South Africa union war follows old pattern on new turf

Johannesburg- South Africa (July 20)   When a wildcat strike hit Impala Platinum's Marula mine in South Africa's Limpopo province this month, union leaders there had no idea it was coming.

 "We were taken by surprise. We came to work that morning and everyone was outside saying they were not going to work," said Solomon Digoro, deputy chairman of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at Marula, 280 kilometers (170 miles) northeast of Johannesburg.

 He has a better idea of what might come next: a takeover by arch rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which looks set to expand after leading a five-month mine strike in the western half of South Africa's platinum belt that pushed the continent's most advanced economy into reverse in the first quarter.

 The platinum belt, which resembles a pair of half moons separated by 250 km of bush, houses the world's richest deposits, so the strife is high on investors' radar screens.

 The AMCU emerged as the dominant union on the western 'moon' in 2012 after poaching tens of thousands of NUM members in a turf war in which dozens of people were killed.

 On the eastern arm, a battle for supremacy now in its infancy appears to be following the same pattern.


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 AMCU has the momentum, its reputation cemented by the settlement it reached last month with Implats and rivals Anglo American Platinum and Lonmin that saw its members get annual pay hikes of up to 20 percent.

 Pointedly, the 2,000 wildcat strikers who downed tools at Marula on July 3 said they wanted AMCU's deal, in place of the 8 percent hikes NUM secured for them last year.

 They returned to work the following week with a commitment from bosses to talk about their issues. NUM got the elbow.

 "When it started, we went to the strikers, and our members said they did not want to talk to NUM. They wanted managers and they wanted the Rustenburg deal," Digoro told Reuters in NUM's cramped pre-fabricated offices at Marula.

 AMCU National Treasurer Jimmy Gama said the union had since met management, who agreed to start deducting AMCU union dues. For investors and the mining companies, it is worryingly like history repeating itself.

 "What happened at Marula is 100 percent what happened at Rustenburg two and a half years ago," said a senior Implats manager.

 The manager, who asked not to be named, was referring to a wildcat strike by rock drill operators at Implats' key Rustenburg mine on the western limb in early 2012. The stoppage ended with AMCU elbowing NUM out of the shafts.