Modder East/Johannesburg - Shaking his fist and surrounded
by angry colleagues, South African gold miner Chres Manyaka raged against
"fat cats" getting rich from the sweat of the workers.
But he was not talking about managers of the Gold One International [JSE:GDO], which had sacked him and several other fellow workers for an illegal
strike at the mine east of Johannesburg.
Manyaka's tirade was against bosses of the National Union of
Mineworkers (Num), a pillar in the trade union alliance that brought workers to
the fight against apartheid and helped carry the African National Congress to
power in 1994 in the continent's largest economy and No 1 platinum producer.
"If you go and see the Num people you can see the big
stomachs. Num now is like management," 28-year-old Manyaka said outside
Gold One's entrance, fringed by the bluegum trees whose timber has been used
for beams in South African mines.
Complaints that the Num, which remains a buttress of
political and electoral support for the ruling ANC-led alliance, is not
defending the interests of its rank and file have put the legendary labour
grouping under seige.
Aggressive upstart unions have been poaching Num members in
often violent turf wars waged from the shantytowns ringing the world's largest
platinum mine to smaller gold-producing pits.
The ANC, which has governed since the end of white rule in
1994 starting under the magnetic leadership of Nelson Mandela, still looks
unrivalled in the political sphere.
But the groundswell revolt against the Num is tapping into
the same popular discontent with poor government delivery of services that is
confronting the ANC.
"There isn't a challenge to the ANC yet but there is an
indication of where that challenge is going to come from, and that is an
alternative labour movement," said Gary van Staden, political analyst with
NKC Independent Economists.
This should be a concern for President Jacob Zuma as Num,
with its roughly 300 000 members and through its Congress of South African
Trade Unions mother body, is a key backer of his bid for a second term as
leader of both the ANC and the nation.
ANC leaders are aware that elsewhere in southern Africa, the
strongest challenges to liberation movements turned ruling parties have emerged
from urban and mining-based trade unions.
The most telling example can be found right next door in
Zimbabwe, where the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) that shares a
turbulent coalition government with President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party
grew out of unions and the urban poor.
'We don't do politics'
In their assault against the Num, brash smaller challengers
like the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and the
Professional Transport & Allied Workers Union (PTAWU) have been hammering
away at what they scent is its weakest spot.
Just like many ANC bigwigs in government, Num heavyweights
now face accusations from their restless membership that they spend more time
looking after their own interests than improving the lot of ordinary workers.
"The Num, they see that the train is moving so they
lose the plot. Our friends are getting rich. So the focus is no longer with the
workers," said Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa.
Past Num leaders who are ANC heavyweights include Cryil
Ramaphosa, a business tycoon with interests in the mining sector who today is
one of South Africa's richest men.
And while Num leaders recently attended a glittering gala
dinner with mining company executives early in June, their rivals are working
the crowded urban centres, townships and pitheads in their campaign to poach
The offices of PTAWU, the union that Manyaka and other Num
defectors joined, are sparsely furnished
in a rundown part of Johannesburg's city centre.
"We focus on labour issues. We don't do politics,"
said PTAWU general secretary Reckson Baloyi.
Accused by detractors of using strongarm tactics that have
sometimes led to turf fights and even deaths, AMCU has been taking on the Num
in townships and mines.
It last year challenged the dominant mineworkers' union at
the Karee Mine operated by the world's third-largest platinum producer Lonmin [JSE:LON].
It is now recognised there and managed to wrest at least 3 400 members from the
It then waded into the Rustenburg operations of world No 2
platinum producer Impala Platinum Holdings [JSE:IMP]. The wildcat strike and fighting that erupted
there shut 15% of the global supply of the precious metal for six weeks this
year, driving its spot price higher.
Implats officials say it looks like Amcu now claims about
half of the 20 000 unionised workers there but an independent audit needs to
verify this. If true, it will mean Amcu has poached about 5% of the Num's
members in the past few months.
Delivering - or not
Just as the Num's rivals lambaste the trade union for
"failing to deliver", so the ANC government has faced hundreds of
protests in poorer communities and townships against deficiencies and shortages
in the supply of electricity, water, sanitation, public transport and health
and education services.
An example of such potentially explosive discontent can be
found in the Zandspruit squatter camp on the northern edge of Johannesburg,
where riots periodically erupt among residents fed up with a lack government
"People want homes, electricity, roads and toilets.
They have been promising for too long and they do nothing," said Tshepo
Ramapoka, 43, a self-employed building contractor who lives in the settlement.
He was speaking the day after the latest protests as city
workers cleaned up the rock- and brick-strewn streets under the watchful eyes
of heavily-armed police. The charred remains of burnt tyres were strewn about.
Most of Zandspruit's residents live in wretched conditions
in makeshift corrugated iron homes which have been jumbled together in a maze
of dirt roads covered in trash.
Speaking at an ANC policy conference last week, Zuma
acknowledged the anger displayed in service delivery protests and said the
government must address it.
"You can't sit and say 'it's fine'. We are in
government, we have to do something about it," Zuma said.
A decent wage?
Growing mineworkers' frustration with the Num may send a
chill up the spine of corporate boardrooms because the main union has
consistently won above-inflation wage hikes for its members.
"Every time we go to bargaining it is not about the
ANC, it is about the issues raised by our members. And we are delivering
double-digit pay increases," Num general secretary Frans Baleni told
Reuters, rejecting the accusations against union leaders.
But even a 10% raise may seem paltry when seen from the
bottom of the scale in a country where economic inequality is among the highest
in the world and where the typical mineworker on average has eight dependents.
Outside Gold One's premises, a crowd of angry workers showed
a Reuters correspondent a payslip.
The monthly gross earnings shown on it were R3 746.78,
the take-home pay R2 659.26.
Across the industry there are wide disparities in pay and
many unskilled or semi-skilled workers make between R3 500 to R5 000 a month
for dirty and dangerous work.
Mining companies say costs across the board are rising and
that they cannot afford to significantly hike wages and remain profitable.
Average gross monthly earnings in mining in February were
around R14 000, according to the latest quarterly employment report from
Statistics South Africa.
The average national monthly earnings for all non-farm
sectors was just slightly lower than this, but the median figure for mining
masks the stark differences between the lower and higher ends of the pay scale
in the industry.
PTAWU failed in its bid to gain recognition at Gold One and
hundreds of employees who took part in an illegal strike were dismissed by
management. But their anger was directed at the Num.
One deduction in the payslip was R28.75 for a Num
subscription, which infuriated the sacked workers.
"Even when we say we have quit Num, management still
forces us to pay them!" one shouted.