Amcu head wages class war

Union president Joseph Mathunjwa says he and his comrades "did not sit in boardrooms".

Amcu's Joseph Mathunjwa speaks during a media briefing about the Lonmin peace deal. Picture: Taurai Maduna/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - Addressing thousands of stick-wielding striking platinum miners last month, South Africa's bold new union boss told them proudly that he and his comrades "did not sit in boardrooms".

But Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) which has turned South Africa's labour relations on its head, now has the full attention of the directors who sit in them.

When he met foreign investors at a session organised in April by Africa's largest bank Standard Bank, "the boardroom was full," he told Reuters.

His upstart Amcu, which has grown rapidly in the past 18 months at the expense of the government-allied National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) after a bloody turf war in which more than 50 people were killed, is now the main labour force for South Africa's platinum mines and has its eyes on other sectors.

It is threatening a strike at platinum miner Lonmin this week if the London-based firm fails to recognise it as the majority union, and will present its wage demands to platinum, gold and coal producers later this week, Mathunjwa told Reuters.

He did not say what the demands will be, but he gave a clue, saying he had told the foreign investors at the Standard Bank meeting that he thought an entry-level worker should take home 8,000-10,000 rand a month.

That is about double the current wages of the lowest-paid miners. It is safe to assume he will at least seek to match NUM, which is seeking a 60 percent rise for the least-paid, an increase that mining firms say they cannot afford.

"It is time now to realize the plight of the working class," he said. "You see all these heaps of dumps and the minerals are gone, but the lives of those people who extracted those minerals - they haven't benefited. You want a huge income and a dividend but I think it is time now to relax a little bit."

Mathunjwa's meeting with investors - Standard Bank has not said who attended - reflected corporate curiosity and concern about a man who, in 18 months, has gone from an unknown to one of the most important players in Africa's biggest economy.

The 48-year-old son of a Salvation Army preacher has won tens of thousands of followers portraying himself as a Christian soldier fighting for South Africa's downtrodden miners.

"I was chosen by the plight and the suffering of the working class in South Africa," he told workers last month from Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine, site of a demonstration last August where police shot dead 34 wildcat strikers.

Amcu's emergence as the main labour force in South Africa's platinum belt - home to 80 percent of the world's known reserves of the metal - is an unprecedented grassroots challenge for President Jacob Zuma's ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The NUM, the once-dominant union that Amcu has displaced, is a reliable partner of the ANC and has been a source of votes throughout the two decades since the end of apartheid.

The labour unrest in South Africa's mines last year cost platinum and gold producers billions of rand in lost output, resulting in sovereign credit downgrades. Fears of more turmoil in the mines as workers, unions and companies square off for a new wage bargaining round have helped drive the rand to four-year lows in the last month.