his mentor.
Mantashe was among the first people to call to congratulate him after he was elected last week.
Sipunzi said he still held Mantashe in high regard and would support him to become the next deputy president of the ANC when the party holds its elective conference in 2017.
But he does not aspire to become an ANC leader. He said his mission was to unite Cosatu and the entire labour movement.
He was planning to work closely with the NUM’s rivals – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and Solidarity – during this year’s round of wage negotiations.
Ironically, Amcu was founded by Joseph Mathunjwa, a known enemy of Mantashe.
The NUM has lost thousands of its members to Amcu over the past few years, something political observers say contributed to the decline in support for the ANC during last year’s general elections.
Sipunzi’s strategy is not to compete with his rivals but to forge unity to defeat a common enemy – the employer.
“We are going to this round of negotiations under pressure from members. They threw us in the deep end because they want to see improvements in their working condition. I think I am under pressure already.
“Labour as a whole must unite. Where we agree with Amcu, we should unite. It is not good to have a fragmented labour movement.
“If the ANC whose people were murdered by the apartheid regime could sit around the table with the National Party, what prevents us to sit with other trade unions? We are not enemies. Our enemy is the employer,” Sipunzi said.
What the NUM had in common with the other unions was that the Chamber of Mines must pay employees better salaries, he said.
The NUM would demand a salary of R9 500 for lower earners working on the surface, R10 500 for lower earners underground and a 15% wage increase across the board – all of which should be implemented by July 1.
Sipunzi sees talk about rumoured retrenchments in the mining industry as nothing but scare tactics by employers.
But data released by the Chamber of Mines last month shows that employment in the gold sector alone could drop by 43%.
“There is nothing new about retrnchments,” Sipunzi said. “It is always there. People always talk about it, especially when we come to wage negotiations. It is a scarecrow [created] by the employer.
“After all, they continue to retrench even if we settle for 5%. Eskom is demanding a 26% tariff increase, but none of the employers is asking how will the employees afford that.”
Sipunzi insisted he was not a radical or militant leader.
Several Cosatu leaders from the Free State refused to comment on Sipunzi’s election, which created the impression they were not on good terms with the man from Willowvale.
But Sipunzi insisted he was on good terms with them – except, “they are not my drinking buddies”.