Amcu leader Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: ROBBIE TSHABALALA
Amcu leader Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: ROBBIE TSHABALALA

The labour court’s decision on Friday to prevent the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) from extending its nearly four-month strike at Sibanye-Stillwater to other companies in the mining industry should be welcomed.

The strike has been mired with violence and intimidation, with nine people dead so far and more than 60 houses burnt down in Carletonville. It’s a sad reflection that it has taken this level of violence and three months before mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe showed up in the gold mining town to pacify parties and push for a settlement. But then his loyalties lie with Amcu’s arch-enemy, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Judge Connie Prinsloo, in her ruling on Friday, had no kind words for Amcu, highlighting the union’s track record of violence and intimidation during strikes.

The union came to the fore during the platinum strikes of 2012, particularly at Marikana, where the killing of 34 strikers by police — in the presence of the media — got the most attention. Sadly, the non-police related killings during the Lonmin strike were no outlier, and Amcu has done little to get its members to protest peacefully since.

The question now is whether Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa will take his members on an unprotected strike at other companies in solidarity with members at Sibanye. It wouldn’t be a first — the 2012 strikes were unprotected, leading to the dismissal (and later reinstatement) of thousands of workers. But it would be a risky move.

First, there is no knowing how well-supported his strike at Sibanye would have been without the violence. The union has been making it nearly impossible to get membership numbers at Sibanye independently verified as part of a dispute process at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), suggesting that all may not be as rosy in the land of Amcu as Mathunjwa would like us to believe.

Second, an unprotected strike opens the door for companies to fire workers, and then rehire selectively — effectively enabling them to get rid of the union’s most troublesome shop stewards. For Amcu this would make future mobilisation and recruitment more difficult.

Questions have also been raised about the way in which Amcu’s leaders are appointed. Unlike the NUM, for example, where elections are held on a regular basis, including to vote for the top leaders, Amcu is yet to hold a national elective conference.

For Mathunjwa to save face, it is becoming increasingly important to secure some extra money for his members at Sibanye, who have now gone without pay since November 21. Part of the motivation for the strike is the proposed takeover by Sibanye of Lonmin, where Amcu is the majority union and where more than 10,000 job cuts are on the cards, should the deal proceed. By making life impossible on its gold mines, Amcu hoped Sibanye would back off the Lonmin deal.

Sibanye CEO Neal Froneman, however, has refused to budge — and it is unlikely any amount of pressure from the government or fellow members at the Minerals Council, as Amcu is hoping for with a sympathy strike, will change his mind.

Judge Prinsloo sided with the view that allowing sympathy strikes at Sibanye’s competitors would do little to resolve the Sibanye/Amcu dispute, and would cause economic harm. Given the damage that Eskom already is doing to the mining industry with load shedding and increasing tariffs, further troubles are hardly needed.

The hard truth, which no mining company would admit to, is that Sibanye’s fellow Mineral Council members are silently hoping that Froneman won’t blink and that this strike will be the one that breaks the camel’s back.

When the NUM got unruly, its political masters could be called upon to bring the union into line. With Amcu, they seem to have no answers at all.