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
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 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
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
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
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 package...is 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
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
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
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
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.