Confusing roots of the upheaval at Implats

Posted on February 19, 2012


Money, historic distrust, poor communication by and between different parties and the intervention of a small criminal element provided the volatile mix that exploded into violence at the Impala Platinum (Implats) Rustenberg operations in South Africa. At least one miner was killed in the week ending February 18 and more than ten were injured as rioting continued following a series of illegal strikes. Informal, “spaza” shops in the nearby shack settlement were also looted.

As relative calm was maintained by a large police contingent, the precise causes of the strikes and subsequent rioting were still being assessed. Implats Chief Executive Officer, David Brown, claimed that the incidents were sparked by rivalry between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and relative newcomer, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

However, both unions deny this was the case although they concede that clashes between individual members of the two unions may have been a contributing factor once the strikes had begun. “We have fewer than 1 000 members at Implats out of about 25 000 workers and, as a union, we are not involved there,” says Amcu general secretary, Jeff Mphahlele.

NUM spokesperson, Lesiba Seshoka agrees: “A small minority could not have caused this. The real trigger was management unilaterally announcing an 18 percent bonus for miners only.”

This bonus announcement was made in December and immediately led to disruption at Implats, because the skilled and generally higher paid rock drill operators felt they had been excluded. They demanded an after-tax wage of R9,000 a month — they currently earn R6,000 — that they see as maintaining the differential between them and the ordinary miners.

“We in NUM were also angry because this announcement was made without first consulting us and only months after we had concluded a two-year agreement with Implats,” says Seshoka. However, Implats management categorically denies that NUM was not informed or that the union did not give approval to the bonus payments.

It was at this stage that communication seems to have broken down and rumour and suspicion, sometimes verging on paranoia, took hold. The rock drill operators illegally took strike action and, without their services, no mining can take place.

The intervention by NUM with management then appears to have been interpreted by a large section of miners as the union attempting to stop the bonus payment. Thousands of miners then struck work amid reports of widespread intimidation.

Management and union members agree that this did lead to some NUM members defecting to the apparently more militant Amcu, a union based in the province of Mpumalanga, that broke away from NUM in 1998. Sectarian fuel to an already blazing fire.

This is understandable because NUM has, in recent years, been involved in sometimes rancorous arguments with smaller unions that have been eroding the NUM membership. Prime among these has been Amcu that was established at the Douglas colliery in the Mpumalanga town of Witbank and formally registered as a union in 2001.

The bitter unprotected strike at Lonmin’s Karee shaft in the North West province last year saw large numbers of NUM members switching their allegiance to Amcu. “We now have majority membership at the shaft, but management still won’t recognise us,” says Mphahlele.

However, the majority of union members across Lonmin operations are still members of NUM. This numbers game, the smaller unions claim, is being distorted by what they say is the domination by NUM members at management level in human resources departments.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is obviously widespread disgruntlement among NUM members in the platinum sector. This situation has allowed other unions, often influenced by political groups that are opposed to the SA Communist Party and the close links it has with Cosatu, to recruit in what was once exclusively NUM territory.

Even the small, Western Cape-based Commercial Services and Allied Workers’ Union now has members among miners in the North West. So does the National Council of Trade Unions-aligned Metal and Electrical Workers’ Union.

The Johannesburg labour court is also soon scheduled to hear a case brought by Amcu regarding the unionisation of the country’s oldest gold mines in Barberton. Amcu claims 1,000 of the 1,400-strong workforce as members, but says management refuses to recognise this.

Amcu argues that this failure of recognition, either as a minority or majority at a shaft or mine is unconstitutional. “Workers have the right to join a union of their choice,” says Mphahlele. Amcu now plans to take the matter to the Constitutional Court.

This inter-union battle has certainly got underway at Implats, but as a result of the upheaval caused by the initial bonus payment strike and not as the cause. Seshoka points out that tensions were further heightened when management sacked 17,200 strikers and announced that they would not be reinstated, although they could be re-hired. This means a loss of seniority and the benefits that go with it.

Reinstatement is now the main issue in discussions between management and NUM, with the union expressing fears that Implats is using the situation to restructure the company to the detriment of the miners. Seshoka fears that failure of management to back down on the reinstatement issue will further inflame the situation.

He admits: “A culture of ill-discipline is growing and we have arrived at anarchy.” This he attributes to an influx of mainly young miners who are “angry and impatient”. As a result, NUM does not exercise control over many of the miners in a region “where we are by far the biggest union”.

All three unions at Implats — NUM, Amcu and Solidarity — also agree that an important factor to bear in mind is that miners are generally poorly paid for doing very dangerous work that provides often great profits to the companies. This perception, in the absence of good communication, creates an environment in which rumours and opportunistic militancy can thrive. “And this is to the detriment of all unions,” agrees Mphahlele.

Given the loss of production at the world’s biggest platinum mine, it is safe to say that it is also to the detriment of management.