IT WAS a fallout between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Joseph Mathunjwa, a preacher’s son, that led to the birth of new union at a coal mine 12 years ago.
The result of Mathunjwa’s firing was the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has made inroads into NUM turf in the platinum fields of Rustenburg over the past year.
Mathunjwa, once a NUM leader at BHP Billiton’s Douglas Colliery, was forced out of the union by then NUM head and now ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe in 1999.
The 3000-strong workforce revolted against NUM’s decision, sitting underground for 10 days in protest.
Archie Palane, who was the NUM’s deputy secretary-general at the time, talked the workers out from underground, but Mantashe still made sure Mathunjwa’s membership was terminated.
The entire workforce then resigned from the NUM.
Matjunwa, backed by two men who are always at his side, Jimmy Gama and Jeffrey Mphahlele, subsequently started invading South Africa’s mines and eating into NUM’s membership.
The union gained popularity on coal mines in KwaZulu-Natal and several coal, chrome, iron-ore and platinum mines in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the North West. It has also been successful in the construction industry, particularly among contract workers.
AMCU’s target is now the platinum industry, where NUM has been accused of taking its eye off the ball since political manoeuverings ended the career of Palane, a charismatic leader who enjoyed huge popularity in the Rustenburg fields.
In 2006, Palane, a favourite to take over from Mantashe, was eased out of NUM.
Palane was seen as a Thabo Mbeki supporter and the national executive committee under Mantashe, which supported Jacob Zuma, changed its constitution to disqualify Palane on a technicality from the race for general secretary.
This cleared the way for Frans Baleni, current general secretary and Mantashe’s favourite, to be elected unopposed.
“Since Archie was worked out of NUM, the union has treated its platinum members very shabbily. Archie was Mr Platinum; now they have no one in top leadership who has a platinum background,” said a veteran industry negotiator.
“NUM has been losing its spark,” Palane said this week. “The union is sending in shop stewards and regional representatives, often unable to articulate the needs and wishes of workers, to negotiate with skilled executives over salaries. This makes workers and members lose confidence in the union and they feel like NUM is not listening to their needs.”
The unhappiness with NUM has helped AMCU win members in the sector.
“AMCU has been able to thrive on the pockets of discontent that have been caused by NUM’s weak leadership. They get a sniff of unhappiness and they use it as a foothold to gain entry into a mine,” the negotiator said.
Baleni said NUM has lost many strong negotiators over the years, such as Cyril Ramaphosa, but managed to grow regardless.
Mathunjwa said AMCU was recruiting for members in all nine South African provinces and expects North West and its platinum mines to become its stronghold.
“We have been delivering about 500 stop orders to Barnard [Mokwena, human resources manager of Lonmin] every day,” he said.
NUM has been blocking attempts to have its membership at Impala independently verified.
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