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South Africa Mine Union Weakened by Arrogance, Ex-President Says

South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers allowed a powerful rival to emerge and end its dominance by arrogantly disregarding a small group of defectors 15 years ago, said James Motlatsi, the NUM’s first president.

“NUM should have worked to recruit those members back,” instead of ignoring a dissident branch of no more than 2,000 miners when the union was around 300,000 strong, Motlatsi, 62, said yesterday in an interview. “I think it was arrogance.”

The leader of the breakaway group, Joseph Mathunjwa, went on to form the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union with other workers at coal mines after leaving the NUM in 1998. AMCU has since increased to a majority of the workforce at some mines, while NUM, established more than three decades ago, has lost members.

The decline of what was South Africa’s biggest labor union has been accompanied by violent inter-union rivalry that has spread from platinum mines around Rustenburg in the northwest to chrome and gold mines, shaving half a percentage point off economic growth in 2012. The power struggle is disrupting wage talks in the country’s biggest export industry and may cost thousands of jobs. It’s also threatening the ruling African National Congress, which has an alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions, NUM’s parent organization.

The NUM may have lost support among mineworkers because some members perceived the union to be out of touch with their needs, said Justin Froneman, a Johannesburg-based analyst with Standard Bank Group Ltd.’s securities unit.

Shanduka, AngloGold

“NUM became effectively too close to management,” Froneman said in a telephone interview. “NUM did become a bit desensitized to their employee base.”

The AMCU has more than doubled its membership in less than a year to 120,000, according to Mathunjwa. The NUM lost about 38,000 members in the year through February to 285,000.

Motlatsi co-founded the NUM in 1982 with Cyril Ramaphosa, now the ANC’s deputy president. He is an executive chairman at Teba Ltd., a Johannesburg-based company that provides employment services for mines, and a board member at Shanduka Group, a holding company founded by Ramaphosa with investments in mining and energy and previously a board member at AngloGold Ashanti Ltd.

For the NUM to recover its supremacy among unionized miners, it will need to recognize and address its errors, said Motlatsi, who led the organization for 18 years.

AMCU’s Challenges

“You need the leaders to be able to say, ‘Hey. Let’s look at where me made mistakes,’ and come up with a program to correct them instead of blaming AMCU,” Motlatsi said in an interview at Teba’s offices. “You need leaders who are determined, who are going to give their time, who are going to relinquish all other activities.”

Lesiba Seshoka, a spokesman for NUM, last month rejected suggestions that the union has become too close to the management of mine companies.

To be sure, AMCU’s growing popularity will also pose challenges to the organization, said Motlatsi. The AMCU will now have to lead platinum, gold and coal wage negotiations in forums that were largely set up by the NUM, he said. AMCU, which says it expects to submit wage demands by June 10, may struggle to satisfy the aspirations of its members as it takes control of increasingly larger numbers, according to Motlatsi.

Militant Tactics

Historically, smaller mining unions in South Africa “have resorted to more militant tactics to gain new members,” Control Risks, a security consultant, said in a report last year. The Mouthpiece Workers Union formed in the 1990s became embroiled in clashes with police, it said.

“They competed with NUM, particularly in Rustenburg, they caused havoc, they were ruthless,” Motlatsi said of Mouthpiece. “Ultimately, we succeeded to deal with it because they gave promises which they couldn’t fulfill.”

The NUM has a powerful ally in the form of the ANC and an established relationship with the Chamber of Mines, through which it has collective bargaining agreements for the gold and coal industries.

While the NUM regularly holds leadership elections and has an investment company, the AMCU operates from Witbank in the coal-rich Mpumalanga province and hasn’t yet held polls, according to Crispen Chinguno, a PhD fellow at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand.

“The reality of the matter is AMCU hasn’t delivered anything for those mineworkers,” Motlatsi said. “If you can’t deliver they will say ‘bye bye.’”

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