“It’s not even that the mine bosses liked the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers], they just liked using it.” As he says this, the Socialist Group’s Trevor Ngwane is thumbing through a photocopied, comb-bound recognition agreement signed early this year between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and Anglo American Platinum (Amplats).

The clause Ngwane is trying to show me, as he places the document on the boot of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Corolla, has to do with regular off-site “strategic meetings” between the majority union and company management. His assertion is that these hobnobbing sessions – mandatory according to the agreement – are merely aimed at reinforcing the skewed power dynamics that already exist between union staff and mine bosses.

We are standing at a T-junction that serves as the entrance to a Bleskop informal settlement, where some Amplats workers live. The junction was the site of violent protests during last year’s six-week strike by Amplats workers. The stretch of road that crosses it, linking Photsaneng to Marikana, seethes with the anger and unfulfilled promise of last year’s independently coordinated strikes. As it turns out, we are walking distance from several of Amplats’ shafts, as well as Billy’s Tavern, where Amcu regional organiser and Lonmin employee Mawethu Steven was shot and killed while watching football in May.

Ngwane, who is currently workshopping with mineworkers on the Labour Relations Act, has just spent the morning interviewing residents on community structures, a project related to his doctoral studies at UJ.

Finally finding the right page in the thick tome, he explains how aspects of it could be Amcu’s death-knell. “[Amcu president Joseph] Mathunjwa’s problem, at least at Anglo American, is that he signed an already existing recognition agreement – one based on a 2009 arrangement, the same one that led to the fall of the NUM,” he says. “There are clauses here that tie the union to the ‘values, mission and vision of Anglo Platinum’ and require that shop stewards, unions and ordinary members uphold them.

“You know that full-time shop stewards don’t go underground,” he says. “They are graded C2, which is about R15 000 per month and upwards. Coordinators are graded at C5. Now, the recognition agreement requires that within four weeks [of being appointed], shop stewards sit with HR managers and a plan is made that when their term of office expires, they get an equivalent job to the one they got when they were elected [as shop stewards]. So, you can see, the power already lies with the bosses. An incoming shop steward, already his hands are tied by this – you have bosses doing everything in their power to undermine the union.”

Under the recognition agreement, Ngwane says, shop stewards become sitting ducks to be co-opted by management. “So, currently, workers at Amplats [at least former strike committee leaders who were later absorbed into Amcu’s structures] are divided. Some want to be shop stewards and coordinators with the attendant perks, while others want to remain as militant as they were when they broke through the NUM bureaucracy and called strikes; when they were saying even the LRA [Labour Relations Act] can’t stop us.”

Ngwane, a former ANC councilor whose organisation the Socialist Group falls under the umbrella of the Democratic Left Front (DLF), a motley association of left-leaning organisations that has made its presence felt in Rustenburg’s post-Marikana environment, says the DLF undertook to train these workers in the Labour Relations Act because they could “hardly run hearings” in the workplace.

“In that environment, everything is according to rules and if you don’t know them, you’re chopped. It’s the same thing the Afrikaner bureaucrats were clobbering us with in the first days of the democratic government.”

A strike committee member interviewed by The Con articulates the kinds of pressure being brought to bear on workers in the post-Marikana workplace. “We are being investigated in our work areas, we have intelligence agents coming to investigate us,” says George Tyobeka, an Amcu-affiliated Amplats strike committee member. “The employer is suspending workers outside of company policy but the finger is pointing at Amcu … We want government [spies] away from the union for the union to be able to function properly.”

Earlier this year, 19 shop stewards were suspended for orchestrating a sit-in at Amplats – a sit-in that was apparently in protest of an earlier suspension of four shop stewards who had allegedly participated in acts of intimidation.

While the details of that situation were skirted by most of the press, the rampant mass suspension of a union’s shop stewards points to some kind of a structural implosion on the union’s part – understandable given its massive intake of numbers and the frustrating road to recognition. However, it is one that can obviously be exploited by a management seeking to foster a particular perception – and a situation that lends it the upper hand.

It is not only Ngwane who has an inside lane into what Amplats workers think or seek to achieve in 2013, in the aftermath of last year’s strike wave and the prospect of 6 000 job losses (which platinum belt experts say targeted the most radical shafts).

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), also affiliated – albeit reluctantly – to the DLF, played an underacknowledged role and wielded significant influence over strike committee members in the period after the Lonmin strike. Just how significant, and how problematic, was evident in the turnout of an October meeting held in Marikana to announce the formation of the joint strike coordinating committee.

While many of the North West and Limpopo mining houses were represented, it was Amplats strike committee members such as Godfrey Lindane, Evans Ramokga and Gaddafi Mdoda who sat prominently around the high brick wall o a local creche as workers rose to give updates of the strike in their respective mines.

By the time the meeting was drawing to a close, and DSM executive member Mametlwe Sebei was presiding over a press conference announcing the workers’ readiness to form a new political party, they were outside the yard, their body language displaying displeasure at what amounted to words being pushed down their mouths. Of course, the DSM wasn’t joking, as that party was soon launched and named the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp). Whether the formation of the party will translate into mass support will be known soon enough.

With that said, the fact that Lonmin employees largely snubbed the event spoke to the class dynamics at play. Amplats has some mechanised shafts requiring higher skilled employees than the unmechanised ones. As a result, some Amplats strike committee members drove cars and, because of their ability to speak English, handled media responsibilities. This layer of leadership was thus more open to the DSM’s overwrought proselytising.

During last year’s strike wave, the DSM was considered faceless and powerless by the media, lefties who missed the pre-Marikana bus to Rustenburg, and an ANC too proud to admit that an undermanned bunch of by-the-book Trotskyists would ever command enough strategic influence to seriously threaten its capital caretaking role.

But when the killings and work stoppages in Rustenburg didn’t stop and the first peace framework was hauled out and signed [at the end of February] but did not address underlying issues, Amcu had to be courted and new scapegoats sourced.

At least that is the DSM’s theory, but the episodic xenophobic tone of the government masquerading as fresh analysis of the root causes of “anarchy” in the platinum belt suggested that a game of chess was in progress: isolate the DSM and the “foreign white element” and woo Amcu back into the fold.

But as Amplats shop steward Tyobeka says, there was just too many lingering issues for Mathunjwa to sign the second agreement: the framework for sustainability being brandished by deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.

Tyobeka says: “The president of Amcu, for me, is a leader among leaders because he works with a mandate. There is no peace we can sign on if there’s no peace to begin with.”

Amcu was widely criticised by unions and the Chamber of Mines when it refused to sign the framework agreement in July, apparently demanding the retraction of “vigilante” statements by the alliance, the withdrawal of a labour matter involving the NUM and Lonmin (alleging Amcu’s ascendance to be tied to fraud, violence and intimidation) and the reinstatement of members fired for embarking on unprotected strike action in at least two mines.

Tensions about what kind of union Amcu should be seem more pronounced now, as it recently signed another winner-takes-all recognition agreement with Lonmin. Lest we be seen as judgmental, how Mathunjwa will float a structure already seen as run by decorum and decree yet hollow in the middle is best left to the imagination. After all, dirty tricks by mining houses and the NUM did eat into the efficient finalisation of recognition agreements.

For Amcu’s members, though, their faith will be retained once this round of negotiations is over.

Main Picture: Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union members gather for a May Day rally in Marikana – by Delwyn Verasamy

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