Five years after the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) became the biggest mining union on the platinum belt, its president, Joseph Mathunjwa, has created a circle of power around himself so that, it is alleged, those who oppose him are purged and silenced.
At least five Amcu members have been killed on the platinum belt in the past two months. They include Amcu’s Impala treasurer, Mpeke Nonyana, shaft committee member Mohauh Maseko and the union’s Lonmin secretary, Zingisa Mzendane.
Amcu members in North West claim there is a direct link between Nonyana and Mzendane challenging the union and their subsequent deaths. Others have allegedly been threatened after showing dissent.
But Mathunjwa has blamed “apartheid’s third force” for the killings, speculating that they were part of a “new campaign being unleashed by the state and its allies”.
Mathunjwa has consolidated his control of the union since capitalising on miners’ unhappiness with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 2012. Members of workers’ committees who broke ranks with the NUM were made de facto Amcu branch leaders after the unprotected strikes in 2012, but many have since been purged to allegedly make room for Mathunjwa’s allies.
The recent spate of killings coincides with a number of the Lonmin, Impala and Anglo Platinum workers who led the 2012 strikes being purged or sidelined from the union. The Mail & Guardian has seen a forum on which former strike leaders communicate, which shows that many are no longer associated with Amcu.
The union has not elected new leaders since it postponed its congress that was scheduled for 2013.
Amcu members in Marikana this week told the M&G that calls for a national congress to elect new leaders were gaining momentum on the platinum belt, amid unhappiness by workers over the lack of democratic accountability in the union.
Ousted Amcu members claim that Mathunjwa is fuelling the violence through his public condemnation of members who oppose him.
This, they say, was demonstrated by his public rebuke of the union’s shaft stewards at Impala Platinum during a mass meeting in September. Less than 48 hours later, Nonyana was shot dead while going to buy food near the mine entrance.
“In that Impala mass [meeting] Mathunjwa allegedly said: ‘Those who are challenging me and recruiting at shaft 20, soon and very soon abantu bazozi’kakela [those people will shit themselves].’ That’s the style he uses. It’s a clear message,” one of the workers who attended the meeting told the M&G.
At the same meeting, Mathunjwa accused Impala worker Fezeka Nyamela of conspiring with rival unions to weaken Amcu. A day later, Nyamela’s car was torched.
A climate of fear has now gripped the platinum belt. This week, workers said they were too scared to reveal their names or be seen speaking to the media. The M&G was told not to visit the union’s Marikana offices or to ask its leaders any questions.
Mathunjwa did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, or to an SMS detailing the allegations made by the workers. Amcu spokesperson Manzini Zungu also failed to respond to requests for comment.
Workers allege that September was not the first time Mathunjwa used mass meetings, which are attended by thousands of Amcu members, to identify so-called enemies.
One of the first people to be labelled a traitor was Gaddafi Mdoda, who led workers’ committees in a five-month unprotected strike at Anglo Platinum in 2012. As Amcu’s popularity grew in 2013 and the NUM shed members, Mdoda and the committee were made Amcu shop stewards.
“All that changed when Mathunjwa called me out by name in the mass meeting in 2013. I received hundreds of unknown calls and threats by SMS immediately after I was labelled a traitor,” Mdoda said this week.
“I knew that my life was in danger. So I immediately called him. He couldn’t explain why he did it. He said if I think my life is in danger I must go to the police station,” he said.
The North West police have found no suspects in the killings, but confirmed that cases were under investigation. The motives for the killings were varied, say the workers who have broken ranks with Amcu.
The union’s western branch, dominated by Lonmin workers, is at the centre of the tension. Mzendane was shot and killed as he was waiting at a car wash in Marikana, days after reporting alleged corruption in the union.
“He sat against the zinc shop. His red Polo was already washed; in fact, we were getting ready to give him the keys,” a witness told the M&G. “A man came around the corner very fast and started shooting. It seems like he knew exactly what to do.”
Mzendane had been expelled from Amcu along with 28 other members employed at Lonmin after he illegally gained access to work emails of the branch chairperson, Malibongwe Mdazo, and claimed to have uncovered evidence of corruption.
“He reported to Mathunjwa the [alleged] corruption, which involved how the union’s money was being used. A few days later, Mathunjwa wrote to Lonmin informing them that he had expelled Mzendane,” a former Amcu branch member said.
The branch’s former chairperson, Zithobile Manqu, is in hiding, after resigning over what he described this week as a “dangerous” environment. “My experience of him [Mathunjwa] is someone who is the most corrupt, extremely dangerous and a big capitalist. It was like a vampire sucking the blood of workers while claiming he’s helping us,” Manqu said.
Mzendane’s murder was followed by the killing of the western branch’s health and safety chairperson, Mvelisi Biyela, who was shot in front of his family in Marikana. Mathunjwa’s dissenters claim Biyela had discovered more evidence of corruption, but Amcu said his death showed that “war” had been declared on the union.
“If it is war, then let it be known we can fight. We don’t have, nor do we believe in, killing machines to wage war. We will not fight with bullets, guns and anonymous hitmen but with mass action,” Mathunjwa said in a statement.
Biyela, who is due to be buried in the Eastern Cape on Friday, confided in his allies at Lonmin shortly before he was killed. One of them, a 35-year-old miner, fled Marikana in the hours after Biyela was shot following warnings that he would be next.
“They went straight for my room at the Lonmin family unit hostels. They broke the door open looking for me, and took everything. My double fridge, plasma TV and sound system,” he told the M&G from his hideout.
The smell of rotting food now permeates the hostel room, with the worker’s clothes and other possessions still scattered across the floor. He is not the only one in hiding.
The M&G has confirmed that at least five of the 28 people who were fired from the union, including a hospital staff member and three workers allied to the shaft committee at Lonmin, have left the mining town.
In desperation, the expelled workers in hiding have turned to Solly Phetoe, deputy general secretary of the labour federation Cosatu.
“Exposing these things publicly might open them up to an attack. It’s true that they came. They called me after Biyela was killed,” Phetoe said.
“The workers want somebody to guarantee their safety before they say those things about corruption in public. We know workers are resigning from Amcu, rejoining NUM. The problem is those workers are afraid to hand over the stop orders because they risk being killed,” he claimed.
The same workers have met the National Intelligence Agency, seeking protection from what they claim is a systematic targeting of Mathunjwa’s enemies.