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The deadly cost of union membership in North West

It is 9.25am on Sunday 22 August. A few office-bearers of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) are gathered in the parking lot of a hotel in Rustenburg, North West. They’re caucusing about their feedback to a mass gathering of workers scheduled for later in the day. 

Thousands of employees contracted to companies that supply mining services to Impala Platinum Holdings (Implats), which outsources most of its workforce in Rustenburg, will be eager to know how the process to verify their membership of Numsa is progressing. They are hoping that once it’s been verified, Numsa will receive recognition as the dominant union at Implats. 

The union officials leave for the meeting in a convoy of four cars, a BMW X6, Ford Ranger bakkie and two sedans, and are escorted by private armed security personnel to Impala Rustenburg’s shaft 9, where it is taking place. A similar meeting is happening at shaft 6. 

The situation is extremely tense.

The meeting comes just three days after Malibongwe Mdazo, a Numsa campaigner and organiser, was assassinated in broad daylight at the office of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in Rustenburg. The hitmen fired at least 10 bullets. 

“Mdazo was a strong comrade, he had influence,” says Numsa official Enock Manyoni, who worked with Mdazo on recruiting members for the union among contractors at Implats. “He was a good campaigner and organiser.”

Mdazo’s murder took place amid fierce competition between Numsa and its rival at Implats, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). He joined Numsa after being dismissed from Amcu, where he had been a regional deputy chairperson, for “serious misconduct”. Amcu general secretary Jeffrey Mphahlele will not say what the misconduct involved.

Needed to be silenced

Mdazo rose through Amcu’s ranks after the Marikana massacre in 2012, having left the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) around the time of the wildcat strike at Lonmin that took place amid competition over bargaining rights at Lonmin, and resulted in the police killing 34 workers and injuring 78 on 16 August 2021.

Amcu has been the dominant union at Lonmin and Implats operations since, but there has been dissatisfaction with it among the workers who fall under contractors at the mines and Numsa has been working hard to bring them into its fold.   

Numsa’s national spokesperson, Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, says Mdazo’s assassination “was to silence him … He organised thousands of workers at Implats. His murder is directly tied to his activities of organising workers in the mining sector.”

Vukile Mbokodwana, 56, known to his comrades as Madala, is a long-time friend of Mdazo. He says Mdazo had been recruiting workers who felt betrayed by Amcu. Their dissatisfaction stems from a deal Amcu had negotiated with Implats in 2014 that benefitted the company’s permanently employed workers but not those who work for contractors, even if they perform similar duties.

“Those who are under contractors went on strike [in 2014] and nothing was negotiated for them. It has been over eight years now that workers who are under Amcu have not benefitted from the mine,” explains Madala. “We asked workers under contractors to come join Numsa, especially workers under contractors who earn around R6 000 while permanent staff earn more than R13 000.”

There are about nine mining services companies contracted to Implats’ operations, and Numsa claims that they have been obstructing efforts to have it recognised as the majority union. “Contractors are hostile to Numsa being recognised and they are working with Amcu to frustrate our attempts to negotiate on behalf of workers,” says Hlubi-Majola.

Mdazo was assassinated while verification of Numsa membership of workers at one of the contractors was taking place at the CCMA so that it could prove its majority status. 

“He was killed simply because he brought Numsa to Implats,” says Mbokodwana. “There is no other reason that he would have been killed. They realise that all workers would want to join Numsa too.” 

Intimidation and threats 

Frustrated by the contractors’ delay to recognise the union, Numsa members went on a strike in June that lasted for about three weeks and led to their dismissal. On 13 July, Numsa reached an agreement with five contractors that its members who had taken part in the strike would be reinstated, with the exception of its interim committee members, who received final written warnings valid for 12 months.

Numsa says its members have been forced to sign Amcu membership forms at three contractors – Reagetswe Trading, Triple M and Newrak. It says they were threatened that they would not be permitted to work if they didn’t sign the forms.

In a lawyers’ letter sent to Implats dated 17 August, the union says its members have continued to be intimidated, assaulted and victimised. It adds that on 4 and 10 August, Amcu “forced our members to take off their masks [with the] Numsa logo on it” and one member was “insulted, intimidated, assaulted and threatened” that if he continued to wear a Numsa-branded T-shirt “he is going to die early”. 

Mphahlele dismisses these allegations against Amcu as “hogwash”. “When it comes to the mines, you can see that they [Numsa] are not well entrenched in the mines. However, we have nothing against them… As we speak, Amcu is the only vibrant and militant union. Even Numsa knows that Amcu is the only union that is vibrant.”

He claims that it is Numsa members who have been intimidating and threatening Amcu’s members and says his union cannot be linked to Mdazo’s assassination.

“Remember that he led people into a wildcat strike [in June]. People have lost salary on that [strike and] we don’t know where the anger could come from. As Amcu, we regret the loss of life and whoever has carried out this [murder] is not an Amcu member and there was no mandate to do such a thing,” says Mphahlele. 

“It is just unfortunate that people [treat] lives cheaply and continue killing. But this was not a union rivalry, so to speak. We have brought stability to the platinum belt if you follow your history correctly,” he adds.

Determined to continue

Back at the meeting at shaft 9, the assassination does not seem to have deterred thousands of workers from attending while a drone hovers above. 

Nor has the gathering been affected by a letter Numsa received from Implats’ lawyers, stating the company heard that the union “will march on our client’s premises on Sunday … and should our client not agree to Numsa demands, it will call a strike at our client’s Rustenburg operations from Sunday night. We request that Numsa leadership intervenes in any planned unprotected action as communicated by … other individuals who are known Numsa supporters and that they be dissuaded from any further similar conduct and utterances.”

Manyoni says this was a desperate move that has failed as the attendance is “overwhelming”. 

“I thought workers would be scared or demoralised. But the spirit [is] very high and it means that there is no turning back now.” 

For Mbokodwana, his friend will always be an exemplary trade unionist who fought for workers’ rights. “The foundation that Mdazo has left is a good example. He was brave and he died for what he believed in.”

This article was first published on New Frame

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Magnificent Mndebele
Magnificent Mndebele

Magnificent Mndebele focuses on investigative journalism and specialises in politics and societal issues affecting the most vulnerable citizens. He is a freelance journalist and photographer

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