Lonmin strike: Tension between unions hampers mine's output

Lonmin's Marikana mine lost a total of 480 saleable platinum ounces and 8 200 production tonnes in the down time. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Lonmin's Marikana mine lost a total of 480 saleable platinum ounces and 8 200 production tonnes in the down time. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

While production and on-the-job safety levels at the mine reflect a strong recovery from the devastating killing of 44 people in strike action there last August, tensions between labour unions at the mine are once again hitting at output levels.

Early on Tuesday morning, workers from five Lonmin mine shafts stayed on the surface instead of reporting underground for duty. While workers from three of the shafts eventually began production, those from the Saffy and Newman shaft remained on the ground. Almost 6 000 workers downed tools.

The mine lost a total of 480 saleable platinum ounces and 8 200 production tonnes in the down time.

Lonmin's executive vice-president of process division and sustainability, Natasha Viljoen, said that the strike seemed to have been incited by a demand from the Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union (Amcu) for the offices of rival union National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to be removed from the mine's premises.

The request was in direct violation of the Peace Accord – a treaty that was signed a week ago and has the Chamber of Mines, the South African Mining Development Association and labour unions Amcu and NUM, amongst others, as signatories.

"In the spirit of the Peace Accord, we won't be [closing the NUM offices at the Saffy shaft]," said Viljoen. Instead, Lonmin management entered into negotiations with all unions at the mine on Tuesday afternoon.

'Illegal' protest
Amcu, often seen as a young, militant union, was only recognised by Lonmin last year and now represents the majority of workers there. Mine management will not confirm the numbers in each group, only saying that "Amcu has the majority representation".

Amcu K3 shaft shopsteward Phahla Mekela joined the union six weeks ago, after spending five years at NUM in the same position. He moved over "because of the delay of the response from the NUM leaders at regional level." Mekela said that Amcu had a freer structure and was not bogged down by bureaucracy. In contrast, he said that Amcu had achieved "so much" in the past short while.

Amcu leaders, however, are likely to come under fire for inciting yet another wildcat protest. "We had no warning of this; we did not receive notice of it through the CCMA," said executive vice-president of mining, Mark Munroe.

"It's illegal."

Edwin Pholo, NUM shopsteward at Lonmin's K3 shaft, told the Mail & Guardian that NUM members were scared of those from Amcu. Pholo said he had been forced to relocate from his home in Marikana to another area because of intimidation by Amcu, and that several others had to do the same.

But strikers on Tuesday showed no sign of harassment or intimidation. "What was positive is that it was just calm. There was no violence. We are in talking mode," said Viljoen.

By Tuesday evening, it was still unclear whether the strike would continue the next day.

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

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