The emergence of a rival union in the platinum space must be the most worrying event in the 30-year history of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
The union is one of the biggest and certainly most politically powerful under the blanket of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, representing close to a fifth of its entire membership and has an important place in the African National Congress (ANC) alliance.
Given the importance of mining in the South African economy, support from the union is integral to the ruling faction in the ANC. It is this political role on which its leaders may have placed too much focus because of populist nationalisation rhetoric as well as the succession battle, to the detriment of its core mandate.
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Straying from that focus on the interests of its workers has opened up space on its shop floors for a rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). This happens as the situation remains dire for miners in the platinum sector as prices for the metal remain weak and costs keep rising because of poor management and other factors.
The NUM lays the blame for the unfolding violence in North West on mining houses for making unilateral salary adjustments that undermine existing wage agreements. Amcu may have been opportunistic in using those grievances from the disparities in pay to muscle in, but where has the NUM been? The union should have been alert and ready to react to the grievances.
You’ve got to think the union, which once had held sway over the entire mining industry, has taken its eyes off the ball in a big way. After the warning shots at Impala Platinum, the world’s second-biggest miner, the battle is playing out at Lonmin, the third biggest.
For the first time in the course of the Lonmin dispute, which has caused a number of fatalities, platinum prices have responded. In late afternoon trade, it had its biggest percentage gain in a month.
Anglo American Platinum, the world’s biggest miner, could well be the next explosion point in this festering battle. The NUM has warned that the turf war could spread to other mineral segments too.
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