Struggle continues. Mining industry needs change in fundamental ways

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was established as a critical response to a mining industry defined by exploitation and neglect. South African mining epitomised the harshness and cruelty of the apartheid regime machinery and its skewed economy.

The mining industry did little over decades to develop the skills of its workers or acknowledge the needs of the impoverished communities in which it located its operations. Despite important victories, many of the features of the apartheid mining industry survive to this day. There has been some transformation. But still much in this industry is untransformed.

The Mining Charter was developed as a tool to effect the transformation of the mining sector. In its review of the implementation of the charter, government found progress in some areas, but great deficiencies in others. Diversification of management and core-skilled workers has been limited. White men continue to dominate top management and technical positions.

While many hostels have been converted, the drive to improve living conditions is far from being realised. Training and human resource development remains grossly underfunded, and companies are inconsistent in the implementation of their social and labour plans.

The transformation of the mining industry is an important test of our ability to transform our economy, and, by implication, our society. This transformation is an economic, social and moral imperative. NUM must continue to lead efforts to ensure that the wealth beneath our soil benefits all our people, beginning with those who work the mines.

The formation of the National Union of Mineworkers contained within it a promise to improve the life of every worker, to radically transform an industry, to restructure an economy and to build a new nation. We recall that the NUM was among the first unions to adopt the Freedom Charter as its guiding political vision.

In declaring that ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white’, the Freedom Charter asserts the right of all our people to a common citizenship. It also asserts the right of all our people to an equal share of the country’s natural resources. It says they must share in ownership of, and access to, the means of production. They must share in the nation’s income and public resources.

This demand has been a consistent thread that runs through the policies and programmes of the ANC, defining its tactics and guiding its actions. In the Strategy and Tactics document adopted at the Morogoro Conference in 1969, the ANC said:

“Our drive towards national emancipation is therefore in a very real way bound up with economic emancipation… Our people are deprived of their due in the country’s wealth; their skills have been suppressed and poverty and starvation has been their life experience. The correction of these centuries-old economic injustices lies at the very core of our national aspirations.”

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Congress of the People, we are bound to the task of correcting these economic injustices. The theme of the NUM Congress – Back to Basics, Members First – is reminiscent of the NUM’s 1987 Congress slogan, where we said: “Mineworkers take control!” It places mineworkers at the forefront of this struggle. NUM’s primary and overriding responsibility must continue to be the welfare and interests of its members as articulated by its rank and file.

It asserts that workers are not passive. They have agency, are resourceful, are creative and innovative. They can – and do – change the course of history. It is my hope that as NUM interrogates its policies, devises strategies, formulates tactics and elects leadership, it will draw inspiration from its achievements over the years.

Since inception, NUM has been advancing the interests of its members and giving voice to vulnerable workers. It has played a leading role in forging a united labour movement and asserting the role of the labour movement in the national liberation struggle. It has always understood that the issues pertinent to its members do not stop at the mine or factory gate.

Since its formation over three decades ago, NUM has played a vital role in effecting change in an industry marked for more than a century by racist and coercive labour practices. It has brought dignity to hundreds of thousands of mineworkers exploited as cheap labour in hazardous mines far from their families.

NUM helped to change the nature of industrial relations within the industry and across the economy. Together with its fellow unions, NUM was part of the struggle to establish a new labour relations regime that fosters cooperation and participation in the workplace. The rights and benefits afforded to workers and improvements in living standards since 1994 constitute a significant gain for our people and our country.

And yet, the struggle continues. The mining industry needs to change in fundamental ways. The people who work in mines need to benefit from the fruit of their labour, whether through employee ownership schemes or profit-sharing or other innovative mechanisms. Imbalances in racial and gender representation need to be addressed with greater urgency. This means, among other things, far greater investment in skills development and training. Mineworkers must see a career path for themselves.
Mining companies need to pay greater attention to the conditions under which workers live. They need to confront the unintended consequences of initiatives like the living out allowance. We must find innovative and sustainable ways of mitigating the crushing impact of the migrant labour system. We need to do so at a time when the mining industry in South Africa is under severe strain.

Global commodity prices are low. Costs have been rising and productivity has fallen. The industry has lost tens of thousands of jobs in the last 20 years. This calls for greater cooperation between government, industry, labour and communities to safeguard the viability and promote the growth of the sector. The Framework Agreement for a Sustainable Mining Industry – initiated under the leadership of former Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and now led by President Jacob Zuma – demonstrates what is possible.

It provides the basis for agreements and actions that will reaffirm mining as a critical pillar of our economic development. That is why our country needs a strong, vibrant and activist National Union of Mineworkers. Its work is far from complete. The country needs to continue to unite and organise all workers – as workers – irrespective of political or other affiliation as Comrade Thulas Nxesi asserted on the ANC Today edition of 29 May – 4 June 2015.

NUM must remain committed to progressive political struggle, which has driven and united the affiliates of COSATU over the past three decades. It must continue to defend the historic working-class bias of the Alliance and the ANC. As it did in the past, NUM must continue to combine workplace struggles with community-based struggles.

The National Development Plan recognises that our country requires an economy that is more inclusive, more dynamic and in which the benefits of growth are shared equitably. Labour, business, communities and the state must work together to achieve faster inclusive economic growth.

During this youth month, we are compelled to acknowledge that the continued social and economic exclusion of millions of young South Africans is one the greatest challenge facing the country. Young people comprise the majority of the country’s population. Unemployment, inequality and low skills levels most adversely affect them. We need to effectively address the challenges the youth face as they are the ones who will carry that burden for decades to come.

Our developmental state has been mandated by the electorate to lead the second, more radical phase of the National Democratic Revolution through re-industrialisation and a major infrastructure build programme. During the 2015 State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma announced a nine point action plan to drive government’s programme over the medium term to address constraints to economic growth.

This includes greater beneficiation of our mineral resources, which is critical to the growth of both our mining and manufacturing sectors. The NDP is categorical that if South Africa registers progress in deracialising ownership and control of the economy without reducing poverty and inequality, transformation will be superficial. If poverty and inequality are reduced without demonstrably changed ownership patterns, the country’s progress will be turbulent and tenuous. These are the tasks that we must all grapple with.

(Cyril Ramaphosa is ANC Deputy President and the Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa. This is an edited extract of his address at the 15th National Congress of the National Union of Mineworkers)

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