Grand history, raw new deal

2012-10-27 15:05

A few weeks ago, amid the Marikana crisis, the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) celebrated the union’s 30th anniversary with a lavish event in the bowels of the building that houses AngloGold Ashanti in downtown Johannesburg.

History will show this was the last hurrah of the current NUM emperors as their union imploded along the platinum belt.

Last year, some of those at the anniversary bash got down for a weekend at Cyril Ramaphosa’s magnificent game-breeding farm in Bela Bela.

They were the key NUM leaders between its founding in 1982 and the unbanning of the ANC in 1990. And they had a lot more to celebrate then just first president James Motlatsi’s 60th birthday.

The alchemy of the liberation struggle in the 1980s forged its base metal activists into golden leaders.

From that generation of NUM leaders alone come its founder and now ANC deputy president-nominated candidate Cyril Ramphosa, as well as ANC presidential candidate Kgalema Motlanthe, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

A lot of the credit for this must go to Ramaphosa. Not only did he make the right moves at the right time for himself over the past 30 years with his finely honed intuition for the spirit of the times, but he also managed to do it his way – so far.

The uncanny way he picked and led the eclectic bunch of people who worked for the NUM in the 1980s helped him and them rise to positions of leadership, wealth and influence in many spheres of South African life today.

When someone such as Julius Malema – who is a year older than the NUM is and two years older than Ramaphosa was when he started the union – derides the past of Ramaphosa, they have no idea what they are talking about.

Anyone who was close to the cauldron of the worker struggles of the 1980s that, in effect, forged our democracy will know just how decisive an influence Ramaphosa and his band of militant men and women in the NUM were on the mass democratic movement.

Who can forget the then lean and mean Gwede Mantashe, as an NUM shop steward and chair of Cosatu’s Highveld region, emerging alongside the likes of Zwelinzima Vavi, Mbhazima Shilowa, James Motlatsi and Mthuthuzeli Tom in trade federation Cosatu as the embodiment of class-conscious rank and file workers marshalling their troops for the final mass battles against, in the struggle-speak of the time, “the bosses and their apartheid state”.

Such outstanding cadres, combined later with the Robben Island-honed wisdom of the likes of gentle giant Kgalema Motlanthe, were among the very best of the internal leaders the mass struggle produced.

History has shown their main shortcoming was their awe of, and deference to, the already generally corrupted and cynical exiled ANC leadership that they allowed to take over after the ANC’s unbanning.

It’s this proud struggle history that makes the NUM’s complete unmasking at Marikana and the wildcat strike wave so poignant.

For, short of a massive crackdown akin to another state of emergency, Marikana sounds the death knell for the current NUM.

Even if it takes several years, the real history being written now is going to be the history of the struggle of the poor against these stalwarts of the past.

A rising tide floats all ships and in a country whose classes developed out of mining, the mine worker strikes of 1922, 1946, 1987 and 2012 dominate the history of worker struggle in South Africa.

The “Marikana” strikes are not the midwives this time for a new labour giant, as the 1987 strike was for the NUM.

The history being written right now by the independent workers’ strike committees that have sprung up as the organisational expression of the workers’ demands is unprecedented.

By their very existence, not to mention their early successes in securing wage improvements at Marikana and elsewhere, workers’ committees uproot the entire institutionalised labour system and all its players: union leaders, employers and government.

Their existence poses the question: “Whose interests will determine mining’s future?”

The wildcats are out the bag and even with the Herculean efforts of Vavi – the only one of these leaders with any credibility left among striking miners – they will not be put back in the NUM’s bag.

Workers are notorious for putting up with their leaders often way beyond their sell-by date. They hang in because they can see no other way.

But when they do, or when events such as Marikana catapult them against the whole system, they tend to quickly leave their traditional home en masse to chart an uncertain organisational future. As has happened before, the workers’ committees of today might be the springboard for the new unions of tomorrow.

With the NUM obliterated on the platinum mines and unable to placate its striking gold mining members, it is on the wane while the hitherto unknown Democratic Socialist Movement rises.

In these circumstances, what are the political prospects of Ramaphosa, the godfather of the NUM, one of South Africa’s richest men and the biggest black shareholder of Lonmin-Marikana?

He is being proposed as President Jacob Zuma’s deputy for a second term on a slate with incumbent secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, apparently up against his old NUM comrade Motlanthe.

When Marikana forced him as a Lonmin shareholder to step up to the plate in a revealing interview with SAfm a few weeks ago, it spoke volumes.

In his soft-spoken style, sounding like a benign Menell or Oppenheimer of old mining capital, he in effect took responsibility and apologised for Marikana.

But he was not always frank and his coyness did not make him sound more capable of dealing with the sort of future Marikana has opened up than any of his old comrades already in power.

When, for example, the issue Malema raised about him buying a buffalo for R18 million came up, he apologised for it saying he had been “blindsided”.

But it was blind to think anyone would swallow that. He had earlier told Farmers Weekly he buys buffalo “first and foremost because it is an investment” in an industry where annual profit growth has been a “phenomenal” 40%.

People in general, and the striking mine workers in particular, are likely to respect that upfront reason a lot more because they know Ramaphosa is a capitalist.

After all, as he and the rich 1% know, the price of that bull is small change compared with the billions other far larger business deals have bought them.

The fact that Ramaphosa’s company earns R250 000 a month to “advise” Lonmin on empowerment when he is already the empowerment partner at Lonmin is far more outrageous then a rich man buying and selling buffalo for profit.

He sounded like someone trapped, with no vision except to ensure he lines up with Zuma, as he has been nominated to do.

Is it too much to imagine, with all the chaotic forces swirling around the Mangaung conference (including and especially several versions of nationalising the mines and industry) that rich shareholders such as Ramaphosa could still give it all up and throw in their rich history and expertise with the workers to create, in the example being proposed by the Democratic Socialist Movement, a nationalised world-class platinum industry under workers’ management and control?

The only reward Ramaphosa will then get will be the same he got when they did it so selflessly in the 1980s, for the love and esteem of the people and the poor.

If so, Ramaphosa and his merry men from the 1980s could still help to put an end to all the business secrets surrounding the platinum mining industry.

They could support the demand that the books of the industry be opened so that everyone, and especially the workers’ committees, could see exactly where the all the money from platinum mining goes.


could volunteer their knowledge and leadership to help workers in a country that produces 80% of world platinum to extract the best deal possible on the world platinum market.

Events thus far sadly seem to indicate it is too much to imagine.

Of all the NUM’s great leaders of the past, only Vavi still has the credibility and vision to provide the political leadership necessary in our post-Marikana environment and he is not even in the running at Mangaung.

It is not too late for those who still believe that capturing the ANC is the way forward. Vavi contesting the presidency will at least ensure a negotiated slate won’t triumph at Mangaung.

» Hartford is a former trade unionist, labour editor and media executive

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