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Union leadership under fire in South African labor dispute

Correspondent's Note: As a reporter covering the ongoing South African mining crisis, it would be easy to approach the story with the view that it is caused by greedy employers exploiting poor workers.

But the story of the strike-plagued Marikana platinum mine and the other crisis-hit mines is far deeper than that. It speaks of black workers for whom liberation from apartheid has meant very little apart from the freedom to vote for a nationalist liberation movement, the African National Congress, which has monopolized the political arena through its allies.

It speaks of largely white-run corporations that are the biggest winners of the post-apartheid era because they were given the ANC's blessing to list their companies on the London Stock Exchange in return for empowering a small class of politically connected black managers.

And it speaks of an influential group of labor representatives — positioned between the workers and the corporations — who have decided, essentially, to favor their political patrons and turn their backs on the men and women down below, creating massive income inequality.

It was Western appetite for South Africa's rich subsoil that allowed apartheid to survive for 50 years. Most worryingly for the future, the country's mines have been allowed to become antiquated and uncompetitive in the 20 years the post-apartheid hierarchy has established itself in what is South Africa's biggest employment sector.

I was drawn to this story because it contains a clear warning of the danger of placing blind faith in people who deal behind closed doors.

MARIKANA, South Africa — It was the first payday following the end of the seven-week strike that left at least 47 people dead. Workers lined up to use four overworked teller machines at a muddy shopping hub near the world's third-largest platinum mine, a convivial spirit in the air.

But 42-year-old boilermaker Ernest Thabo was worried. He said no one should be fooled: the labor dispute would claim more victims.

"The trouble will return because the problem is still there," Thabo said. "The problem is not the bosses. They are actually fine. The problem is with NUM (the National Union of Mineworkers). That union is so powerful but it is not working for us. It is so corrupt.''

Thabo's concerns were reinforced last week when 5,800 Lonmin workers downed tools for two days to demand that NUM representatives close their office at the worksite. The action is reminiscent of another in February, when workers went on strike at nearby Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), the world's largest platinum producer. The Amplats management had announced 14,000 job cuts and workers did not want the NUM in charge of negotiating their severance packages.

As union leaders have gained power and prosperity, workers say, they have left rank-and-file behind — adding to a culture of profound inequality that is in part a legacy of apartheid and gives South Africa one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world. The NUM was one of the organizations that helped bring down apartheid but now stands accused of perpetuating social and economic division eerily reminiscent of that dismal era.

The so-called "Marikana massacre" on August 16, 2012, in which 34 striking miners were shot dead and 78 were injured by police using live bullets, jogged memories of apartheid-era government forces complicit with exploitative employers. The judiciary dredged up rare legal clauses to charge 270 demonstrators with the murders of their dead colleagues. President Jacob Zuma made speeches aimed at soothing foreign investors rather than miners' widows.

The strikes spread, lasting through October in the platinum belt, west of Pretoria, but also in the gold mines around Johannesburg and even at Kumba, Africa's biggest iron ore mine in the Northern Cape. At their height, some 80,000 mineworkers — out of a total of about 400,000 people working above and below ground in South Africa's single biggest employment sector — went on strike. Amid a collapse in mining exports, the October trade deficit of $1.8 billion was the country's biggest in four years.

What was most remarkable about the strikes — under the banner of a call for a threefold increase in entry-level pay, to 12,500 rand ($1,430) per month — was their sustained momentum. The stoppages spread and lasted nearly three months despite being ''illegal.'' That is, they were not formally endorsed by a labor union.

In fact, traditional players such as the Chamber of Mines and the NUM tried to end the disputes.

And Thabo and other mineworkers are emphatic: their strike was as much directed at NUM's failure to fight for its members as it was at Lonmin for its poor wages and social neglect.

''None of us are members of the NUM any more," Thabo said. "When they tell you they are the biggest union, it is just not true. They drive big cars and have forgotten about us,'' said Thabo, a father of four who has been employed by Lonmin for 10 years and earns 6,000 rand ($690) per month.

Thabo lives in a shack with a faucet in the yard at Marikana's Wonderkop settlement, near where police opened fire last August. A migrant worker from the small country of Lesotho, his existence centers on saving as much as possible for 11 months of the year and then going back home to his wife for Christmas. He has a girlfriend at Wonderkop but says he has no children outside his marriage.

"The conditions are bad here, mainly because there is nothing to do after you finish work, except play rugby or drink in the shebeens. A lot of workers get into debt because of drinking or having too many 'wives'. I try to be careful with my spending and stay out of trouble. I do not get involved with union matters more than I need to. It is dangerous. You can get killed,'' says Thabo, who left NUM earlier this year and now pays his 45 rand ($5) monthly dues to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), a 10-year-old union. At the teeming ramshackle shops around the ATMs, low-level workers stock up on special-offer goods. Some have bought meat, which they are grilling at eateries specially set up for payday. No one seems to be in the NUM, which for years has controlled the largest bargaining council at Lonmin — the one representing rock drillers and others among the 24,000 employees who are classed as low-skilled. The NUM also has a seat, alongside other unions, on a second bargaining council for artisans, managers and office workers. Teamworker Misheki Madywabe, 48, chews on a piece of meat as he cradles his year-old daughter Athenkosi. He claims the NUM is only interested in defending the rights of workers covered by the second bargaining council. ''The NUM has forgotten about us. It cares only about the workers in the offices. The NUM is worse than the employer. The NUM blocks our pay raises,'' he says. Several workers tell a similar version of events preceding the massacre. They say that at nearby Impala Platinum last year, NUM representatives who were in negotiations on behalf of office workers and line managers blocked a pay increase the management had made to rock drillers. When an NUM representative at Marikana tried to obtain the same deal — an increase of 750 rand ($86) — for rock drillers at his shaft, he was sacked by his union. He moved over to AMCU, his shaft colleagues went on strike and Lonmin paid the increase. ''This made us realize that if you want more money you have to join AMCU,'' says Madywabe.

Neither Lonmin nor the unions are willing to comment on the story, claiming the privilege of the ongoing Farlam Commission, a public inquiry into the Marikana massacre. But it is what the miners believe. Similar stories are told in the gold mines, suggesting managements that ignore established bargaining frameworks and a mighty labor union which at best has lost touch with the aspirations of its larger membership. But there is more to the demise of the NUM. The mining strike has brought into glaring public view the incestuous relationship between the corporate world and ''comrades'' who liberated South Africa's majority from an apartheid system they blamed on global capitalism. In the 1980s, the NUM played a leading role in mobilizing the black masses to cripple apartheid. It remains highly politically influential through being the most powerful union in the government-affiliated Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). NUM's general secretary, Frans Baleni, is the highest-paid labor leader in the land, drawing a monthly salary package of 105,000 rand ($12,000) according to the weekly Mail & Guardian. On the eve of the police shootings at Marikana, he called for military intervention to stop the strike which had already claimed 10 lives. NUM founder Cyril Ramaphosa was until his recent election as ANC deputy president an independent director of Lonmin. ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa holds non-executive management roles at two platinum companies. Tokyo Sexwale, minister of human settlements in President Zuma's administration, spent last year shedding assets, including in the mining sector, as he campaigned for advancement in the ANC. Then there are the politically-connected beneficiaries of the ''black economic empowerment'' programs that were put in place after 1994. Foremost among them is mining magnate Patrice Motsepe whom Forbes ranks the fourth wealthiest man in South Africa. His African Rainbow Minerals is the largest private donor to Cosatu. Timmy Timbela, the NUM coordinator at Lonmin, drives up specially from Johannesburg — where he lives, 125 miles from Marikana — to meet GlobalPost. He parks his black Toyota SUV in the yard and unlocks his office for the occasion. He hands over a red NUM T-shirt as a gift. It is from the latest batch being printed at weekly intervals to win back the miners. The slogan says ''organise or die.'' One NUM representative and another man said to have been mistaken for one have been murdered at Marikana since August 16. Timbela claims he is on a hit list. He does not blame AMCU but others in his union have done so already. Timbela, a 47-year-old father of four whose daughter is in her first year at law school, had a remarkable career before becoming a full-time union boss. He rose from the lowest rung in the mines — he says his first pay slip was for 122 rand ($14) — to become a shift boss and manager. ''It was tough in those days because the system was set up to prevent blacks from reaching management positions,'' he says. When he looks at the life of Ramaphosa he feels only admiration. ''Look, if a man grows up in a shack but is bright and works hard and becomes a doctor, should he still continue to live in a shack? Of course not.'' He rejects suggestions that the current NUM takes more interest in its office worker members than in the men toiling at the mine face. ''When you negotiate you sometimes find it necessary to 'park' issues while you deal with others. We have issues we have parked for eight years.'' And he is emphatic that his union has not lost touch with the majority of its members.

''The people working in the mines are different now. There is not the solidarity. They are young and impatient.'' He finally admits that the NUM needs to modernize: ''We are looking at that now. We are going to have debates on how to move forward. We are going to discuss what we can sell for them to buy into.'' Observers of the industry, such as the church-run Bench Marks Foundation which in August produced an in-depth study of Lonmin's operations, say more fundamental change is needed. It highlights the mining industry's continued use of migrant labour as a socially destabilizing factor. It denounces Lonmin's responsibility for grim conditions suffered by a workforce living in shacks, suffering high work fatalities, poverty, illness and environmental pollution. It says the ubiquitous loan sharks that prey on miners will be the biggest winners from the strike. It points out that last year, Lonmin's salary bill for 4,200 rock drillers was about the same — 44 million rand ($5 million) — as the amount it gave its top three executives. Thabo, having drawn some cash, has bought a six-pack of orange juice, a crate of eggs and a box of vegetables. He loads them into a waiting minibus taxi as he says goodbye.

''I am just glad to be back at work," he said. "But this strike made me realize money is not everything. I now want to go back to Lesotho and run a vegetable stall. It's not right to put your life at risk just to belong to a union.''