The role of the NUM in South Africa

James Motlasi
This is the presidential address by James Motlasi, President of the South African National Union of Mineworkers, at their ninth national congress.

From Soundings issue 7 Autumn 1997

When our last Congress met in March 1994 the country was preparing for the first democratic general election in the history of South Africa. We had struggled, fought and waited for 342 years for the principle that was embodied in that moment. It was a unique and historic achievement which we should always use as a measuring rod whenever we ask ourselves what is possible in the future.
The NUM played a key role in the struggle which led to the election and in the election campaign itself and we are proud of it. It had worked both through Cosatu and independently as a trade union standard bearer for the liberation struggle. In the midst of the township uprisings and the state of emergency in 1986 we defied the nationalist government by electing Nelson Mandela as our Honorary President and in the following year we went further by adopting the Freedom Charter and its Socialist aspirations. Our members were defiant and militant in the cause of freedom.
But we did more than put our collective power behind the struggle. Our union, along with other unions, was a training ground for leaders. During the apartheid years we were virtually the only legal bodies where young blacks could learn about administration and decision-making and at the same time practice leadership. After the unbannings, therefore, we were able to provide the movement with people to help take us through the transitional stage to a fully democratic society. Our union released a number of officials who did valuable work, but one of them, I think, deserves special mention at this point of time. There will be occasions when we will celebrate the others.
I am sure, Comrades, that you will agree with me that through our decision to release Cyril Ramaphosa we provided the ANC and the country with a person of unique qualities. Without Cyril's diplomatic and negotiating ability, in harness with the skills of Comrade Joe Slovo, it is unlikely that the transition to democracy would have been so smooth, painless, peaceful and speedy. Nor would we have had such an easy passage in getting one of the world's most progressive Constitutions adopted by the various political factions in this country. I think we would be failing as comrades if we did not pay special tribute to our former general secretary. Cyril Ramaphosa and the NUM have a special relationship. We grew up together; we matured together; we are like family. We cannot forget or ignore that fact. He is still one of us.

The achievements
The NUM has benefited already from the new democracy. Our right to act collectively and to strike is now enshrined in law. The new Labour Relations Act, though not perfect from our point of view, has removed racial discrimination
The NUM in South Africa
from the field of industrial relations and provides us with the right to bargain again with our employers. The mine owners always treated bargaining rights as if they were their property to be handed to us as a gift provided we went on our knees and behaved ourselves. On numerous occasions mine managements have withdrawn bargaining facilities because we did not respond like puppets. But that is now history and we are going to make sure that it is never repeated.
Our greatest gain so far, however, has been the Mine Health and Safety Act. For the first time black mineworkers can participate on an equal basis with white miners in consultation with mine managers in the formulation and application of health and safety measures. Since 1982 we have been demanding the right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions. Now we have it. We also have the right to elect our own safety representatives. The Act by itself cannot prevent occupational diseases, accidents and disasters. But it provides us with a framework to make that possible.
There have been other changes. We no longer have to go on our knees to get access to government ministers. We just have to knock on doors and they open. They frequently come to us. This was illustrated clearly during the critical negotiations over the Labour Relations Act when the employers were pressing for the inclusion of a right to lockout. Our views prevailed for the first time. Nor are our feelings and sensitivities during and after tragedies ignored by the government as they were in the past. When the Vaal Reefs disaster occurred in May 1995, with the loss of 104 lives, the government declared it a national disaster and contributed R5 million to the Vaal Reefs disaster fund. This was important to us.
There is no comparison between this humane and civilised response to our grief and the callous treatment of black mineworkers after the Coalbrook disaster in 1960, when 437 were killed in a single roof fall and the government refused even to send condolences to the bereaved black families. Nor does it compare with our treatment after the Kinross disaster in 1986, when 177 were killed in a polyurethane fire. Then Gencor held its own Memorial Service in Afrikaans and the NUM called a national day of mourning in defiance of both the mine owners and the government.
It is not simply a matter of pride that these changes are important to us. They reflect a swing in power relations in our favour. It is a real gain that we have direct access to Ministers and even to the President. Big business still has too much power in relation to government but it no longer monopolises the arena of consultation with it. It is a great achievement that legislation which had always been used to suppress us is now rightly tilted in our favour.
These gains, however, have to be put into perspective. They are not gifts from the government. We have not been especially favoured. We have simply had our rights as citizens restored to us. Moreover, it would be wrong for the employers to think that they have been penalised. The balance has been tilted slightly from them towards us so that we are now in a better position to develop and protect the interests of our members on grounds of equality with them. But what we must always remember is that what we have achieved so far we have fought for and that if we are to improve our position we must continue fighting. There are no free lunches in our business. We have no guarantee that future governments will be as friendly towards us as this one. It is for this reason that we must give priority to building and strengthening our organisation so that it is a more effective fighting force. Our future lies in our own hands.

Understanding trade unionism
I cannot emphasis too much that we must view South African society not just in terms of the struggle between mineworkers and mine owners but in class terms with wide international implications. The oppression our workers suffer is common to varying extents throughout the capitalist world. It is, I must add, nothing to do with colour. White workers suffer along with black workers. This world-wide conflict, moreover, has been bitterly fought. Many thousands of workers have been killed in battles with employers, the police and the army. Most have occurred in the developed industrial nations but some of them have been in South Africa, as many of our members know.
I am talking about class conflict in this way so that you may understand the kind of opposition we face and why we need to be determined and vigilant. I have no intention of encouraging you, or anyone else, to go and fight at the barricades. I am not saying that you should go on strike on every possible occasion. There are different ways of waging the class struggle. It can be done through political action and industrial action. It can be done through negotiation and confrontation. It is my view that in the first instance we should always try and resolve our differences with employers and the government through negotiation and to use strikes only as a weapon of the last resort. But we should always keep our weapon bright, shiny and sharpened, ready to use at any minute.
We must always remember when we are negotiating with employers, managers and government ministers that we are not engaged in some kind of game. Nor are we there to serve our own ego or career ambitions. We are not on a gravy train or a stepping stone to political office. We are there solely to represent our members' interests. That must be our only purpose.
So whilst we may reach bargains with the employers we must never make private deals with them which sell-out the workers and undermine their solidarity. Those who do that are traitors to our cause and should be treated as such. All who work for the NUM should remember that it is bigger than any one of us. We are the cogs in a big machine. We are not the machine itself.
Some people understand all of this because of their own, personal struggles against poverty and exploitation. But most have to learn about it because employers and the state control the mass media and use it to convince workers that they should live in harmony with employers and not question the system which gives them the right to control their lives. We have to counter that type of propaganda. For this reason I want our union to launch an education campaign to bring a real understanding of the nature of capitalist society to our rank and file members, to our shop stewards and branch committees, to our full-time officials and to everyone who works for it so that the union will have a strong politically conscious foundation from which to serve its members.

The brain drain
We all know that many of the skills we require in our officials and staff come not just from formal learning but also from doing the job. Many aspects of what we do cannot be taught in a formal way. It follows that, provided we have adequate training, the more experience they have the more efficient they are likely to be. Here, however, we have a problem which is not of our making. We are suffering from a 'brain drain'.
I do not have to go into detail to explain what I mean by this term. You all know through your own experiences the kind of education we have had and how Bantu education has impaired our ability to do skilled and administrative work. You also know that as a result of the Bantu educational system, our country is desperately short of black people with skills in science, technology, organisation and administration. The problem the society is facing today is that the generation we are drawing on to administer the state, to run our public and para-statal services and to take over management positions in private industry, received Bantu education in the 1970s and 1980s.
In that period about 20 per cent of the black population had no education at all, 65 per cent were not literate in their own languages and as many as 90 per cent had not reached Standard Seven which meant they were not literate in English or Afrikaans. Only three per cent had reached Standard Ten while a tiny number, comprising 0.06 per cent of the black population, had university degrees, mostly in education and the social sciences. Hardly any blacks had degrees in science and engineering. When some years ago the union sent 19 mineworkers to Cuba to study mining engineering there were only two blacks in South Africa with mining engineering degrees and neither of them was a practising mining engineer.
We have had, therefore, a tiny pool of people from which to draw to help administer our country since the elections in April 1994. The result is that there are virtually boundless opportunities for young people with organisational and administrative experience to gain promotion, obtain high salaries and enjoy a standard of living which was unimaginable for them just a few years ago.
This is where trade unions, and the NUM in particular, enter the scene, for until 1994 we, along with the churches, were the only organisations which provided blacks with training and experience in administration and decision-making. Ours were the only organisations where blacks could handle budgets. Not surprisingly, we have lost and are still losing some of our most efficient staff - the heads of departments and skilled organisers - to work for government and para-statal bodies with conditions of work and salaries we can never hope to match. The result is that our union is suffering from a 'brain drain'. It is not, moreover, a one-off loss. We recruit new officials, train them, give them experience and then along come outside agencies with their tempting offers of employment and we have to start all over again.
I am not complaining about this process. In one sense I am proud that we are able to take part in it. The denial of education and training for blacks is one of the most destructive legacies of apartheid and unless we overcome it we shall not fulfil our election promises to the people. The NUM has a responsibility to help and wishes to do so.
But at the same time, I have to admit that this brain drain is holding the union back. We are not the worst affected union by any means but the problem, nonetheless, is serious, and we have to decide how long we can allow it to go on. At some point we have to ask where our priorities lie. Does it matter if our union acts as a training post for ambitious young people who want to rise in the ranks of management with the result that it staggers along inefficiently? Or do we want a strong, efficient and militant NUM which retains its skilled personnel because they are committed to what the union is doing?
My view on this is clear. I believe that a strong and militant NUM is vital for the democratic future of our society, for the transformation of the mining industry in the interest of mineworkers and for the economic future of the country as a whole. Let me take the question of democracy first.

Protecting Democracy
The most important test of democracy is the existence of the freedom of association leading to the formation of free trade unions and the right to strike. If trade unions lose those freedoms then no other freedom is safe. This has been the experience in every totalitarian country. It was the experience in Fascist Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal where the first act of the dictators was to destroy trade union freedom by destroying trade unions. We have seen it happen in many Third World countries in recent years. It has happened in recent months in South Korea where the bitter battles between the trade unions and the government have been over the government's attempts to tame the unions. Politicians who want total power always start by destroying unions.
The trade union role in democracy is also important because unions are the voice of the dispossessed, the lowest paid and the most exploited sections of our society. The unions enable their views and resolutions to be heard alongside those of politicians and the business elite. Through the NUM, for instance, lowly-paid and poorly educated mineworkers sit opposite and argue with mine owners and government ministers. Their views are treated with respect.
Without the NUM the individual mineworkers count for nothing except as vote fodder. But within the NUM, they can move resolutions in their branches, their regional conferences and national congresses, which attack employers, governments and political parties without the risk of retribution because they have the collective support of their fellow mineworkers. If they tried to act in the same way as private citizens they could be disregarded and, perhaps, penalised.
We in South Africa are new to democracy and we may make mistakes along the way. We do not want those mistakes to lead to the loss of the freedoms we fought so long to obtain. We have not yet had time to build the infrastructures that would enable us to resist a return to authoritarian rule so we have got to have strong guards willing to fight any such tendencies. It is my belief that the NUM can and must be one of those guards.

Transforming the mining industry
It is true that mining has declined as an employer of labour in recent years, but it still employs about 500,000 people. It continues, however, to create great wealth, much of which goes to the government in the form of taxation. About half of our foreign exchange earnings come from the export of minerals. This will increase as we establish those industries which process the minerals and add value to them. The government has already taken steps to investigate the possibility of doing this in the case of diamonds. If, for instance, the global selling operations controlled by De Beers were transferred to South Africa it would add up to R19 billion to our foreign reserves. If we also processed the diamonds, the gold and the platinum we mine the benefits derived from mining would be enormous.
If this is the case why is it that black mineworkers are paid and treated like Third World peasants? Why are they amongst the lowest paid workers in South Africa and yet do the hardest and most dangerous work? It is interesting that when we complain to the mining houses about the poverty wages our members receive they always compare them with the wages received by mineworkers in Third World countries, because this enables them to announce that South African mineworkers are relatively highly paid.
They do not, however, compare their mining technology with Third World countries. They say that the South African mines compare with the best in the world. And when they boast about their Five Star safety ratings they are not comparing their safety standards with those of Columbia, Bolivia or Chile but with the advanced Western mining nations.
Moreover, in their campaigns to recruit whites from the developed countries to work in South African mines they do not offer Third World terms of employment but salaries and conditions which are better than they could get in their home countries. Well, I want the same standards to be applied to our members. I want black mineworkers here to have the pay, conditions and status equivalent to the best in the world. It must not be shameful to work in the mines but a source of pride. I realise that in order to achieve this we will have to change many aspects of mining. It is not necessary for me to say what needs to be done.

The Government's economic strategy
My final point concerns the context for the transformation for the mining industry. It is quite clear that we can only achieve our objectives within an expanding economy in which mining is profitable. We, therefore, have a direct interest in the government's Macro-Economic Strategy for Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) which has been presented as a blueprint for a prosperous South Africa.
Before the government formulated its policy document it invited proposals from the main interest parties. The South African Foundation submitted a memorandum called 'Growth for AH'. This represented the views of big business in South Africa, for the SA Foundation is financed by 58 of the largest companies in the country, including Anglo American, De Beers, Anglovaal, Gencor, Gold Fields, Eskom, Iscor and Sasol. The document, therefore, is representative of the views of the mine owners and could easily have been written by the Chamber of Mines.
We submitted our own document called Social Equity and job Creation. The Key to a Stable Future, which repudiated in detail all of the policies proposed by big business and suggested an alternative strategy to the government which put job creation, the redistribution of income and workers' rights as its central objectives.
Thus the government had before it two radically different sets of policies from which to choose. One from capital which represented the interests of no more than 5 per cent of the total population and one from labour which represented the rest. It set up a Technical Team to advise it comprising two representatives from the World Bank, five from the banking industry in Southern Africa, five from universities and two from government departments.
There was no one from the labour movement in the Team. Nor was there anyone in it to put a socialist perspective for the future of South Africa. The Technical Team was dominated by monetarist economists and it is not surprising, therefore, that it produced a policy document which contains at least 95 per cent of the views of big business and 5 per cent of our views.
Let me make this clear, the GEAR document represents 95 per cent of the views of 5 per cent of the population and 5 per cent of the views of 95 per cent of the population. Something seems wrong here.
What is surprising is that the GEAR document has been enthusiastically endorsed by the government as its strategy for the future development of South Africa. When Trevor Manuel, the Minister of Finance, introduced it during the Finance Budget Vote on 14 June last year he said, 'The programme which we announce here today puts in place an integrated set of macroeconomic policies which will enable the government to deliver on the commitments we have made in the RDR' He went on to say that: 'The born of the need to enhance the quality of life of all South Africans...(and)...will unleash the potential for economic growth, job creation and redistribution that our economy possesses.' This is an ambitious claim.
He concluded by saying that the strategy is 'not up for negotiation at this stage', and appealed for close co-operation from the government's social partners. In saying this, he presented us with a serious challenge. We have to decide whether we can co-operate in the implementation of GEAR. It is vitally important then that we should be clear about what it entails.

What is in GEAR
GEAR is essentially a combination of World Bank policies which have already been applied in many countries in Africa and South America. We know their history and in every case they have been a disaster for the ordinary poor people. There are no exceptions. They have generated so much poverty and unrest that the main international voluntary aid agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children Fund and War on Want have campaigned against them. No organisation anywhere which is concerned with aid, benefits, the fight against poverty and the rights of workers has anything beneficial to say about World Bank policies. The point is that these policies have a primary, hidden agenda to make the Third World countries dependent on the economies of the developed industrial nations. They have certainly not been designed to assist the ordinary people of the Third World. That much is crystal clear.
Why, with such a record of failure, should we even contemplate applying them here? I must say that the possibility of adding the South African working-class peasant farmers to the list of casualties more than worries me, it scares me, because there could be very serious politically destabilising consequences in five or ten years time that could be worse for the rural and township people than they experienced in the 1980s. For us to be asked to co-operate with big business, international finance and the government in implementing GEAR is like being asked to dig our own graves, jump in voluntarily and then wait to have the earth thrown in on top of us by the representatives of those interests. It would be mass suicide. The prospect is frightening. Let me explain why I think this way.
GEAR has been published so that each of you can read it and reach your own conclusions. The media has published various comments about it. Cosatu and the SACP have also published statements about it. I think that as President of a union that would be directly affected by the GEAR strategy I should explain to you what I think about it.
First, I have no problem with GEAR's 'long-run vision'. It wants and I want 'a fast growing economy which creates sufficient jobs for all work seekers'. I, too, want 'a redistribution of income and opportunities in favour of the poor', but I also want a much more equal distribution of the wealth which involves a substantial narrowing of the gap between the poorest and the richest. And I am also in favour of creating a society in which 'sound health, education and other services are available to all'.
My problem with GEAR's strategy begins with the statement that the growth of the economy and the achievement of its long run aims 'requires a transformation towards a competitive outward oriented economy'. In other words, it wants to create in South Africa a freely competitive economy where there are no impediments to the movement of capital or labour and no regulations to hamper production so that employers are free to exploit both in the interest of maximum profit-making. The role of the government in this setting is simply to provide the legal and fiscal framework to enable capitalism to work most effectively. It believes that a freely competitive market would allocate incomes and opportunities in a fair and equitable way.
Constructing this kind of free market mechanism requires a number of conditions and these are spelled out. It needs to keep inflation in check, have a positive balance of payments, reduce the budget deficit, increase the share of private capital in the economy, open up the economy to international competition, attract foreign capital and be given the co-operation of the trade union movement. It emphasises that all of these conditions have to be met otherwise the strategy will not work.

What is not in GEAR
What is not in the strategy is as important as what is in it. There is, for instance, no mention of the need to reduce the power of monopoly capital. Monopoly capital is a world-wide phenomenon but it is at its greatest in South Africa. If you look at the diagram of the financial interests of Anglo American on the inside cover of Social Equity and job Creation. The key to a stable future, it is mind boggling. Virtually everything we do is controlled in some way, to some degree, by Anglo American. How can we talk of democracy when one unelected family controls so much of our lives?
When we examine the total monopoly scene we find we have a small elite of business executives deciding where we work, how we work, what we are paid for working, whether we work at all. If we are serious about making a reality of the rights enshrined in our constitution then we have to be equally serious about destroying the monopoly of private industry and creating a genuine democracy.
Next, there are no provisions in the strategy to ensure that income, property and wealth in general are transferred from the rich to the poor. It is sick and a travesty of justice to maintain the present gap between the rich and the poor. This transference, according to GEAR, will occur automatically as the economy grows. That, I must say with due respect, is a nonsense statement. It has never happened in the history of capitalism except where governments have intervened to make it happen.
Just look at the situation in the Western countries since 1979 where monetarist policies have been applied. The gap between the richest and poorest has widened, unemployment has increased, the number of homeless has grown and the percentage of the populations living in poverty has risen. As I speak, there are serious unemployment problems in France and Germany. If you judged monetarism by its record you would order its execution.
I must emphasise to you that there is no evidence anywhere that wealth can be redistributed through the free market system. It cannot. If you doubt me then let me make a further point. Capitalism with its market mechanism, which the government is so eager to perfect, is itself a monopoly. You can only belong to it if you have money. You have to pay for whatever you want and in order to pay you need money. People without money are excluded from joining. They cannot share any of the benefits that the market mechanism is alleged to provide. They have access to none of the goods and services that flow through it. In South Africa we have millions of people without jobs and, therefore, without money. Nothing is redistributed to them. Absolutely nothing.
Gear does not say so explicitly but it gives a clear impression that it wants weak, collaborative trade unions. It wants, it states, careful policy responses from us. In other words it wants us to do nothing to frighten off capital. It does not want us to rock the capitalist boat. If we follow that advice then we might as well pack our bags today and go home.