The NUM scored an own goal in the way in which it handled the strike at South Deep, South Africa’s only remaining ultra-deep mine, with members falling victim to a vicious leadership squabble involving branch and national leadership.
The union’s national leaders failed to step up to the plate quickly enough to end the strike due to internal battles and scores to settle.
The branch leaders literally held members who wanted to return to work to ransom by refusing to end the strike - a bad indictment on the union whose membership has dropped from 300000 in 2011 to 187000 last year.
The national leadership moved to suspend the branch leaders following an attack on its Gauteng regional chairperson Ndlela Radebe during a mass meeting at a stadium in Randfontein last week.
The meeting ended in violence and Radebe’s stabbing as tensions boiled over.
This could have been averted by more prompt action.
The national office eventually intervened and ended the strike on Tuesday. The strike was led by the branch on November 2 to oppose the retrenchment of 1100 employees and 400 contractors at the loss-making mine.
While the intervention by the union’s national office must be lauded as a step in the right direction, it is too little too late as this has cost members hard-earned wages.
The strike couldn’t have come at a worse time and has set members on a slippery financial debt slope ahead of the festive season.
Where was the union’s national office when the members indicated that they no longer wanted to strike?
Philip Vilakazi, the NUM’s deputy president, said yesterday that both the union’s branch and mine management babhedile, meaning they had messed up, in isiZulu.
“South Deep is in s**t now, because it has isolated itself from negotiations under the auspices of the Minerals Council since 2015. That is the crux of the matter.”
However, the company said the strike wasn’t about wages but re- trenchments, which weren’t part of any collective agreement.
South Deep is rich in gold reserves but has been poorly run for a long time with gold output nowhere near where it should be.
Meanwhile, four employees have been killed in several violent incidents at Sibanye’s gold operations Kloof, Driefontein and Beatrix, where the militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has gone on strike over higher wages.
The violent and protracted nature of the strikes in Sibanye-Stillwater and South Deep is disappointing, given that the industry is still suffering the effects of the five-month platinum belt strike and the Marikana massacre in 2012.
It is also sad, given that two years ago labour, business and the government agreed to the National Economic Development and Labour Council Accord on collective bargaining and the Code of Good Practice.
These accords were commitments that these parties had agreed, that in the event of violence and intimidation during strikes, they would do everything in their power to ensure that the strike was solved as promptly as possible.
But the reality is that the accords just look like hot air, and in the meantime employees are dying.