Tension mounts at Springs mine as police mobilise

AMCU claims that miners are voluntarily protesting underground at Gold One but there are definitely people being held hostage

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Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union members demonstrate from inside the Gold One mine property in Springs, as other miners watch from outside. Photos: Shaun Smillie

If Alfred Stimela had his way he would have climbed over the turnstile gate and rescued his son Thabiso himself.

But outside the entrance to the Gold One mine in the heat and the dust, the 65-year-old grandfather could do nothing but wait. He had arrived Tuesday afternoon in the hope that someone would finally give him news of his son.

He had heard Monday morning that his son had not come up Gold One’s Modder East shaft after his night shift ended. On his cellphone are pictures of Thabiso’s two sons, one just 18 months, the other five years old.

Thabiso is one of 500-odd miners being held hostage underground in a dispute between the mine and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The union is not calling it a hostage situation; they are saying it is a voluntary sit-in.

“I am just looking to God’s mercy that he will be rescued,” said Stimela. “He is not political and I am sure he is being held against his will.”

On Thursday, Thabiso had told his father that he had heard that there was to be a strike. “I told him that if there is a strike, he must come straight home,” said Stimela.

As Stimela waited, police reinforcements were arriving at the mine, which is not far from the East Rand town of Springs. Armoured police Nyalas rolled in with Public Order Police units. A mobile headquarters arrived too.

Police spokespeople did not return calls yesterday when contacted by GroundUp about the operation at the mine. Mine officials were also silent.

AMCU members stand behind the gate on mine property. They had slept there, refusing to leave, despite what they say is intimidation from mine security.

Gauteng Police Commissioner Elias Mawela met with mine management in the late afternoon.

The police presence at the mine was in accordance with the interim order granted on Monday night that interdicted AMCU members from intimidating or threatening Gold One’s employees. The South African Police Service (SAPS) was directed to take the necessary steps to ensure that the union complied with the interim order.

According to people GroundUp spoke to, the hostages are not in one place, but in several locations. Exactly how many people are underground, how many are armed, how many are sitting in voluntarily, and how many are held against their will is unclear.

There were a few AMCU members carrying sticks, sjamboks and golf clubs above ground, both in the mine property and outside it.

Shortly before this article was published, the police stated that approximately 550 mine employees were “reportedly held hostage”. “Three more people have been taken hostage after they were sent down to assist a person that was reported to be injured. The three are two paramedics and a security officer who was escorting them.”

Gold One is owned by BCX Gold investment holdings which consists of Baiyin Non Ferrous Group, the China-Africa Development Fund and Long March Capital.

What the dispute is about

The sudden police build-up was met with anger by AMCU members, in particular delegate Musa Khalipha. He told the gathered crowd of members that he had been at home collecting clean clothes when he heard that police were placing razor wire around the shaft and offices.

“We’re willing to die for this cause. We are willing to die for what we want,” he said, adding that they would meet any police action with force.

AMCU say they are now the majority union, claiming 90% of the 1,850 miners as members. They are applying for a closed shop agreement which will make them the only union on the mine. This has apparently puts them at odds with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and mine management.

Khalipha said that what he is calling a sit-in had been planned a week ago by AMCU members affiliated to the mine.

Throughout the day AMCU members had waited outside the entrance to the mine in solidarity with not only their members underground but also those who managed to remain on the mine property.

Plastic bags carrying cooldrinks and bread were passed through the turnstiles. These are meant for the miners underground. There had been little news from the miners. The only communication was from phones that can only phone out. Some AMCU members admitted that people had been beaten up underground.

Later in the afternoon, news filtered in that the mine authorities were preventing food from reaching the miners. Even the mine stope was now cut off and blocked.

The concern is that they don’t have food and some are on chronic medication.

Still food continued to be passed through the gates this time to the AMCU members who remained on mine property and could not leave. They had spent the night there. Always close by were mine security kitted out in riot gear.

“They try to intimidate us. They tell us they are doing things for ‘your safety’,” said Kwesi Mokotedi.

He told GroundUp that he had signed up with AMCU because he was tired of NUM, which he felt sided with mine management. He also hoped the union would help get him a better wage. He earns R9,000 a month, which he says doesn’t go far.

Stimela was not the only relative yesterday desperately looking for information about a loved one stuck underground.

Supporters of AMCU gathered at one of the entrances to show solidarity to the miners who remain underground.

Evelyn Ntoka travelled from Heidelberg for news about her brother, Mduduzi Twala, a paramedic. On Sunday, Twala was sent underground to treat a miner who had been struck with a panga. The injured miner was released, but the hostage-takers decided to prevent Twala from leaving. “When my mother heard about it she passed out. We don’t know if he is safe.”

In a press conference, deputy secretary general of NUM Mpho Phakedi said that they knew of 15 people underground who were injured although none of them seriously.

“We had an opportunity to engage with management and the leadership of SAPS with a view of looking at opportunities of how we can help those people underground,” he said.

“We were hoping that by now we could be closer to the solution.”

Phakedi was hoping that police might launch a rescue operation on Wednesday night.

At the other entrance Stimela was also hoping. “So throughout the day, we’ve been hoping things will come to normal and he will be released. But nothing has happened.”

TOPICS:  Labour Mining

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