South Africa

SA mining: A (very) brief reprieve, but still on tenterhooks

By G Nicolson & T Lekgowa 23 January 2014

The mining industry won a brief reprieve on Wednesday when the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) agreed to postpone industrial action at three gold companies. The more significant strike in platinum, however, begins on Thursday. Both the union and the mining companies knew this was coming; now we wait and see what happens. By GREG NICOLSON & THAPELO LEKGOWA.

Before AMCU’s strike even began, the night shift at Impala Platinum (Implats) was cancelled on Wednesday. The other two affected platinum producers, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) and Lonmin, were due to close on Thursday. The police say they’re ready for anything that might come. The state is desperately hoping the strike will be peaceful. AMCU agrees, but there are still doubts as to whether it can control the volatile mineworkers.

“We don’t know who’s going to pitch up tomorrow so we just wanted to shut down our operations in a safe and controlled manner. Given the recent history in the platinum industry, it’s probably the right course of action,” Impala’s Johan Theron told Eye Witness News. AMCU is the dominant union on the platinum belt and there are fears members might intimidate and attack anyone who wants to work during the strike. A series of killings related to union rivalries have occurred since 2012.

AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa told Daily Maverick the union has informed Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s mining task team about the strike and any AMCU member who commits criminal acts will be reported to the police.

Motlanthe addressed concerns about the mining sector in a speech to the Nedlac conference on Wednesday. Two fears are taking hold: the potential whack to the economy and the potential loss of life. Parties need to build mutual trust and it helps nobody when stakeholders dig in their heels, said Motlanthe. When intransigence reigns and unions battle employers every year, “relations can only go from bad to worse, much to the disadvantage of everybody else.” Social dialogue must increase, he advised. Motlanthe’s task team on mining established a framework agreement aimed at building the basis for an improved relationship between unions, companies and the state has been criticised as having made no impact.

AMCU wants miners’ salaries to rise to at least R12,500. Platinum producers are calling the demand impossible and appear better prepared to stave off violence and continue meeting demand by selling stockpiled platinum. Whether AMCU get the significant increase they’re hoping for will depend on whether workers can hold out without pay before the companies are forced to give in. The National Union of Mineworkers recently received a 9.5% increase from Northam Platinum, but that took 12 weeks of industrial action.

Questions still surround claims that AMCU is losing support. “He is crazy, that one [Mathunjwa]. His union is dead. Workers don’t like the way he does things and how he runs the union; it is a one man show… He will not have a union nor strike here,” said Amplats employee Maswabi Thebe on Wednesday.

George Tyobeka, also from Amplats, also criticised Mathunjwa and said members were going back to workers’ committees. “Mathunjwa is a liar. It is wrong of him to be going around saying we caused a division in his union (as he puts it, ‘his union’). He caused the division in his union.” Tyobeka continued: “The statements he is saying, he is setting up to be killed by the workers who are being misled by him. He says we have a new union, there is no such. We are a workers committee answering and accounting directly to the workers.” He criticised the demand of R12,500, claiming that many workers earned above that and wanted more.

Responding to the claims, Mathunjwa is able to describe the ulterior motives of each of his detractors. Tyobeka was removed as a branch chairman due to corruption, he says. Thebe got into some trouble with a strike he called; Mathunjwa intervened but the branch decided to remove him, says the AMCU president.

Malibongwe Mdaso, the union’s deputy chairperson at Lonmin Western Platinum, says “These guys [those opposing AMCU] are corrupt and have been taking money [from medical insurance schemes that wanted to get contracts in the mines] so now when they are being exposed they are trying to discredit the president and the union. All the things they are saying are by three people only, they have no workers behind them.” Rumours and conspiracy theories are swirling around the issue.

While platinum producers won’t be looking forward to the strike or the stories of fracturing worker unity, the gold sector will continue business as usual. AMCU wanted its members, under 20% of total gold employees, to strike in the mines they dominate, at AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony Gold, and Sibanye Gold.

The Chamber of Mines filed an urgent interdict to prevent the strike and was heard in the Labour Court in Johannesburg on Wednesday. They argued that AMCU is not a majority union at the companies and a wage deal was reached with the majority union, NUM, for the gold sector, negotiated through the Chamber, last September. That’s the way it’s been done for 30 years and those deals have extended to non-majority unions for over 10 years, said Anton Myburgh, representing the gold producers.

There was “absolutely no merit” in AMCU’s resistance, said Myburgh. He called them “a complaining, dissatisfied minority” who “obviously don’t like the legislation of majoritarianism”. If AMCU gets to strike, collective bargaining will be undermined and “chaos will reign”, Myburgh added. “It’s absolutely sacrosanct that collective agreements must be upheld. Otherwise chaos will reign.”

AMCU members filled the courtroom and their advocate, Paul Kennedy, emphasised they have a constitutional right to strike. When there’s a dispute over such, consideration should always be placed on enshrined rights, he said. Kennedy argued that the Chamber of Mines negotiation process allows mining companies to avoid the checks and balances enforced in bargaining councils, potentially giving them “carte blanche”. The legislation says collective agreements apply to workplaces and AMCU argued that “workplace” means the individual mines where it has a majority, rather than the whole operations. Kennedy said AMCU is recognised as leading these mines, but Myburgh said that it doesn’t matter: the companies run their operations like silos that have a boom running above them – the head office in charge of finances, HR, sales, etc.

Judge Hamilton Cele said he needs time to weigh up the serious issue. “I need your urgent cooperation to go back to work before I say anything else,” he said. After consultations, AMCU agreed that it would not strike until judgment is delivered on 30 January.

Outside the court, AMCU members weren’t happy. They complained that they had been waiting to go on strike and demand their pay increases. In the gold sector, they’ll have to wait. But for platinum workers, Thursday is day one of what could be a lengthy negotiation. DM

Photo: Workers underground at Lonmin Rowland Shaft setting up for drilling and later drilling (Thapelo Lekgowa).

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