SA workers resist the lure of spin

Posted on February 18, 2014


This is the first in the new series of Inside Labour.  It appears initially on the Fin24 digital platform and in the Sunday City Press newspaper in South Africa.

The curse of spin and speculation is well and truly upon us in South Africa. It could hardly be otherwise, with a major strike on the platinum mines underway, a general election looming and the labour movement facing the biggest crisis in its history.

Misleading propaganda and speculation, often catering to prejudices or aimed at advancing specific agendas, is everywhere evident. Particularly galling to many in the labour movement, and especially to miners currently on strike on the platinum belt, is the claim that platinum mining companies are losing up to R400 million a day because of strike action.

This is published as an article of faith throughout the media. At the same time, reports note that the share prices of platinum companies rallied, even two weeks into the strike. What this apparent contradiction highlights is the fact that most major investors realise that the claimed huge losses are nonsense.

Many mineworkers share this perception. They know that while they lose money while on strike, the companies continue to sell metal already mined, paid for, and hoarded in stockpiles. They also tend to be as aware as any investor gambling on the stock market, that the exchange rate value of the rand has tumbled in relation to the dollar.

For most miners, the fact that $1 bought R9 a year or so ago, and that $1 now fetches R11 or more is irrelevant. It is enough to be aware that platinum group metals are sold in dollars and most mining costs are in rand; that the mining companies are receiving more and paying less.

Given this background, there should be little need to speculate about why there is considerable anger among miners striking for an entry-level wage of R12 500 a month. Especially since this demand was first made at Marikana in August 2012 by strikers who, for the most part, were National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) members. They felt their union did not support them and deserted NUM in their thousands after the massacre of 34 of their colleagues.

Much murk and misinformation surrounds this development and the emergence of the Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu). Established in Witbank in 1998, Amcu had very little presence on the platinum belt in 2012, but gained massively as miners defected from NUM. However, many disgruntled NUM members also flooded into the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), allowing that union rapidly to overtake NUM as the largest Cosatu affiliate.

This led to bitter exchanges between NUM and Numsa, culminating in NUM supporting this week’s threat by the Cosatu office bearers and representatives from ten of the 19 affiliates, to suspend or expel Numsa from the federation.

However, these inter-union battles are only aspects of the wider feud that seems to threaten to tear Cosatu apart and to severely disrupt the labour movement. Amid allegations of dirty tricks and financial impropriety that first came to a head with the controversial suspension last year of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, the fundamental issues are frequently lost in a welter of confusion.

Stripped of the rhetoric and contradictory claims, the basic issues seem straightforward: Vavi epitomises the probable majority view among the rank and file union members that the ongoing relationship between Cosatu and the ANC should be reassessed. This gave rise to rival factions battling for control of Cosatu, but as a united body.

It is here that party political priorities and concepts of worker democracy come into conflict, a conflict made all the more intense by the fact that the general election is scheduled for May 7. The current Cosatu office bearers and their supporters see an ANC election victory and continued membership of the ANC-led alliance as a priority. Nine affiliates, led by Numsa, maintain that this issue, epitomised by Vavi’s suspension, must be decided by a national congress.

In this they have the Cosatu constitution on their side in that it states that suspensions or expulsions from the federation all have to be ratified — or may be overturned — by such a meeting of union delegates. So a special national congress — also mandated by the constitution — was requested.

Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini has now rejected this, citing “discretionary powers”.

“All of this is having a bad impact on trade unionists everywhere,” notes a senior Federation of Unions (Fedusa) official who, like Fedusa general secretary Dennis George, supports a call for a “worker summit” of all unions to try to resolve the crisis. Sadly, worker intervention or democracy may have less chance to initiate some resolution than a resort to the courts.