MAC: Mines and Communities

South Africa's implacable labouring foes

Published by MAC on 2012-03-06
Source: Reuters, Eye Witness News

Violent confrontations between two South African unions have so far cost three mineworker's lives, and the situation shows little sign of being peacefully resolved.

At the heart of the conflict are not just labour issues, but the political affiliations of the rival parties.

Previous article on MAC: South Africa: Three die in Impala mine violence

South Africa's NUM urges miners to accept Implats offer


27 February 2012

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) urged its members on Monday to accept an offer by Impala Platinum to rehire miners at its Rustenburg operation, the scene of a violent illegal strike that has pushed platinum prices higher.

Mine workers listen to COSATU General Secretary at Imapla Platinum
Mine workers listen to COSATU General Secretary at Imapla
Platinum in Rustenburg, 21 February 2012. Source: Reuters

NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni said the workers needed to accept the offer "to prevent permanent job losses". It remains unclear if they will heed the call amid intimidation against workers who have tried to return to work.

The strike at Implats' Rustenburg operation, the world's largest platinum mine, has cost the company at least 80,000 ounces in lost output and is a key reason behind a 21 percent spike in the precious metal's spot price this year.

Production has effectively been halted since Jan. 12.

The strike has pitted the NUM against an upstart union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), and saw Implats sack 17,200 workers. Three men have been killed in clashes between the rival factions.

Implats said on Saturday workers had until 1300 GMT on Wednesday to reapply for their jobs. By Saturday, more than 8,700 had already reapplied, the company said.

It has said that because the strike had reduced its operational capacity, it would only be able to rehire 15,000 of the 17,200 fired workers.

(Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Ed Cropley)

Implats strike unearths big S Africa labour rift


28 February 2012

JOHANNESBURG/RUSTENBURG - Behind a violent strike at the world's largest platinum mine a battle is taking shape: union ties forged in the fight against apartheid are fraying, and a breed of labour leader is emerging who could destabilise industrial relations across South Africa.

The new kid on the block at Impala Platinum's giant Rustenburg mine near Johannesburg is the little-known Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

In the nearly six-week strike by more than 17 000 workers, the AMCU has been testing the waters against the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), South Africa's largest union with 320 000 members and roots buried deep in the struggle against white-minority rule.

Several workers interviewed by Reuters during a riot at the Rustenburg site this month accused NUM leaders of losing touch with the union rank and file and spending more time playing politics than fighting for workers' rights.

"We don't need NUM any more because they don't help us. They don't talk to the people," said one shabbily dressed, older worker who identified himself as an 'assistant instructor'.

Another miner, well-dressed in a collared blue shirt, said the miners wanted AMCU, not NUM, to resolve their issues.

"The workers want AMCU to speak to the management. I think they will resolve the problem," he said, as others standing on the edge of the conversation muttered their agreement.

The stakes for all sides are high.

A Zimbabwean contract worker was beaten to death last week for trying to go to work, the third man to die in more than two weeks of heightened tensions that have seen 59 others needing hospital treatment.

Implats says it has already lost 80 000 oz of platinum output to the stoppage, and world prices of the white metal have gained around 14% since the trouble started on January 12.

The NUM, a key backer of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) through its parent organisation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), has said it does not feel threatened by the AMCU.

Out of Control

One thing is certain: events on the ground in Rustenburg have spun beyond the control of NUM or the police.

What started as a protest by drill operators, after they were excluded from a pay increase granted to other skilled workers, turned into a mass stayaway that resulted in more than 17 000 workers being dismissed.

Implats admits that the emergence of AMCU lies at the heart of the dispute.

"This situation has been aggravated by the rejection of the NUM by a large constituency of its membership, specifically the rock drill operators," Implats said.

"In our opinion, the socio-economic realities of this group have been exploited and much misinformation used to influence their action."

AMCU accuses NUM leaders of being too political and growing too close to management in the 18 years that it has dominated mine labour since the end of apartheid. NUM shop stewards are also accused of corruption and being unfair to migrant workers.

"The lines between labour and politics have been blurred," AMCU national organiser Dumisani Nkalitshana told Reuters.

Such bad blood is not unique to Rustenburg, with the NUM in particular struggling because of its huge size, said Karl von Holdt, a labour relations expert at Johannesburg's Wits University.

"If that workforce is militant and mobilised, it is not necessarily that easy to manage or control. It has always been a volatile situation prone to outbreaks of violence," he said.


NUM says it does not fear AMCU, which has links to the Pan Africanist Congress, a rival to the ANC in the anti-apartheid struggle, but acknowledged that the smaller union was trying to recruit in some of the coal fields east of Johannesburg.

AMCU was also involved at a strike last year at a mine belonging to Lonmin, the world's third-largest platinum producer, and is recruiting at other platinum operations.

NUM says AMCU has made promises it cannot keep on issues such as the wages it could negotiate for workers and that members lost to it have come back.

"The NUM is not threatened by AMCU ... They are telling lies. At one stage they took the entire membership of NUM in Limpopo province, and then the members discovered they are not telling the truth and we got back 75% of that membership," said NUM general secretary Frans Baleni.

Mining executives do not share NUM's sangfroid and cite reasons that AMCU's influence could spread.

Unlike the gold mining industry, where miners live in hostels, the bulk of those employed by the platinum industry live in communities next the mines, making it easier for new ideas and movements to spread from mine to mine.

"The Impala workforce are with our people and interact with our people," Neville Nicolau, CE of top producer Anglo American Platinum, told Reuters.

"We have had to be very careful to make sure that when our people come back to work that we don't get the start of something."

The platinum sector is also a tempting target for an upstart union, because unlike the gold and coal industries it does not negotiate industry-wide agreements with unions.

So if workers are disgruntled with their union at one company, a new one can come in and say it can try and get them a better deal. This is a tougher sell when the entire industry has struck a wage deal.

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said the protracted illegal strike suggests the NUM may be losing its grip.

"The strikes could signal an erosion of the legitimacy of established mine workers' unions and an increased splintering of trade unions," said Africa researcher Anne Frühauf.

"Illegal strikes will likely become more common, especially if workers believe that the NUM failed to represent them adequately at Implats' Rustenburg mine while AMCU's presence - though covert - has brought them gains."

Implats strike costs 120,000 oz, 2.4 billion rand


2 March 2012

JOHANNESBURG - Impala Platinum said that a crippling illegal strike at its key Rustenburg operation has now cost it 120,000 ounces in lost platinum group metals production, which equates to 2.4 billion rand ($322 million) in lost revenue.

Johan Theron, a senior executive at Implats, also told Reuters on Friday that the operation was still set to reboot next week as almost 15,000 mineworkers have been rehired, but it remained unclear when full production would resume.

"I don't know how long it will take to get back to steady state production," Theron said.

"Our intention is to open all shafts but we will not be putting people back in all areas. Our focus is to get the productive areas up and running first and evaluate the restart of the more marginal areas later," he said.

Implats' Rustenburg operation is the world's largest platinum mine and the initial output target for this financial year was around 915,000 ounces.

What started as a dispute over bonuses awarded to only part of the workforce ended as a battle for union membership between the National Union of Mineworkers and a smaller rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

Thee people have died during the strike.

The company originally dismissed 17,200 workers for participating in the illegal strike which lasted for around six weeks, and has said it can only now rehire 15,200 because of lost operational capacity.

Implats is the world's second largest platinum producer and accounts for about 25 percent of global supply of the precious metal. The Rustenburg stoppage is a key reason behind a spike of more than 20 percent in the platinum price in the year to date.

($1 = 7.4609 South African rand)

(Reporting By Sherilee Lakmidas, editing by Ed Stoddard and Anthony Barker)

Former Implats workers block entrance

By Gia Nicolaides

Eye Witness News

2 March 2012

Dozens of former Impala Platinum (Implats) mineworkers have blocked the main entrance to the mine in Rustenburg.

This after some workers failed to get their jobs back.

In January, the company fired some 17,200 workers after employees embarked on an strike, despite a court interdict declaring their action illegal.

Miners were striking because bonuses were only given to some workers.

The situation returned to normal this week after Implats reinstated about 13,000 people.

Spokesperson for the National Union of Mineworkers, Lesiba Seshoka, said others have still not been reinstated.

He said Implats committed itself to rehiring 15,200 of its workers, but that the union was negotiating for all of its workers to be rehired.

Implats said it can only rehire around 15,000 workers because it lost operational capacity.

(Edited by Thato Motaung)

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