Money, historic distrust, poor communication by and between different parties, and the intervention of a small criminal element provided the volatile mix that exploded into violence at the Impala Platinum (Implats) Rustenburg operations.
At least one miner was killed this week and more than 10 injured as rioting continued after a series of illegal strikes. Spaza shops in the nearby informal settlement were looted.
While a large police contingent maintained relative calm yesterday, the precise cause of the strikes and subsequent rioting was still being assessed.
Implats chief executive David Brown claimed rivalry between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and relative newcomer the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) sparked the incidents.
But both unions deny this was the case, although they concede clashes between individual members of the two unions may have been a contributing factor once the strikes had begun.
“We have fewer than 1 000 members at Implats out of about 25 000 workers and, as a union, we are not involved there,” said Amcu general secretary Jeff Mphahlele.
NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka agreed: “A small minority could not have caused this. The real trigger was management unilaterally announcing an 18 percent bonus for miners only.”
This bonus announcement was made in December and immediately led to disruption at Implats, because the skilled and generally more highly paid rock drill operators felt they had been excluded. They demanded an after-tax wage of R9 000 a month which they see as differentiating between them and ordinary miners.
“We in NUM were also angry because this announcement was made without first consulting us, and only months after we had concluded a two-year agreement with Implats,” said Seshoka.
But Implats management categorically denied that NUM was not informed or the union did not approve the bonus pay.
At this stage communication seemed to have broken down, and rumour and suspicion, sometimes verging on paranoia, took hold. The rock drill operators went on strike illegally, and without their services there can be no mining.
A large number of miners apparently interpreted NUM’s intervention with management as a union attempt to stop the bonus payment. Thousands of miners went on strike amid reports of widespread intimidation.
Management and union members agree this caused some NUM members to defect to the apparently more militant Amcu, a Mpumalanga-based union that broke away from NUM in 1998.
This added sectarian fuel to the already blazing fire.
This is understandable as NUM, in recent years, has been involved in sometimes rancorous arguments with smaller unions that have eroded NUM membership. Prime among these were Amcu, established at Witbank’s Douglas colliery and formally registered as a union in 2001.
The bitter unprotected strike at Lonmin’s Karee shaft last year saw large numbers of NUM members switch their allegiance to Amcu.
“We now have majority membership at the shaft, but management still won’t recognise us,” said Mphahlele.
But most union members in Lonmin operations are still NUM members. The domination of NUM members at management level in human resources departments was distorting this numbers game, smaller unions claimed.
Whatever the truth may be, there is obviously widespread disgruntlement among NUM members in the platinum sector.
This situation has allowed other unions – often influenced by political groups opposed to the SA Communist Party and its close links with Cosatu – to recruit in what was once exclusively NUM territory.
Even the small Western Cape-based Commercial Services and Allied Workers’ Union now has members among miners in the North West. So does the Metal and Electrical Workers’ Union of SA, aligned with the National Council of Trade Unions.
The Johannesburg labour court is scheduled to soon hear a case brought by Amcu regarding the unionisation of the country’s oldest gold mines, in Barberton. Amcu claimed 1 000 of the 1 400 workforce were members, but said management refused to recognise this.
Amcu argued this failure to recognise the union, as a minority or majority at a shaft or mine, was unconstitutional.
“Workers have the right to join a union of their choice,” said Mphahlele.
Amcu plans to take the matter to the Constitutional Court.
This inter-union battle is certainly under way at Implats, but as a result of the upheaval caused by the initial bonus payment strike and not as the cause.
Seshoka points out that tensions were further heightened when management sacked 17 200 strikers and announced they would not be reinstated, although they could be re-hired. This means a loss of seniority and the benefits that go with it.
Reinstatement is now the main issue in discussions between management and NUM. The union expresses fears that Implats is using the situation to restructure the company to the detriment of the miners.
Seshoka feared failure of management to back down on the reinstatement issue would further inflame the situation.
“A culture of ill-discipline is growing and we have arrived at anarchy,” he said.
This he attributes to an influx of mainly young miners who are “angry and impatient”. As a result, NUM does not exercise control over many of the miners in a region “where we are by far the biggest union”.
All three unions at Implats – NUM, Amcu and Solidarity – agree that a key factor to bear in mind is miners are generally poorly paid for doing very dangerous work that brings in great profits for the companies.
This perception, in the absence of good communication, creates an environment in which rumours and opportunistic militancy thrive.
“And this is to the detriment of all unions,” said Mphahlele.
Given the loss of production at the world’s biggest platinum mine, it is safe to say it is also to the management’s detriment.