IMPALA Platinum is a company being led down an uncertain path by its workforce. Gone is the certainty that came with a predictable labour relations framework and a trade union that took on the role of translating collective decisions to workers.
Now, there is the Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu): a trade union with a populist flavour and a new leadership that is fast establishing a foothold in the platinum industry. Within the next few months, when all the legal verification processes have been completed, it is pretty clear that Amcu will - at the very least - share organisational rights with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at Impala's mine.
Yet until three months ago, Amcu did not have a single member at Impala. Today, it claims 11000 and is still counting.
It has been tempting for observers to explain Amcu's rise by NUM's failings. This is not accurate. NUM is a successful union that has negotiated well for its members. Amcu's rapid growth also cannot be explained by its organisational brilliance.
Instead, what has brought about the change are dynamics that have been brewing under the surface for some time: first, the growing social distance between the NUM leadership and its members, due more than anything to the union's success; and second, the populist mobilisation of poor and working people fed up with low incomes and wealth disparities, that is a growing tendency in politics.
Some anecdotes from recent weeks capture both.
Jeffrey Thanzi is the NUM branch chairman of Impala North. When he recently accompanied management on a corporate social investment jaunt to one of its key labour-supplying areas in the Eastern Cape, he was pictured in the Impala News along with an article about the project. Since Mthatha is his home base, talk among the workforce was that he was so privileged that management had bought him a farm and 50 head of cattle.
After a similar visit to Taung, another labour supply area for the mine, the story went around that he had computer training schools in the area, which he had acquired from company money.
Rumours were also whipped up about other NUM leaders. Colin Monapule, the branch secretary of Impala South, who is also a trustee on the board of Impala's employee share ownership scheme, was almost lynched when workers spotted him in town wearing the white suit that his wife had bought him for their wedding. The suit must have been purchased with their shares, they claimed, which shrank rather than grew in price (as was promised five years ago when the scheme was launched) due to the fall in the platinum price. This was evidence that it was Mr Monapule who had eaten their money.
That such stories can be considered plausible by the workforce speaks volumes of the distrust that has developed between NUM members and leaders, who - although they do not own farms or generally wear flashy suits - are in much smaller ways, the elite of the workforce.
Union officials tend to be more articulate in English, sit in offices, have access to union resources such as cars on weekends, get time off work for union business, are wooed by service providers who would like to gain access to the large membership data bases they hold, and are easily identifiable by management for promotion. Unlike the rest of the workforce - which is largely illiterate - NUM branch leaders have better skills, which are developed through union work.
Says Sibongile Sigadla, one of the emerging leaders of Amcu at Impala: "The NUM leaders have got no truth. They are always on the side of the official - the people who already have many things. They have got a nice life. They can never come to us. It is difficult for them to come to us and say what is the problem?"
While the gulf between workers and their leaders grew insidiously over the years due to the privileges accorded to NUM officials, the sudden upheaval and revolt against it has its roots in last year's wage negotiation.
In those talks, which took place between NUM, the majority union, and management and were settled in October, an across the board increase was agreed of between 9% and 10%.
Impala executive director Paul Dunne says that during the talks management put a proposal on the table that rock drill operators - who are more skilled and who were at risk of resigning for better jobs - be given a higher increment. "We recognised that we were out of step with the rest of the industry both in job grading and in pay. It would have been pre-emptive to stop them from leaving. But that suggestion never found its way into the final agreement."
Mr Dunne says it is because the NUM rejected it. Sidwell Dokolwana, the NUM's provincial secretary, says it was never seriously on the table.
Either way, two months later, shortly before the December break, Impala management unilaterally decided to award qualified miners - among the most skilled of underground workers - an additional 16% adjustment. This was to stop a succession of resignations of miners leaving for better pay. The NUM was outraged that the wage agreement had been unilaterally overridden. And, when workers heard of the adjustment, awarded only to the better-paid among them, they were seething.
Says an underground winch-driver who did not want to give his name: "When you work underground you are a team. If there is no winch-driver, then there is no production. We are all contributing to this company. If someone gets an increase and you don't, then you feel bad."
Rock-drill operators, possibly having got wind of management's proposal during wage negotiations, led the strike, followed by the rest of the workforce. This was the strike that was largely responsible for SA's plummeting mining output in the first quarter of the year.
The country's platinum output dropped 46%. The loss to Impala was about R2bn. It was during this strike that the workers of Impala first made it clear that they no longer wanted the NUM to represent them.
Unfortunately for the NUM, the branch chairmen of both Impala North and South were qualified miners. Both therefore qualified for the 16% increase.
This was evidence, says Mr Sigadla, "that NUM negotiates only for itself. We saw the adjustment that the miners got. NUM are on the side of those who already have everything."
To make their rejection of the NUM clear, "workers have given back the keys for the NUM office to management" he says, meaning workers have closed the union offices by force. An attempt by NUM members to re-open them ended in a shooting incident and ever since the offices have remained closed.
Mr Sigadla is now one of what management describe as the "emerging leadership".
He lives in a one-roomed shack in the sprawling informal settlement near Impala number one shaft. Platinum has caused the explosion of this area over the past 15 years from dusty veld into an chaotic industrial hub, teeming with machinery, trucks, trains, taxis and people.
A rock-drill operator, and having been a shaft steward for NUM for many years, Mr Sigadla was elected one of the "Five Madoda", or top five leaders, at Impala. He is fiercely impatient for change and deeply unhappy at what he views as the paltry wage settlements the NUM has settled for time and again. Not only that, but NUM officials, he says, do as they please on the mine, even carrying firearms into restricted areas with impunity.
They have also, he says made promises that workers would get huge amounts of money through the share ownership scheme, which have not materialised.
Instead, when the scheme finally matured in December, workers who had been expecting tens of thousands of rands got only about R2000 each.
Populist stirrings among the workforce are now for a demand of 16% across the board and for the materialisation of their vanished share money.
Mr Sigadla is impatient with union leadership who tell him to go through procedures and follow the union constitution.
It has only been former African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema, who visited Impala workers at the height of their strike, who sympathised with workers' impatience and urged the NUM to fire their local leadership.
"The NUM takes a long time to do everything. They have got many processes and procedures. They tell you to use the union constitution. But with Amcu, they just fight for the workers."
It is these words exactly, that Amcu "will fight for the workers" without being burdened by the responsibility of being a partner to management or a partner to government, that Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa is frequently heard to say.
Mr Mathunjwa is also a former NUM leader, who fell out with the union and particularly its then general secretary Gwede Mantashe, back in 1998. Based in Witbank and encouraged by workers at the colliery where he had worked, he has built up a presence for Amcu at a handful of coal mines in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Witbank. The union was registered with the Department of Labour in 2001.
But large scale success has come with the platinum mines, where he has tied up a recognition agreement with Lonmin at Karee mine and with Murray & Roberts at Aquarius. Amcu is now looking to the Klerksdorp goldfields and has already received a letter warning it to stay out of hostels.
Mr Mathunjwa says his new-found success is the result of a wave of populism stirring in mining communities.
"It is about the history of how workers were treated. If workers were misrepresented for 15 or 20 years, you can imagine the anger and frustration. We are facing a situation not of our creation. If you're reaching the end of your working life and you're still earning R3000 then you will think, what the hell is going on?"
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