It is easy to look for someone to blame in any disaster. Out of devastation I also made serious accusations, but they only helped to pump up more anger upon anger without any possible relief. Some blame Lonmin for being ignorant of striking workers and corruptly manipulating NUM leadership to suppress legitimate grievance of employees to the extent that they resorted to illegal means of amcu; some blame Amcu for inciting workers; some blame police for being vengeful. I also made my own conclusions, however, after serious reflection, I realised that most of my assertion were made to satisfy my anger against Lonmin just because is an employer. Thus, my conclusion had nothing to do with the current situation, but my own harboured anger against my previous employer. To understand the situation we need to look soberly at history of Amcu.
Joseph Mathunjwa was the chairperson of local branch of NUM. Among his notable successes which made him popular among the workforce is that of forcing mine management to implement a bonus system for underground workers. When a worker had died under mysterious circumstances, Mathunjwa forced management to not only deliver the body to the family in Mozambique, but also to accompany the body and explain in person the circumstances surrounding the death.
For some reason, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)NUM dismissed Mathenjwa from their offices, which triggered a protest by 3,000 Mpumalanga coal mine workforce. The strike lasted for two weeks, during which the mine’s underground section was occupied for 10 days and only ended once Mathunjwa got reinstated.
This gave workers the impression that they won a serious case, but in reality they did not: The strike was illegal because the dispute was between NUM and Mathenjwa and not the company. So even the dismissal was only meant to affect his membership and position in NUM. It shows that NUM returned Mathenjwa to his position so they can make thorough investigation and dismiss him without complicating things in the coal mine with which they enjoy good relationship through recognition agreement.
After reinstatement, NUM continued their case against Muthenjwa of bringing the union into disrepute. Archie Palane, at the time Deputy General Secretary of NUM, was sent to investigate the charge against Mathunjwa, but found the local chair had done nothing wrong. Another official from Johannesburg was sent for the same reason, but he also found no reason to discipline Mathunjwa.
However, Gwede Mantashe, then the union’s General Secretary, insisted that Mathunjwa appear before a disciplinary hearing chaired by Mantashe himself. Mathunjwa refused as he had previously clashed with Mantashe over the handling of money paid by employers to a job creation trust. Mathunjwa insisted that an independent person should chair the hearing, not Mantashe.
If I remember well, job creation trust was the decision of cosatu, under leadership of Mbhazima Shilowa. As a former member of NUMSA myself, one of cosatu affiliated unions, I could not make sense of why should every employee lose one day’s pay for the so called ‘job creation fund. I could not fathom how the fund was going to work, neither do i today. By the way, Mbhazima immediately became Premier of Gauteng after our monies got deducted.
It seems we were not alone in this as it now emerges that Joseph Mathunjwa of NUM fought against other leaders for the handling of such a trust. His membership of NUM was subsequently terminated. This meant that he lost office work to return to his last job before he became a fulltime shopsteward of NUM.
The story of Joseph Muthenjwa reminds me of the predicament Solly Phetoe , now secretary of cosatu in North-West, while a NUMSA fulltime shopsteward at Firestone, now Bridgestone, at Brits plant, went through. I was a very active member of NUMSA while Solly was a fulltime shopsteward. I remember his bravery amidst the realities of being brought down from high ranking position in NUMSA. As one of many who were against the move, I was also devastated and felt almost ready to fight to death for comrade Solly. Many of us would’ve joined Solly Phetoe if he established his own union and I know I’d had been his right hand man.
Solly Phetoe was wellknown for his relentless fight against injustice in the work place; even the Premier of North West, Popo Molefe spoke proudly of him whenever he visited Brits. I compare the two leaders because they both faced almost the same predicament but reacted differently to achieve different outcomes. The only difference is that Solly was not dismissed from NUMSA, but brought down from leadership. The consequences are the same if you ask me.
Just like Solly Phetoe, Joseph Mathunjwa accepted to sacrifice high office and as Solly Phetoe informed us that he was going to be a bead builder, joseph Mathunjwa also informed the union that he is not a member anymore, but retains his job as laboratory assistant at the mine. The same way as we did in Bridgestone, the mine workers immediately called a mass meeting. They were aware of Mathunjwa’s battles with NUM’s head office. At the meeting the whole workforce of about 3,000 resigned from NUM and investigated the possibility of joining other unions, but the culture and philosophy didn’t appeal to them.
While we did not resign from NUMSA we sidelined our then shopstewards and used fellow ordinary workers as representatives until our anger died down. However, like we told comrade Solly, the workforce told Mathunjwa to create a new union. This is where Solly Phetoe and Joseph Mathunjwa took different roots: Solly told us to remain members as he was not going anywhere, while on the other hand, Mathunjwa embraced the idea and got help from Jeffrey Mphahlele, a local teacher, to register a new union with the Department of Labour. They called it the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). It was officially registered in 2001. Palane tried to convince Amcu to rejoin NUM, but Mathunjwa refused promising to rejoin NUM only if Archie became the General Secretary of NUM – something that failed to materialise when Frans Baleni won the contest to succeed Mantashe.
Looking back, I can feel the political anger and frustration of the dead workers and I know that I’d have done the same without instruction by sangoma or inspiration of 'ntelezi': worker politics can be fatal when a leader allows emotions to cloud logic and drive so many people to their death. It’s regrettable. Speeches will be said and even many may try to capitalise on the political situation created by so much pain, the same way as PAC did; however, politics are too complicated than that.
Although Amcu are making major inroads on NUM’s dominance in the platinum industry, it doesn’t mean the latter will roll over and disappear. NUM is a highly sophisticated and professional union with coherent leadership, and it is no coincidence that top ANC leaders regularly come from its ranks.
We need cool heads to weather the current storm. South Africa has lost a lot of people in Lonmin disaster. CONDOLENCES TO EVERYONE, MYSELF INCLUDED!
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