Labor union standoff leaves hundreds of miners trapped underground in South Africa
According to multiple reports, a conflict between rival unions in South Africa led to an incident authorities have called a hostage situation at the Modder East mine in Springs, east of Johannesburg.
The Associated Press reported that a group of miners from the unregistered union were holding about 450 of their fellow miners underground. More than 100 miners have escaped from the gold mine as of Wednesday morning. The miners from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) were reported to have taken the action as they demanded formal recognition for their union. However, the AMCU said the miners were staying underground willingly as a protest in support of the union.
The mine is owned by Gold One Group Limited. According to Jon Hericourt, CEO Gold One Group, the incident erupted early Monday when miners from the AMCU union prevented hundreds of others from leaving after their night shift ended at the Modder East mine.
Hericourt said there were 562 mineworkers underground, and the company had estimated that between 110 and 120 of them were AMCU supporters. There were all sorts of hammers, picks, shovels and other mining equipment that could be used as weapons, he said.
The AP reported that police said the mineworkers had been underground since their night shift began late Sunday. Mine officials were in talks with union representatives to resolve the issue and “police are on standby,” the South African Police Services said in a statement.
Police and mine officials were not currently in contact with anyone underground despite trying to reach them via mine telephones and two-way radios, according to Hericourt. There had been some initial contact early Monday with the alleged hostage-takers.
At least one man had sustained a serious head injury in scuffles, Hericourt said. The mine sent a paramedic and a security officer to bring him out on Monday after an agreement that they could, but the two were also taken hostage, he said.
The National Union of Mineworkers, the sole recognized union at the mine, said its members were being held against their will.
Hericourt blamed members of AMCU, saying they have demanded to be the sole union representing the miners at Modder East, which is owned by the Gold One Group.
Rivalry between the NUM and AMCU unions was partly responsible for one of South Africa’s most horrific mining episodes, when 34 striking mineworkers were shot and killed by police at a platinum mine in Marikana in the North West province in 2012.
Six other mineworkers and two security officials were killed in days of violence that preceded one of the worst mass shootings by police in South Africa since the end of apartheid.
Photo: Screenshot from Gold One Group Limited.