South Deep Mine. Picture: SUPPLIED
South Deep Mine. Picture: SUPPLIED

The National Union of Mineworkers' (NUM's) head office called off the union's six-week industrial action at Gold Fields's South Deep mine, raising hopes that a violent strike has come to an end.

Gold Fields, however, remains cautious about calling the strike over, citing internal wranglings within the union and the possibility of the branch leadership structure and its supporters not heeding the call to end the strike.

Gold Fields told its employees on Tuesday evening it had received notification from the NUM's head office that the strike was over.

The branch leadership was suspended by the national office after Gauteng regional chair Ndlela Radebe was attacked and stabbed on December 3, following his address to a mass rally of workers calling on the branch leadership to end the strike.

Once the branch leadership was suspended the regional leadership took over their duties and called an end to the strike, which had been called to protest against the retrenchment of 1,082 South Deep employees and 420 contractors.

There are real fears that the suspended branch leadership and their supporters, thought to number between 150 and 200 people, could use violence and intimidation to stop the return to work.

"We can confirm that the NUM called us to say the strike is off. However, we are concerned about violence and intimidation so we are gradually and cautiously bringing employees back to work from Thursday onwards," Gold Fields spokesperson Sven Lunsche said on Wednesday.

The most pressing issue at South Deep, which has been idled since November 2 when the strike started, was to ensure it was safe for workers to return, a process that could take until the end of 2018, Lunsche said.

Extra security and tight access controls would be enforced as employees started returning to work, said Martin Preece, the executive vice-president of the SA division, and Benford Mokoatle, the head of operations at the mine.

"This follows the directive from the NUM regional office to the South Deep NUM branch to call off the strike as it was not serving the interests of its members," the two men said in a statement to employees.

"As we’ve communicated, we have also received confirmation through the internal petition that we ran that the majority of South Deep employees wish to return to work," they said.

Gold Fields CEO Nick Holland has called 2018 a washout for South Deep, which has failed to meet production and cost targets.

According to the Gold Fields website, the strike has cost the mine R360m in lost revenue and employees have lost R112m in wages in the no-work-no-pay strike.

Gold Fields has spent R32bn on buying and redeveloping South Deep since 2006, but has yet to make sustainable profits or to meet production targets at the mine.

The second large strike in SA's gold sector, the pay protest called by the NUM's rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) at Sibanye-Stillwater's gold mines shows no signs of ending.

The strike called on November 21 to protest for higher wages, despite three other unions signing wage agreements at Sibanye's mines in Gauteng and the Free State, has been marked by killings, violence and intimidation.

Sibanye's executive head of human resources Themba Nkosi has said three people have been killed in violence related to the strike. He pointed out Amcu's representation of 43% of the gold workforce was outweight by the 49% representation by other unions which had signed the wage agreement.

seccombea@bdfm.co.za