History of Labour Movements in South Africa

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The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU)

Trade unions are created to protect the rights of the workers. In democratic South Africa trade unions have the power to guarantee workers are fairly treated. In short, a member of a recognised trade union is entitled to complain of unfair labour practices through the union. The result of a trade union’s intervention might include increased remuneration and better working conditions. The issues that workers and trade unions generally bring to the negotiating table are: wages and benefits, work conditions, recognition of unions, retrenchment and lay-offs and deductions from salaries.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) was formed in 1998 in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa. It was formed by a breakaway faction of the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) who went on to form AMCU in the mining sector. AMCU was formally registered as a union in 2001. AMCU sees itself as different fromthe National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in that it is "apolitical and non-communist”. AMCU’s core functions are recruiting and serving its members in the mining and construction sector, and bargaining with employers over labour matters on its member’s behalf. The union now represents over 70% of Lonmin Platinum Mine’s employees, compared to the 20% representation of the NUM. It is also the majority union at Amplats and Impala Platinum, both platinum mines. 

The seeds for the formation of AMCU were planted in Mpumalanga at Douglas Colliery, one of the oldest mines of Ingwe Coal, now known as BHP Billiton, when a group of underground workers were involved in a wildcat strike. In September 1999, 3 000 workers at BHP Billiton, protested against the dismissal of Joseph Mathunjwa, Chair of the local branch of the NUM at that time, by NUM. It was reported that Mathunjwa was dismissed by NUM for abusing the R2 million availed by BHP Billiton through its Social Labour Plan, for bringing the union into disrepute and for causing division within the union. The protest action staged by 3 000 workers at BHP Billiton was not protected and lasted two weeks. During this period the mine’s underground section was occupied by the wildcat strikers for 10 days. The dispute was terminated after Mathunjwa was later reinstated. Subsequent to that, Mathunjwa had to face a second difficulty in the form of a disciplinary hearing by the NUM for bringing the union into disrepute. These two issues resulted in the formation AMCU.

In order to get detailed information about the charges against Mathunjwa, NUM sent Archie Palane (Deputy General Secretary at that time) to investigate the allegation against Mathunjwa. The Deputy General Secretary found that Mathunjwa had done nothing wrong. Furthermore, another NUM official was sent to investigate the same case, but found that there was no reason to discipline Mathunjwa as he had done nothing wrong. However, the ANC and former NUM General Secretary, Gwede Mantashe, insisted that Mathunjwa appear before a disciplinary hearing. The hearing was set to be chaired by Mantashe himself. Mathunjwa refused to attend the hearing as he (Mathunjwa) had clashed with Mantashe over the handling of money paid by employers to a job creation fund. Mathunjwa requested and maintained that an independent individual should be appointed to chair the hearing, not Gwede Mantashe.

Mathunjwa’s NUM membership was terminated. Consequently, Mathunjwa informed NUM that he no longer belonged to the union; however he would retain his job as a laboratory assistant at BHP Billiton. Importantly, Mathunjwa was very popular among the workforce at BHP Billiton. One of Mathunjwa’s successes at BHP Billiton was that he managed to convince BHP Billiton management to implement a bonus system for underground mine workers. He also managed to force management to take responsibility when a worker died, by making sure that management not only delivers the deceased person to the family, but they (management) accompany the deceased person home and explain the situation surrounding the death of the worker.

NUM terminated Mathunjwa’s membership, who later announced to NUM that he was no longer a part of NUM, and that the union should appoint a new branch Chairperson. NUM called a mass meeting to inform its members that Mathunjwa was dismissed. At the meeting workers felt that what happened to Mathunjwa was not right, and 3 000 workers resigned from NUM.  Resigned workers started to look for unions they could join, but they felt the culture and philosophy in the existing unions did not suit them. The workers who resigned asked Mathunjwa to form a new union. Mathunjwa took their advice. He got assistance from a local teacher, Jeffrey Mphahlele, to register a new union with the Department of Labour. The union was called the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). It was officially registered in 2001.

AMCU was recognised at Douglas Collieryafter the ousting of Mathunjwa from NUM. However, AMCU was faced with the challenge of gaining recognition because of suspicious employers who were colluding with established unions such as NUM. For example, BHP Billiton formed a bargaining forum at the company level with the threshold of 30 percent membership across the group before it recognises any union. With this challenge, the AMCU managed to have fairly good membership base at Douglas when workers who showed solidarity with Mathunjwa resigned from NUM.  AMCU is now the representative of workers at different mines such as coal, chrome and platinum mines in Limpopo Province and KwaZulu-Natal Province. AMCU is well represented amongst mining contractor companies, as these employees are not usually bound by recognition agreements and are not protected.

In 2008, AMCU started recruiting workers in platinum mines around Rustenburg, North West Province. It gained access through recruiting subcontracted workers, in particular shaft sinkers.  It also managed to recruit shaft sinkers’ on projects in Limpopo Province. These workers were relocated to Brits in the North West Province to work on a new project. Some of these workers had a problem with their employer and their union at that time, NUM, did not give them satisfactory service. AMCU then stepped in and helped the workers. Consequently, it gained around 800 members in Brits. In January 2011, AMCU held a national congress where it decided to recruit workers in the major platinum and gold mining operations across the country. After the congress, the union started moving towards this goal through social networks across the mines in the platinum belt and beyond.

In June 2011, AMCU started recruiting workers at the Lonmin Karee mine following unprotected strike action over NUM’s suspension of the Karee branch chairperson concerning allegations of misuse of funds. The protesting workers claimed that NUM was collaborating with Lonmin management in victimising a union representative with workers' interests at heart. Subsequently, over 9 000 workers were fired. Their union at that time, NUM, negotiated with the company to reinstate them. Lonmin agreed to reinstate 7 000. Nevertheless, when the workers were reinstated they refused to join NUM again. The workers heard of a new union from the shaft sinkers who had transferred to Lonmin Karee from Limpopo. They consulted AMCU and invited it to recruit members at Lonmin. AMCU became the majority union at Karee but gained minimum recognition in Lonmin.  However, NUM continued to have the majority across all operations. AMCU was confident that it would spread to all major platinum mines.

AMCU is very strong in Mpumalanga Province and also gained power in the North West Province as well. AMCU has managed to extend its recruitment base and is recruiting members in the Northern Cape, especially contract workers at iron ore and manganese mines around Kathu and Hotazel. The union recruited members at the gates of some of Implats shafts in 2012. The AMCU leadership claims that the union acts in accordance with the mandate given it by its members. The NUM lost its status as the biggest representative of employees to the AMCU at Impala Platinum, Anglo American Platinum, and Lonmin. The AMCU has become the majority trade union in major platinum mines in South Africa. In particular, AMCU has made NUM irrelevant in the platinum sector. For instance, at Implats, there are roughly 30 000 miners, and most of them belong to NUM. However, NUM has lost 10 813 members at the Impala mine, Lease Area in Rustenburg, of whom roughly 22 000 belonged to trade union. AMCU managed to organised 8 000 new members. The number has increased as AMCU claimed 20 000 members at Implats.

At Lonmin, a primary producer of platinum group metals (PGMs), the London and Johannesburg-listed platinum company, AMCU represents over 70% of the workers as compared to 20% representation of the NUM. AMCU is now officially the majority union at Lonmin. The union and Lonmin have signed an employee recognition agreement in August 2013. At mines based in Limpopo Province, AMCU has started organising workers. For example, the union had planned to recruit at places such as Twickenham, an Anglo mine which employed thousands of workers (Sosibo, 2014). It was reported that many of these workers were not unionised and did not associate themselves with NUM in 2012. In 2014, AMCU was on its way to gain majority status at Dishaba, Mlanji and Tumela mines. All these mines are based in the Amandebult region in Limpopo Province and are owned by Anglo Platinum. 

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• Jan de Lange, (2012). The rise and rise of AMCU, Miningmx, 2 August 2012. Available at:http://www.miningmx.com/special_reports/mining-yearbook/mining-yearbook-2012/A-season-of-discontent.htm [accessed: 13 August 2014]
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• Sosibo, R. (2014). AMCU sets its sights on smaller mines: confident after its success on the platinum belt, the union wants to consolidate its gains in the Platinum industry, Mail & Guardian, 27 June 2014. Available at: http://mg.co.za/article/2014-06-26-AMCU-sets-its-sights-on-smaller-mines. [Accessed: 19 September 2014] 

Last updated : 19-Nov-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 14-Nov-2014