Where do trade unions go from here?

An South African man walks down a dirt road with trees on the right side and an flimsy fence on the left

In South Africa, the seismic shifts in unionism triggered by the Marikana Massacre have sadly not resulted in a union movement better equipped to tackle the issues that workers face.

By Naadira Munshi

Originally published by Africa is a Country

This post is part of a series that accompanies the symposium “Marikana, 10 years on,” taking place on August 20th in Johannesburg.

Nothing could have prepared South Africa for the Marikana Massacre on August 16, 2012, when 34 mineworkers were mowed down by members of the police force during a wildcat strike.

Witnessing the lives of innocent people being taken by the police, while ambulances took far too long to arrive, signaled a failure of the state that shook the country to its core. A democratic government had killed mineworkers for fighting for a living wage. The historic and once proud National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) left a stain on its history when it blamed “vigilante” workers for the wildcat strike, in a press conference where its leaders sat alongside the executives of mining giant, Lonmin. One of Lonmin’s shareholders was also the country’s then deputy president and a founding member of the NUM, President Cyril Ramaphosa. It is little wonder that 10 years on, the shockwaves that the massacre set in motion are still being felt.

The strike at Lonmin was one part of a wave that swept the Platinum Belt, beginning at Impala Platinum, before spreading to Lonmin and then Anglo Platinum. At all three companies, while workers may have disagreed on strategies, they agreed that it was time to organize independently of their trade union. Following the massacre, the 2013 wage negotiations reached a deadlock. Marikana dealt a devastating blow to South Africa’s long proud and politically strong trade union movement. But it marked the rise of a relatively new union on the platinum belt, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The National Union of Mineworkers had become so disconnected from the workers, that it was accused of selling jobs, placing limits on the length of strikes, and corrupt collusion with the bosses.

What followed was a five-month long strike (January-June 2014) led by AMCU. The strike achieved workers’ demands for a wage increase to R12,500 ($740) per month. The unexpected result was that the once mighty NUM lost approximately 100,000 members to AMCU in just two years.

Marikana had a seismic effect on the labor movement leading to a split in South Africa’s largest and most powerful union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the formation of a new rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU). Formed by the so-called “9-plus     unions,” the majority of whom were expelled from COSATU for the crime of wanting to exit the tripartite alliance—a formal political alliance with the South African Communist Party and African National Congress (ANC)—SAFTU promised a new vision. It offered a new trade unionism for the workers frustrated by the political compromises and inertia of COSATU; a trade unionism that was independent of political parties, but not apolitical; a social movement unionism connected to and part of working-class struggles, and responsive to the needs of workers on the ground.

On the other hand, COSATU-affiliated unions used the moment to recommit to the ANC, closing ranks and later backing Cyril Ramaphosa as the next president of South Africa.

Meanwhile workers from gold and diamond mining also started to join AMCU— then affiliated to the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU), and that promised to listen to workers and take up their demands.

It is worth reflecting on the state of unionism today, 10 years after the event that altered South Africa’s labor relations permanently.

The dream of SAFTU hangs by a thread. Its second congress, in May 2022, showed how deeply divided the federation has become. Once friends, comrades and founders of the federation, its leaders are in open conflict over strategy and it has become paralyzed by leadership battles. The  federation’s biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), is going ahead with its congress days after being interdicted on the basis of unlawful suspensions. This leadership crisis is unlikely to dissipate as factionalism deepens.

COSATU, by virtue of its membership of the tripartite alliance, has been placed in a corner by the ANC, a spot where it has chosen to remain. While living costs rise, COSATU remains aligned to a government committed to austerity, one that refuses to increase public sector wages. A culture of business unionism is firmly entrenched and COSATU struggles to find a new path forward as it battles internal leadership struggles.

On the platinum belt, AMCU remains dominant with NUM and NUMSA also contesting the space. The ongoing murders of shop stewards there since 2012 cannot be overlooked, as unionism has become a dangerous business. AMCU had also disaffiliated from NACTU becoming an independent trade union after being relegated to observer status at the 2018 congress for apparently failing to pay its membership fees. The workers on the platinum belt who desired a union of their own have not had their expectations met. AMCU’s leader, Joseph Mathunjwa—who featured prominently in trying to negotiate on behalf of the Marikana workers in the days leading up to the massacre—has long been called a dictator by his critics, and his survival as the union’s president remains tenuous, with his election to that position in 2019 declared unlawful by the Johannesburg Labor Court.

The real tragedy is that the seismic shifts in unionism, triggered by the death of 44 people over the course of August 2012, have not resulted in a union movement that is any better equipped to tackle the issues that workers face in a world of increasing automation and casualization.

Yet, evidence of militant trade unionism still exists within the labor movement. There are unions from across all federations attempting to organize informal and casual workers and fight against privatization and austerity, linking workers’ struggles to a broader working-class struggle. Amidst the leadership battles, workers remain reliant on unions for protection and shop stewards continue to organize in trying conditions. One of the key challenges is that casualized work is here to stay. Fixed-term contracts are eroding worker power through a lack of job and wage security.

Where do trade unions go from here? How do they reflect on the difficult and challenging questions that Marikana raised about the future of the working class, living wages, and worker representation in a vastly different economic climate? Ten years since the massacre, do platinum mine workers feel heard? Do workers believe that their voices are adequately represented?

These are difficult questions but ones we must answer if we are to rebuild our labor movement.

About the Author

Naadira Munshi is a project coordinator at Global Federation Public Services International. She writes in her personal capacity.

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