‘These platinum mines are making trillions at the expense of black mineworkers’
JOSEPH Mathunjwa, and by extension the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), has been an unexpected source of stability in South Africa’s mining sector in recent years. The union patched up relations with its arch rival, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), uniting with it and other unions in a series of wage talks which – with notable exceptions – reached multiyear settlements without a tool being downed. But in 2023, Amcu’s olive branch to business and other unions began to wither.
In late October at the Gold One mine east of Johannesburg, NUM accused Amcu of taking hundreds of its members hostage during a prolonged sit-in that was effectively a wildcat strike. This is a hallmark of Amcu’s traditional tactics involving allegations of intimidation. NUM subsequently terminated its closed-shop agreement, which excludes minority unions from bargaining and was the apparent source of Amcu’s ire, at the mine. But more violence and wildcat action followed.
Mathunjwa, a fire-and-brimstone orator, has reverted to form in his public statements: at the memorial service for 13 miners killed in a conveyance cage accident in late November at Impala Platinum’s Rustenburg mine, Mathunjwa said the men who died had been “earning slave wages” – a transparent falsehood – and that the platinum mines were making “trillions” from black mine workers. In fact, South Africa’s platinum group metals (PGM) sector is in deep trouble in the face of a collapse of prices. That may explain why Amcu and Mathunjwa have been returning to their militant ways. The PGM sector is bracing for a wave of potential lay-offs, a state of affairs that is bound to make labour see red.
LIFE OF JOSEPH
Mathunjwa, who hails from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, formed Amcu in the Mpumalanga coal fields as a breakaway from NUM in 1999. The union barely registered on investor radar screens until 2012, when it dislodged NUM as the dominant union on the platinum belt. The wildcat strike is among its trademarks, including the violent one at Marikana’s Lonmin mine in 2012 that culminated in the police shooting 34 striking miners dead. Mathunjwa, who is from a Salvationist background, is a fiery orator who peppers his speeches with biblical references mixed with strident calls to class warfare and African nationalism.