The tension racking the platinum belt in the North West following the Marikana massacre last year is putting pressure on new force Amcu – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union – to consolidate control and, along the way, return the region to stability "They all come here with weapons, but we don't let them through. Yesterday, one pointed a gun at me and he said, 'Do you want to die?' I just ran away."
That was the account of a security guard at Lonmin's Newman shaft on Wednesday, one of several that shows how guns have become a feature of life at the Marikana complex recently. Contrary to claims of weapons carried by officials of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the guard was describing what amounted to an attack by Amcu members, members in a hurry to consolidate the union's new-found control over the Lonmin workforce.
Of course, as far as Lonmin is concerned, no such incidents have taken place. "We have investigated every allegation of firearms being in union offices and none of our searches have uncovered any weapons," said Lonmin vice-president Mark Munroe in a statement this week. It was echoed by every official representative.
Workers throughout the spectrum say otherwise and tell stories complete with dark hints of some (in the NUM) being allowed to smuggle weapons through company security checkpoints, while others (in Amcu) are arrested.
Tholakele "Bhele" Dlunga, who is expected to testify at the Marikana commission of inquiry, said armed members of the NUM recently gathered at at least one shaft so that Amcu members returning from their shift could see them as they emerged from underground. He also claimed, as have several others, that members of the NUM brandishing weapons made a grand entrance at the memorial service for deceased Lonmin worker Elson Ngomane, who died in an underground accident.
"I think they are responding to calls to close the offices," said Dlunga, before adding that the word at the mine was that influential Amcu members would be hunted down one at a time, a common belief among members.
Take by force
The issue that has brought the guns out is control of offices at the various mine shafts Lonmin operates. The Newman guard said the Amcu members on Tuesday intended to take by force offices operated by the NUM. But, like the shaft heads, much lurks beneath that seemingly banal motive.
Whether the claims regarding that specific confrontation are true or not, Amcu is a union in a hurry – and not without reason. It needs to grow up quickly, and if it fails to do so the economic and political repercussions could be dire.
So it is heartening that in a week in which there was seemingly carefully targeted violence in Marikana and the death of Amcu regional heavyweight Mawethu Steven, Amcu founder Joseph Mathunjwa at least temporarily halted the tide of violence with a masterful performance.
The Amcu president took to the stage at the Wonderkop stadium on Wednesday, faced the crowd and the famous Marikana koppie in the background, shared and sympathised with their anger over Steven's death, promised them swift action, then eloquently sent them on their way – and back to their jobs at the various nearby Lonmin platinum shafts – with not so much as a grumble. All without seeming to back down, or give an inch of ground to what he and his members perceive as the aggressors of the NUM.
In so doing, he put on display an Amcu very different from that seen immediately before and in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre. Then, the union had seemed not at all in control of its members, unable to connect with them, and unpredictable to the point of caprice. On Wednesday, however, Amcu listened and commanded, and most likely boosted Lonmin management's confidence in its abilities. Hours before, the company had said it expected workers to return to their jobs that evening, clearly with foreknowledge of Mathunjwa's intent.
But the union, though nearly a decade and a half old, is still caught in the throes of its birth pangs as a real force and faces significant problems it has little time to overcome: a slumbering giant of an opponent in the NUM; a deep, mutual distrust of Lonmin; and a severe lack of capacity to rule what it has conquered.
If it can overcome those problems, it may bring a new state of balance to the platinum industry and create a road map for others itching to break away from Cosatu and the ruling alliance. As it seems to realise, however, victory is not yet assured.
A relative non-entity until the Marikana crisis, Amcu now in effective controls the workforce at Lonmin, with official membership breaching 70%, and it is expanding its influence at other platinum producers. Managers say Solidarity, with its small but highly placed members, could still halt production at Lonmin, but the NUM, stuck in the middle, has virtually no remaining influence. As Amcu members and leaders well know.
"There is pressure to perform," said Steven Friedman, of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg and a longtime observer of unions.
"You are not dealing with members who have bonds of sentiment with you, you are the alternative they went to because [the NUM] didn't meet their needs. You need to show them that you can do the job."
That, it seems, is one of the roots of the conflict over office space that has resulted in armed confrontation and a wildcat strike at Lonmin in the past week. The NUM, as the former majority union at the mine, continues to occupy offices at various shafts. Lonmin said it had served what is, in effect, eviction notices, but the NUM has until July to make way for Amcu, thanks to bureaucracy.
On Thursday the NUM would not disclose its fightback strategy, saying it did not want to give Amcu advance warning, but that it was confident it could reclaim its losses in the platinum belt. And those offices form part of its assets.
"That's why we are resistant to losing those offices," said spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka. "We're hoping to use them to win back our members."
Amcu is in no mood to wait, and for good reason. The union suspects a grand conspiracy against it to keep the NUM in the game by ensuring its inclusion in bargaining councils through a recognition agreement that moves away from majority rule to something approaching proportional representation.
Lonmin this week confirmed that it was uncomfortable with a "winner takes all" union in its ranks and a unit manager explained why that may be, quite apart from a long trust relationship with the NUM.
"I'm sitting here, and I have to discipline a guy. If it is just Amcu in that hearing, what do you think is going to happen? Bring in other unions and we'll have a bit of a watchdog."
Besides concern that management is stalling for time (something the company denies), and the symbolic power of moving into the offices, various managers, workers and union officials said such offices were a real lever of power. Workers, faced with a disciplinary threat or unhappy about treatment, tend to head straight to the nearest office for help, especially at a time when Amcu has yet to formalise appointments for many shop stewards. He who solves the problem can expect their support in future.
"You have people who joined [Amcu] because it showed itself to be responsive to workers," said a former trade unionist peripherally involved in events at Lonmin. "Being responsive on wage negotiations is fine, but you need to show that you can take care of them day to day, otherwise they'll look back to the good old days of the NUM."
Amcu now also finds itself in a position familiar to many unions: trying to improve the lot of workers in an industry where money is tight "You have a situation in which management is saying it has been giving generous increases and workers say the money is not enough, and they are both right," said Friedman. "The increases have been substantial, but it is not enough to feed eight or nine mouths."
Navigating that amid gloomy platinum prices requires taking into account investor sentiment, potential job losses due to higher pay, and the appetite for workers to go without pay while on strike – an appetite that appears to have shrunk dramatically at Lonmin in recent months.
Among those who will be closely watching Amcu's ability to do just that will be industries ranging from agriculture to transport, disaffected workers across the economy, foreign investors – and just about every political party in the country.
The ANC, with its close association with the NUM and seeming unwillingness to call it to task, is an obvious interested party, but so are those in the opposition. Various analysts and leaders have confirmed that Amcu has been courted by everyone facing elections next year. So much so that it has become an irritant to Amcu.
"We will never, ever, ever join any political party," Mathunjwa said on Wednesday. In the run-up to 2013 elections, there are many who hope they can sway him on that.