Did the management of Anglo Platinum (Amplats) and the government do a deal behind closed doors regarding retrenchments and shaft closures? Amid a swirl of rumour and innuendo and in an atmosphere of considerable distrust, this is an allegation heard across the union divide.
Because the announcement by Amplats that it had downscaled possible retrenchments at its operations from 14 000 to 6 000 came after a series of meetings from which the unions were excluded. However, there were several media reports that this compromise deal had been struck with all parties.
The confusion arose because there had been meetings between government, Amplats and the unions following the January announcement by Amplats of pending restructuring involving major retrenchments. This announcement was made without first informing either the unions or government.
Mines minister Susan Shabangu was outraged and both the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) expressed their extreme displeasure. The upshot was a series of talks involving Amplats, government and unions that appear to have resolved nothing.
However, as Amplats chief executive Chris Griffith confirmed in a radio interview on Friday, these were followed by a series of “bilaterals” in which Amplats and government representatives discussed “deeper issues”. These concerned pricing structures and conditions in the market. It was following these that the revised restructuring package was announced.
To many union members, both in Amcu and NUM, this smacks of collusion between management and government. It has also resulted in accusations by some Amcu members that government agreed to the deal because it “has NUM in its pocket”. NUM and its supporters respond by describing Amcu as, at best, “opportunistic” or even “counter-revolutionary”
In spite of denials about any secret deal being struck between government and Amplats, the perception of collusion lingers. In any event, both unions feel that they should not have been excluded in any discussions about all and any aspects affecting the industry. The implication that there exist “deeper issues” that do not concern mine workers, is dismissed with contempt.
There is also a common belief among miners that Amplats and other mining houses in the platinum group metals industry have been manipulating the market. This perception holds that the companies have large stockpiles of metal that they can release or hold back in order to manipulate the platinum price; that the losses now reported are artificially created as an excuse to retrench miners.
Both unions — in unison, but not united — also resolutely oppose plans by Amplats to retrench workers. However, despite these common positions, there seems little likelihood of any rapprochement between them especially since NUM appears determined to try to claw back its former position of dominance.
But Amcu is now clearly the majority union, not only at Amplats but also at Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonrho (Lonmin). The rivalry between the two is also intense with allegations of thuggery and even assassinations being leveled by both sides.
What was widely seen as an example of the militant turn this rivalry may take, NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka warned that any retrenchments by Amplats will mean “a declaration of war”. He also stated that nothing short of a double digit pay rise will be acceptable in coming wage negotiations.
Cosatu, to which NUM is affiliated, has also weighed in, backtracking on a former position by calling for the mines to be nationalised. The National Council of Trade Unions, to which Amcu is affiliated, condemns this as an example of “Cosatu and NUM trying to out-militant us”.
So far, however, Amcu, while opposing retrenchments, has not made any statement regarding wage demands. Amcu president, Joseph Mathunjwa maintains that his union’s members are still discussing what their demands should be. However, Amcu wants to bargain on a plant-by-plant basis, while NUM wishes to retain centralised bargaining where it has traditionally held the dominant position.
All that seems certain at this stage is that a complicated and bitter series of battles is brewing. Even who will be on which side and why is something of an open question.