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Joseph Mathunjwa addresses NUM and Amcu workers at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, June 2 2022. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE/SOWETAN
Joseph Mathunjwa addresses NUM and Amcu workers at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, June 2 2022. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE/SOWETAN

There is a heavy security presence at gold mining company Gold One’s Modder East operation in Springs, east of Johannesburg, where more than 500 mineworkers remain trapped underground by their colleagues.

Entry and exit points to the mine remain guarded by armed private security personnel as several hundred mineworkers with Amcu and NUM paraphernalia follow developments from under a shelter near the entrance to the shaft.

Water, softdrinks and loaves of bread destined for the 543 mineworkers held hostage underground were allowed inside the facility but the food has yet to be taken underground, to the chagrin of those who had brought in the supplies. 

Security vehicles including a police nyala were seen speeding into the premises after 1pm on Tuesday.

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) deputy general secretary Mpho Phakedi said: “We are still here at Gold One mine. The developments are that we are still waiting to see how we intervene to make sure workers get out from underground.

“So far, there is no solution [to the crisis] as yet. We are engaging with management and other stakeholders to find a solution. We are hopeful that by later tonight [Tuesday] we should have a solution.”

NUM deputy regional secretary Mlulameli Mweli said management had been “given an instruction by the department of mineral resources and energy to allow for food to be taken underground”.

“At this stage we don’t know what’s happening underground,” said Mweli.

Amcu general secretary Jeff Mphahlele did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Amcu has been interdicted from continuing with the hostage situation at the company. This after Gold One approached the labour court on an urgent basis on Monday after a standoff between the gold miner and Amcu escalated into a hostage crisis on Monday with more than 500 workers trapped underground by their colleagues.

In the interim order granted on Monday evening, Amcu was interdicted from assaulting, intimidating and/or threatening Gold One’s employees, and from inciting any other employee to do the same. The SA Police Service was directed to “immediately take all necessary steps” to ensure Amcu complied with the interim order.

Amcu was directed to show cause on January 26, 2024 why the interim order should not be made final.

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu told Business Day on Tuesday that Gold One was seemingly failing to implement the interim court order.

“There are Amcu members who are carrying weapons inside the company premises, they are singing and threatening our members in front of the police and mine security. The situation is very volatile,” Mammburu said.

“The company is not respecting their own interdict which was granted in their favour. They are allowing hooligans to roam free in their premises, intimidating our members. Vulnerable women are being held hostage, they have been kidnapped and nine NUM members were injured underground when they wanted to return to the surface.”

Dimakatso Nevhuhulwi, a police spokesperson, said the management of the mine is in talks with the union, and the police are on standby to monitor any eventualities.

Nevhuhulwi confirmed that about 550 miners have been prevented from returning to the surface at Gold One’s Modder East shaft in Springs, east of Johannesburg.

Jon Hericourt, who speaks on behalf of Gold One, a company that counts the China-Africa Development Fund as an investor, was quoted as saying a group of Amcu members had cut off communication and injured some of the hostages on Monday afternoon.

“A group of Amcu members started holding everyone hostage. They are preventing them from coming up from underground. They are keeping them in certain working areas, they have cut off all communication, and there have been some injuries,” News24 quoted Hericourt as saying.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has a rival presence at the mine, said its members are being held hostage by people who are “heavily armed”.

“We are worried as NUM that some of the members have chronic illnesses and they have not eaten for some time now. We have been informed by our members at Gold One that they want to go underground and rescue those members,” union spokesperson Mammburu said.

Mammburu called on law enforcement agencies to act.

“We can’t allow a situation where our members are kidnapped. This is not just a hostage situation, our members have been kidnapped against their will, and those responsible must be arrested.”

The hostage crisis is the latest episode in SA’s troubled mining sector, which has been plagued by labour unrest, violence and low productivity. The crux of the dispute between Gold One and Amcu is the recognition of the union as the majority representative of the workers.

Amcu claims to have more members than NUM, which has a closed-shop agreement. Amcu has approached the labour court to challenge section 21 of the Labour Relations Act dealing with organisational rights.

“That is what is happening at the moment. The labour court has not yet ruled on that matter, so they decided to kidnap workers underground, including our members,” said a NUM official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“They can’t be forced to be members of Amcu. What’s the use of kidnapping more than 500 workers underground, when this issue is before the labour court to be resolved? That can’t be allowed.”

According to the Labour Relations Act, a closed-shop agreement effectively refers to a collective agreement between a majority trade union and an employer, dictating that employees must be members of that union.

Amcu, which has been fighting to be legally recognised as a representative for the majority of the company’s nearly 2,000 workers, did not confirm or deny the workers are being held hostage.

Speaking to Business Day from the Modder East operation on Monday afternoon, Amcu general secretary Jeff Mphahlele said the union is seeking representation at the mine, where it says it says it has 1,700 members out of 1,870 mineworkers.

“We are at the mine now, we are trying to speak to the workers who are underground. The night shift staff decided to do a sit-in [on Sunday], they did not come out this [Monday] morning. Now in the eyes of management, they are saying those workers are holding others [hostage] underground,” Mphahlele said.

He accused Gold One of denying Amcu organisational rights despite it having overtaken NUM “as the majority union” in the workplace.

“We can’t confirm or deny that [workers are being held hostage]. Just like the media we are getting that information about the hostage situation from management,” Mphahlele said. “Management should have served NUM with a notice revoking its recognition as the majority union once it became evident to them that they have lost that status.”

Amcu has been making serious inroads in the gold mining sector. It replaced the ANC-aligned NUM as the dominant union in the platinum sector after the Marikana massacre in Rustenburg in 2012. Police killed 34 striking Lonmin mineworkers. Another 10 people were killed in the preceding week.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that a court interdict has been obtained

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