Striking mine workers refuse to be misled

2014-02-17 10:00

The curse of spin and speculation is well and truly upon us. It could hardly be otherwise, with a major strike at the platinum mines under way, 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 evident everywhere.

Particularly galling to many in the ­labour movement, and especially to miners currently on strike on the platinum belt, is the claim that the mining companies are losing up to R400?million a day because of strike action.

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 mine workers share this perception. They know that while they lose money while on strike, the companies continue to sell metal that has already been mined, paid for and stockpiled.

They also tend to be as aware as any investor gambling on the stock market that the rand has tumbled against 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 rands; 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 Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Established in Witbank in 1998, Amcu had very little presence on the platinum belt in 2012, but it gained massively as miners defected from NUM.

However, many disgruntled NUM members also flooded to the National Union of Metalworkers of SA ­(Numsa), allowing it to 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 10 of the 19 affiliates to suspend or expel Numsa from the federation.

However, these interunion 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.

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, intensified 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 must be decided during a national congress.

In this, they have the Cosatu constitution on their side. 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 federation’s 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,” says 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 trip to the courts will.

Bell is a political and labour analyst

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