South African ‘hostage’ miners emerge from underground amid union dispute

One union alleges the mineworkers were ‘held hostage’ while another contends they were staging a ‘sit-in’ protest.

Mineworkers in South Africa
Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) workers gather inside the Gold One Modder East operation mineshaft in Johannesburg on October 25, 2023 [Guillem Sartorio/AFP]

More than 100 miners who had been underground for nearly three days amid a standoff between rival South African labour unions have returned to the surface.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), said on Wednesday that 107 miners “have come back to the surface” at the Gold One mine, east of Johannesburg.

“They are currently at the medical station for further check-ups,” NUM spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu told the AFP news agency.

More than 500 miners failed to emerge at the end of their night shift on Sunday, local media reported earlier this week. The NUM, the only formally recognised union at the mine, said they were being held underground by the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Management joined the NUM in asserting that the workers were being “held hostage”.

But the AMCU denied the allegations and claimed that the miners were staging a “sit-in” protest.

The NUM is currently the only union officially registered at the mine. However, the AMCU says an overwhelming majority of miners have signed up to join it, but it is yet to be given official recognition. That is the reason that the miners are protesting, it asserts.

‘Held against their will’

Jon Hericourt, CEO of New Kleinfontein Goldmine, which manages the Modder East mine in Springs, east of Johannesburg, previously said 562 mineworkers were underground after the incident erupted early on Monday.

The company estimated that about 120 of the men underground were AMCU supporters, and reported that 15 miners had been hurt in scuffles.

Police told media on Wednesday that some of those who had “made their way to the surface” confirmed in interviews with detectives “that they were indeed held against their will”.

“I am told that they overpowered those that were holding them hostage and ran away,” the NUM’s Mammburu told AFP.

Police spokeswoman Brenda Muridili said about 15 people were holding the miners captive, but in interviews with local media declined to say whether the captors belonged to a specific union.

Two paramedics and a security officer were among those still underground, she said.

Earlier, AMCU’s regional secretary Tladi Mokwena contended all the miners were coming out “willingly” having run out of food.

“Management has closed all the routes for them to receive food. So, we couldn’t allow workers to stay underground without food,” he said.

An AFP reporter at the scene on Tuesday evening said police and security forces patrolled the area as about 100 miners, mostly from the AMCU, sang protest songs as they waited for the outcome of the meeting between the mine management and unions.

The NUM was founded in 1982 by the country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, a former labour unionist. It remains the nation’s biggest mineworker union. The AMCU was formed in 1998 as a breakaway faction of NUM; it was formally registered as a trade union in 2001.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies