Behind the long-delayed settlement between Sibanye-Stillwater gold mines and the Association of Mining and Construction Unions (Amcu) lies a record of violence and intimidation which the mining industry cannot afford.
And at the centre of it is the leadership of Amcu itself. It is time to point out that Amcu is less a workers’ representative than a wrecking machine whose ruthless predation over the past seven years has done much to exacerbate what has been a difficult time for the mining industry in South Africa.
Tellingly, in mid-March, Labour Court Judge Connie Prinsloo broke taboo and called out Amcu’s leadership.
‘There has been a track record of violence and intimidation where industrial action has taken place, and Amcu is in no position to dispute the allegations … of the horrendous violence displayed during the ongoing Sibanye strike,’ Judge Prinsloo said. ‘The conduct of Amcu’s members certainly tainted its reputation.’
The occasion was Amcu’s attempt to extend the protected strike on Sibanye-Stillwater’s goldmines to the rest of the mining industry in South Africa. Amcu’s 15 000 members in the gold sector went out in mid-November last year over a R300 difference between the pay hike offered by the company (R700/month) and their demand (R1000/month). The other three unions on Sibanye-Stillwater’s payroll had accepted the offer.
Amcu agreed to end its five-month strike at Sibanye-Stillwater gold mines this month, accepting essentially the same agreement as other unions’ members did five months ago. Its 14 000 striking members are to receive a R4 000 cash payment each and a soft R5 000 loan to be repaid over 12 months.
The strike was meant to be Amcu’s thrust into the gold industry, but was in fact an ignominious defeat for the union.
But it came at a greater cost to others. As a result of the strike, production slumped; losses are estimated at about R1.5 billion. Moreover, nine people were killed and more than 62 houses of NUM supporters were burnt down over the duration of the strike by Amcu.
If the proximate causes of the strike seem trivial, it is because the pay dispute did not represent Amcu’s real agenda in this affair. The union has grown like a virus since it used violence to trump the rival National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in Marikana in 2011. By being radical and aggressive, Amcu has actually managed to grow membership during a period of decline for the industry. But this has happened because it has treated other unions, especially the NUM, as ‘enemies’, to be pummelled into submission. In fact, violence is the central motif of Amcu’s mode of operation.
The strike equalled the longest in South African mining history, the 5-month 2014 stoppage in the platinum sector, also led by Amcu. It is repeating the pattern of past Amcu-mobilised events, with workers receiving no salary for months on end and thus being forced to take credit to get by. Such a trend simply builds trouble for the future.
Amcu’s attitude towards the bargaining and governance institution in the mining industry is symptomatic of its general wrecker approach. It uses the legal system and the courts where convenient – such as where it needs legal protection for strike action – but ignores procedure where convenient. So, it has been uncooperative when the CCMA has attempted to quantify its membership – which is important because Sibanye-Stillwater is allowed, under the Labour Relations Act, to extend an agreement reached with a majority of employees to the entire workforce.
It would also seem that there is a democratic deficiency when it comes to Amcu’s internal procedures. The union has never had a national elective conference (unlike the NUM) and its leadership recruitment is organic rather than rule-bound. Decisions to go out on and continue strike action are taken at mass rallies, after inflammatory speeches by leaders. These are not occasions for rational discussion; nor is opposition brooked.
The attitude of Amcu’s leadership towards the union’s own members is callous to say the least. In his initial call for the strike, Amcu leader Joseph Mathunjwa said: ‘You are not going to lose anything by going on strike because you have nothing.’ This is not true. For unskilled workers, mining offers the best wages available in South Africa. According to the latest StatsSA Quarterly Employment figures, the average pay in mining is currently R25 510; in construction it is R16 528.
Mining is going through a difficult time in South Africa. If it is to get through successfully, cooperation and restraint needs to be the order of the day. This has been amply demonstrated by employers like Sibanye-Stillwater and unions like NUM, Solidarity and UASA. The sort of megalomania-driven violence which Amcu has repeatedly demonstrated should have no place in the industry.
Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).