Need to confront poisonous roots of the past

Posted on July 12, 2013


“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” So wrote American author and poet Maya Angelou; providing an insight that seems highly pertinent to the South Africa of today, especially when considering the fraught situation in the mining sector.

Because, for all the wailing and metaphoric gnashing of teeth about the events of recent weeks and months, a long and largely ignored history has a bearing on everything that is happening. The attitudes, the posturing and the way various groups and individuals are perceived — how and by whom — all have roots in a past that it is essential to confront, analyse and understand.

If the players involved do not do so, there is every chance that they will not only live again the errors and disasters of the past, but exacerbate the situation. Already there are fears openly expressed about the possibility of “another Marikana”. Yet the specific roots of that tragedy and the political and trade union turmoil that followed, go back nearly 15 years to the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

That was at the Douglas colliery in Witbank, Mpumalanga where the local chairman of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Joseph Mathunjwa, supported his members in an unprocedural strike. The details of this case are unimportant: what happened was that Mathunjwa was expelled from the NUM in controversial circumstances.

When he was pushed out, the entire branch left with him and Amcu came into being. That was 1998 and the union was formally recognised by the registrar of trade unions in 2001. It grew slowly, mainly in the mining sector, recruiting new unionists, but also disgruntled members of the NUM.

Amcu survived, as did — and do — other minority unions, in several workplaces, while dominating in a few. But it was the NUM that held sway over everything that mattered in the mining sector and it was NUM and various managements that used section 18 of the Labour Relations Act of 1996 to ensure that NUM maintained dominance.

Section 18 states that “an employer and a registered trade union whose members are a majority…in any workplace…may conclude a collective agreement establishing a threshold of representatives…in respect of organisational rights…”

What this means is that any union with a majority in any workplace can do a deal with an employer to effectively exclude other unions or, at the very least, make it extremely difficult for any other union to operate and recruit, let alone threaten the majority of the already dominant union.

This issue came to something of a head at the Becsa colliery, some 20km south of Middelburg, Mpumalnaga three years ago. Becsa, 84 per cent owned by the former Afrikaner empowerment vehicle Gencor that morphed into BHP Billiton, was negotiating a pay deal with the primarily white collar mining union, Uasa when Section 18 intervened.

“On the Friday, we seemed to have a deal, but by the Monday, after management had met with the majority union, NUM, we were told that we did not meet the 30 per cent membership threshold,” says Uasa chief executive, Koos Bezuidenhout. The solution was to approach Amcu, that was also below the threshold and, together form an alliance that went beyond the requirement. “But then the threshold was raised to 50 per cent plus one,” says Bezuidenhout.

There have been resorts to court and interdicts, but this sort of manipulation has caused deep resentment among union organisers and many union members. It is also something that has bred a “tit for tat” mentality: if NUM did it to us, let us do it to them.

It should also be recalled that, on the day of the Marikana massacre, the majority of the protesting miners who gathered on the “Wonderkop” were members of the NUM; it is a fair bet that none laid claim to this in the aftermath of the carnage. They formed independent worker committees many of which found a home in Amcu, attracted by the promise of a more democratic dispensation.

Protesting miners also tend to be well aware of the rise to great political and economic prominence of former NUM leaders such Cyril Ramaphosa and former NUM president, James Matlatsi, who became chair of AngloGold. At a much lower level, and for obvious historical reasons, many of the human resources managers and administrative personnel on various mines are either previous or present NUM members. At the very least, this is seen as a conflict of interest; it is certainly a source of resentment.

And because NUM is affiliated to Cosatu which is, in turn, a member of the governing ANC-led alliance, there was little surprise, but a great deal of anger, among disgruntled miners when senior ANC and government figures made sometimes inflammatory statements condemning Amcu. As a result, even the appointment of deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe as putative honest broker in the mining sector, caused murmurs of dissent.

Not forgotten among many miners is the fact that Motlanthe was once the education officer of NUM. However, he has not made any derogatory statements about Amcu and has assured “peace talk” participants that both unions are regarded equally.

But there has been no apology from officials such as ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and, as the talks got underway, higher education minister Blade Nzimande, again referred to Amcu as “vigilantes”. The explanation that Nzimande was not speaking as a member of the ANC or as a government minister, but as general secretary of the South African Communist Party, did little to placate Amcu members.

And so the talks and the turmoil continue, without any real attempt to deal with the underlying causes; to confront openly and honestly the poisonous roots of the past.

Perhaps all parties involved would do well to heed the words of another American writer, James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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