The new king of mining in South Africa knows his Bible - CNBC Africa

The new king of mining in South Africa knows his Bible


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Joseph Mathunjwa has held his nerve for five months to win concessions from the powerful platinum producers. PHOTO: Jay Caboz/Forbes Africa

Joseph Mathunjwa – a lay preacher and the son of a Salvation Army preacher – has held his nerve for five months to win concessions from the powerful platinum producers. It means the days of cheap labour are over in the mines of South Africa. The next time the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) wants to mix it with the employers the bosses are more likely to tremble than laugh.

Take a look at the wage deal AMCU secured. It may only meet the union’s demands by 2017, instead of now as the union demanded, but it adds up to an increase of 20 per cent on the wages of the lowest paid. By contrast, the gold and coal employers nearly fell off their chairs when National Union of Mine Workers (NUM) demand 20 per cent three years ago. NUM demanded a double digit increase; nothing else would do, but settled for around nine per cent and felt pretty pleased with themselves. Mathunjwa can now argue that AMCU can push the bosses further and is likely to win thousands more union members over from NUM. 

Mathunjwa has styled himself as a man of the people – a Christian soldier for the downtrodden. A sign of this hold on the masses was the final rally, before accepting the pay offer, after five months of hunger and struggle. You would have thought a World Cup match was being played at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium near Rustenburg, 120 km north-west of Johannesburg, and the home team was winning. 

Three years ago, no one had heard of him. Mathunjwa founded the union, AMCU, back in 2001, but had long been seen as a rival minority union of a mere 30,000 members.

The big man’s route to found the union gives insight into the sort of man he is. Back in 1999, Mathunjwa was an organiser for the rival NUM in Mpumalanga when he fell foul of the union leadership who suspended him from his post. When NUM officials arrived from Johannesburg to investigate they could find Mathunjwa had done nothing wrong. More than 3,000 workers staged a sit in at one of the coal mines demanding his reinstatement. Buoyed by this support Mathunjwa went off and founded his own union registering it in 2001.

In the early days, those inside the industry will tell you, the employers used to play AMCU off against the 300,000-strong giants of NUM. Those days are over and now AMCU numbers are more than 100,000 and is likely to tempt thousands more to quit the NUM.

It all means, in future, the unions are unlikely to be a pushover in wage negotiations. In platinum, where wages makes up more than half of the costs, there is almost certainly going to be restructuring to bring down costs – up to 20,000 jobs may be cut by the end of the year, according to some analysts.

AMCU is likely to fight any job cuts and the platinum belt is unlikely to have seen the last of Mathunjwa.