It’s the first day of the strike, on January 23, and a huge crowd gathers at the Wonderkop Stadium, near Rustenburg in South Africa, to listen to Joseph Mathunjwa, the chairman of the Association of Construction and Mineworkers Union (Amcu). Seventy thousand union members have downed tools at the platinum mines.
As early as 7AM, police officers and the mine’s security guards keep watch. The venue is surrounded by razor wire and armored vehicles. The stadium is a few hundred meters from Marikana, the site where 44 people died in a clash between striking miners and police in August, 2012.
“People are watching this strike, speculating it is Marikana II. That will not happen. We’re peacefully fighting for our rights as workers. We want a better life. The blood of our brothers was shed fighting for better wages. We won’t betray them,” Mathunjwa says in Zulu to the roaring crowd.
Despite the leadership’s assurance of a peaceful protest, a few strikers are seen carrying traditional weapons, sjamboks (heavy whips) and sticks.
“It is not a foreign thing for Nguni men (a broad ethnic group of South Africa) to carry their sjamboks and sticks. We are not going to war or planning to violate others rights to choose who to associate with,” says Jack Mkhoba, the chairperson for Amcu’s Lonmin branch.
Mathunjwa calls for tolerance and respect for those who continue working. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which lost its majority at the platinum mines to Amcu, is not part of the strike. There is still simmering tension between the unions.
Mathunjwa also accuses the mine of trying to make the negotiations drag on.
“The time to fool around with black people is over. The African economy must benefit Africans. We are not negotiating percentages, they mean nothing to us; we only understand the rand, our currency.”
Mathunjwa says the government, media and economists are too quick to criticize the union for destabilizing the economy.
“When CEOs and bosses give themselves more than R21 million ($1.9 million) in bonuses, they do not condemn that. Whose side are they on?”
Mathunjwa had the crowd in stitches when he shared anecdotes of the encounters he had with the management of the mining companies.
“One Sunday afternoon, I was invited over by the employers. Upon leaving the discussion, I left them with homework to figure out how much they are spending on their dogs, which is ridiculously way over what the employees take home?”
James Nichol, the British lawyer representing the victims of Marikana, gave the workers a surprise visit in a striped red tie. He stood out like a sore thumb.
Nichol danced to struggle songs with the workers and encouraged them to fight for their demands.
“It’s your duty to get justice for yourselves and families by fighting for R12,500,” says Nichol.
Amcu’s national organizer, Dumisani Nkalityana, encouraged the strikers to not let up.
“There’s no red carpet towards achieving our demands, we need to make sure we make it for ourselves,” he says.
The union members are far from united. A faction of Amcu say Mathunjwa is a dictator and accuse him of living large at the expense of workers. Mathunjwa dismisses the allegations, referring to the group as mischievous former Amcu members.
The mines, losing a fortune every day the strike continues, are hoping a solution can be found-quickly.
On this day, Anglo American Platinum, the largest platinum company, says its losing approximately 4,000 ounces and R100 million ($9 million) per day.
“We are adamant that we will continue to engage with Amcu and have accepted the offer by the deputy president for a government-facilitated mediation process in order to find a resolution. Striking is not a constructive solution if we are to return the company to a sustainable financial footing and secure existing jobs,” says Chris Griffith, the CEO of Anglo American Platinum.
Griffith says the company will work with law enforcement agencies to help maintain peace and stability during the strike. His words were in vain.
Anglo American reported a 10% employee attendance rate on the first day of the strike and closed operations.
On the second day of the strike, South Africa’s mining minister, Susan Shabangu, brokers a three-day wage negotiation between Amcu and three of the big mining companies at the Southern Sun Hotel in Pretoria. Amcu books rooms at the hotel for its officials.
The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) is appointed as the facilitator between the union and Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin. The companies’ initial offer of an 8.5% increase falls short of the union’s demand of a R12,500 salary for entry level employees.
By the end of the negotiations, the mines have a new offer of 9% on the table. Amcu is unimpressed.
“How can you be satisfied with an offer that does not address the living wage?” asks Amcu spokesman, Jimmy Gama.
“The talks were cordially conducted in a positive atmosphere but I can’t say they were amicable as we are not getting what we wanted, which is R12,500.”
The companies’ response is unchanged. They say the demands are unrealistic and unreasonable.
“We are not issuing any threats to anybody at this point. We are very clear that employers can afford what the union demands,” adds Joseph Maqhekeni, the chairman of National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu)—the federation that Amcu is affiliated to.
On the last day of negotiations, union members are seen checking out of the hotel. It doesn’t look good. They are in a somber mood and are seen milling around nervously. Two shop stewards play struggle songs and the national anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, on the hotel’s piano.
Most of the union members do not believe they will receive positive news; they are all keen to continue with the strike.
January 30 is D-day for the striking mineworkers. An offer of a 9% wage increase is on the table.
On a scorching morning, Amcu members, in their green union shirts, gather outside mine shafts around the North West province of South Africa to hear from shop stewards on the negotiations.
Striking workers at Amplats’ mine in Bleskop, Rustenburg, are among the first to turn down the revised wage increase. The mineworkers sit in the shade of a tree, talking and drinking beer. At least it is peaceful. A security guard confirms there is no intimidation.
At Batho Pele mine, another Amplats operation a few kilometers away, striking miners play cards and listen to music in their cars. Under the watch of security guards in armoured vehicles, the miners meet in the shade of a marquee.
The irate miners stand firm. They say the increase is insufficient and will not cover their bonds or match rising inflation.
Meanwhile, the mining bosses are counting the cost. Griffith says the strike halted production of around 40% of global platinum supply.
“We estimate that the daily cost to the country is closer to R400 million ($36 million) a day,” he says.
A week later, a clash between strikers and police officers, at the Amplats mine in Limpopo, sees the death of a shop steward. A non-striking miner also was attacked near the Khuseleka mine in Rustenburg, while one vehicle and an excavator were set alight. Fourteen other vehicles were also damaged.
“It is with sadness that we learnt of the death of one of our employees. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the deceased. We strongly urge striking employees to adhere to the picketing rules and remain within the picketing designated areas as agreed with Amcu. We condemn any act of violence, intimidation and damage to property,” says Griffith.
This violent period does not deter strikers. As of going to print, there was no end in sight to one of the most expensive strikes in African history.