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

    Chechen Suspected in Istanbul Attack, but Questions Remain

    Turkish sources say North Caucasus militants involved in bombing at Ataturk airport, but name of at least one alleged attacker raises doubts

    With Johnson Out, Can a New ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Save Britain?

    Contest to replace David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister started in earnest Thursday with top candidates outlining strategy to deal with Brexit fallout

    US Finds Progress Slow Against Human Trafficking in Africa

    Africa continues to be a major source and destination for human trafficking of all kinds -- from forced labor to sexual slavery, says State Department report

    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.
    Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Eitheri
    X
    Jim Malone
    June 29, 2016 6:16 PM
    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora