Amcu members who work for Sibanye-Stillwater gather for a strike update on a koppie near a gold mine in Carletonville, west of Johannesburg. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSELL
Amcu members who work for Sibanye-Stillwater gather for a strike update on a koppie near a gold mine in Carletonville, west of Johannesburg. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSELL

The damage done to Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold mines and its employees by the ill-conceived five-month strike called by the leadership of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) has been enormous.

The nine deaths related to the action were just one symptom, and an utterly disgraceful one that Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa ducks and dives on, blaming everyone but the union’s members.

The reports of violence and intimidation against those wishing to report for work at Sibanye’s Driefontein, Beatrix and Kloof mines are well established. When the settlement that Amcu finally agreed to is considered, the absolute futility and waste of lives, houses and R1.6bn in costs incurred by Sibanye is glaring.

Amcu was holding out for R1,000 a month extra in wages. Three other unions had agreed to R700 extra a month for the first two years of a three-year deal and R825 a month in the final year, which is what Amcu members have now also settled for.

What has Amcu achieved? Asked point-blank about what the union got from the strike, Mathunjwa offered up the learnings from the strike.

That’s all well and good, but for the 14,000 people without wages for five months that is not something they can use to feed their families, repay debts or pay school fees. This strike has been damaging to the membership, the gold mines at which they work and the union’s credibility.

It’s not like Mathunjwa and his leadership element at national, regional and mine level didn’t know that Sibanye’s gold mines were in deep trouble in 2018 and that talks had already started between mine management and organised labour about the need for restructuring. The fact that Amcu embarked on a strike at distressed mines and let it drag on for five months is beyond comprehension.

During the strike Sibanye issued a section 189 notice in terms of the Labour Relations Act that it was to restructure its Driefontein and Beatrix mines and that it was looking to cut more than 6,600 jobs. The strike, which cost Sibanye’s gold mines 110,000oz of lost production and ran up costs of R1.6bn, came at precisely the wrong time.

Sibanye CEO Neal Froneman has said the restructuring is not to punish Amcu and that the need for restructuring had been flagged long before the November 21 strike was called.

While Mathunjwa is quick to point out he has been acting on the mandate of the strikers, distancing his personal behaviour and leadership from the damage done, it is a safe bet that his role as head of the union must be up for debate.

Watch out for a leadership contest within the union now that Mathunjwa, the face of Amcu, has been so seriously undermined and forced to eat humble pie with nothing to show. His threats of a “revolution” if workers didn’t get money are just one small example of a leader believing his own publicity only to be doused with cold, hard economic reality.

They hadn’t counted on a number of immovable objects, the first being Sibanye’s management, the second being the wage agreement the company signed with the other unions and could not negotiate outside of, and the support of shareholders and lenders to inject R3.5bn into the company to give it a war chest to ride out the gold strike and a possible stoppage at its platinum mines in SA.

There were also a slew of court cases that went against Amcu, allowing Sibanye to impose the wage agreement on the union’s striking members and preventing a sympathy strike at other mining companies.

It can only be hoped that Amcu’s membership has learnt something from the five months of striking, forfeited wages, incredible financial hardship for a R4,000 ex gratia payment — which Sibanye will now pay to all employees in the lower categories — and a bus ride back to the mines.