The voice from underground



Learn and Teach spoke to Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers {NUM}. He speaks for the thousands of workers who work deep under the ground and who sweat blood for a living.


As Mr Ramaphosa himself says, this union is the biggest union in South Africa, maybe Africa too. He told us a little about himself and a little more about the union.


Learn and Teach: Can you please tell us about your life?

Cyril Ramaphosa: I was born in Johannesburg in November 1952.

I went to school in Soweto and the Northern Transvaal. When I finished school, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. So in 1972 I went to Turfloop University to study law.


As a student at the university, I was interested in politics. I joined SASO–· the South African Student Organisation. I was elected branch chairman of SASO in 1974. In that year we planned a big meeting to celebrate the victory of the people in Mozambique.


The government banned the meeting, But we did not care, We decided to have the meeting. Then the police detained our leaders. About 1400 of us marched to the police station where they were holding our leaders. We told them that we wanted our comrades back. Then I was detained. I was in detention for 11 months.


Turfloop did not take.me back. I now began, to study part time. This was in 1976. But I was soon, detained again.


Learn and Teach: How did you end up working for the union?

Ramaphosa: You see, at long last I got my law degree in 1981. I went to work for a firm of lawyers. But I soon got bored. It was not what I wanted. I wanted something more. I wanted to help people in the struggle for a better life – a new society.


So I went to work for a ·group of trade unions. I worked in the legal unit of CUSA – the Council of Unions of South Africa.


Learn and Teach: Can you please tell us how NUM started?

Ramaphosa: In 1982 CUSA decided to start a union for mine workers. We started on the gold mines. Then we moved to the collieries, where they mine coal. Later we got members from the diamond, and copper mines, Now we are busy at the asbestos mines and other mines as well. The union is growing like wild fire across the land.


Learn and Teach: How many members has the union got?

Ramaphosa: Today we have over 230 thousand members. And we are growing everyday. Even 230 thousand could be wrong by now. We hope to have 300 thousand members by the end of the year. Our wish is to have all the black mine workers in our union. That is 480 thousand workers. We are already the biggest union in South Africa, maybe Africa too.


Learn and Teach: Why has the union grown so fast?

Ramaphosa: I think we have grown quickly because of the way we organise workers. We never force workers to join the union. We don’t look at a mine and say we must go and organise that mine. We wait for the workers to come and speak to the union. Then we ask them to start a committee – an organizing committee. So if they want a union they will have to do the work and organise themselves. The workers soon find out who the union is. They are the union, right there on the mines.


I think there is also another reason why the union has grown so fast. Workers on the mines have not had a union for a long time. The last time a union fought for the rights of miners was in 1946. That union was broken by the bosses and the government. Since then, the workers have not had a union.


I also believe that workers like NUM because we don’t sit still. We all work hard and try to get the best deal for our members.


Learn and Teach: In September the union called for a strike. Can you please tell us why?

Ramaphosa: The wages for miners in this country are still very low. Many workers only get R162 a month. That is not a living wage.


Wages are not the only problem. The conditions for mine workers are very bad. We made a study of the working conditions – and we found that working conditions on the mines in South Africa are much . worse than In other parts of the world.


So in March this year, 280 members of our Central Committee had a meeting. At the meeting they made a list of demands.


Learn and Teach: What were the demands?

Ramaphosa: We made many dif­ferent demands but there were four important ones. Firstly, we demanded a living wage for all mine workers, We demanded 40% increase for all workers. We know that many firms are closing down these days. But we also know that the mines are making more money than ever before.


Secondly, we demanded an end to the laws that stops black workers from doing certain jobs. These are the Job Reservation laws and we are sick and tired of them. This law keeps many workers in the low paying jobs. We also found that many black workers do white miners’ jobs – but they don’t get paid for it.


Thirdly, we wanted 28 days leave every year with full pay. And fourthly, we wanted May Day to be a workers holiday. We took all these demands to the Chamber of Mines.


Learn and Teach: What is the Chamber of Mines and what did they say to your demands?

Ramaphosa: The Chamber of Mines is the organisation of the bosses. All the big mining companies belong to this organisation – companies like the Anglo American Corporation, Gencor, Goldfields, Rand Mines, Anglo Vaal and JCI (Johannes­burg Consolidated Industries).


The Chamber of Mines is very powerful. The Chamber helps the mining companies to find workers for the mines and it decides how much pay workers will get. The Chamber also decides what the working and living conditions will be. For the last 100 years the Chamber has looked after the mining companies. It has looked after them very well.


We had many meetings with the Chamber of Mines to talk about our demands. But the Chamber did not want to give in to our demands.


Learn and Teach: What did the union do?

Ramaphosa: We went back to our members on the mines. Our members then voted to go on strike. They said that they would go on strike three weeks later – on the 25th August.


We again met with the Chamber. We now changed our demands because we wanted to make an agreement. Jobs are scarce these days and we did not want the mines to send thousands of our members back home to starve. We had to do our best for our members.


We now made three demands. We now asked for a 22% wage increase for all the workers. We also de­manded two hours off on May Day. And we said that the Chamber must sit down and talk to us about job reservation. We said that we wouId wait for a few extra days so the Chamber could think again. We said that we would strike on 1 st September.


Then on 28th August we had a victory. Three companies – Anglo American, Rand Mines and JCI ­ gave in to our demands. But the other companies. did not agree. The workers at Goldfields, Gencor and Anglo Vaal decided to go on strike.


Learn and Teach: Can you please tell us about the strike?

Ramaphosa: On 1 st September, the day the strike began, the tele­phones at the union head office were suddenly not working. When our members needed us most, they could not get to us. The phones were not broken by accident, that’s for sure.


But the workers still went on strike. Between 23 to 30 thousand workers went on strike. We warned the Chamber that we did not want our members killed or injured or fired. If this happened, we said that we would call all our members out on strike.


Learn and Teach: The workers went back to work two days later. They said that the strike was not ended – but suspended. They suspended the strike so that they could take the bosses to court. Can you please tell us about this?

Ramaphosa: Not all the workers who wanted to strike went on strike. They did not strike because the companies started treating them very badly. At some mines like Marievale they pointed guns at the heads of workers – and then sent them to work underground.


The bosses at Matla, Marievale and other mines began to fire thousands of workers. Hundreds of workers were hurt from rubber bullets, sjamboks and teargas. Many workers were bitten by dogs that belonged to mine security. Some of our members were even put in jail.


The miners were getting beaten and fired – and they were on a legal strike. The union did not break the law in any way. So we asked our­selves a question: What is the point of going on a legal strike if we still get beaten and fired? So we decided that the Industrial Court must answer this question.


The workers went back to work on 3rd September. They suspended the strike until the court decides the case. On 4th September we went to the Industrial Court and, stopped the bosses from kicking the workers out of their hostels. But the big case will be in late October. The court must decide if bosses can fire workers on a legal strike. This case is not only important for the mineworkers. It is important for all workers in South Africa.


Learn and Teach: What help did the union get from other organisations when the strike began?

Ramaphosa: We got a lot of help and support from many organi­sations in the country. We are very thankful for all the help we got.


Trade unions who are joining us in the new big federation sent us money. For example, the Food and Canning Union sent us a thousand rand and the municipal workers in Cape Town sent us two thousand. Even workers in Britain sent us money.


Political organisations like the UDF and AZAPO said they were fully behind us. Religious groups like the Muslim Youth Movement and the South African Council of Churches gave blankets for the fired workers.


I must also tell you about one other thing that we are very happy about. People from many different places in the Transvaal started special committees to help our members. These committees called themselves NUM Strike Support Committees. These committees helped us with food, money and blankets. They also found places for the fired workers to sleep. But the com­mittees also helped in a different way. They helped to educate people about NUM and our demands.


Learn and Teach: NUM is soon going to join many other unions under one new big federation. Can you please tell us how NUM feels about this?

Ramaphosa: We are very pleased that workers are uniting in one big federation. We believe that workers will go much further in their struggle if they are united. We are fully behind the new federation and we will work hard to make it work. We are getting ready and already we have a new saying in our office. “One industry, One union.”

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