Split begins to show in Amcu ahead of platinum strike

2014-01-21 17:25

Dissidents in the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) are forming a rival to the militant labour group.

They are accusing its leadership of recklessly pursuing a damaging strike in the country’s platinum sector which many miners do not want and cannot afford.

The stakes are high as Amcu plans to strike on Thursday over wages at the world’s top three producers in a showdown between companies battling to maintain margins and workers struggling to feed their families.

South Africa’s ailing economy cannot afford more mine labour unrest, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said yesterday, as investor confidence in the country’s mining sector hits bottom and the rand is trading near five-year lows.

Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin, which account for more than half of world output, can ill afford stoppages after being battered by wildcat strikes in 2012. These were rooted in a turf war between Amcu and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in which dozens of people were killed.

Amcu’s charismatic president Joseph Mathunjwa is under pressure to deliver on promises of a “living wage” of R12 500 a month on the platinum belt. This is more than double current levels.

But some accuse him of losing touch with rank-and-file concerns and setting the stage for a protracted strike that will hurt workers.

“Many people don’t want to strike,” said Thebe Maswabi, a former Amcu shop steward at Amplats who is part of the group that says it plans to form a new union.

“There is nothing to show that Mathunjwa will bring us the money now and this union is not stable. So why should we trust that he will deliver this money?” he asked.

Other union sources said there was a concerted attempt to form a rival to Amcu, which is now the dominant union in the platinum shafts after poaching tens of thousands of NUM members.

“We were approached two weeks ago and asked if we wanted to help register a new trade union and breakaway group,” said Gideon du Plessis, general secretary of Solidarity, which represents mostly skilled workers.

“But we said we don’t want to do that and further damage our fragile relationship with Amcu,” he said.

Miners may struggle to hold out if the strike drags on.

“We are tired of strikes,” said Gaddafi Mdoda, one of the leaders of the 2012 strikes who is now part of the movement to create a new union.

“If you visit each and every room of the mine workers, the fridges are empty. It’s January. Now if they are going to go on strike in February how are they going to start the year with empty pockets?” he said.

Amcu leaders deny that there are cracks. On Sunday, when the strike vote was taken for Amplats, the union put on a show of force with a rally attended by about 15 000 members who greeted Mathunjwa like a rock star.

“We don’t have any disgruntled members in Amcu structures,” Mathunjwa said today on the SABC.

The most recent data shows no sign of Amcu’s growth cooling off. In mid-December, figures by Amplats showed the union had increased its membership at the company to 60% from 40% five months before. No figures have been released for January.

NUM spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu said: “We are expecting our members to go to work as usual because NUM is not on strike. We want the companies to protect the employees who are going to work.”

Mathunjwa is also facing scrutiny for recent displays of wealth and power. At Sunday’s rally he showed up in a brand-new Lexus car with a trio of white bodyguards – an image at odds with his message of black African nationalism and Christian compassion for the poor.

This raised eyebrows as Amcu rose to the top of the platinum belt by exploiting rank-and-file perceptions that its arch-rival, NUM, had grown too close to management.

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