South Africa

Inter-union tensions flare up at Anglo Platinum

By Sipho Hlongwane 19 February 2013

Tensions have flared up once again between the National Union of Mineworkers and certain mining company employees in the Rustenburg area. This time, nine workers and three guards were injured after security fired rubber bullets to disperse rival union and workers’ committee groups. No deaths have been reported, but the relationship between the NUM and its rivals is not getting any better. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

According to AmPlats, the incident began when the workers’ committee at the Siphumelele  shaft tried to force the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to vacate its offices.

AmPlats said in a statement: “Worker’s committee members are contesting NUM’s legitimacy at the mine and demanding that NUM vacate its offices. The Company is currently in the process of validating union membership at Rustenburg and the mines north of the Pilanesburg. A total of nine employees were injured when rubber bullets were fired by Anglo American Platinum security personnel. As they were attempting to evacuate the NUM shop stewards who were trapped in their offices, three security personnel sustained minor injuries during this incident. All 12 injured employees received medical attention for non-life threatening injuries.”

Anglo shares fell by more than 4% on Monday as the news of the incident went around the world.

The police said that the guards were attacked with pangas.

The AmPlats trouble – or at least the union tussle – is thanks to plans by the company to downsize, shut certain operations and cut up to 14,000 jobs. Made last month, the announcement caused massive consternation and even prompted an outburst from mining minister Susan Shabangu. For the unions, this is about control. Not only is the bargaining union potentially losing hundreds of thousands in fees every month, but there is the chance of AMCU beating NUM in membership numbers at Siphumelele, forcing it out and collecting the union fees instead.

NUM has already been pushed out by AMCU at Impala Platinum.

NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka has placed the blame firmly at the feet of rival union the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). He said, “AMCU members were intimidating NUM officials at the office.” However, AMCU officials have not been eager to accept blame. The treasurer Jimmy Gamma said to Reuters that they could confirm the incident but at that stage could not say what led to it.

Details are a bit sketchy for now, but according to one of the strike committee members – who asked not to be named – they had made it abundantly clear that they thought the NUM was no longer welcome at Siphumelele, and a crowd went to the offices to get them closed. They found four NUM shop stewards in the office, and a fight broke out between two rival groups. Another man we spoke to who was there said that live ammunition was used as well, but this is still unconfirmed information.

The police have, however, confirmed the other details of what happened.

The strike committee worker we spoke to said that there were virtually no more NUM people left at the company. However, the union has denied losing large number of members in the near past (we couldn’t reach NUM on Monday to get an update).

“The point of the march was to make NUM leave those offices. They no longer represent us. But when we got there, they began to shoot at us. How can we trust a union like that?” he said.

Due to South African labour law, only one union at a site can be the bargaining partner with the employer. The threshold is 50% employee representation, plus one. For decades now, that union has been the NUM. However, the arrival of AMCU has changed that, especially in the last three years. NUM now finds itself having to deal with losing ground, membership and a grip on the industry. The transition hasn’t been pretty. Violence has been the go-to solution far too often.

The AmPlats trouble comes months after 47 people lost their lives at nearby Marikana, following a tense unprotected strike at Lonmin. President Jacob Zuma appointed a commission of inquiry into that incident even as lesser ones flared up all over the platinum mining belt, in the North West province. While the demonstrations at other locations have been more peaceful, companies like AmPlats have not been spared some of the disaster.

“This is very worrisome,” NUM’s Seshoka said to Wall Street Journal. “This may be the beginning of more violence.” DM

Photo: A resident walks beneath a recruitment poster for the National Union of Mineworkers in Phokeng in the North West province October 13, 2012.  REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle