Mining crisis rattles South African labour movement

The violent crisis that has shaken South Africa's mines shows workers' distrust for traditional trade unions, up to now the guardians of social peace despite the country's deep inequality.

Miners this week clawed record salary increases of 22 percent from the Lonmin platinum mine operators after a near six-week wildcat strike that killed 46.

Having rejected major player the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), miners appointed their own representatives at the negotiations.

The unprecedented agreement may upend the whole mining industry, a fifth of the GDP of Africa's largest economy, analysts said, and bodes ill for the country's powerful trade union federation COSATU, and NUM, its main member.

Wildcat strikes have already spread to other gold, platinum and chrome mines, including world number one Anglo American Platinum and Gold Fields.

"Marikana holds the potential for an era in South African labour relations where violent strike action forces the hand of weakened management as opposed to historical collective bargaining promoted by COSATU and its affiliate unions," said independent analyst Daniel Silke.

The country's labour movement has been formalised for decades, and representative unions have exclusive negotiation rights with employers in an extremely structured process.

Unions also formed a formidable opposition to the white minority regime during apartheid. Since its inception in 1985, COSATU was affiliated with the African National Congress.

This alliance helped to avoid major social unrest when the ANC took over government in 1994 after the first all-race elections, and COSATU only gained in power through the deal.

But now the partnership threatens to taint the federation.

"COSATU has moved away from its roots to become a political organisation, while its supposed to be a labour movement," economist Dawie Roodt told AFP.

On the ground, mineworkers say they live in hell, pointing to shacks without electricity, water or sanitation.

"Because of the separation between the grassroots and leadership, the mine worker feels his interests are not being protected anymore. This guy from the union is more interested to become a mine shareholder, and has forgotten about the worker's wages," said Roodt.

But it has not all been bad. The Chamber of Mines has said workers have it good compared to others in South Africa amid a 40 percent unemployment rate.

"The National Union of Mineworkers has done too good a job for its members over the past 30 years, especially the past 10, getting its members double-digit, double-inflation wage increases with no increases in productivity," Peter Major, mining and resources head at consulting company Cadiz Corporate Solutions, wrote in the weekly Mail & Guardian.

Now, the same workers are abandoning the old guilds in favour of new ones, like the Association for Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has been blamed for inciting the violence at Lonmin.

Other miners go it alone. Wildcat strikes have increased since the start of the year. They often erupt into violence, with intimidation against non-strikers. Some clashes spill explode into deadly violence.

Police shot dead 34 people on August 16 at the Marikana mine, a week after clashes between workers left 10 dead. Two people died in subsequent violence.

"The key issue here is whether the trade union movement, whether COSATU itself, can keep a handle on the more militant workers who have smelled blood with management as a result of Marikana," said Silke.

"The pressure will really be on COSATU to retain a level of organisation ...to attempt to elicit a better deal for members or face the potential of political polarisation."

Unions were losing membership "without a doubt", added Roodt.

"The political outcome will be (that) we need a separation between labour and government. (The situation) is untenable."