Big leaders don’t sulk

2014-06-29 15:00

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The political pendulum could be about to swing as new power brokers emerge

The “victory” by Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) after the longest mine strike in this country’s history has challenged the notion of the ANC being a leader of society.

Throughout its history, including during the difficult days of the struggle, the ANC has always sought to occupy every space in South African society, even through proxy organisations when it was banned.

It has always sought to be at the forefront of articulating and spearheading issues that affect working class South Africans.

But during the strike by mine workers led by the union that has displaced the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as the biggest, the ANC took an uncharacteristic muted approach.

In fact, for the first time in recent memory, the ANC appeared to be hostile towards striking workers and various leaders, including Blade Nzimande, described Amcu as a vigilante union.

Part of the context is that police serving the ANC government killed 34 miners in Marikana in one day in 2012, deepening the miners’ antipathy towards the government and the ruling party.

The plight and disgruntlement of the mine workers was in fact one of the breeding grounds for the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whose leader Julius Malema had pledged solidarity with the workers.

So when the strike turned violent and hard to resolve, the ANC took a hands-off approach, leaving the striking miners and the companies to their own devices, but in the past the ANC would easily have mediated.

In March, I chatted to one of the ANC’s top six officials about the strike, after which I concluded that the ANC was in essence sulking because of how Amcu had demonised it in the past two years.

“These people have said they don’t want us. So why must we help?” asked the official.

The leader also insisted that Amcu had been warned not to embark on a strike like this and it proceeded nevertheless and should therefore live with the consequences.

The ANC’s attitude led many people to conclude that it did not want a settlement of the strike in a manner that would catapult Amcu as a workers’ champion, able to extract concessions from mine companies that the NUM would never have been able to.

This approach by the ANC was reinforced when new Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi energetically tried to broker a deal by mediating between Amcu and the platinum companies.

Soon thereafter, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe announced that Ramatlhodi had been told by the party’s national executive committee to be cautious about intervening in the strike. Unsurprisingly, Ramatlhodi announced a few days later that he was withdrawing his team from the negotiations.

Joseph Mathunjwa (centre) and other Amcu leaders brief the media after signing the deal with Lonmin, Impala Platinum and Anglo Platinum in Johannesburg this week. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo/City Press

As the strike ended this week, the biggest debate was about who won or lost. The workers believe they have won and hailed Amcu leader Joseph Mathunjwa as a great unionist and a man who drives a hard bargain.

The ANC sent out a terse statement welcoming the signing of the agreement that marked the end of the strike: “We call on the government, labour and mining companies to work together to restore stability and prosperity to the industry.”

By now, everyone accepts that the strike wreaked havoc for everyone. The mine workers who will never really make up the loss in financial income that they suffered and the suffering during the strike, as described in City Press, was heart-wrenching.

The companies lost close to R20 billion as a result of the strike. Significantly, the economy took a real beating. The longer it persisted, the more damage it caused. So the leader of society was found desperately wanting, I believe.

At a time when the country was crying out for leadership, the self-proclaimed leader of society decided to sulk. A leader of society cannot afford to sulk. A parent in a household cannot sulk when children are misbehaving in their home.

Whatever its motivations, which may include not helping a trade union that is in alliance with the emerging EFF or not boosting a rival of the NUM, the ruling party failed a test of leadership.

The EFF is on a mission to lampoon the ANC as a jittery party afraid of whites and trapped in an elite pact with “monopoly capital”.

Through its response, or lack of response, to one of the country’s worst crises, the governing party could be feeding this notion. If this is a harbinger of things to come, the political pendulum could be about to swing. And those who choose to petulantly hide in their corners and pray that others fail could be left behind by the march of history as new power brokers emerge.

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