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  • Becoming a social movement union:Cyril Ramaphosa and the National Union of Mineworkers
  • T Dunbar Moodie (bio)

In 1984, black African townships in South Africa exploded into popular revolt. The ANC called on township residents to 'destroy the enemy organs of government', rendering them 'ineffective and inoperative'. Militant township youth seized on this principle of 'ungovernability' to impose 'discipline', often violent, on ordinary people trying to go about their everyday lives. Similar forms of disruption eventually spread from residential areas into factories in militant opposition to the apartheid work-place regime (Von Holdt 2003). 'Ungovernability' became a rallying cry for popular forces in the face of repressive violence from the South African state. Although resistance movements such as the UDF invoked the need for democratic order under a rubric of 'people's power', the solidarities and liminalities of millenarian ungovernability and violence always lurked close to the surface in practices of confrontation during this period.1 This paper uses a single case to address the social origins of millenarian ungovernability on the South African gold mines in 1985. It also seeks to understand the potentials and pitfalls for union leadership of such enthusiasm and to outline union strategies to institutionalise and control it.

The National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa was avowedly not millenarian. Its leaders all - especially Cyril Ramaphosa - eschewed any claim to prophetic charisma. Nevertheless, I know of two relatively clear cases in the 1980s when NUM leaders arose who directly and militantly challenged management control, claiming charismatic power with supernatural assistance.2 One was at Cooke shaft on Randfontein Estates.3 The other was at Vaal Reefs gold mine - at the time the largest gold mine in the world with [End Page 152] more than 40,000 workers, three divisions (South, West and East), and nine deep shafts (about a mile and a half down).4 Events at Vaal Reefs South constitute the case study I shall deal with in this paper.


The regional general manager at Vaal Reefs gave mine managers in each of the divisions virtually complete autonomy. Thus, in early 1985, the union had been recognised at Vaal Reefs West and was in the process of negotiating an agreement at Vaal Reefs East, whereas there was no union representation at all at Vaal Reefs South. Indeed, South management had been explicitly opposed to the union from its inception in 1982.

South division at Vaal Reefs, especially No. 8 shaft, was the milch cow of the entire Anglo-American corporation, producing thirty tons of gold a year.5 No. 9 (the other shaft in South division at the time) was a new shaft just coming into production. Other divisions handed over their most contentious and least hard-working workers (their malcontents) to No. 9 (as did No. 8 in South division, for that matter). Moreover, because No. 9 shaft was intended to introduce trackless mining at Vaal Reefs, workers with high school diplomas were hired to run the new machines. Many of them, as it turned out, had been township or homeland student militants.

The union leader at No. 9, however, was Lira Setona, an ordinary winch-driver from Lesotho who could hardly write his name. The high school graduates at No. 9 were suspicious of Lira but put up with him because his mobilising charisma outweighed his organisational unreliability. 'Lira was somebody who was not educated. We suspected that he was using muti because everybody accepted him. He was never stopped [by management]...I was close to Lira because we were monitoring Lira', Amos Mhlungwana,6 one of the ex-student radicals, told me. 'We were not sure what really was happening. So we had to stay close to him. Because we didn't want to make a strike that would backfire on us. Because he was sort of an individual. So we had to monitor him'. Lira had come over to No. 9 from No. 6 shaft on West division, which had been vigorously militant right from the beginning of the union. Although he had never been a leader at No. 6, on No. 9, Mhlungwana told me: 'Lira was leading the whole thing'. The raggle-taggle, start-up bunch at...


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pp. 152-180
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