The Association of Mining and Construction Workers (AMCU) was born in 1998 out of a strike at Douglas Colliery, one of the oldest mines belonging to Ingwe Coal, when 3,000 workers occupied the underground works of the mine in protest against the dismissal of Joseph Mathunjwa, the chair of the local branch of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The wildcat strike lasted for two weeks during which the underground section was occupied for 10 days. The strike only ended when Mathunjwa, the current president of AMCU, was reinstated, only to face NUM disciplinary charges relating to his conduct during the strike.
AMCU was born when Mathunjwa refused to appear in front of a disciplinary hearing chaired by the then general-secretary of NUM Gwede Mantashe, with whom Mathunjwa had previously clashed over the handling of money paid by employers to form a job creation trust. Curiously, both of the individuals who investigated Mathunjwa’s actions during the strike found no reason to discipline him. Mathunjwa’s membership of NUM was terminated by Mantashe after he refused to appear in front of what he thought to be a kangaroo court.
The 3,000 workers who went on strike resigned after hearing of their leader’s dismissal and after a discussion it was decided that a new union would be formed with Mathunjwa as the leader. After a prolonged battle in the face of obstruction and intimidation from both the employer and NUM, AMCU eventually managed to win recognition at Douglas. After this it expanded to other mines in Mpumalanga in the platinum, coal and chrome industries, and even to two coal mines in KwaZulu Natal. AMCU’s stronghold remains in Mpumalanga, even after the high drama of the post-Marikana strike wave.
AMCU came to national prominence after a six-week wildcat strike at Implats in 2011, which resulted in workers leaving NUM en masse after winning a substantial increase and joining AMCU. 17 200 workers were sacked and then rehired. The formation of AMCU can be understood as the expression of extreme bureaucratization of NUM on the one hand and as the extreme exploitation of the workforce on the other. It grew because of its stronger grassroots orientation and relative success.NUM and Impala blamed AMCU for stirring workers to violence during the wildcat strike. AMCU was also falsely blamed for the Marikana massacre by the business press, Lonmin and NUM for leading the strike on behalf of a mysterious third force to undermine relations between NUM and Lonmin at Marikana.
This story is inaccurate, as is the description of a Business Day editorial of AMCU as primitive and born around the fires of rural Pondoland over beer and superstition. AMCU did not leave the strike and even urged workers to return to work on the day of the massacre. AMCU has seen its membership swell as workers look away from NUM to find a union that represents their interests, and it has probably replaced NUM as the majority union throughout the platinum belt. Its membership is significantly higher than 30,000 at last report, but it is still struggling to win majority recognition at Impala, Amplats and Lonmin as NUM and these companies try to put off the inevitable. AMCU defines itself as an apolitical union and has refused to get involved in driving worker’s struggles in the platinum sector. This may lead to workers abandoning AMCU in the future in search of a better solution to their union woes.