New strikes set to be Amcu’s biggest test yet

The Association of Construction and Mineworkers Union's (Amcu's) strike within the platinum and gold sectors this week is set to provide the union's toughest test yet.

Following Monday's press conference at the House of Movements, hastily called by five Amcu shop stewards from Impala and Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), apparently in response to Sunday's volatile Rustenburg mass meeting, long-existing fissures within Amcu are now openly visible and public.

The shop stewards, namely George Tyobeka, Lovers Mkhwa and Gaddafi Mdoda from Amplats, as well as Julius Mralathi and Vuyo Maqanda, both from Impala, rose to prominence from the independent workers' committees that were instrumental in the National Union of Mineworkers's (NUM) eventual fall from grace. Its members were eventually absorbed into Amcu following 2012's strike in the platinum and gold sectors. This strike wave, which gained impetus after the Marikana massacre, landed tens of thousand of new members for Amcu. Less than two years since, accusations and counter accusations of corruption and fraud has come to characterise the relationship between Amcu and some of the former members of the workers' committees that helped establish it. The workers' committees, seen as a threat to Amcu's hegemony were largely disbanded following the 2012 strike wave.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the press conference was hosted by the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), whose leaders Mametlwe Sebei and Liv Shange spent the better part of five years helping to organise workers into a more progressive, alternative formation. After Marikana, that formation was widely held to be Amcu. 

A new union, which Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa believes to have already garnered the support of some of those who once backed him, is said to be in existence, chipping away at Amcu's structural and ideological weaknesses. 

The emergence of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) as a major player in the mining industry following the NUM's decline, has also heightened Mathunjwa's paranoia. Those who attended Sunday's mass rally at Rustenburg's Olympic Stadium have noted how he not only named and berated "fraudulent" and "corrupt" apostates – leading to the assault of one worker – but also prevented invited Numsa president Andrew Chirwa from speaking.

What has become clear since Sunday is that Amcu's leadership considers the five shop stewards, as well as their sympathisers – "former Amcu members" who have already been "wined and dined by [Jacob] Zuma" – as those who have already taken bribes from mining houses (in order to facilitate retrenchments) and have been recruited into the shadowy new union's ranks. 

What is pivotal at this point, and what the shop stewards and Wasp have drawn attention to, is how this recent strike is likely to pan out. The speakers at Monday's press conference highlighted what they called a forced consensus, a lack of unity and a clear strategy for the strike that might see the mining houses scupper the all-important goal of R12 500 as the entry-level wage in the mining industry. 

Other commentators have noted how Mathunjwa's January 15 statement on "wage disputes in the mining sector" seemed to be more about asserting his ego as opposed to forthright declaration of properly canvassed consensus. 

Tellingly, the five shop stewards – some whose direct powers have been stripped owing to retrenchments in some of the mining houses they represented – were equivocal on their stance regarding the strike. Others, such as Impala's Maqanda, seemed somewhat opposed to it, while Amplats's Mdoda said they would support the upcoming strike only if Mathunjwa met them around a negotiating table to iron out their differences and allowed workers to discuss a strategy for the strike. Otherwise, the shop stewards said, they would return to the safety of the workers' committees that paved the way for Amcu's infiltration into the platinum belt to begin with. It is a statement best read between the lines.

It is difficult to assess how much momentum the call to end or postpone the strike will gather, especially considering Sunday's show of force. Those opposed to what they have called a disunited strike have called for a rally at Olympic Stadium – the same venue of Sunday's rally.

There are also other grey areas that may hamper the workers' readiness to strike. Some employees, desperate for last year's increases, are believed to have individually accepted offers being brandished by management of various mining houses, putting the legality of the impending strike action in question for them.

Wasp leader Mametlwe Sebei believes that in preparation for the strike, mining houses have stockpiled tonnes of gold and platinum, enough to keep their share prices stable and keep the R12 500 goalposts out of reach for even the most enthusiastic of strikers.

These are just a few of the reasons why some of the above mentioned shop stewards – or "former shop stewards", according to Amcu national treasurer Jimmy Gama – are seeing blood on the horizon.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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