The deadly industrial protests last week at the Lonmin platinum mine have laid bare a fierce and violent battle for domination among trade unions in Africa's wealthiest and leading democracy.
The killing of 44 people during a wildcat strike at the Marikana mine last week highlighted the depth of internal politics between the main and three-decades old National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the 11-year-old Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
The NUM has come under fire from workers accusing it of being alienated from day-to-day shop floor issues and having too cosy a relationship with management.
Boasting a membership of 300 000, NUM is the largest single affiliate of the 2.2 million-strong umbrella union Cosatu, a crucial ally and support base of the ruling ANC.
Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo, a researcher with south Africa's Institute of Security Studies said “some have argued that Cosatu ...have largely come to represent a 'working class aristocracy' and are too involved in ANC elite politics to adequately work in the interest of the poor.”
Some digruntled NUM activists broke away to form a splinter independent union, AMCU in a bid to to close the gap.
But it is only in recent months that AMCU appeared to have consolidated its position. It quickly gained ground early this year after a six-week violent strike at Impala Platinum mine, the world's second largest, sitting on the same platinum belt as Lonmin.
Some 17 000 workers were sacked during the strike but then reinstated, after which AMCU said it had stripped most of the NUM membership to claim more than 50 percent on the its register and demanded recognition.
For a union to be recognised by law for collective bargaining purposes, it has to attain a membership of more than 50 percent of the workforce.
Violence and intimidation have become a culture to coerce workers to take part in strikes or join unions.
Unions survive on workers' subscriptions, often calculated as a percentage of their salaries.
The two unions denied being behind the deadly protests at Lonimn mine. ISS also said the strike was started by non-unionised labour.
But the AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa, accompanied by a group of praise singers, stormed into a memorial service organised for the victims of the Lonmin killins of Thursday and was given a platform to address mourners.
Some of the songs sung during the violent protests staged on a kopje in Marikana town, were anti NUM.
“It's very difficult to build a very strong worker solidarity...so you use violence to bring them together. Violence becomes a tool to achieve worker solidarity,” said Crispen Chinguno, an industrial relations researcher at the University of Witwatersrand.
The violence can be linked to the post-aparthied social order, which Chinguno said bred strong trade unions, that are “covertly hostile to competition.”
Workers, many of them unskilled, have openly changed allegiance to AMCU.
“I stopped being a member of the NUM because ...everyday, when we're in the strikes like this, they just told us 'go back to work' without any reason, without any answer that can satisfy us,” said Joseph Motingwe, who defected to AMCU three years ago.
Belief in black juju has also taken root and was partly blamed for the workers'defiance during a standoff with police before 34 of them were gunned down.
Local media report that a video report shot by the police from a helicopter during the strike, showed naked men lining up to be rubbed with herbs that were believed would make them bullet-proof.
“The use of muti has become so institutionalised in everything they (unions) do,” said Chinguno.
He said some of the 17 000 workers sacked and later reinstated at Impala believed they regained their jobs thanks to juju. - Sapa-AFP