Marikana shows dangers of populist leaders | by Carol Paton

by Aug 21, 2012All Articles

Joseph Mathunjwa, leader of the Association of Mining and Construction Union, and Julius Malema, the expelled leader of the African National Congress Youth League, have several things in common.

Like Mr Malema, Mr Mathunjwa was expelled from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1998. Both Mr Mathunjwa and Mr Malema were removed from powerful organisations with strong traditions and procedures that had been established over decades. Both were divisive and pushed the limits until the cost to the organisation became too great and they were forced out. Most significantly, both are populist and opportunistic leaders who use demagogic forms of mobilisation to build support behind goals they know are not realisable.

There is much to learn from the tragedy at Marikana. For the industry it has brought home the anger and frustration that mining communities have towards it and the urgent need to find ways to spread the benefits of mining. To express concerns over the damage to the “image” of the industry, about which mining bosses and the government are now fretting, is to miss the point. Ways must be found to give communities a vested interest in the success of the mining enterprise.

For the NUM and other Congress of South African Trade Unions affiliates, the lesson must be that the social distance that has developed even between the NUM shaft stewards and first-level leadership with ordinary workers is not tenable.

Here the NUM is in a difficult position: its shaft and branch-level leadership naturally tends to be the more accomplished of the workforce. As they advance in skill levels due to union work, they are more easily identified for promotion. And along with union positions come privileges and influence, such as cars, time off and kickbacks from service providers. Many NUM first-level leaders are no longer underground workers. Although the union does not pay them, they have negotiated “salaries” and cars from service providers keen to gain access to their influence over members.

The union’s role, once wage negotiations are complete, is to transmit the decision to the rest of the workforce. In an environment where there is anger over income inequality, these are usually not popular decisions to convey and the NUM has unwittingly become part of the establishment.

The result is that ordinary workers believe “the NUM leaders negotiate for themselves, only”.

For the rest of SA, the lesson from Marikana is one of the real and present danger of populist leadership, which is finding fertile ground in workplaces and in communities, easily wound up to protest against “poor service delivery” often at the behest of individuals with their own motives.

Income inequality and the sense of injustice is at the root of the problem. Add to this the opportunism of Mr Malema, Mr Mathunjwa and others fighting for their fiefdoms and it is little wonder the country is burning.

20 August 2012

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