Lay preacher turned union boss wages South African class war

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 ($800-$1000).

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.


A lay preacher and trumpet player, Mathunjwa says he is driven by his faith and dedication to the Salvation Army, a Christian denomination known for charitable works and evangelical fervour.

"When a person is born on planet Earth they're here for a purpose. And that purpose is God's purpose. So I believe that I am one of the luckiest to realize what purpose I'm here for. It's to work through the systems that oppress other people."

A lean, intense man with a shaven head, Mathunjwa said he was also heavily influenced by his parents' generosity to others less fortunate while he was growing up in semi-rural KwaZulu Natal province during the darkest days of white-minority rule.

"I remember many children were coming and staying with us and my parents would share their little income with distant families who were not even part of the Mathunjwa family."

He has skilfully tapped into a swelling vein of discontent among poor, black workers who have seen little improvement in their lives two decades after apartheid ended.

He has built up AMCU by exploiting rank and file perceptions that NUM is too close to mine bosses. AMCU now says it has more than 100,000 members, most of them in the platinum mines.

AMCU denies NUM accusations that it uses violence to intimidate workers into switching unions, often under the cloak of darkness in the shantytowns that ring the mines.

Workers from both unions are still getting killed. Last week an NUM shop steward was shot dead at a Lonmin mine shortly after an AMCU organiser was killed in a tavern.

Mathunjwa comes across as uncomfortable with a halting delivery when giving press conferences in English - not his first language - in hotel suites in Johannesburg. But when he stands before a rally of mineworkers, he is a powerful orator, his style that of an evangelical preacher.

Peppering his speeches with Biblical references in the Zulu, Xhosa and English languages, Mathunjwa appeals to class, racial and religious solidarity. However, he says investors, including those at the Standard Bank meeting, should not fear him.

"What they have read in the papers portrays AMCU as a monster. After that meeting they came out with different thoughts," he said.

"But we have to roll up our sleeves and start working on fundamental issues that affect workers. The workers in South Africa do not benefit from the minerals that they mine. Those were my words."