National Union of Mineworkers members. Picture: SOWETAN
National Union of Mineworkers members. Picture: SOWETAN

One of SA’s oldest trade unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), is in its death throes. Current and former leaders have sounded the death knell for the 36-year-old formation, which was the first to organise exploited black workers in SA’s mining industry during the apartheid era.

The organisation has lost its relevance among mineworkers, construction and energy sector employees, and with membership having dwindled from more than 300,000 in 2011 to 187,000 last year, the NUM must adapt or die.

Its influence in political circles has also waned; it is now only a shadow of the union that was a leading voice in the ANC-led alliance and played a key role in the formation of Cosatu in 1985.

Without the numbers it boasted in the past as the country’s biggest union, the NUM has become a spectator within Cosatu, with insiders saying its most significant contribution is the "payment of subscriptions".

One need not look far for evidence of how this once mighty movement is grasping at straws for survival.

In Boksburg last week, its 16th national congress — the NUM’s highest decision-making body — was marked by chaos, insults, jeering and angry confrontations that almost ended in violence.

On its first day, the gathering was bogged down by arguments over credentials — who should and who should not be allowed to attend —which sidelined the rest of the agenda.

Scheduled discussions of key issues like the future of SA mining and the implications for labour, the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Programme, the mining charter and SACP policy on fighting elections were all shelved.

The bitter fight about credentials, directly linked to leadership contests, ended up being the most exhaustive conversation the mineworkers had.

David Sipunzi, who was re-elected as general secretary after a hotly contested leadership race, told delegates: "The differences [between us] are not ideological or about serving union members. They are rather a result of individual egos.

"As leaders focus their energies on trying to annihilate one another, service to members becomes the biggest casualty and members get demoralised and decide to leave the union."

The pursuit of power and money is part of the NUM’s problem.

It was among the first Cosatu affiliates to establish an investment company, whose core mandate was to empower members and provide them with financial security.

However, this has also transformed the organisation into a hunting ground for the greedy.

What it means

Factional divisions fighting within the NUM and the emergence of Amcu are the main causes of have seen the NUM’s collapse in membership and influence union bleed membership

The Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC) is worth more than R5bn, with assets in several sectors.

These include 30% of SA’s leading vehicle tracking company Tracker, 25% of hotel and casino business Peermont, and a 25% stake in the FirstRand Empowerment Trust, which owns 6.5% of FirstRand.

Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said union investment companies like MIC were a "cancer ripping all of us apart".

In pursuing leadership positions to get closer to the fountainhead of wealth, the NUM’s leaders have abandoned the objective of recruiting and uniting workers, protecting job security and improving wages and conditions of service.

Over the past three years factional fights have deepened, with battles being waged at workplaces.

The Minerals Council of SA (previously known as the Chamber of Mines) said inter-and intra-union rivalry could impact on safe production.

"A peaceful and stable working environment is in the best interest of all mining industry stakeholders," it said.

The NUM has not had a united leadership since 2015 when Sipunzi toppled former general secretary Frans Baleni.

Insiders tell the FM that the union’s former president, Piet Matosa — who was toppled by his deputy Joseph Montisetse — was barely on speaking terms with Sipunzi. Staff members and those lower down the hierarchy were forced to take sides.

The emergence of Sipunzi’s slate, however, has brought little comfort to Cosatu leaders, who tell the FM they see a bleak future for the organisation; the losing faction has already started plotting to take control.

While the NUM’s decline is in part due to the mining industry shedding almost 50,000 jobs between 2012 and 2015, with the figure expected to keep rising, infighting that Sipunzi said is rooted in tribalism has delivered members to its rival, the Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (Amcu).

Amcu, led by Joseph Mathunjwa, boasts membership of 250,000. It has capitalised on the NUM’s failures and made inroads in the platinum belt of the North West.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), which was expelled from Cosatu in 2014, is also eating away at the NUM’s membership, competing fiercely at Eskom and in mining.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, the NUM’s founding general secretary, said in his address to the congress that the union had to answer honestly whether "it has failed mineworkers to a point where they want to go and seek refuge elsewhere".

He implored delegates to reflect on where the union had gone wrong.

"Continue distinguishing yourself by regularly servicing all members, and [ensuring] that at all material times you are found to be on the side of mineworkers," he said.

Mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe, also a former NUM leader, told delegates the union was unable to influence key policy decisions because it "does not attend" important gatherings.

"I am in mineral resources. Since my first day there I have never seen a letter from the NUM requesting to meet. I have received letters from Amcu, firstly about their march which I attended to, and secondly requesting to meet with us. That meeting was convened," Mantashe said.

The union was also guilty of not showing up for workers after fatal mining accidents, he charged.

Since the start of the year 45 mineworkers have died in accidents. Some are forced to work in unsafe conditions despite legislation empowering workers to walk away from dangerous and unsafe conditions underground.

Mantashe asked if NUM safety shop stewards were doing enough, and said the union should propose ways of ending mining accidents.

He said the fact that the NUM represented only 31,000 of the 172,000 workers in the platinum sector reflected badly on union organisers.

"The deeper the factions are, the weaker the movement. I appeal to the NUM, you can only be stronger together when you move towards the same direction," Mantashe said.

The NUM’s existential crisis is also due partly to the changing nature of the workforce. When the union was launched, mineworkers were mostly illiterate and were easily accessible to organisers because they were housed in dingy single-sex hostels.

As Sipunzi noted at the congress, today’s mineworkers are educated, enlightened and young.

"To avoid suffering the dinosaur’s fate, the NUM has to adapt to political and socio-economic climate changes," he said.

The NUM is not alone in its struggle for survival — labour movements across the world face challenges in the face of rapidly changing technology, globalisation and the fourth industrial revolution. Before he was ousted, Matosa said "an alert organisation" should have strategies in place to remain attractive to workers.

But even though it has been haemorrhaging membership for more than six years, the NUM still does not have a recovery strategy or a unit aimed at recruitment.