JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Cyril Ramaphosa, 35-year-old leader of South Africa's biggest black trade union, has hardly left his desk for 13 days and nights -- he has worked at it, or slept under it, since his members began an industry-wide strike Aug. 9.
'Yes, I am tired,' he said as he leaned back in the wooden chair with a plastic beaker of coffee in one hand and a four-decked sandwich in the other. 'But it is going well, better than I could could have hoped.'
He has left his post, and the telephone that seems constantly in use, only for two days of abortive negotiations with mine owners, for news conferences and to fly over the mines from which employers have barred him.
In five years as undisputed leader of the black National Union of Mineworkers Ramaphosa, the son of a Soweto policeman and grandson of a diamond miner, has won the grudging respect of the nation's white mining magnates and the adulation of his members.
'He is a very impressive man,' said one white mining official. 'He is quite something to confront across the negotiating table.'
Bobby Godsell, chief negotiator for the Anglo-American Corp., is the man who faces Ramaphosa most often across the negotiating table.
'Well, I have known the guy for quite some time,' he said. 'I have real respect for the man's intellect, his energy and his leadership.'
He said the current dispute would be crucial to the future of industrial relations.
'It is as much about the pattern of future bargaining as it is about the immediate issues. We want an honorable settlement. We dont want capitulation.
'We don't want to entrench a pattern of bargaining by blackmail, where we can only reach a settlement after a long, hard and sometimes bloody strike,' said Godsell.
From a membership at its launch in 1982 of about 6,000 miners, NUM is now the country's biggest and fastest-growing union with 320,000 members paying one rand (50 cents) a month in union dues.
Two earlier attempts to mount industry-wide mining strikes ended within 48 hours with dozens of miners killed and hundreds wounded in clashes with armed mine security forces and with police.
This time, pressing demands for a 30 percent increase instead of the 17 to 23 percent offered by mine owners, Ramaphosa has held the strike together for almost two weeks without any sign of flagging commitment.
'We can hold out for as long as it takes,' he said in the quiet, considered words of the lawyer that he is by training. 'We will not go back until all our demands have been met.
'We are now in the trenches. We are fighting a war against the mine owners. The employers are starting to panic and I think this must be the most dangerous period that we are getting into, but our members will not buckle,' he said.
The strike is widely regarded as a political showdown between the socialist-oriented NUM and the five mining houses that control 99 gold and coal mines -- black muscle versus white money .
Whites control the mines that earn South Africa about $14 billion a year, but it is blacks who shovel the ore.
Gavin Relly, chairman of the giant Anglo American Corp., which employs 40 percent of South Africa's 550,000 black miners and is worst hit by the strike, said in an address to shareholders, 'Inevitably, industrial action takes place against a background of political aspirations.
'This will continue to be the case until effective formal political institutions for black people are put in place.'
Other mine bosses have echoed that view and have complained privately that government policies of racial discrimination force mines and other major industries into the frontline of a political war that is not of their making.
Ramaphosa, a hardened political activist who grew up in Johannesburg's highly politicized Soweto ghetto and spent 17 months in political detention without trial, disagrees.
'People, particularly Anglo American, are trying to portray this strike as a political dispute,' he said.
'They are wrong. This strike is about wages, but it is true that it is taking place in South Africa, where everything has come to have a political dimension.
'We have waged political battles and we will again, but this is not one of them,' he said.
'If we win this strike it is going to be a significant motivation to all other workers in other unions to continue with their own struggle for a living wage,' he said.