News / Africa

    S. Africa Mines Less Violent as AMCU Union Plays by Rules

    Miners gather at a hill known as the "Hill of Horror" ahead of the one-year anniversary commemorations to mark the killings of 34 striking platinum miners shot dead by police outside the Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine in Rustenburg, South Africa, Aug. 16
    Miners gather at a hill known as the "Hill of Horror" ahead of the one-year anniversary commemorations to mark the killings of 34 striking platinum miners shot dead by police outside the Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine in Rustenburg, South Africa, Aug. 16
    Reuters
    A year ago, militant South African miners affiliated to upstart union AMCU were marching with spears, clubs and knives in often violent wildcat strikes and protests against management bosses.
     
    But in recent months leaders of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, an emerging force on the labor stage of Africa's biggest economy, have been sitting down to tough but peaceful wage talks with mining executives.
     
    Strikes still look certain in the struggling mining sector as soaring union wage demands collide head on with depressed metals prices.
     
    But AMCU's change of tactics and embrace of legal processes governing wage talks suggest that last year's bloody mine violence which shocked the world and dragged down South Africa's growth and credit ratings may be avoided this year.
     
    There are even signs that AMCU's turf war last year, which saw it wrest tens of thousands of members from the rival National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), may have cooled somewhat, with both unions focusing efforts on winning better wages in the gold, coal and platinum mines, rather than fighting each other.
     
    Almost a week after NUM left the table in wage talks with gold producers, signaling an imminent strike by its members, AMCU remains in the negotiations. It also spent months in talks with platinum producer Lonmin this year to secure a recognition agreement earlier this month.
     
    This is a sharp departure from 2012, when AMCU's recruitment drive turned workers into warring illegal strikers, costing billions of dollars in lost output and culminating in the shooting dead of 34 miners by police at Lonmin's Marikana mine. It was the worst such incident since apartheid ended in 1994.
     
    “Now that AMCU has secured the platinum belt, we are entering a phase where they are evolving into a real trade union,” said Crispen Chinguno, a researcher at the sociology department of Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand and an expert on labor relations in the platinum sector.
     
    “They have union dues coming in, they have recognition, and so they must now play by the rules of the game because they are in the game,” said Chinguno.
     
    AMCU also wants to be seen working within the law because it believes the forces of the state are ranged against it.
     
    Its rival NUM is a key political ally of President Jacob Zuma and his  ruling African National Congress (ANC). Senior leaders from the governing alliance, including the head of South Africa's Communist Party, have denounced AMCU as a “vigilante union.”
     
    “AMCU is in unfriendly terrain and has to bed down its structures. It cannot afford a three-front fight against NUM, management and the ANC,” said political analyst Nic Borain.
     
    AMCU's explosive entry onto the labor scene last year also occurred when almost no scheduled wage talks were taking place.
     
    It pushed its way into shafts by promising disgruntled NUM workers it could get better deals for them.
     
    Now, with regularly scheduled bi-annual wage talks in the mining sector unfolding, AMCU is in a position of strength, with most of the country's platinum workers flying its green colors. It also represents 17 percent of South Africa's gold miners.
     
    "A living wage"
     
    AMCU is consolidating its gains and both unions must deliver for their members by extracting big pay hikes on their behalf.
     
    Boardroom relief that legal channels are being followed should be tempered however by the size of wage increases sought.
     
    NUM wants a 60 percent rise from gold producers including AngloGold Ashanti and Sibanye for entry-level miners. On Saturday, NUM gave companies, who are offering 6 percent, a seven-day ultimatum to meet its demands or face strikes.
     
    AMCU, whose members in the gold sector could also down tools soon, is sticking to its battle cry of a “living wage” of 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month, which would mean a more than doubling of pay for tens of thousands of mine workers.
     
    This reflects the uncompromising stance championed by its president Joseph Mathunjwa, a Salvation Army lay preacher who calls on a powerful mix of social justice, African nationalism and evangelical Christianity.
     
    “A living wage is the only way to go. This is not a boardroom mandate. The workers gave us this mandate,” Mathunjwa told Reuters.
     
    Companies, including the world's top platinum producer Anglo American Platinum, which suffered a loss last year, say they cannot afford the wage hikes being demanded as their costs soar and metal prices fall.
     
    But South Africa's mostly black mining labor force is in no mood for lectures about income statements as it seeks a bigger share of the spoils from an industry built on low wages and migrant labor during the years of apartheid.
     
    “Nineteen years has been wasted. Show me what has changed for the mine workers since 1994?” Mathunjwa said.
     
    Brotherly love?
     
    AMCU officials insist they will deliver for their members within the framework of the law and point to the Lonmin recognition agreement, which opens the way for legal wage talks with the company, as an example of good faith in negotiation.
     
    “It shows we are committed to finding solutions in the mining sector. A strike is not the only way to find solutions,” said AMCU General Secretary Jeffrey Mphahlele.
     
    AMCU in fact orchestrated brief strikes at Lonmin earlier this year while pointedly not letting them spin out of control, underscoring a new sense of discipline in its ranks.
     
    The Lonmin deal could even be a sign that corporate charm can help defuse some of AMCU's feared militancy.
     
    Lonmin's new chief executive, Ben Magara, is an affable black Zimbabwean who dealt directly with AMCU, a departure from the aloof approach often taken by white executives. Magara even called Mathunjwa “Bra Joe” - South African slang for brother.
     
    But things could still turn frosty during their wage talks and none of this can be expected to completely end violence in the mines. While not on the scale of last year's carnage, machete attacks on mine guards, shantytown riots and tit-for-tat killings between the unions still take place.
     
    When this year's wage settlements are finally done and dusted, the relative lull in the union turf war could end. A new recruitment campaign by either AMCU or NUM could easily ignite more unrest, not least because union membership is so vital to the culture and identity of South Africa's miners.
     
    “It's a big deal to switch unions. For a South African mine worker, the union is everything. It looks after them, it is their sense of identity, it is their voice,” said Chinguno.

    You May Like

    Video Twists and Turns Aplenty in US Presidential Race

    Even as Americans pause for this week’s Memorial Day holiday, much attention is focused on the presidential contest

    China's Education Reforms Spark Protest

    Beijing is putting a quota system in place to increase the number of students from poor regions attending universities

    The Struggle With Painkillers: Treating Pain Without Feeding Addiction

    'Wonder drug' pain medications have turned out to be major problem: not only do they run high risk of addicting the user, but they can actually make patients' chronic pain worse, US CDC says

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora