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 Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (Amcu) strike at Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold mines on Joburg’s West Rand has dragged on for almost four months. At last count, nine deaths had been reported and 62 houses burnt down.

The issue is ostensibly a wage dispute in which Amcu does not want a deal struck between the company and three other unions — the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Uasa and Solidarity — to be automatically extended to its members at the gold mines.

However, there are several underlying factors at play.

A fierce rivalry between Amcu and the NUM continues as they compete for members (and all-important membership fees). Meanwhile, Sibanye’s imminent acquisition of Lonmin, a distressed platinum miner in Amcu’s stronghold sector, may also influence hardening attitudes.

Underscoring it all is an apparent clash of personalities between Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa and Sibanye CEO Neal Froneman.

The dispute over the wage agreement echoes the scenario in 2015, when Amcu refused to accept a deal struck with other unions. By holding out, it ultimately secured an extra R25 monthly "peace premium" for its members. Now Amcu wants a recount of union membership at the mines to prove it holds the majority, which will prevent Sibanye from extending the current deal to Amcu members.

Mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe last week called on the minister of police to restore security in Carletonville, but in a recent interview he said he would not personally intervene in the wage dispute. "What you cannot manage is [a] personality clash," Mantashe said, "when people just fight and begin to close their mind to any ideas."

Mining and labour analyst Mamokgethi Molopyane says the strike is a delicate matter, given the historical antecedents.

The perceived personality clash between Sibanye and Amcu leaders is perhaps the most significant reason why the strike continues.

Our members have shown great courage to sacrifice their comfort and income for the greater struggle for economic emancipation
Amcu

"It was never an easy relationship," Molopyane says, noting that Froneman took the top job at Sibanye (which had been spun out of Gold Fields) at about the time Amcu, which has flourished in the platinum sector, was dipping its toes into gold.

The union is looking to further entrench itself in the gold sector.

"They [Amcu] are saying: ‘We are not afraid of a CEO perceived as being hard on unions, or of moving into NUM territory,’" Molopyane says.

Gideon du Plessis, general secretary of union Solidarity, says: "This is not about a wage strike — these workers are being used as cannon fodder." He views the deadlock as a show of force ahead of Sibanye’s acquisition of Lonmin, which will make the company the world’s largest primary producer of platinum.

The deal was given the go-ahead by the Competition Tribunal last year, though about 12,600 job cuts are on the cards.

Sibanye says the cuts would happen regardless of the merger, but Amcu has appealed the tribunal’s decision.

"Amcu wants to flex its muscles now. Those 12,600 jobs losses — they will all be Amcu members, so I think this wage strike has a strong link to the Lonmin deal," Du Plessis says.

Again, the question of personalities arises. "Neal Froneman is not [Lonmin CEO] Ben Magara — he does not let unions dictate to him how to run his business," says Du Plessis. "The issue is that he is no pushover."

However, Amcu denies a clash between Mathunjwa and Froneman. "As a mass democratic organisation, the principle of worker control permeates our collective bargaining processes, and [that] should not be misconstrued with the personalities of our leaders. Our members have shown great courage to sacrifice their comfort and income for the greater struggle for economic emancipation," Mathunjwa tells the FM.

Amcu says wage inequality is arguably the most "violent form of injustice" in SA, noting that Froneman’s annual salary can pay 675 workers for a year, while his daily wage is more than the annual salary of his low-end workers.

"Despite our bona fide approach to negotiations … the company has [in bad faith] spent large sums on lawyers, security guards and other strike-breaking mechanisms, incurring twice as much cost as the amount required to reach settlement," Mathunjwa says.

What it means

Amcu flexes its muscles as its rivalry with the NUM, and its feud with Sibanye CEO Neal Froneman, continues

Some workers may be attracted to Amcu’s leadership style, which is bold and stands up to employers — "regardless of cost and regardless of outcome", says Molopyane. "[But] the longer this takes, it might deter potential members from joining and may even cost them some existing members. While they want better wages, they will not take kindly to no wages due to retrenchments after the strike."

Sibanye said last month that restructuring of its operations, brought on by financial losses, could result in about 6,000 job cuts.

Mathunjwa, meanwhile, has also taken aim at Mantashe.

"Instead of convening meaningful engagement between the parties, the minister has demonstrated that he is partisan, irresponsibly calling for the police to intervene in a labour matter, a precipitate [action] for the second Marikana [massacre].

"Where capitalist interests are involved in Xolobeni [where the community is opposing mining], he is in the forefront. However, where the lives of poor mineworkers are at stake, their struggle is vilified."