Decline of major South African union rattles mining sector – by Paul Burkhardt and Mike Cohen (Independent Online – April 19, 2016)

Johannesburg – The decline of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is eroding one of the pillars of the post-apartheid economy and deepening woes plaguing the country’s biggest export industry.

Confronted with surging power costs and government pressure to increase their black shareholding, the contest among labour groups for members and support marks an unwelcome development for the companies that extract gold and platinum because it may make unions more militant and escalate wage demands.

“There’s no question that inter-union competition ups the ante,” Andrew Levy, the managing partner of Andrew Levy Employment who has advised companies on labour relations for more than 30 years, said by phone. “It’s a turf war.”

Even without labour upheaval, the growth prospects in Africa’s most industrialised economy are looking dire. The National Treasury expects the economy to expand less than 1 percent this year, undermining efforts to cut a 25 percent unemployment rate, while the nation’s credit rating is on the brink of being downgraded to junk.

The risk of political turmoil is also rising as calls mount for President Jacob Zuma to resign or be fired after he was found by South Africa’s top court to have violated the constitution.

Biggest strike

As recently as four years ago, the NUM was South Africa’s largest union, with a legacy of standing up to white minority rule in the 12 years between its founding and Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994.

Its leaders have included Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Kgalema Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe, the secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress. In 1987, it led a strike that was joined by more than 300 000 workers, one of the biggest in the nation’s history.

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