Where does Baleni’s loyalty lie?

Union is no longer the choice of default for the majority of South Africa’s miners, writes Andre Janse van Vuuren

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is in decline while its leader, Frans Baleni, continues to rub shoulders with the big mining bosses.

That it is no longer the biggest union at any of the three major platinum producers should drill home this reality.

The union is no longer the choice of default for the majority of South Africa’s mining workforce.

The NUM’s fall from grace became evident during last year’s wave of crippling strikes, but where the NUM was then still able to cling to the terms of its agreements with mining firms, which made the derecognition of its status a long and lengthy process, time eventually caught up when it was recently shown the door at both Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin.

At Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), where NUM’s rivalling Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) had no presence when the strikes first hit in September 2012, it is just a matter of finalising the paperwork to confirm the union’s fall from favour.

Amplats, Implats and Lonmin employ 110?000 workers. Amcu has also made inroads into the gold sector, establishing itself as the major union at Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu mine near Carletonville, and gaining significant traction elsewhere in the surrounding West Wits gold fields like AngloGold Ashanti and Village Main Reef.

The NUM’s general secretary, Frans Baleni, nevertheless was in anything but a glum mood when he rubbed shoulders with the rest of the decidedly big capital-orientated mining community at this week’s Invest in African Mining Indaba conference in Cape Town.

Baleni said he was attending in an advisory capacity, having meetings with mining CEOs and management teams, on political and labour issues.

This in its own right has to be a good thing. The mining industry needs more talking and less shouting among its various stakeholders, even if it takes place in the guise of business consulting.

When it does become problematic though is when it serves as an umpteenth example of the notion that the NUM and Baleni in particular are seemingly more comfortable in the company of business than the workers they represent.

The NUM is bleeding members in the platinum fields of North West, yet there is only one example where Baleni has actively taken part in a public show of force in the province since the first cracks between the union and its members became evident at Implats in February.

That was in October when Baleni, together with Cosatu’s secretary-general, Zwelinzima Vavi, and the SACP’s Blade Nzimande, addressed a largely empty stadium in Rustenburg during the union’s so-called “reclamation rally” in Rustenburg.

The question remains why any bystander should care about whether the NUM finds the going getting tough.

This is why: The NUM has for most of its history been a force of stability in the mining industry. The salary increases it negotiated for members often outpaced those in other sectors of South Africa’s economy.

The minimum cost-to-company package of just under R8?500 for a learner miner at the Chamber of Mines’ gold members, for instance, is in many instances more than double what experienced workers get paid elsewhere.

These gains were over the years driven by the negotiating prowess of the NUM.

A healthy and stable mining industry requires a constant state of tension between employers and employees. Employers pursue profit, but they need workers who cannot be allowed to feel they are being taken for a ride for doing what is a thankless job.

Such workers have now shown in their numbers they would rather entrust that responsibility to Joseph Mathunjwa’s Amcu. While this column is not about the bona fides of Amcu, the possible closure of Harmony’s Kusasalethu – due to violence and a spate of sit-ins – with more than 5?000 jobs on the line as a consequence, shows what happens when a union grows too quickly in areas where it had no previous infrastructure.

South Africa cannot afford any more incidents like this.

If the first step towards the resuscitation of the NUM involves a change at the helm, then so be it. Baleni won’t be the first union leader to find many business opportunities waiting in the private sector. Cyril Ramaphosa can testify to that.

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