Summary: The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is deeply concerned about observations made during its attempts to intervene in a sit-in at Gold One’s Modder East mine. The Union cites harrowing similarities between the events leading up to the Marikana Massacre of 16 August 2012 and the current escalation witnessed at Gold One. The Union indicates that this sit-in is a result of disgruntled NUM members who are being prevented and refused the right to join AMCU. AMCU also has reason to believe that the closed shop agreement between NUM and the company has long expired, and therefore is not valid.

During March of this year, AMCU’s Johannesburg Central Region submitted around 1200 AMCU application forms to the Human Resources department at Gold One’s Modderfontein East mine in Springs, Gauteng. These forms, also known as stop order forms which were submitted in terms of section 21 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA). Section 21 of the LRA stipulates the manner in which a registered trade union can seek organisational rights at a particular employer.

However, since March this year, management did not extend any organisational rights to AMCU , has not recognised AMCU and has failed and refused to process the stop orders. The reasons submitted for this, include that there was a closed shop agreement with NUM which did not permit management to process the stop orders.
The alleged closed shop is seemingly being enforced by the company in favour of a union that does not enjoy majority status. In n terms of clause 5.4 of the very same closed shop agreement, the company had to give notice to NUM that it is no longer a majority as soon as it became aware of it. Therefore, the company acted in breach of this clause. Further the union has not conducted any ballot required in terms of section 26(5)of the LRA .

After a lengthy process at the CCMA – dealing with the organisational rights dispute in terms of section 21 of the LRA, the dispute remained unresolved and the CCMA issued a certificate of non-resolution, allowing the Union to embark on protected industrial action. The Johannesburg Central Region of AMCU subsequently submitted a 48-hours’ notice to the company on 16 October 2023, of its intention to embark on a protected strike on 18 October 2023. The company approached the Labour Court on an urgent basis, seeking to interdict the strike. The matter was heard by Judge Prinsloo on 17 October 2023 and judgment was reserved. The Region agreed to suspend the strike notice pending the handing down of the judgment.

On 17 October 2023, AMCU’s National Office wrote to Gold One management, requesting an urgent meeting to avoid the strike. The Union requested an intervention by the office of the General Secretary, before a strike is sanctioned by the National Office.

However, even though the Region agreed to suspend the strike notice, the employees who were on night shift, did not return from underground and refused to come out. Not having received a response, AMCU’s National Office again wrote to Gold One management on 23 October 2023, stating that it had received “disturbing reports of what is happening that side”, adding that the matter could be resolved “quickly and amicably – before the situation escalates”.

Later on 23 October 2023, a member of Gold One’s management team returned AMCU’s telephone call, and it was agreed that management would meet with AMCU that afternoon.

AMCU’s delegation arrived at the mine to find it heavily guarded with a fairly strong police presence. However, the delegation was led into the parking at the main office building, and subsequently invited inside to a boardroom to meet with representatives of management.
The meeting, even though it covered some complex issues, was held in a positive spirit and ultimately AMCU had an in-principle agreement with management that: 1) food parcels would be taken underground in exchange for employees who were alleged to be injured and those who suffer from chronic diseases; and 2) conduct a ballot as soon as possible to verify the membership choice of the employees at the mine. It was agreed that this ballot would be conducted by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and management undertook to contact the CCMA to arrange an urgent ballot. It was also agreed that this ballot should take place as soon as possible, so as to entice the workers from underground to participate in the ballot on surface.

However, after time it became clear that representatives of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were not satisfied with the proposed solution, and at some point they entered the boardroom and insisted that AMCU exits to leave them alone with management. Noting that it was late (around 19:00), AMCU agreed to leave and told management that they would return at 8:00 the following morning to conclude the agreement.

When AMCU’s team returned to the site at around 8:00 on 24 October 2023, they were immediately informed that NUM was meeting with management and that they had to wait in the outside parking area. It soon became clear that the main office was overrun by NUM representatives in red and yellow regalia. More disturbing, there were private persons dressed in riot uniforms with balaclavas, riot helmets and big gun carry-bags moving in and out of the gate. Apart from this, there was a heavy presence of vehicles of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and mine security. When asked who they were working for, one of the riot personnel reportedly said that they were working for the NUM.

Becoming frustrated of waiting outside for such a long time, AMCU again wrote to management, recording the earlier points of agreement and expressing concern over the delay in resolving the dispute. Management was also asked to indicate by 10:30 whether it would still need AMCU to wait in the parking area, or whether it would be in order for AMCU to wait off-site until it is called by management. This was followed up with two telephone calls, after which it was confirmed that AMCU would be called back once management was ready to meet with them.

During this same time, AMCU was able to contact the CCMA’s Head Office, and request that the CCMA deploys senior commissioners to assist with the envisaged ballot process. The CCMA representative confirmed that they would arrive at 14:00, and AMCU informed management accordingly, stating that they would return at that same time for further engagement.

AMCU left the mine to source quotations for food rations to be given to members, in the event that management had not been able to honour the previous day’s agreement in this respect.

At approximately 13:40, AMCU returned to the mine and made a courtesy call to management to indicate that they were back. However, management said that they would not be able to meet with AMCU and that AMCU had to wait at the security checkpoint until further notice. When AMCU attempted to enter the main gate to proceed to the security checkpoint (which is around 3 km from the main gate), they were refused entry and told to wait outside by the gate. AMCU complied until they were later called to come to the security checkpoint, where they were again requested to wait outside for around 40 minutes.

Eventually when the AMCU convoy of vehicles was directed through the security checkpoint, they were directed to a smallish building with a parking area full of vehicles – some of which were SAPS vehicles. There AMCU had to wait again for several minutes, during which they were told that they cannot be part of the meeting inside – reportedly held between Gold One management, NUM and SAPS.
After a few more minutes, four senior CCMA Commissioners arrived at the site, but they also were barred from entering the meeting between management, NUM and SAPS.

Eventually, at approximately 17:10, the CCMA Commissioners and AMCU were allowed to enter the building as SAPS members, NUM members and members of management were getting up and leaving. On the boardroom table was a large map of the mine, showing different areas and access points to the shaft. Behind the boardroom table was a large number of cases of water, Coca-Cola and Powerade energy drinks, stacked on top of each other. After a while, AMCU also noticed that the previous meeting delegates forgot to clean the whiteboard on which certain action points were captured, as well as the names of two specific AMCU representatives.

When the meeting started, AMCU immediately reminded Gold One of the previous evening’s agreement regarding providing food to workers, but Gold One indicated that they decided not to provide food as it was difficult to ensure that food reached the workers. AMCU insisted that food be taken to the workers, offering to take down the food themselves if there were fears on the side of management. Gold One, however, refused to provide food to the workers underground.

At this point, two NUM representatives entered late and, without introducing themselves, aggressively pointed out that AMCU was acting in contempt of the Labour Court order. After making their points, they left the meeting again never to return. AMCU denies this allegation.

Following this exchange, the CCMA started the usual mediation process of having separate bilateral meetings with both parties left in the engagement, namely AMCU and management. However, after a few hours of trying to broker a deal, the CCMA declared that the process had failed and the meeting ended.

“We were genuinely concerned that this build-up was a carbon copy of what happened at Marikana on that fateful day in 2012”, said AMCU General Secretary Jeff Mphahlele. “When you see guns, barbed wire and lots of police cars deployed for a labour relations matter, those of us who were at Marikana in 2023 – we become very concerned”, he explained.

Earlier today, new reports surfaced that some employees returned to the surface. However, at the time of writing this statement, 200 employees are still underground, and they are, according to reports, insisting to be addressed by management, a representative from the NUM executive as well as a representative from AMCU, the union of their choice.

“These comrades are members of NUM fighting their own organisation”, Mphahlele said. “This is not our strike. Our strike was interdicted by the Labour Court”, he added. “Technically AMCU has no members there, and this was also confirmed by the legal team of the company. These are merely employees who have expressed their wish to join AMCU”, said Mphahlele.

“In fact, this is not a strike at all. It is merely a situation of employees who were frustrated when they were not allowed to resign from NUM and join AMCU, and then remained underground”, he said. “Even though we are committing all our resources to resolving this dispute and getting these employees back to safety, it should not be construed that we called this strike”, Mphahlele said.

“We furthermore believe that the company and NUM failed to comply with the Act in that no ballots were conducted since 2012 to confirm that members’ still wished to be part of the closed shop agreement”, he said. “We will investigate this point further, because it might mean that the closed shop agreement had long expired in any event”, Mphahlele said.

“Closed shop agreements of the kind in issue cannot stand in the way of workers rights and be raised at the expense of their wellbeing and even their right to food and basic necessities. Workers must be treated as human beings and not property to be passed around at the employers will. Food and basic necessities must be provided to the workers. We even wrote to management this morning, offering to buy food from our coffers and take it down to the employees ourselves”, he added.

“AMCU is concerned about the safety and wellbeing of the workers and urges the company to take steps to terminate the agreement – if it still exists – or at the very least for a ballot to be conducted by NUM in terms of the LRA”, Mphahlele concluded.

1920 words (excluding summary)

For interviews: Jeff Mphahlele (AMCU General Secretary)