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Is NUM suffering from Scargill syndrome?

08 September 2012, 18:00

For the uninitiated, Arthur Scargill, (King Arthur to his detractors) was, until August 2010, president and life president of the British National Union of Mineworkers. A hardcore socialist (or , shall I say Stalinist?), a trade unionist who dedicated his life to the service of mine workers, a colourful character and a fallible human being who, later in life, got addicted to power and changed the NUM constitution to take away power from the NEC and got himself to be voted life-president of the NUM.

To his credit, Arthur is a self-made man, who rose from being a coal-mine worker at 16 years and became president of the then all- powerful British NUM. In his heydays, he was an outspoken fire-brand, whose venomous outburst caused those around him to cringe and gave the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher sleepless nights.

He later suffered from the big-man syndrome!

Being elected president-for-life is unprecedented in a trade union set-up. It is even more so for a British trade union. For centuries, British trade unions have been the standard-bears of democratic trade unionism, and the election of Arthur Scargill to be president for life was a source of great irritation to his peers, as it was a material for comedians. Overnight, the all-powerful NUM became a butt of jokes and Arthur became King Arthur, who lord it over hordes of pliable NUM members.

Arthur‘s biggest mistake in the eyes of his detractors was his leadership of the 1984–1985 miners' strike, which led to the Thatcher government’s closure of many coal mines, leading to massive unemployment in mining communities and decimating the NUM’s membership to a fraction of what it used to be. Seumas Milne in his book titled;”The Enemy Within- Thatcher's Secret War Against the Miners”, details how Thatcher’s government used the British Secret Service to destroy the NUM.

Following developments within South Africa’s NUM reminds me of Arthur Scargill and his antics, when he was leader of the British NUM.

The Scargill syndrome is my own invention to characterise a situation where leaders of a trade union make seemingly bizarre decisions, which tend to re-shape the character of the union, thus giving the impression that they are doing so to lengthen their stay in power or ensure that their proxies continue to lead the union, even when they have formally left the union.

Take the decision to amend the NUM’s constitution at their 12th National Congress in 2006, for instance. The constitution was amended to exclude anyone who has never been a mine worker to be elected as General Secretary. The NUM probably had good reasons to do so, but one could not help but speculate that, coming at a time when Archie Palane was apparently in contention to become general secretary, the decision was taken to specifically exclude him, as he was never a mine worker.

I have never understood the NUM’s logic for this constitutional amendment.

Again, there appear to be an increasing number of incidents where the leadership at branch, regional and national level seems to be at odds with the feeling of members on the ground, suggesting that the decisions by the leadership were probably not well canvassed with the rank and file, before they were implemented. The recent strike by Num members at a gold mine in the Free State is a case in point.

One can’t help but to conclude that the leaders have probably concluded that the age-old, tried and tested method of consulting members thoroughly before a decision that will impact on them is taken is no longer relevant, or they have simply become too complacent in their decision making.

A question has to be asked;” is the NUM suffering from the Scargill syndrome?”

I hope I am wrong.

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