Rustenburg - After the 34 miners gunned down two years ago and the families they left behind, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is possibly the second biggest casualty of the Marikana massacre.

NUM, until then the largest union in the country and the undisputed voice of mineworkers and their aspirations, has paid the price in reduced membership and lost credibility.

It now faces the gruelling task of reclaiming its relevance in the platinum belt in the North West and Limpopo. Not only does NUM have to lure its members back from breakaway rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), it also has to deal with a loss of members through mass retrenchments, which show no sign of letting up.

NUM lost as many as 50 000 members to Amcu in the lead up to and immediately after Marikana. It went from being the country’s largest and arguably most powerful union, with over 320 000 members, to the wounded spectacle it often appears today.

According to general secretary Frans Baleni, membership currently stands at 275 000, though some Cosatu colleagues put NUM’s figures well below this mark.

Whatever the truth of NUM’s current membership, what is not in dispute is that the union’s reputation has taken a hit over perceptions that it is no longer in touch with the needs of workers, and is too close to management and political elites.

So how and why has NUM fallen on such hard times? And why did the state mowing down dozens of mineworkers not rally the entirety of the workforce behind the oldest, largest and most organised union in the sector?

In hindsight, the writing was on the wall that life for NUM was about to change before the Marikana massacre. Its 2012 congress was highly contested and the push for a militant stance, based on nationalising the country’s mineral resources, started gaining ground. The militant wing supported deputy general secretary Oupa Komane, who took on Baleni for the top job.

Although those calling for wholesale nationalisation and a more hardline approach to capital lost both the leadership and policy battles, the seed had been planted.

And because Baleni was perceived to be close to ex-NUM boss and now ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, conditions were rife to present a NUM that was selling out workers’ interests at the altar of its relationship with the ruling party.

These political ructions were also accompanied by changing conditions in the workplaces the NUM organised. Workers’ committees, which largely bypassed unions and were tabling demands to employers directly, were already a reality on the platinum belt.

Soon after the union’s fractious 2012 congress, these committees were abuzz with the message that miners no longer needed NUM to negotiate with management. A six-week wildcat strike at Implats in Rustenburg, which included many NUM members but was not supported by the union, went some way to entrench that message.

The company largely gave in to the workers’ demands and even reinstated employees who had been axed for going on unprotected industrial action, feeding into the belief NUM was no longer needed.

After this strike, Amcu moved in and launched a mass recruitment drive among the rock drill operators who led the industrial action. The new union would soon displace NUM as the majority union not only at Implats, but also at the other two major platinum mining companies, Lonmin and Amplats.

Baleni blames violence and intimidation, as well as what he terms “fraudulent recruitment” for the rapid decline in NUM membership that followed.

There is little doubt that violence did escalate in the platinum belt during this period, much of it linked to Amcu’s intimidatory tactics. But it is equally true that NUM failed dismally to read the new mood of impatient militancy in the platinum sector. Whereas NUM had gained a reputation for repeatedly calling on workers to return to work during their wildcat actions, Amcu encouraged them to persist with their demands, assuring them of victory.

Thus when rock drillers demanded a R12 500 minimum wage in 2012, again initially through independent workers’ committees, Amcu assured them this was their right. The message from NUM, by contrast, was that this and other worker demands were not attainable. When August 16, 2012, dawned, NUM was completely irrelevant to the workers who had spent days facing down the police, many of them recent former members.

What is the union to do in the complex post-Marikana reality?

NUM is still the largest mining union, representing 67 percent of mineworkers across all sectors and remains the majority in gold and coal. It is also not impossible for it to regain its foothold in the platinum sector, considering Amcu’s inherent internal weaknesses.

Its decline is also not in the long-term interests of the industry nor workers. NUM has accumulated experience in policymaking and labour market research, areas as important to workers’ welfare as winning wage settlements.

They are still at the forefront in pushing back against policy and legislation that imperils the long-term interests of workers.

They have opposed attempts to amend labour laws to weaken worker rights, as well as putative plans to extend government control over members’ retirement savings.

Baleni says the union has a number of plans to turn the situation around. The first step is organisational renewal, which includes strategies to make elected leadership more accountable at all levels. They are also investigating ways to ensure that all leaders are not elected from a dominant group, such as artisans, so that women and lower skilled members also form part of the leadership.

For Baleni one of the chief lessons of Marikana was being caught by surprise. He says the union needs revive the networks it had before 1994 “where we were in touch with everything”.

“We must up our intelligence gathering. We must know everything that is happening on the ground,” he says.

Even with these plans, the jury is out on whether NUM can fully recover its position as South Africa’s most influential workers union. If that is to happen, the union will have to grapple with the political deficit that led to its decline.

NUM needs to engage in a process of internal introspection, which will force it to confront the often uncomfortable realities of its relationship with the ruling party.

This may not mean decoupling itself from the political alliance with the ANC. But it might require a greater willingness to let worker interests determine the nature and conduct of that alliance.

Sunday Independent