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20 December 2014 20:22 (South Africa)
South Africa

AMCU's Mathunjwa: Last six weeks of platinum strike was like a warm-up

  • Greg Nicolson
  • South Africa
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The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union's (AMCU) strike at Impala Platinum (Implats), Lonmin and Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) is in its seventh week. GREG NICOLSON & THAPELO LEKGOWA speak to AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa and workers to understand what's going on and see what's dividing the parties and stopping them from reaching a wage deal.

Mathunjwa arrived at last Thursday's march, his hands clasped behind his back, with someone holding an umbrella to protect him from the sun/rain (in Gauteng, who knows these days?). He stepped onto the road, between the Union Buildings and his AMCU comrades, before his colleagues joined him on the slow walk through Pretoria. With each step the 12,000 members took, the amount of pay and revenue lost continued to rise.

In its seventh week, AMCU's strike in in the platinum industry has cost workers almost R3 billion in wages and companies around R7.8 billion in revenues, according to the official website of the wage negotiations.

Mathunjwa walked calmly at front of Thursday's march, addressing workers once or twice to keep police happy that the workers would stay together as a group. There were water canons, nyalas and riot police, and at least one cop said to have had a key role at Marikana, where 44 people were killed in the 2012 Lonmin strike that cemented AMCU's dominance in the platinum belt. Mathunjwa was the picture of calm, but AMCU is facing an onslaught on all sides.

History is important in understanding the union. “There's nothing much changed. You still have workers that are dying in the same way that they were in 1994,” said Mathunjwa over the phone on Monday night. “The wage structure is still the same,” he added. “Nothing has been done. Nothing has been done,” he repeated, sounding tired. The exploitation of the black working class – sending migrant workers underground for a pittance, letting them live in squalor, watching workers die on the job, and letting them contract diseases because the economy is screwed and a worker needs to provide for family/ies, all so the elite or foreign investors can make a mint – is something Mathunjwa always mentions.

It's what built large parts of the country and little has changed. Amplats, Lonmin and Implats are currently offering a deal which will take minimum entry-level underground employees to between R10,900 and R11,900 in the third year. But wage negotiations are about the details and AMCU was told that its demand of R12,500 minimum per month will in reality only be met between 2023 and 2025, which, according to Mathunjwa, is “an insult”. The platinum companies say they'll offer between R6,300 and R7,200 minimum by 2015 excluding benefits and bonuses, but mineworkers face the same problems as always. Their communities suffer from a higher inflation rate, they have many dependants, and a large number of them are so much in debt to loan sharks they keep hardly any of their pay.

Twenty years of democracy and indeed there's been little change in the way mining works. The industry's been around much longer than that and while workers live in poor conditions and see their meagre wages diminish and colleagues die underground, albeit in much-reduced numbers, history compels them to demand decency and dignity, not the kind enjoyed by mine bosses whose shareholders demand massive profits, but something worthwhile. What's changed, says Mathunjwa, is that unions started to fail mineworkers and leaders who were previously vocal sold out by taking black economic empowerment deals. The march on the Union Buildings was the apex of anger, he told members last week.

But Mathunjwa's challenges aren't just about platinum wage negotiations. “Back then, you knew who your enemy was. Now it's too much diluted,” he said of '94 when the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) still dominated. Now workers are split and AMCU has a list of foes. Reading the memorandum on Thursday, Mathunjwa slated critics for calling the union militant, police for targeting its members, the state for wanting to de-register the union, and a coalition of mining houses, ministers, and the NUM for trying to work against its progress. At the same time, AMCU is trying to keep members as the NUM wants to take them back and a new union, Workers' Association Union, has been launched. All the while, violence and arrests in the industry continue.

AMCU demanded Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu resign and accused the state of using resources to attack AMCU and demanded an end to it. The union asked for President Jacob Zuma to intervene in the platinum wage negotiations and show allegiance to the working class. It asked state institutions to respect freedom of association and for cabinet members, such as Blade Nzimande who called AMCU a “vigilante union”, to apologise. The union has given Zuma until 20 March to respond.

The first challenge is reaching a deal in the platinum industry. Last week, AMCU revised its demands and said the R12,500 figure can be reached in four rather than three years. After the offer, the Commission for Conciliation, Arbitration and Mediation (CCMA) decided to suspend negotiations indefinitely to allow parties to reflect. Mathunjwa says workers gave the union a mandate to reduce the demands and those Daily Maverick spoke to agreed with his assertion.

Tshepang Moloi, from Amplats, said, “We were consulted and the workers are happy with it. It is now upon the companies to agree on the formula… We want them to put all the money they have for increase only on the basic salary and not on other things like medical and housing, those can remain the same. AMCU was always consulting workers and the leaders were taking a mandate from us as the workers. The R12,500 was a demand by workers and not AMCU. There was constant communication between us and the leadership.”

An AMCU member from Lonmin, who wanted to remain anonymous, agreed but said things are tough after six weeks without a wage. “Before the strike started, there were long negotiations and our leaders came to us and took a mandate from us. So we gave the mandate of R12,500 and when the companies rejected what we asked for we mandated the union to get a certificate to strike as there was no way the leaders could take a decision without consulting us. The offer put forward now is good but better because we will know for four years there will be no stoppage in work nor loss in our incomes due to strikes. As I talk to you now there is nothing in my house, no food, nothing, I tell you.”

Mathunjwa said workers are ready to continue their strike. “The last six weeks wasn't a strike. It was like a warm-up,” members have told him. The real strike started when they hit the Union Buildings.

There looks to be no end in site to the industrial action, unless the three producers decide to agree separately to different deals. The chief negotiator from the Chamber of Mines, Elize Strydom, who is assisting the platinum producers, told Sunday Times the CCMA advised the companies to try to meet the demands half-way, a move she said doesn't recognise the difficulties in the mining industry. She accused the CCMA of lacking an understanding of the sector and said AMCU is disorganised, unprofessional and divided. Strydom suggested the platinum companies may try to bypass the union and get employees directly to agree to their offer.

From their side, the CCMA slammed Strydom's comments as unethical and potentially damaging to negotiations.

Her overarching point, though, is clear and supports what the mining companies have been saying all along: there's no way companies can meet AMCU's demands in an industry that's facing challenges and for sustainability the union must agree to a marginal increase or shafts will be closed and workers will lose their jobs.

As president of AMCU, Mathunjwa has to recognise the possible job losses that could result from the strike. He says mining companies could save money by reducing exorbitant executive remuneration and investment in South Africa would increase if corruption was curtailed. AMCU is not aligned to any political movement, but Mathunjwa says policies haven't helped mineworkers and he calls for a more socialist and nationalist approach.

These are the different factors he has to balance while at the same time answering to members who have been radicalised by the Marikana massacre, who feel their position hasn't improved since 1994 and who know some people have become rich while their fathers were exploited under a racist regime colluding with capitalists. Given the nature of mining and its links to wealth and politics, it's not surprising Mathunjwa has had some vague threats to his life. “At the end of the day my future is in the hands of God. I can't be deterred or be subdued under the pressure I am facing,” he said on Monday night, showing his faith.

“Once the storms of life subside, the truth will take precedence and people will start to realise we are not unreasonable.” If AMCU helps one day earn a decent, history may prove him right. But in the near future, convincing Amplats, Implats and Lonmin of that won't be easy. DM

Photo: Joseph Mathunjwa arrives to AMCU's Union Buildings march, Thursday, 6 March 2013 (Greg Nicolson)

  • Greg Nicolson
  • South Africa


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