The Aurora factor & SA worker unity

Posted on March 8, 2015


Infighting, bickering and the pursuit of power and patronage have largely paralysed South Africa’s largest labour federation, Cosatu, in recent years. That, broadly, is the view of the federation’s embattled general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, and of Jay Naidoo, Cosatu’s first general secretary.

It is a view that was borne out last week when the latest chapter in the tragedy that is Pamodzi gold mines and Aurora Empowerment Systems played itself out in the Pretoria high court. Significantly, Vavi was present among the protestors at the court while the majority of the Cosatu executive continued with their meeting in Johannesburg to discuss, among other matters, the possible suspension or dismissal of their general secretary.

The Pretoria case was an urgent application brought by Khulubuse Zuma to have claims of more than R1.5 billion against Aurora set aside. It was dismissed, with costs.

The application was a last ditch attempt by Zuma to halt a case brought by the company’s liquidators against him and his co-directors. They allegedly stripped the assets of the mines in Springs on the East Rand and Orkney in the North West.

Nearly five years ago, Aurora, whose directors include Zuma, who is President Jacob Zuma’s nephew, the president’s legal adviser, Michael Hulley, and Nelson Mandela’s grandson Zodwa Mandela, took over the Pamodzi mines. They promised a bright future for the more than 5 000 workers. A year later, as one trade unionist put it: “There has been lots of talk and no action.”

There was also no payment of wages although an order was made through the labour court for this to be rectified. “If we had been united and prepared to act, this matter could have been sorted by 2010,” says Solly Phetoe, Cosatu regional secretary for the North West.

The matter was not “sorted out”. Instead, miners starved, hundreds drifted away, at least one, Marius Ferreira, a member of the Solidarity union, who was owed R170 000 in unpaid wages, lost his home and committed suicide.

Ferreira died shortly after it was announced in early 2011 that Khulubuse Zuma had made a public donation of R1 million to the ANC. This was condemned by the unions.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) also expressed anger that while the 700 miners remaining in hostels spent Christmas that year without wages, running water or electricity, Zuma presented his fiancee with the gift of a R1.2 million Maserati car.

It was a case that cried out for solidarity action. “But there was political interference and so there was much talk and little action,” says a senior Cosatu official. Contact has also been lost with some of the miners who were recruited from rural areas and from Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho. A number are known to have died.

Now, belatedly, solidarity action appears to be developing at a rank and file level. A Cosatu meeting at the Number 5 shaft at the Orkney mine last Thursday afternoon was the first step in what promises to be mass mobilisation in support of the Aurora miners when the case against the directors goes ahead on March 23.

This may bring to a head the divisions and power plays within Cosatu since the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), expelled by the federation’s executive majority, is likely to turn out in large numbers. A show of great unity could force the issue of a Cosatu national congress that is constitutionally necessary for the Numsa expulsion to be ratified or overturned.

However, the Aurora miners were members of the NUM, the union that is perhaps the most vociferous of the Cosatu affiliates opposed to Numsa. “But on the basis of solidarity, nobody can oppose Numsa or Amcu (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) members coming to give support,” says the Cosatu official.

Numsa and Amcu have been the main beneficiaries of the mass of defections from the NUM in the wake of the Marikana massacre of August 2012. Amcu has already indicated support for the March 23 protest — a week before Vavi may be called to a Cosatu disciplinary hearing.