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Amcu jolted the ANC’s union ally in the mines, but its new Labour Party will likely struggle at the polls

Amcu jolted the ANC’s union ally in the mines, but its new Labour Party will likely struggle at the polls
AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa addresses mourners at a memorial service held at 2 shaft,simunye hostel sports grounds on 06 Decemeber 2023 in memory and to honour the 13 employees who passed on following the Impala Rustenburg 11 shaft tragedy. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The new Labour Party, which intends to contest the national and provincial elections on 29 May, will hold its official launch this week. The driving force behind it is the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and its charismatic leader Joseph Mathunjwa. Amcu has for over a decade been a labour force to be reckoned with, but electoral politics is much tougher terrain. 

As Daily Maverick reported last week, a new Labour Party has registered with the Electoral Commission and will contest the upcoming national and provincial elections. The Amcu trade union is behind the new party, but it says it does not want to be an “Amcu party” and is inviting other progressive and like-minded organisations and people to join. It is scheduled to launch on Wednesday.

Over a decade ago, Amcu roiled the ANC, and was arguably the biggest threat to the hegemony of the ruling party. But its clout in the shafts may not translate into clout at the ballot box.

In 2012, Amcu struck South Africa’s platinum belt like a seismic tremor, dislodging the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as the dominant union in the sector. The aftershocks would include the Marikana Massacre and years of often violent labour unrest marked by a vicious turf war for members between the rival unions.

Amcu’s rapid rise was rooted in growing resentment towards the ANC, with NUM serving as a proxy target. NUM was a key plank in the ANC’s political base through Coastu, and the union – forged in the epic struggle against apartheid in 1980s – had produced many of the ANC’s leaders, including President Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe.  

NUM’s leadership, like the ANC’s, was seen by some of its rank and file members of becoming out of touch with their concerns and too accommodating to business and capital. And Mathunjwa had the charisma to exploit this situation, mixing evangelical Christianity with black nationalism and riveting calls for class conflict.

A blow to NUM was by extension a blow to the ANC, and Mathunjwa had founded Amcu after a fall-out with Mantashe. From the outset, the party – while claiming to be apolitical – was stridently anti-ANC in its tone. This correspondent covered more than one Amcu rally where its members chanted anti ANC slogans or barbed insults aimed at Mantashe. 

And the Marikana Massacre, in which police shot dead 34 miners taking part in a violent wildcat strike at the Marikana operations of the now defunct Lonmin, was a withering indictment of the ANC, then headed by former president Jacob Zuma. It gave the fledgling Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) a potent cause to rally around, providing Julius Malema with the spark he needed to blaze his own anti-ANC political path.   

Amcu also stung the ANC in the former homelands, notably the old Transkei, where many of the rock-drill operators who comprised Amcu’s militant spine hailed from. Traditional leaders – another plank of the ANC’s political base – were taken aback by the challenge to their authority that Amcu represented. 

During the five-month platinum strike in 2014, a senior traditional leader told this correspondent that back in their rural homes, Amcu members were respectful toward the chiefs. But when traditional leaders tried to address their rallies around Rustenburg and Marikana, they were booed and heckled. 


So, can Amcu trigger tremors in electoral politics on a seismic scale that will match its shake-up in the shafts? That seems doubtful for a range of reasons. 

One precedent that immediately comes to mind is the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, the political offshoot of The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and its leader Irvin Jim. It contested the 2019 elections, failing to get even one seat in parliament after garnering only 0.14% of the vote. Numsa claims to have around 360,000 members but it received less than 25,000 votes, which means that the vast majority of its own members did not support the party at the ballot box. 


Amcu has also shown itself in recent years to be far more accommodating to business and rival unions. Burying the hatchet, Amcu united with NUM in wage negotiations with several mining houses. These resulted in multi-year wage deals, linked to inflation, which were reached without a tool being downed.

Mathunjwa can still strike a militant tone. In the aftermath of the Impala Platinum (Implats’) conveyance cage tragedy late year in which 13 miners were killed and over 70 injured, he said the men who perished had been earning a “wage-slave salary” – a demonstrably false assertion.

Indeed, the fact that mine workers no long toil for “slave wages” is partly a testimony to the success of Amcu and other unions such as NUM to secure better pay for their members over the decades. One consequence of this has been a blunting of labour militancy, though the spate of wildcat underground sit-ins that plagued the mining industry late last year suggests it’s not all a bed of roses in the shafts

The wider point is that Amcu in recent years has generally not been the radical and uncompromising force that it was when it initially dislodged NUM from the platinum mines. Without that kind of momentum, such as a prolonged strike or protracted wage talks, it’s hard to see what wind it has in its sails as it charts a political course for an election in less than three months’ time. 

And on that score, timing is clearly a significant challenge for the party. It’s a bit late in the day to imprint its image in the minds of voters. 

The Labour Party also faces a field of contenders claiming to carry the torch of “radical economic transformation” – or radical economic looting in the view of more than a few critics – who are vying for the ANC vote. This includes Zuma’s uMkhonto Wesizwe party, which could make inroads with the rural Zulu vote. The Labour Party could perhaps find some support around mining towns such as Rustenburg or in the rural Eastern Cape where many Amcu members have been drawn from. 

But the EFF has an established political presence on those fronts and one would have thought that Mathunjwa and Malema are cut largely from the same ideological cloth. Interestingly, this correspondent understands that Mathunjwa and Zuma had talks but they apparently went nowhere. 

Mathunjwa in many ways is a natural politician, a fiery orator who can work a crowd of mine workers like no one else. A man of intense Christian faith, he sincerely seems to believe that God has plans for him as a saviour of the black working class. But electoral politics is a different game than trade unionism, and it seems unlikely that many voters will put their faith in the Labour Party. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Just Me says:

    The establishment of a Labour Party is 30 years too late. What is interesting is that it took labour 30 years to realise that the ANC has been pulling the wool over its eyes.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    The Marikana Massacre was a SAPS construct….. murder most foul…….Any police prosecuted and jailed?

    • Ben Harper says:

      Hardly! The catalyst of Marikana was AMCU and its fight with NUM, if those two hadn’t been fighting the massacre would never have happened

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