‘It is important that unions are debating and finding common ground with the government and other stakeholders on the Just Energy Transition agenda’
MPHO Phakedi is the highest ranking member of the National Union of Mineworkers since the union suspended its general secretary William Mabapa in July 2023 over alleged mismanagement of funds. But the media-shy Phakedi has hardly stepped forward as the union’s public face at a time when it faces mounting challenges, giving the impression that NUM is rudderless. The earthy Mabapa had buried the hatchet with NUM’s arch rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), bringing an end to a turf war that claimed dozens of lives and was marked by flare-ups of labour unrest which unnerved investors. With his departure, the hatchet has been unearthed again.
In October and December 2023 Gold One’s mining operations east of Johannesburg were the scene of “hostage” dramas, with NUM officials claiming that Amcu members had coerced its members to remain underground in days-long sit-ins. Effectively wildcat strikes, these were triggered by NUM’s closed-shop arrangement at Gold One that prevented minority unions from bargaining. NUM’s termination of that arrangement did nothing to stop the December incident.
Pointedly, NUM – long a key political base for South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) – publicly accused the party’s chairperson Gwede Mantashe of “intrusive political mischief” after he said that Mabapa’s suspension was “madness”. Mantashe is a former leader of NUM and is minerals and energy minister. The public spat pointed to a cooling of relations between the union and the ANC, which could have political implications for the 2024 elections. Having said that, NUM, like Mantashe, is wary of the green energy transition and its implications for coal mining jobs at a time when the union’s membership is shrinking.
LIFE OF MPHO
Phakedi is reserved and media-shy, a marked contrast with previous NUM leaders whose ranks have included current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. This may be a reflection of his working-class roots. He began his career in the mining industry in 1997 as a general worker, with stints at the old Loraine, Winkelhaak, and Venterspost gold mines. He quickly rose to the rank of shop steward in 1998 and has been a regional NUM secretary. Formerly NUM treasurer general, Phakedi was elected as the union’s deputy general secretary in 2022.