Forty-five miners died in clashes between competing unions last month, including 34 miners shot dead by police in the deadliest security incident since the end of apartheid.
“We need a shift in our mindset to recognise that the labour movement needs to renew itself and re-establish its very purpose of existence,” Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), told the group’s national congress.
“If we lose touch with our members’ concerns, there is the danger of finding ourselves …outflanked by the new independent unions which are emerging as a result of dissatisfaction from the shop floor.”
A member of the country’s African National Congress-led (ANC) ruling alliance, COSATU has used thuggish behaviour in labour disputes in the past but now finds itself the target of intimidation from rivals.
Vavi has tried to show he is willing to take on the ANC, saying President Jacob Zuma’s government is condoning a culture of corruption, and has held back on support for Zuma ahead of a party leadership vote in December.
Yet the alliance with the ANC, forged in the struggle against apartheid, has come in for public criticism after last month’s violence at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine where most of the miners killed by police were supporters of the rival AMCU.
Critics of the 300,000-strong National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), part of COSATU, feel NUM is more concerned about serving its political allies than miners.
“This is more than a simple labour issue. What we are dealing with are ingrained societal inequalities that are coming home to roost,” labour expert Tony Healy said.
Established in 1985, many of the young “worker revolutionaries” who have been COSATU members for years are now middle-aged and older, and earn wages that place them firmly in the middle class.
For some younger workers, COSATU and unions such as NUM have gone soft, with their leaders seeking to maintain their status at the expense of new entrants to the labour force and the poor.
“NUM has abandoned workers. They are now NUM Pty Ltd,” renegade ANC youth leader Julius Malema told reporters.
The group represents the bulk of South Africa’s miners, factory workers and civil servants and has won steady wage increases for its members.
The average worker in the mining sector has seen double digit annual pay increases for years and now earns 14,151 rand a month in wages and benefits, more than double per capita GDP, government data show.
The marriage of convenience with the ANC provides job security for union members, but has resulted in one of the world’s worst markets for overpaying unproductive workers, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.
The typical South African factory worker makes about six times more than their Chinese counterpart yet produces less. Reuters