NUM's crisis of relevance

By Drum Digital
07 July 2014

The mining strike maybe over, but NUM’s problems have just begun, writes Sabelo Ndlangisa.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) held its leadership indaba in Boksburg at a time when it is facing a crisis of relevance, especially in the country’s platinum belt.

The recent strike by Joseph Mathunjwa’s  Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) in platinum mines, over demands for a R12500 wage, has pushed NUM into a corner. Even though some might argue that the mining companies did not suffer much harm during the five-month long strike as they had reserves of platinum to sell over this period, the strike has hurt the economy. But it has also thrust Amcu into the centre of the debate about what needs to happen to change working and living conditions in our mining towns.

Perhaps the 1987 mining strike by NUM under Cyril Ramaphosa had been the country’s longest mining strike (it went on for three weeks) before Amcu decided to lay down tools this year. The challenge facing the NUM is how it would claw back lost ground, and shed the perceptions that it has become something of a sweetheart union over the years. In the last year alone it has lost over 20 000 members, bringing its membership down to 275 000.

Although NUM remains Cosatu’s wealthiest union, where assets are concerned, it is clearly a matter of worry among its leaders that it has lost the status of being the labour federation’s biggest union to the metalworkers’ union, Numsa.  The fact that the two are competing for members in sectors such as energy and construction complicates their relationship, and a squabbling Cosatu is unable to provide a solution to the problem.

So, NUM secretary Frans Baleni and the union’s newly-minted president Thamsanqa Mathosa, who has now replaced Senzeni Zokwana after he took up a post in government as the minister of agriculture, have their work cut out for them. While mining is likely to continue shedding  jobs, the R1 trillion invested by government in the last term provides membership growth opportunities in the construction sector.

They have to stem this tide of membership loss and grow the membership of the union as it goes to its elective conference next year. If that fails, the current ANC secretary Gwede Mantashe will probably be the last significant ANC leader to come from the ranks of NUM.

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