David Sipunzi’s election to the top job of general secretary in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was as low key as the man himself. He scraped in by nine votes against a man who had held the post for 10 years, Frans Baleni. Apparently, many in NUM felt the gentlemanly Baleni may have been too gentlemanly in dealing with the mining bosses.
The soft-spoken Sipunzi, a 54-year-old father of four from the small town of Willowvale, in the Eastern Cape, is a former underground miner. He was one of the first to join NUM when it formed in 1985. He spent decades as a union organizer, latterly in the Free State, and is seen as a radical.
“Sipunzi looks a bit like a deer in the headlights following his unanticipated election over the weekend. He has been suddenly foisted into the national spotlight with a swirl of contentious issues around him,” wrote journalist Ranjeni Munusamy, in the Daily Maverick.
Thapelo Tselapedi, a University of Johannesburg academic and political commentator, says Sipunzi was not a well-known candidate and his victory was a surprise.
“It is still early days to say Sipunzi and the new leadership will change the fortunes of the trade union. But for the new leadership, the task ahead is the unity of the federation (Cosatu). This could be the starting point to turn around things in the Tripartite,” says Tselapedi.
The Tripartite Alliance, comprising Cosatu, the federation that NUM is a member of; the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, has been unsettled by divisions.
The first job for the new big man in NUM was to rally the troops at Westonaria Sports Complex, near Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, in late June. The union said there was going to be 3,000; less than a 1,000 turned up in the region that pushed for Sipunzi’s election. A fitting debut for a low key man.
On this day, the question was how NUM is going to stop the exodus of members – 100,000 to other unions in 10 bruising years in the mines. The former undisputed champion of the union movement is in danger of being knocked out by the militant streetfighters of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).
Prompted by his small audience’s warm applause, a calm and resolute Sipunzi took to the podium. He preached unity and radical recruitment.
“This situation is sad; we are very scared of it… Losing members means losing money. A union is strong when it has its own money. Let’s not use the excuse that the mines are closing down. We must look elsewhere for new membership. We must recruit in the construction sector, but we are lazy,” he says.
It is a search and fight against indolence that could decide the future of the most powerful union in Africa’s biggest mining industry.