* AMCU is at the heart of debate on violent labour relations
* Breakaway union takes aim at "elitist" ANC-allied NUM
* AMCU leaders profess religion, reject violence charges
By Ed Stoddard and Sherilee Lakmidas
RUSTENBURG, South Africa, Aug 21 Its leaders
call themselves devout Christians and say life is sacred. But
its supporters march with spears, machetes and clubs and anoint
themselves with magic potions to ward off police bullets.
By taking on South Africa's powerful mining houses and the
politically-connected NUM mineworkers' union, breakaway union
AMCU has put itself at the heart of national soul-searching
after Thursday's police shooting of 34 striking platinum miners
at a mine northwest of Johannesburg.
Since the start of this year, the AMCU (Association of
Mineworkers and Construction Union) has been muscling in to grab
members from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in a bitter
turf war that has triggered violence at several mines and shaken
While critics, which include mine executives and the NUM,
accuse it of using strong-arm tactics to recruit members and
press labour claims with illegal strikes, AMCU's leaders wage
their campaign in the name of Jesus Christ and racial justice in
one of the most unequal societies in the world.
"Our Constitution favours whites ... We are strangers in our
land," reads a sign at the AMCU office at an Impala Platinum
mine near Rustenburg, west of Johannesburg. An AMCU
recruitment offensive led to violence this year at the world's
largest platinum mine, which is run by Implats.
AMCU bosses project their battle with NUM, which has spread
across the platinum sector in the country that sits on 80
percent of known reserves, in terms of Christian compassion for
the poor and a sense that Africans have been excluded from the
prosperity that mineral wealth should provide.
"We believe life is sacred and should not be wasted," AMCU
General Secretary Jeffery Mphalhele told Reuters.
Both Mphalhele and AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa, the son
of a Salvation Army preacher, broke down and cried at a news
conference a day after Thursday's killings that crowned a week
of violence at the Marikana mine operated by the world No. 3
platinum producer Lonmin .
Mathunjwa said he went down on his knees before the massed
strikers at Marikana, begging them to disperse peacefully or
risk being killed by police.
Shortly afterwards, 34 of them were dead, killed in a hail
of police gunfire that reminded South Africans of the white-led
security forces' repression of black protesters under apartheid
rule that ended 18 years ago.
PRAYERS AND "MUTI"
Police, union officials and social researchers say AMCU
members use "muti" or witchcraft, in which miners use potions
they believe will protect them against enemies and bullets.
Police said they had taken pictures of one such anointing
ceremony by a "sangoma", or witch doctor, at Marikana.
"At all of the AMCU meetings I have attended, they have a
prayer to start but then someone sprays around some muti," said
Crispen Chinguno, a researcher at the sociology department at
Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, who has spent
time with the platinum mining communities.
President Jacob Zuma has ordered an inquiry into the
bloodletting at Lonmin, which also saw 10 people hacked to death
in the week leading up to Thursday.
The AMCU was founded by former NUM member Mathunjwa after he
fell out in 1998 with Gwede Mantashe, the NUM's former General
Secretary who now holds that position in the ruling African
National Congress and is Zuma's right-hand man.
The NUM is a key support base for the ANC and so the AMCU's
challenge also has political implications as it taps into
growing discontent with the country's trade union and governing
The AMCU says it has made inroads into the NUM's membership
base and now claims about 30,000 national members compared to
300,000 who belong to the dominant union.
AMCU leaders charge the NUM and the ANC with being elitist,
interested only in politics and self-enrichment, and being out
of touch with poor black Africans.
Mathunjwa rejects NUM allegations that his union is using
mineworkers desperate to improve their livelihoods as "cannon
fodder" in its power struggle to increase its membership.
"Why are we labelled as the union of violence. What have we
done?"," he says.
"At end of the day, management failed us," he added, saying
Lonmin ignored the demand by striking rock drill operators - one
of the toughest jobs in the industry - for their monthly
salaries to be increased to 12,500 rand ($1,500) from what the
company says is around 10,000 rand a month.
There are workers in the platinum sector toiling for much
SOLIDARITY THROUGH VIOLENCE?
The events at Marikana gave South Africans a frightening
glimpse of the threats and violence that accompany the union
turf war in which the AMCU admits it is fervently engaged.
Extensive television footage of the week-long standoff
showed several thousand strikers carrying traditional weapons -
spears, machetes and clubs known as "knobkerries" - massing like
a Zulu "impi", or army, on a rocky hill near the mine.
Police, who said they fired in self-defence on Thursday,
said the strikers also carried firearms.
The Marikana miners said they carried the weapons to defend
themselves, but witnesses say there is a clear edge of
aggression to the AMCU drive for membership and prominence.
At an AMCU rally attended last month by a Reuters
correspondent, marchers sang: "Who is this NUM, how can we kill
it?" The pungent smell of marijuana filled the winter air and
the young men waved banners and sticks.
A pattern of violence and illegal stoppages has also
characterised the AMCU's recruiting efforts from Implats to
Lonmin to Aquarius Platinum .
At Marikana on Tuesday, some miners said they feared being
attacked by AMCU members if they returned to work.
"These guys are very violent. We are afraid they will kill
us if we go to work while they are striking," said a miner who
did not want to be named. "I need my job but what will my family
do if I am killed?"
The AMCU also has loose links to organisations rooted in the
black consciousness movement of the 1970s, putting it firmly at
odds with the multi-racialism preached by the ANC.
"They feel that as black people they are getting a raw deal
because of the history of this country ... and they seem to use
violence as a way to forge worker solidarity," said researcher
The AMCU's differences with the NUM even come down to
"The NUM, they come here and speak English because the
uneducated workers do not understand it," Venter Mulutsi, an
AMCU organiser at Implats, told Reuters.
AMCU rallies are addressed in Fanagalo, the lingua franca of
South Africa's mines, which is a pidgin mix of Zulu, other
African languages, English and Afrikaans.
"This is our language, it is the language of the mines,"