[miningmx.com] -- The article was originally part of the Miningmx Mining Yearbook and published online on August 2. We again elevate it to our home page due to the current interest in the subject.
IT HAS to count among any mine manager’s worst nightmares: striking employees who occupy the underground works of a huge coal
This is exactly what happened in September 1999 at Douglas Colliery, one of the
oldest mines of Ingwe Coal, which later became part of BHP Billiton Energy Coal
(Becsa). The 3,000-strong workforce protested against the dismissal of one Joseph
Mathunjwa, chair of local branch of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The
strike was unprotected and lasted for two weeks, during which the mine’s
underground section was occupied for 10 days.
The dispute was only terminated once Mathunjwa got reinstated, but he then faced a
second hurdle – a disciplinary hearing by the NUM for bringing the union into
These events were the birth pains of the Association of Mineworkers and
Construction Union (Amcu), which is currently mopping up members from the
platinum mines around Rustenburg and Brits.
Archie Palane, at the time Deputy General Secretary of the NUM, was sent to
investigate the charge against Mathunjwa, but found the local chair had done
nothing wrong. Another official from Johannesburg was sent for the same reason,
but he also found no reason to discipline Mathunjwa.
However, Gwede Mantashe, then the union’s General Secretary, insisted that
Mathunjwa appear before a disciplinary hearing chaired by Mantashe himself.
Mathunjwa refused as he had previously clashed with Mantashe over the handling of
money paid by employers to a job creation trust. Mathunjwa insisted that an
independent person should chair the hearing, not
“My membership of the NUM was subsequently terminated,” says Mathunjwa. “I
informed the union that I am not a member anymore, although I retained by job as
laboratory assistant at the mine.”
Mathunjwa was, however, very popular among the workforce. Among other notable
successes he forced the management of Douglas to implement a bonus system for
underground workers. When a worker had died under mysterious circumstances,
Mathunjwa forced management to not only deliver the body to the family in
Mozambique, but also to accompany the body and explain in person the
circumstances surrounding the death.
"Mpumalanga is our strongest region, but I think North West is
Says Mathunjwa: “When the NUM terminated my membership I told them I’m out,
but that they should continue on their own and elect a new branch chairperson.
“They immediately called as mass meeting. They were
aware of my battles with
NUM’s head office. At the meeting the workers decided no ways – an injury to one is
an injury to all. And the whole workforce of about 3,000 resigned from the NUM.”
The workers investigated the possibility of joining other unions, but the culture and
philosophy didn’t appeal to them. Eventually, the workforce told Mathunjwa to
create a new union. He got help from Jeffrey Mphahlele, a local teacher, to register a
new union with the Department of Labour. They called it the Association of
Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). It was officially registered in 2001.
Palane tried to convince Amcu to rejoin the NUM, but Mathunjwa refused. “I told
Archie that if he becomes the General Secretary of the NUM, we will come back,” he
said – something that failed to materialise when Frans Baleni won the contest to
Amcu gained recognition at Douglas, but in subsequent years it faced an endless
to the gain recognition in the face of tactics by seemingly suspicious
employers who were colluding with established unions. BHP Billiton, for instance,
created bargaining forum at company level with a threshold of 30% membership
across the group before it recognised a union.
Still, Amcu is currently the representative of workers at various mines in
Mpumalanga, including coal, chrome and platinum mines, as well as coal mines in
KwaZulu-Natal. It also has members at chrome and platinum mines in Limpopo –
Two Rivers and Modikwa.
The union is especially well represented amongst mining contractor companies, as
these employers are usually not bounded by recognition agreements. For the same
reason the workers in these establishments are often also more vulnerable.
“Mpumalanga is our strongest region, but I think North West is growing strongly.
The numbers [there] may soon overtake the membership in Mpumalanga,”
Mathunjwa says. In the
Northern Cape it is recruiting among contract workers at the
iron ore and manganese mines around Kathu and Hotazel. “We don’t have any
recognition agreements in place yet, but we will probably establish an office before
Meanwhile, analysts and even the NUM are baffled by die meteoric rise of Amcu at
Impala Platinum Rustenburg; a 14-shaft mining complex with a workforce of 30,000,
of which some 20,000 are unionised.
Amcu was widely blamed for the devastating strike in February and March and the
accompanying violence, but it is virtually impossible for a union with no recognition
agreement or even organisational rights to gain access to a particular employer’s
premise; especially in a closed, controlled environment like an underground,
precious metals mining operation.
It was recruiting members at the gates of some of the Implats shafts prior the strike,
on invitation of some workers, only to be removed by security personnel.
also ample evidence of discontent and even open revolt against the NUM among
important pockets of the workforce, particularly the rock-drill operators (RDOs).
These RDOs, some 4,300 of them, initiated a strike after they learnt about an 18%
bonus increase that was given to selective workers in higher category jobs.
CHANGE IN PROFILE
These events may have ignited the strike, but the stoppage was probably the
outcome of problems that had been simmering for some years. One such issue was
an agreement signed between the NUM and Implats in 2007, which stipulated a 50%
plus one member threshold for recognition – practically making Implats a closed
shop where minority unions have no rights. That removed any competition and gave
the NUM a monopoly in South Africa’s largest single mining complex.
Secondly, and most importantly, a gradual change had taken place in the profile of
the NUM membership over the last 15
years; one that nobody had taken notice of.
The NUM was originally borne out of the lowest job categories of South African
mineworkers, mainly from gold mines. More than 60% of its members were
foreigners, mostly illiterate migrant labourers who were not interested in a career
Nowadays that number has dropped to below 40%. On the other hand, an increasing
portion of the NUM’s membership comes from what can be described as white-collar
mining staff, who had previously been represented exclusively by Solidarity and
Uasa. The local NUM structures in Rustenburg, like the branch office bearers and the
shop stewards, are dominated by these skilled, higher level workers. They are
literate, well spoken and wealthy compared to the general workers and machine
For instance, there are two NUM branches at Implats – North and South. And the
chairpersons at both these branches were beneficiaries of the 18% bonus that
sparked the strike.
During wage negotiations in September 2011 Implats wanted to give rock-drill
operators a higher increase than the rest of the workforce, but a committee of NUM
shop stewards demanded the money be split among the whole workforce.
Needless to say, there wasn’t a single rock-drill operator on the shop stewards’
committee. The NUM head office moved quickly after the strike to correct the
situation, but it was way too late.
It is circumstances like these that become an entry point for a rival union. It is a
fairly well-established principle in industrial relations that the interests of different
categories of workers are not aligned. They differ vastly, especially in societies
where inequality is as extreme as in South Africa.
Although Amcu are making major inroads on the NUM’s dominance in the platinum
industry, it doesn’t mean the latter will roll over and disappear. NUM is a highly
sophisticated and professional
union with coherent leadership, and it is no
coincidence that top ANC leaders regularly come from its ranks.
Still, Implats’ neighbours are watching the situation closely and are trying to be pro-
active. At Anglo American Platinum, for instance, rock-drill operators were recently
given a R750 shift allowance.
But Amcu is here to stay, at least for time being. It has a formidable opponent in the
NUM, but Mathunjwa has proven elsewhere that he and his national office bearers
are up for the task.
- The article originally appeared in the Miningmx Mining Yearbook. The
Yearbook is available for sale at retailers as part of the 2 August edition of Finweek.
Electronic copies can be bought at www.mysubs.co.za/Finweek-Eng.