AN estimated 543 miners are being held hostage in an underground gold mine in Springs, east of Johannesburg by the Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (AMCU), said reports including one by the Citizen, a newspaper, which first reported the incident on Monday.
It confirmed the incident with GoldOne spokesperson John Hericourt.
Other reports said AMCU representatives blocked access to GoldOne’a East Modderfontein mine and prevented night shift workers from leaving.
Reporting on the incident, News24 quoted Hericourt as saying that: “A group of AMCU members started holding everyone hostage. They are preventing them from coming up from underground. They are keeping them in certain working areas, they have cut off all communication, and there have been some injuries”.
Hericout told News24 in an update that around seven people were believed to be injured, adding that they had sent people underground to retrieve one of the injured.
“Initially, the people underground said we could come and get this person, but when we sent the people down they then refused,” he said.
“And they actually took the people who went underground and took them off to be part of the people they are holding underground as well,” Hericourt told News24.
Speaking from the mine, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) acting regional spokesperson Mlulameli Mweli told News24 that aggrieved AMCU members were holding staff hostage, demanding representation at the mine.
AMCU general secretary Jeffrey Mphahlele could not confirm a hostage situation.
Dispute over recognition rights
Hericourt said the dispute is between the unions over recognition which is with the NUM in terms of which all A and B category employees are automatically signed on as members. AMCU subsequently sought permission from the CCMA for a strike over recognition rights.
The situation underground could be a tactic to force the company to give AMCU recognition and terminate the recognition agreement with NUM.
In March this year, a group of employees started pushing for AMCU to get recognition. Hericourt said the agreement with NUM had prevented the mine from recognising AMCU.
BusinessLive reported a senior official of NUM as saying that some of its members went to [join] AMCU. “But there is a closed shop agreement, which means NUM is the only union that is allowed there. AMCU is challenging section 21 of the Labour Relations Act because they say they have enough members to organise at Gold One,” he said.
“That is what is happening at the moment. The labour court has not yet ruled on that matter, so they decided to kidnap workers underground, including our members,” the official said.
“Our members have been kidnapped underground. We are not going to support a situation where our members are kidnapped. They can’t be forced to be members of AMCU. What’s the use of kidnapping more than 500 workers underground, when this issue is before the labour court to be resolved? That can’t be allowed.”
According to the Labour Relations Act, a closed-shop agreement effectively refers to a collective agreement between a majority trade union and an employer, dictating that employees must be members of that union, said BusinessLive.
AMCU general secretary Jeff Mphahlele told BusinessLive that of the 1,870 mineworkers at Gold One, 1,700 were AMCU members. “We are at the mine now, we are trying to speak to the workers who are underground.”
Hostage events on mines are not unprecedented in South African mining. Miningmx reported that 50 employees at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Marikana mine in Rustenburg were held hostage over two nights in May 2022. “It’s a frequent occurrence,” James Wellsted, senior vice-president of corporate affairs at the gold and platinum group metals miner said at the time.
“Generally, we’re able to manage it, but it’s a problem as a result of the political environment. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the background.”
Community demands turn on jobs and procurement opportunities. South Africa’s mines are often the only employer in their region.
In a later update, some miners that News24 spoke to at the scene dismissed reports that their colleagues were being held hostage and said they were there willingly, as a form of protest to force the mine to recognise Amcu.
Christopher Khalipha, who works at the mine, said the whole thing was planned and agreed upon with those who were underground.