The Runaway Union: Notes on Marikana and the National Union of Mineworkers

I have been interested in forms of organisation in general, and unions in particular, for some time now. On a recent trip to South Africa I ended up profiling the National Union of Mineworkers for The Hindu, and was intrigued to learn that most unions in South Africa have their own investment companies run, with varying degrees of success, by professional money managers. The following piece attempts to map how one of South Africa’s most powerful unions was transformed by its encounter with high-finance. I would be interested to hear what Kafila readers think of this.

Emperors Palace casino — edifice of dreams, self-proclaimed Vegas of Africa with its 1,724 slot machines, 68 gaming tables, and giant fibreglass statues of Egyptian pharaohs — is a five-minute drive from Johannesburg airport.

In a country of desperate inequality, the casino offers one way past the seemingly impermeable barriers of race and class. Yet, Emperors Palace is a bet in itself, a wager, placed by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) on behalf of its many thousand members that money pulled from gamblers’ pockets in Johannesburg will find its way past the city’s smart suburbs into the streaked overalls of men crouched at a faraway mine face thousands of feet underground.

The casino is part of a diverse portfolio, with a net asset value of just over R3 billion (Rs.1,786 crore), managed by the Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC), an investment company set up by NUM, one of South Africa’s largest and wealthiest unions.

Till recently, NUM had 320,000 members, a cash surplus of R134.4 million, and was pivotal to South Africa’s resource driven economy: mining employs half a million workers and accounts for 10 per cent of Gross Domestic Product and 38 per cent of all exports. MIC is one of the most successful investment companies in the country and disburses R45 million every year as dividends to a union-controlled trust to finance education bursaries for the children of mineworkers. NUM is also part of the national government through the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) federation. COSATU, the African National Congress (ANC), and the South African Communist Party form South Africa’s ruling alliance.

Read the rest of the article here

3 thoughts on “The Runaway Union: Notes on Marikana and the National Union of Mineworkers”

  1. Becoming investors brings about responsibility in Unions, akin to child becoming adult psychologically. Kafila members, most of them, in my perception will not agree. They perhaps prefer to remain wailing children. I could however be wrong. I hope, I am.

  2. Informative, interesting and engaging reporting, Mr. Sethi. I have been interested in the Political Economy and the myriad ‘contradictions’, as you put it, of post apartheid ZA for some time. I’d be glad if you could give me a few insights that you must have garnered from your time spent there. I don’t need a scholarly assessment, just your opinions or thoughts. Firstly, whatever the organizational philosophy of the NUM is, why do you think it is that only a few rich people at the top, the politically connected ones, are getting much richer? Could it be solely due to the close nexus between Unions, business and Government, indeed the crony capitalism of the modern ZA? Or do you think there is a deeper malaise that has to do with how such organizations transgress the boundaries between welfare and greed, especially in the third world? Could the crony capitalism under the ANC government be compared to the kind that is practiced in post-liberalization India? How do you personally view the BEE policy? Why has it now stagnated after an initial surge of progress that it brought about in the lives of the previously disadvantaged communities? Do you think such an Economic empowerment policy could explicitly be applied to India today, based on obvious other factors? How are we to view the fact that more than 20 years after the end of apartheid, nearly 30% of black south africans are unemployed and that unemployment has continuously risen through the ANC years? ZA is particularly interesting for it’s vast organized sector compared to other developing countries. How, on general experience, did it compare with India’s? Finally, do you get the feeling that the challenges facing the ANC government are surmountable, what with the crime and HIV explosion all across ZA, mass white migration, the frayed racial and class fabric and the staggering levels of inequality?

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