4 June 2015
“Back to Basics, Membership First”
Over the past three years, the National Union of Mineworkers has been the target of an unprecedented attack.
Of course, the story of progressive unionism in a capitalist society is always the story of struggle. The relationship between capitalist bosses and workers may (at certain times) be relatively civilised, at other times it will be aggressively hostile.
But even in the best of times, the class interests of the bosses and the class interests of workers stand in fundamental contradiction to each other. For the bosses priority number one is always private profits for themselves, “maximising share-holder value” as they call it. All other considerations are secondary - job creation, a living wage, health and safety, the social conditions of workers and their families, even whether to invest or not to invest - all of these are secondary considerations. Private profit, that cruellest of gods, is the one true object of worship for the bourgeoisie.
A mine might still be productive but if profits are greater somewhere else - perhaps in Papua New Guinea, in Colombia, or Ghana, or just speculating in the capitalist casino economy - then that mine will be sacrificed on the altar of profit worship - and workers and their families will become the sacrificial victims. Whole towns will be turned into ghost towns
That’s the story of capitalism in SA. And that is the story of capitalism everywhere. And that has always been at the heart of the struggle waged by mine-workers.
But over the past three or four years the offensive against NUM has acquired a new intensity and unprecedented dimensions.
The attack on NUM and its over 230,000 members has come from several different angles at once.
We expect the bosses to attack NUM. We expect the capitalist media, and particularly the Times Media Group, owned by the monopoly mining houses, and their publications like Business Day, the Financial Mail, and Sunday Times to attack NUM. (I am speaking here not of the journalists on these publications - many of whom do an excellent job. I am speaking of the editorial managers, of the sub-editors, of all those in the pockets of the mining houses). You will remember how at the height of the Marikana tragedy they tried to present the issues as a simple inter-union rivalry. This was almost exactly the same strategy used by the apartheid regime in the early 1990s. When they launched Askaris against townships - the called it “black on black violence”. When white policemen in Casspirs escorted assegai and panga-wielding IFP hostel-dwellers into Boipatong informal settlement on a killing spree, they told us it was “black on black violence”. And newspapers like the Sunday Times, at the time, were happy to repeat the story. The message was a racist one - “you see what will happen if we allow majority rule - they’ll slaughter each other.”
So we shouldn’t be surprised if the same bourgeois media and the same mining houses in 2012 were happy to present the tragedy unfolding on the platinum belt as if it were just “union on union”, “worker on worker” violence.
We shouldn’t be surprised if NUM has been singled out as the key target for a massive class offensive.
Since 1994 South African monopoly capital has very successfully undermined many of the important legislative gains won after a bitter struggle by the progressive trade union movement. SA monopoly didn’t fold its arms as we introduced the Labour Relations Act, or the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, and much more.
Monopoly capital responded aggressively by restructuring the work-place and by segmenting the working class. Disinvestment, capital flight, increasing mechanisation, and above all informalisation, casualisation, and the massive expansion of labour brokering. All of these measures by monopoly capital were, and are, designed to under-cut the advances made by the organised working class.
And make no mistake. - this counter-offensive by monopoly against our new democratic dispensation has had a devastating impact on the union movement.
In 1997, 36% of workers in the private sector were unionised. In 2013, this had dropped to 24%. (By the way, the trend was in the opposite direction in the public sector. In 1997, 55% of workers in the public sector were unionised. By 2013 this had climbed to nearly 70%.)
At COSATU’s 2012 National Congress public servants were 39% of membership of the federation (in contrast to 7% in 1991).
But, and this is extremely interesting:
At a time when other private sector areas were experiencing a dramatic decline in unionisation percentages, mining continued to show growth: moving from 71% unionisation in 1997 to 80% in 2013. The mining sector reality may well be part of an explanation for the inclination for non-NUM unions like NUMSA to seek to cannibalise membership in this sector in the face of challenges in much of their own historic manufacturing sectors.
The persisting high levels of unionisation in the mining sector tells us why mine-workers and NUM in particular have been seen as Enemy No. 1 by monopoly capital.
We should not be surprised at their offensive.
We should not be surprised if all manner of reactionary commentators like John Kane-Berman of the SA Institute of Race Relations, or Ian Ollis from the DA -are drooling with delight at the prospect of the weakening of NUM, and of the organised working class in general.
But the multi-pronged attack on NUM and its more than 250,000 members has also come from other quarters - from the leadership of unions that were, or are, meant to be allies, fraternal affiliates within the same federation.
Of course there have always been rivalries, often healthy rivalries between what were the two largest industrial unions in COSATU - NUM and NUMSA. But in the last few years, a leadership clique within NUMSA has turned one of the great working class slogans on its head.
“An Injury to One - Is an Injury to All” has become “An Injury to NUM - Is an Opportunistic Chance for Jim”. Let’s not blame the rank-and-file members of NUMSA. Let’s not blame many NUMSA shopstewards and worker-leaders who are not part of the current NUMSA leadership clique.
But let us expose rank opportunism where it exists.
How did the NUMSA leadership clique react to the unfolding tragedy on the platinum belt around Marikana in August 2012? In the days before August 16 when there was a reign of terror in the informal settlements and townships, when armed thugs were killing NUM shop-stewards and NUM members and their families, when wearing a red skipper could be a death sentence? They said nothing. How did the NUMSA leadership clique react to the attempted armed storming of NUM offices? Nothing was said. They were absolutely quiet.
And how did the NUMSA leadership clique react to the terrible tragedy of August 16 when 34 strikers were shot down by the police on the koppie at Marikana. Well, the NUMSA leadership clique correctly criticised the police. But how did they word their criticism?
This is what their formal statement said: we condemn the “savage, cowardly actions and excessive force used by the police, which invariably [“inevitably”?] led to the deaths of 44 workers…”
What this statement does is deliberately, knowingly, obscure the fact that the first ten of the 44 deaths at Marikana in the tragic week of mid-August 2012 were not at the hands of the police, but included two policemen, two security guards protecting the National Union of Mineworkers’ offices, and six NUM members killed clearly by those associated with the strikers.
This rank dishonesty by the leadership clique of NUMSA didn’t end there.
In the days and months after April 16 2012, as the killings of NUM organisers and members continued, the NUMSA leadership clique said nothing by way of sympathy. Nothing by way of a condemnation of the violence.
Instead, the NUMSA leadership clique (along with Julius Malema’s rabble army)has continued to actively flirt with AMCU.
What is AMCU?
The SACP has characterised AMCU as essentially vigilante unionism. It is not a new phenomenon. In the early 2000s there was a very similar offensive launched against NUM - the Five Madoda. It had its origins among networks in the informal settlements around the mines, networks controlled by shack-lords, taxi-bosses, and anti-stock theft vigilante groups brought in from rural Eastern Cape and KZN. These networks were then mobilised to launch an offensive on NUM membership - the attraction was, of course, to grab control worker subs.
AMCU’s base organisation and demagogic methods of mobilisation have been very similar.
The SACP has noted that NUM’s response to the all-round offensive has not been mere denialism. To its great credit NUM has acknowledged that organisational and other challenges and weaknesses within the union have also provided gaps for the anti-NUM offensive.
That is why the theme of this 15th National Congress - “Back to Basics, Membership First!” is so relevant, and so correct.
Back to basics must include:
The media is very good at creating “untouchable heroes” out of those who become oppositionist. The ‘untouchable heroes’ get to have very swollen heads. They refuse to accept collective discipline and advice. They imagine they are bigger than their organisations. These ‘untouchable heroes’ sometimes sprout revolutionary slogans about our democratic state being the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”. But when they are in trouble within their organisation that don’t hesitate to take internal union matters out of their organisations and place them at the mercy of probably the most untransformed wing of government - the judiciary. Yes, these “untouchable heroes” are forever taking their organisations to court.
NUM (and COSATU, for it has also advanced the same call) are absolutely correct to call for “Back to Basics”.
All affiliates need to ask questions of themselves:
I know that NUM has being asking all of these questions of itself, and that you will be taking these discussions further in your deliberations at this Congress.
As we develop a working class counter-offensive to the unceasing attacks on our union movement by monopoly capital - we also need to look beyond the work-place to the communities in which workers live.
Housing for mine-workers - one of the important victories of NUM, supported by the ANC-led government after 1994, was the abolition of the terrible single-sex hostels that had prevailed for 100 years in South African mining. This abolition was an important victory.
However, we should also not forget that one of the great achievements of NUM in the 1980s was to transform the hostels into bases of working class power. The apartheid regime, and before it other white minority regimes and the mine bosses planned to use the hostels to control mine-workers, to seal workers off from the surrounding communities. And, what is more, in a classical colonial, divide-and-rule strategy, they sought to divide workers inside the hostel along ethnic/tribal lines.
NUM swept aside the divide-and-rule ethnic agenda - organising workers of different backgrounds, including workers from Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, etc. The hostel was turned from a prison into a working class fortress. Mass meetings could be called within a matter of minutes, in the days before cell-phones and SMS’s.
But of course these hostels were horrible places in which workers lived in degrading conditions. The call for their abolition was absolutely correct.
But this is where the mining houses, local government, local traditional leaders, and national government have let mine-workers down. Decent affordable housing, different family accommodation, viable mining communities with clinics, creches, schools, parks and public transport - very little of this has been delivered to replace the old hostels.
Many workers have used the living-out allowance as a remittance to rural families back at home. Instead they erect a shack in a squatter camp, and pay for a second wife, a second TV, a second fridge. This is the world in which mashonisas and shack-lords flourish. How does NUM organise in these spaces? It’s not impossible, but it’s very, very difficult - and there are all sorts of parasites and opportunists lurking in these places, feeding off mine-workers’ wages. This is the terrain in which anti-NUM opportunists gained some control.
This is the context in which the SACP calls on NUM to be actively engaged in the government-led “Revitalisation of Mining Towns” initiative. Mine-workers and their families must be housed in decent communities. Not only is this a democratic right, it is also directly linked to re-building worker unity and effective trade union organisation.
We must also actively campaign to fundamentally transform migrant labour. We are not calling for the abolition of migrant labour. Some of the poorest rural areas in South Africa remain dependent on remittances from mine-workers. However, we must actively modernise and transform mine migrant labour - we cannot continue to reproduce a system that goes back over one hundred years. In other mining countries - like Canada and Australia - mining often takes place in remote geographical areas. Workers live in reasonably comfortable hostels - and return home, typically they are flown back, every two-months or three months for a long break. The same working schedules occur on off-shore oil rigs and among seafarers on container ships. This way they save money, and they retain their family ties.
An attack on NUM is an attack on our democratic advances
Comrades, we have noted the multi-dimensioned attacks on NUM. This attack is not an accident.
As the SACP we are very clear:
An attack on NUM, is an attack on progressive unionism;
An attack on NUM and progressive unionism is an attack on the ANC-led alliance;
An attack on NUM is an attack on our democratic gains and advances.
Those of us in the SACP, those of us in government don’t expect NUM or COSATU to be sweet-hearts of the executive. We don’t want conveyor belts. We don’t want unions that are timid, labour-desks of the ANC. We want independent, militant trade unions that understand that the success of working class struggles in South Africa is deeply bound up with a national democratic struggle, and an NDR is centrally about democratic national sovereignty. What do we mean by democratic national sovereignty? We mean the ability to advance our own national, developmental path, based on a mandate from the overwhelming majority of South Africans, and free from the dictates of foreign powers, or of the World Bank, the IMF, or the ratings agencies.
We need to understand, in this context, that state power without popular power, and popular power without working class power - will mean that the state will be hijacked by other class forces whose priorities are profits, not people.
Our alliance has called for a second radical phase of the National Democratic Revolution to address the persisting crises of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
At the centre of this second radical phase must be the re-industrialisation of our economy, without which South Africa will continue to be little more than a neo-colony of the imperialist North. We will continue to export our immense mineral wealth - as unprocessed iron ore, as unbeneficiated manganese from Northern Cape to Saldhana and Ngqura - creating semi-skilled jobs in China, skilled jobs in Europe, and not here in SA. We will continue send our coal out through Richards Bay, simply repeating the pattern that has persisted for over one hundred years.
We have to re-industrialise and this means leveraging off our one major global competitive advantage our massive mineral resources. Don’t let anyone tell us that mining is a “sunset industry” in South Africa. But we must use these non-renewable sources wisely so that generations of South Africans to come will continue to benefit.
In this challenging time confronting our country and your union - I know that all delegates appreciate the responsibility facing you at this NUM 15th Congress and in the months beyond. Yes, the Congress, as any democratic Congress is entitled to, will have a competitive electoral contest for some posts. The SACP is not here with “favourites” one way or other. The union is in your hands, not ours. As the SACP, in the name of that great Communist and Mine-Worker Organiser, cde JB Marks, we urge you to Close Ranks, based on a principled and militant programme of organisation, mobilisation and struggle. Let us, together, as comrades and allies forged in the furnace of struggle, face our many enemies and opponents as one united force.
Issued by the SACP Head Offices
Contact: Mhlekwa Nxumalo: Acting Spokesperson
Office: 011 339 3621/2
Mobile: 072 51 777 61 or 082 837 0530