AMCU takes platinum fight to heart of Amplats
- BC Simelane & Greg Nicolson
- South Africa
- 19 Mar 2014 (South Africa)
Following the downing of tools on 23 January at Lonmin, Impala Platinum and Anglo American Platinum, demanding a basic monthly wage of R12,500 and after a petition to President Jacob Zuma, AMCU members on Tuesday marched to the Anglo American offices on 55 Marshall street in the Johannesburg city centre to deliver a wide-ranging memorandum. An estimated 4,500 members braved the sun and the rain, but there seems no end in sight to one of the most costly strikes in the mining industry. By BHEKI SIMELANE & GREG NICOLSON.
Covered in the green AMCU colours, mineworkers crouched together after reaching the mining company's offices and took off their hats. In his opening prayers outside Anglo American's Joburg headquarters, Madiba Bukhali, a chaiperson in one of the mine shafts, prayed for the safety and liberation of mineworkers.
“Lord, please give us light in the midst of such darkness, even Pharoah's heart was as hard as stone but your will prevail, dear Lord."
Turning straight to Daily Maverick after praying, as if he had unfinished business, Bukhali said the elders were going to die soon, leaving the country in our hands. If that happens, we should be able to fight on until workers are liberated, he advised:
“We are leaving this country in your young hands, but if you let the Mantashes of this world trample on it, it will be all over.”
On Tuesday morning, mineworkers gathered near the West Gate Rea Vaya station, which is fast becoming a popular gathering spot after the Democratic Alliance used it before their march for jobs last month. AMCU’s march to Anglo American was well attended, with police estimating attendance to be around 4,500 people. Some 290 SAPS officers were deployed in strategic positions to maintain order with nyalas and a water cannon ready to stop any violence.
Photo: AMCU leaders head the march, a short walk from a nearby bus station. There were one or two stops along the way to keep the crowd together, but the group was relatively calm.
The revision of AMCU's demand that the three platinum companies pay a basic salary of R12,500 in four years, instead of immediately, has fallen on deaf ears. Talks at the CCMA have halted and the Chamber of Mines adviser to the mining companies has called both the CCMA and AMCU's negotiators incompetent. The mining companies are offering increases of between 7.5% and 9%, claiming that the union's demands would cripple the fragile industry and cause job losses.
AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa arrived on 55 Marshall street at 12:28 p.m and as usual was welcomed with loud cheers and song. “All the men are here but the road to the money is a steep one,” sang members. This song was followed by another – “For how long will we lead such miserable lives?” The stage was set for Mathunjwa to address the mineworkers. He made his way forward into the crowd, making sure that every member had a clear view. “Down with Impala oppression, down with Anglo Platinum oppression," chanted Mathunjwa.
Photo: Approximately 4,500 people turned out.
Mathunjwa was in no jovial mood, having a go at the media, who he said were hostile to AMCU. “When we organised in the beginning the media wouldn't come, saying that they did not know us, they knew the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM); but now they have a tendency of saying we said something that we did not say, put words in our mouth. AMCU was not made by the media, but by workers.”
He also said in the oppression of mineworkers, the mining companies like Amplats used the media, spending large amounts of money to win the public relations battle. Around a dozen riot police guarded the door to the mining house while some Anglo employees looked on from the first floor.
Photo: Anglo American's Vishnu Pillay accepts AMCU's memorandum with President Joseph Mathunjwa.
Mathunjwa said democracy in South Africa belonged to certain black people. He said workers had endured hundreds of years of oppression. “We need to turn the situation around and find solutions for a speedy resolution.” If workers want radical changes it would help if they kept in mind the misfortunes of the recent past, where 34 mineworkers were killed in Marikana during a mineworkers' strike, Mathunjwa added. “We thought we were free from oppression, but now we are experiencing structural democratic exploitation by our fellow black brothers.”
The strike is starting to bite. Employees have lost around R4 billion in earnings and companies have lost over R9 billion in revenue, according to the platinum wage negotiations website. Young mineworker, 25-year-old Andile Ketsu, said life was increasingly becoming unbearable with no more money left to feed their themselves and their families.
Photo: Miners raise their fists outside Anglo's offices.
“Some of us starve on a daily basis with no money nor food. Today you borrow from this one person, tomorrow you borrow from a different person. That is how we are carrying on currently,” Ketsu said. As Easter approached he wondered if for the first time he would be able to be with his family.
Mathunjwa addressed the concerns. “We will provide buses for you to go home and watch over your goats and go to church during easter,” he said. “We will tell you when to return,” he added, to loud cheers from the crowd.
The solo white mineworker at the march, Tinus De Winnaar, said he was chairman of the Thembelani shaft. When Daily Maverick pointed this out, he looked down with disdain before composing himself. “Once a comrade” - he said anxiously as if waiting for someone to finish off with “Always a comrade.” He wasn't saying which party he was going to vote for in the 7 May elections.
Photo: Union members listen to the address from leaders outside Anglo's Johannesburg offices.
Before handing over the memorandum, Mathunjwa attacked Amplats, mineworkers and other mine bosses, saying they had allowed the situation to go too far. “We are disheartened by the arrogance displayed by Anglo Platinum, who have adopted an offensive against their own workers.” He said the money that Anglo was using to sue AMCU could have gone a long way in alleviating the situation.
“We understand that the company wants things to quickly go back to normal, but that will only happen when we get the R12,500 that we want,” he said. Mathunjwa said Amplats, Implats, Lonmin and Contralesa were seeking the intervention of tribal chiefs, something which he said was likely to cause tribal and racial conflicts. “They are dividing us and they must stop it immediately because here at AMCU we have no Zulu, Sotho or Shangaan, but Africans. This strike was called by workers and not by a particular tribe.”
Photo: Police blocked the entrance to Anglo's offices and inside employees watch the crowd from the first floor.
Mathunjwa also attacked mine bosses for mineworkers' appalling living conditions. He said when he went to the Marikana hostels with Judge Farlam, they discovered that 8-12 people were living in one room and were vulnerable to health problems like TB. He challenged Amplats executives to spend a week trying to live in some of the worst hostels. AMCU members, squashed together on the street, cheered excitedly before the rain started to fall.
Photo: AMCU members pray after they arrive at the mining company's offices.
Mineworker Thembelani Ndamase said life was hard even at work. Another miner, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said at times supervisors assigned to them work in potentially dangerous areas and if workers raised the issue of safety, they would be called for a hearing and could even get fired. Ndamase was having a beer in one of the holes in the city centre. Asked how it was that he could afford beers, Ndamase said he was enjoying a beer but his kids were starving at home because he is using grant money sent from home. He said that was how most of them survived. Ndamase also avoided questions on who he was voting for in the upcoming national elections, saying for now his focus was on AMCU. Mineworker Andy Matwa and many of his colleagues believe their efforts at finally realising the R12,500 basic momthly salary were also being sabotaged by NUM.
Amplats's Vishnu Pillay accepted AMCU's memorandum and said the company was committed to finding a solution and “still loves you”. But the mining behemoth's offices were under attack not just by its employees this week. Asked about a bomb threat to the company's offices on Monday, Anglo American’s head of corporate communication Pranill Ramchander confirmed to Daily Maverick there was a “potential threat” reported. The office was searched by security and specialists and declared safe. Given the threat and AMCU's march, “[i]t was decided that the Anglo American campus [would] continue to operate normally today, albeit with reduced employees and contractors on site, and we will have heightened security in place as well as the full support of the JMPD and SAPS,” said Pillay.
Photo: The rain began to fall during Mathunjwa's speech and AMCU members rushed back to their buses back to the platinum belt.
As wage discussions have stalled (and soured), AMCU's march is likely to put pressure on the platinum producers to return to the negotiating table. The question is, who can hold out longer; who will buckle next? Can mineworkers continue to live without a wage? Or will one or all of the platinum companies run out of stockpiled platinum and have to make a compromise to avoid potential disaster? Only time will tell. DM