There has been a particularly nasty outbreak of violence lasting several days at a South African platinum mine that has left at least ten people dead, including two police officers hacked to death by machetes. Police weapons have been stolen. Media commentators see the bloodshed as the result of a struggle between the National Union of Miners (NUM) and its rival, Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), for members. Predictably, each of the unions is accusing the other of fomenting the violence. A third union, Trade Union Solidarity, predominately white and highly skilled in its membership, is claiming that three of its members were assaulted when they tried to report for work, though it is unclear whether the perpetrators were NUM or AMCU. The mine is owned by Lonmin, the third largest platinum producing company in the world, and is located near Rustenburg in the Northwest Province. The company was formerly known as Lonhro, and had many ties to the British establishment.
The platinum industry is facing the challenge of falling prices. Earlier in the year there was violence at another platinum mine, also ostensibly fueled by union rivalry. In the aftermath of last weekend’s round, Lonmin’s shares fell 5 percent on the London stock exchange.
Part of the background to the struggle between the two unions is that platinum workers are agitating for higher wages and better safety standards. AMCU is widely perceived as more militant and radical than NUM, which has long had close ties with the governing African National Congress. The local branch of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the umbrella union organization that is a partner with the ANC and the South African Communist Party in the national government, is calling for the arrest and prosecution of the killers and also of those who assemble without the necessary permits.
Is there a political and/or ethnic dimension to this episode? There appears to be growing grassroots discontent in South Africa, perhaps seen most clearly in the riots over service delivery in the townships. In South Africa’s history, labor unrest in some mining districts has had an ethnic dimension. And, with the ANC party convention coming in December with a challenge to Jacob Zuma, there may be a political dimension as well to the Lonwin violence. For now, however, these questions have no answers.