ANC mine stakes undermine state’s neutral role in labour
THE origins of the conflict at Marikana are complex and multifaceted. Some of the underlying triggers of mine violence since 1994 have been highlighted in previous commissions and reports — the most notable being the 1996 Myburgh Commission of Inquiry into mine violence on three Gold Fields mines and a Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation report on the violence on Amplats mines from 1996 to 1998, which left about 47 people dead.
In all of those instances, no one emerged with clean hands, and this is likely to be the case at Marikana too.
After 1994, South Africa introduced new labour legislation and a number of tripartite implementing institutions in the belief that these would be co-managed by strong social partners. Seventeen years on, the institutions exist and so does a comprehensive system of collective bargaining, but what Marikana has exposed is the dilution of organisation among the social partners — the government, organised labour and business.
So, in considering Marikana, what is the government’s role? In terms of the relationship between workers and employers, the state is supposed to be the objective referee. But its role has been compromised: it is acting as both player and referee, with many senior African National Congress (ANC) leaders having acquired stakes in mining companies. Compounding this is power politics, where unions position themselves politically.
Why did the government in the form of the labour minister not intervene earlier and what explains the minister’s silence during this period? More important, when the government did eventually act, it opted for the blunt-force policing solution. And whose decision was it? Were all the relevant government departments involved in this discussion — labour, mineral resources and police? If not, does this not speak to the state’s inability to provide leadership during times of crisis and/or the inability of departments to work together in times of crisis?
Finally, in relation to the government’s role, Marikana highlights the entrenchment of organised tribalism, the continued migration of workers, the dominance of “tradition” and the harsh environment evident in the mushrooming informal settlements around mines. The role of the platinum industry employers needs to explored, and that of the unions in respect of housing, collective-bargaining agreements.
However, while one has to recognise that workers often build “at home”, local government — especially in platinum-mining areas — has access to resources but has failed to deliver services. The Mining Charter refers to employers working with local government to provide funds for building houses. It appears Lonmin has done so but local government has been sitting on the money.
Turning to employers: the role of industrial relations has over time lost its appeal and senior management prefers to remove itself as much as possible from the management of human resources. It is unclear what processes were put in place after 1994 by platinum companies to build a relationship of trust with employees and unions.
Second, what is the nature of the relationship between platinum employers and the dominant union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)? Did the employer subvert the legislated rules of the game by engaging with an unrecognised minority union after having strictly administered the rules for the four unions that are recognised, thereby fuelling animosity? Third, the platinum industry does not bargain centrally and has sought to stay far away from the Chamber of Mines arrangement that might have led to intense competition between workers on different platinum mines.
And in view of the violence at Impala earlier this year, Lonmin must have been prepared for it to spread to its mines. Being part of a sector body at least would have facilitated the sharing of information and at best facilitated a nuanced industrial-relations engagement rather than the belated blunt response seen at Marikana.
It is necessary to highlight the long-term effect of Bophuthatswana on unionisation on the platinum mines. Because of its anti-union stance, South African unions were banned from operating in Bophuthatswana, and while the platinum mines recognised the NUM and allowed them to recruit, it meant that it was difficult to organise workers, establish structures and train local leadership. The situation was worsened by the complexity of incorporating the bantustans into South Africa. For the unions, problems emerged in the transfer of workers’ conditions of employment and, in particular, provident funds. The workers did not understand the process and the union failed to explain it properly to them. As a result, workers distrusted the process and, in turn, the union.
In view of this history, it is questionable whether strong regional and branch structures have been built and, more important, whether the union has been able to unify platinum workers across job grades in one company, but equally across all employers, as was achieved on the gold mines. A former industry source says: “Workers never understood what the NUM was doing because of high levels of illiteracy and began to distrust them and saw them as living the good life … and selling out.”
This growing frustration that their leaders were living the good life has been worsened by the introduction of full-time shaft stewards — a select few who earn more, have greater benefits and better working conditions.
More importantly, the focus of union leaders appears to be on the factional politics that now characterises the ANC. As a result, it appears that union solidarity has been compromised at local, regional and national level for political pursuits to the detriment of members’ interests.
It is equally important to explore the role played by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. First, it is understood to have originated from a splinter group from the NUM with a “history” of acting against the union. Second, while new unions are emerging across all sectors, economic sectors are being disrupted as worker frustrations are being fanned. Once workers are on strike, their risk is so great, losing wages and possibly their jobs, that they “have” to win. Workers will pay the price for union and other leaders who may be encouraging the workers not to compromise as they are playing their own power games.
Finally, what about the rock-drillers themselves? Rock-drillers across the industry have had a history of being agitated, standing their ground and taking action — often violently. The reasons are located in legacy: money and power. Rock-drillers are seen as among the toughest of underground mine workers in a very tough industry. They work an eight-hour day, lying with their backs on the ground drilling into the rock face within a one-metre space from ground to ceiling. They see themselves as being skilled workers, but they are not graded as such; rather as a job requiring brutal force. They are critical to the operation of a mine and if they stop working, production is halted. They are respected by other miners who view them as the elite and are often more respected than union leaders.
Overcoming the legacy of the past, instilling trust among the social partners and normalising the mining industry are not about transformation centred on a few black faces in senior positions. The challenge for the sector, and more broadly, is to overhaul the mine structures; to encourage a sense of trust, belonging and inclusion; to ensure that those who dig for it get to fairly share in the wealth of it and that available resources are invested to uplift the local community, not siphoned off to pay for rampant conspicuous consumption and the enrichment of the elite; for leaders to understand the power they wield and to use it considerately, carefully and with conscience; and to remember what frustrated workers in desperation will do — a microcosm of the challenges facing South Africa.
• Mseme is a public policy and stakeholder expert and Grawitzky is an independent researcher.
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