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South Africa Mines Less Violent as AMCU Union Plays By Rules

Strikers chants slogans outside the Anglo American Platinum mines near Rustenburg

Johannesburg – A year ago, militant South African miners affiliated to upstart union AMCU were marching with spears, clubs and knives in often violent wildcat strikes and protests against management bosses. But in recent months leaders of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, an emerging force on the labor stage of Africa’s biggest economy, have been sitting down to tough but peaceful wage talks with mining executives.

Strikes still look certain in the struggling mining sector as soaring union wage demands collide head on with depressed metals prices. But AMCU’s change of tactics and embrace of legal processes governing wage talks suggest that last year’s bloody mine violence which shocked the world and dragged down South Africa’s growth and credit ratings may be avoided this year.

There are even signs that AMCU’s turf war last year, which saw it wrest tens of thousands of members from the rival National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), may have cooled somewhat, with both unions focusing efforts on winning better wages in the gold, coal and platinum mines, rather than fighting each other.

Almost a week after NUM left the table in wage talks with gold producers, signaling an imminent strike by its members, AMCU remains in the negotiations. It also spent months in talks with platinum producer Lonmin this year to secure a recognition agreement earlier this month.

This is a sharp departure from 2012, when AMCU’s recruitment drive turned workers into warring illegal strikers, costing billions of dollars in lost output and culminating in the shooting dead of 34 miners by police at Lonmin’s Marikana mine. It was the worst such incident since apartheid ended in 1994.

“Now that AMCU has secured the platinum belt, we are entering a phase where they are evolving into a real trade union,” said Crispen Chinguno, a researcher at the sociology department of Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand and an expert on labor relations in the platinum sector.

“They have union dues coming in, they have recognition, and so they must now play by the rules of the game because they are in the game,” said Chinguno. AMCU also wants to be seen working within the law because it believes the forces of the state are ranged against it. Its rival NUM is a key political ally of President Jacob Zuma and his ruling African National Congress (ANC). Senior leaders from the governing alliance, including the head of South Africa’s Communist Party, have denounced AMCU as a “vigilante union.”

“AMCU is in unfriendly terrain and has to bed down its structures. It cannot afford a three-front fight against NUM, management and the ANC,” said political analyst Nic Borain. AMCU’s explosive entry onto the labor scene last year also occurred when almost no scheduled wage talks were taking place. It pushed its way into shafts by promising disgruntled NUM workers it could get better deals for them. Now, with regularly scheduled bi-annual wage talks in the mining sector unfolding, AMCU is in a position of strength, with most of the country’s platinum workers flying its green colors. It also represents 17 percent of South Africa’s gold miners. (Reuters)

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