S.African unions try to rein in unrest in mines
South Africa's powerful mineworkers union on Tuesday tried to rein in unrest in the vital mining sector which has turned into a battleground for rival political and labour factions.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a key ally of the ruling ANC, denounced calls to exploit the turmoil that stemmed from killings at a platinum mine last month.
“In a normal environment it would be regarded as economic sabotage,” said NUM secretary general Frans Baleni. The mining industry accounts for about a fifth of GDP in Africa’s largest economy.
The ANC’s fiery former youth leader Julius Malema has been travelling to troubled mines, firing up workers and attacking his enemies in the party that expelled him, including President Jacob Zuma.
Last week, he told workers to make mines “ungovernable” and on Monday told striking gold miners at Gold Fields, where 12,000 miners have downed tools, to bypass the NUM if they felt the labour giant had failed them.
The stoppages have shut down Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine, which has been in the spotlight after 44 people died in a deadly strike for a wage hike. Union rivalry has been blamed for the escalation.
A group of 200 miners marched Tuesday on the mine, where police shot dead 34 protesters last month, demanding their colleagues don’t return to work at the world’s number three platinum producer.
Talks are set to restart Wednesday after government mediators failed to reach a breakthrough with mine management, unions and worker representatives.
Observers point to political jockeying as the ANC gears up for a crucial year-end elective conference and don’t foresee a quick let up until after the conference is held in Bloemfontein, known in Sesotho as Mangaung.
“Until December we are going to see more and more disruptions because the unions are over politicised,” said Iraj Adedian, head of the Pan African Investments.
The union, the country’s largest with 300,000 members, has come under fire for its close ties with the ANC and also seen challenges to its dominance on mineworkers membership.
The mining sector contributes around 20 percent of the GDP and directly employs a million people.
“It’s easy to be populist when you are dealing with economic issues,” ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe told Talk Radio 702.
“If you say we must kill billionaires, you get an applause from workers, if you say we must shut down the mines, you will get an appluse from mineworkers, until the reality of mine closures come to the fore.”
The crisis will take a while to settle, experts predicted.
“This is like the war in Afghanistan, you don’t know who exactly you are dealing with. How powerful, how organised and representative they really are,” Peter Major, a mining expert told AFP.
“The unions here were possibly getting too large, too removed from their constiuencies and too involved in politics,” he added.
“So in a way there may be some good results that can come out of this crisis,” he said.
Zuma is battling challengers for re-election as ANC chief, which would virtually guarantee another term in office, while enemies like Malema are trying to push him from the helm of the party that has led the country since democracy in 1994.
South Africa on Monday started freeing 270 mineworkers arrested over the killing of their 34 colleagues shot dead at the Lonmin mine by police, after a court dropping murder charges that had sparked public outrage.