South Africa

Amcu, the champion of nationalisation? Sort of.

By Greg Nicolson 18 January 2013

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) caused a stir on Thursday when its president, Joseph Mathunjwa, suggested that the government nationalise mothballed mines. The nationalisation debate appeared to have died with Julius Malema’s expulsion from the ANC, but has the “militant” union taken up his fight? By GREG NICOLSON.

Spot the quote – Julius Malema or Joseph Mathunjwa?

“We cannot let these foreign investors do as they please with our mineral resources… It is high time now that we as a nation stand together and find ways of ensuring that our mineral resources benefit the people of South Africa.”

“As long as this country is run by the foreigners, we are far from any solution… Let’s see how [nationalisation] works on a small scale.”

“All South Africans should equitably benefit from state-owned and controlled mines and we are not mistaken when we make the call for nationalisation of the mines.”

“They have exploited our minerals for a very long time. We want the mines, now it’s our turn.”

Made a guess? Amcu’s Joseph Mathunjwa (the first two quotes) is far more subtle on nationalisation than Malema (the second two quotes) but the union’s press briefing on Thursday on retrenchments at Amplats nevertheless reignited public debate on the state’s involvement in mining. Mathunjwa even earned the nod of expelled ANC Youth League spokesman Floyd Shivambu, who tweeted: “I think #AMCU’s position on Nationalisation of the closing #Angloplatinum mine is the most sound, progressive and relevant position ever.” 

That’s some endorsement from Malema’s right-hand man. 

So has Amcu taken up the nationalisation banner after Juju’s expulsion from the ANC? For much of 2012, Amcu was referred to as a “militant union” that was exploiting and capitalising on unrest in the mining industry to win members from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The killings at Marikana and the ongoing inquiry taught us that the shift away from the NUM had more to do with fed-up workers than Amcu’s recruiting. Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa, general secretary Jeffrey Mphahlehe and treasurer Jimmy Gama, are now more familiar to the press after being relatively quiet during the violence on the mines in early 2012. Their politics, however, remains elusive.

Amcu was slow to respond to the announcement by Amplats of its plan to restructure its operations and cut 14,00 jobs. When contacted for comment on Tuesday evening, Gama had little to say except that he was still waiting for the platinum producer to send the (publicly available) restructuring plans. The NUM had already called on workers to defend their jobs. The ANC asked for a review of Amplats’s mining licence and Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu had already slated the company for barely consulting government.

Amcu finally scheduled a press conference for Thursday. “If Anglo persists with the retrenchments, it’s a window for government to take those mines and nationalise them… See if nationalisation will work on a small scale. The issue of retrenchments is just a drop in the water,” Sapa reported Mathunjwa as saying. “It is high time now that we as a nation stand together and find ways of ensuring that our mineral resources benefit the people of South Africa.” Mathunjwa said it is “unacceptable” for Amplats to be making retrenchments with such a high rate of unemployment in the country.

Amcu met with an Anglo American Platinum workers’ committee on Wednesday and decided it was best for the miners to return to work while they apply for a protected strike against the retrenchments. 

Godfrey Lindani, a leader of the workers’ committee that led strikes during the 2012 mining unrest and an employee at one of the mines Amplats has earmarked to mothball, said on Thursday miners have not heard of Amcu’s nationalisation comments. They have lost motivation to work, he said, and will think about what happens next if, or when, they are finally let go.

But Lindani added, “[Amplats] must pack their bags and go back to America…

[Nationalisation] will be better because it’s our government (running the mines).” On Wednesday the miner told the Daily Maverick, “It is time for our president to show leadership because we have chosen him for a second term. Now is the time to show the world he is a leader.”

Shabangu’s tough stance on the mining company’s plan to restructure its operations could signal a shift in ANC policy. This morning the Mail & Guardian led with comments from senior ANC leaders suggesting Amplats may have breached its agreement with government, “an act of provocation” according to Enoch Godongwana, chairman of the party’s economic transformation subcommittee. But the ANC cannot drastically shift from its anti-nationalisation policies.

It seems that Amcu is also reluctant to carry the banner for nationalisation. Later on Thursday, Mathunjwa refuted media reports saying he had called for government to take over the mines. “Amcu never called for nationalisation,” he told SABC news. “The economy of this country can’t be approached only by one angle but further on that, this shaft that is closing, let them be utilised by government in order to save jobs if these companies are no longer prepared to mine them. That is what I have said.”

While Amcu, as always, is careful about how it is represented in the media, many South Africans are more strident in their demand for nationalisation. Malema’s call for “economic freedom in our lifetime” attracted so much support because those who have not benefitted from the democratic government felt he spoke for them.

Amcu hasn’t, and can’t, take over the waving of the nationalisation banner because it’s not theirs to wave. Malema’s rhetoric was grounded in his populist stance which gained traction only because much of the population is disaffected by the economic direction the ANC has taken. Amcu may be the latest voice of nationalisation, but the real voice of change remains with the excluded. As long as poverty, inequality and unemployment continue to burden the country, nationalisation will be perceived as another option, a solution to our ills. DM

Photo: Miners walk at the end of their shift at the Anglo Platinum’s Khuseleka shaft 1 mine in Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, January 15, 2013. Anglo American Platinum, the world’s top platinum producer, said it will mothball two South African mines, sell another and cut 14,000 jobs, risking a repeat of last year’s strikes when about 50 people died. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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