Workers aligned to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union march in Rustenburg in this file photo. Picture: SOWETAN
Workers aligned to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union march in Rustenburg in this file photo. Picture: SOWETAN

The strike called by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) at Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold mines is puzzling on a number of levels and faces doing real harm if it continues much longer.

The union would have been made keenly aware of the unprofitable nature of the gold division from the start of 2018, a period also dominated by the death of 21 workers during various underground incidents.

As part of the wage talks with three other unions over a period of months, Sibanye’s negotiators would present the company’s financial statements, explaining why it would not agree to  the unions’ demand and to justify its counteroffers.

There would be little to no mystery about the financial state of the gold mines even allowing for a degree of scepticism on the actual numbers presented by the company.

Audited interim numbers and the third-quarter production data give a legally binding view of the losses at the three operational gold mines near Carletonville in Gauteng and Beatrix in the Free State.

Amcu still called 15,000 of its members at the mines, which employ 32,200 people, out on strike despite the wage settlement agreed to by the three other unions being not too far from the R1,000 a month increase that Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa is demanding.

With the 15,000 Amcu members, and other workers,  losing an average of R4,250 in wages and bonus payments in the first week of the strike under Sibanye’s no-work-no-pay policy, the year-end period when the mines shut for Christmas and New Year festivities could be a bleak one for the workforce.

Despite Mathunjwa’s commitments to a peaceful strike, it's been marred by acts of violence, with one employee shot dead so far, others stabbed and beaten, buses stoned and mine entrances blocked.

By forcing the bulk of employees to stay away from work despite their unions signing the wage agreement, Amcu runs the very real risk of heightened tensions boiling over into further violence because miners take their money, including bonuses, home for the year-end for festivities, expenses, school fees and the like.

By putting this money at risk for their members, other employees and their families, Amcu and Mathunjwa have made a highly questionable call that could backfire.

If the strike fails then a loss of face is on the cards for Mathunjwa, the hard man behind the five-month strike in the platinum sector in 2015 that cost companies billions of rands in lost revenue. The sector is still feeling the consequence of that strike. 

If he succeeds, which is unlikely given the inability of Sibanye’s gold mines to carry much higher costs, there will be consequences for the workforce. When mines are already marginal and every cost reduction lever has been pulled, then job cuts are inevitable. Wages make up more than 50% of operating costs.

SA is going through a jobs bloodbath in the mining sector, with deep-level, labour-intensive platinum and gold mines struggling to regain profitable production.

There has been speculation that Amcu’s strike is related to Sibanye’s purchase of Lonmin, creating a major force in platinum, but which comes with job cuts.

Amcu fiercely opposes Sibanye’s takeover, putting up a tough fight in the Competition Tribunal, which nonetheless approved the transaction but with the condition of a six-month moratorium on job cuts, including the more than 10,000 Lonmin announced as part of the closure of old mines.

Mathunjwa says the strike at Sibanye’s gold mines and its opposition to the Lonmin deal are “completely unrelated”.

Union officials, paid from Amcu coffers, will not endure the same hardships as their rank-and-file members. Mathunjwa could easily have held over the strike certificate into the new year.

The timing of the strike raises more questions than it answers and it could potentially pit the interests of Mathunjwa and Amcu’s leadership against those of their members.