Over 100 workers made their way out of an underground mine near Johannesburg on Wednesday in the midst of what some are calling a hostage situation and others are describing as a voluntary protest or sit-in.
Approximately 540 miners had been underground at the Modder East gold mine run by South Africa’s Gold One Group for three days beginning at the start of a night shift late Sunday prior to a portion of them making their exit. The situation is the result of a conflict between two rival unions and their policies, one of which is unrecognized and demanding formal status and recognition.
“Gold One’s Modder East operations in Springs is aware and profoundly concerned about the ongoing sit-in, which has resulted in over 500 employees being held hostage underground, with at least nine employees sustaining injuries,” said the company in a statement on Monday.
The company and local police say certain members of The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), an unregistered rival union, are holding others in the mine hostage in an attempt to receive recognition as the dominant union, despite AMCU denying those claims and saying it is a voluntary sit-in. AMCU said it represents the majority of workers at Modder East.
The rivalry between AMCU and the mine’s primary, formally recognized National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has been ongoing for many years and was partially responsible for the Marikana massacre in 2012 — according to the Associated Press, Postmedia Network and Bell Canada. Many conflicting statements on the Modder East matter have been circulating in the media.
“NUM calls for the law enforcement agencies in South Africa to intervene and go underground and arrest the hooligans,” said NUM representative Mlulameli Mweli.
A representative from the mine said that approximately 15 had been injured as of Wednesday in scuffles with one sustaining a serious head injury. When they sent a security officer and paramedic to aid that individual they were also taken hostage by members from AMCU, according to that representative.
“This morning, they banded together and overpowered those controlling them and blocking the exits,” said Gold One’s legal head Ziyaad Hassam.
“I ran away, it was the only way to save my life. We had to run away,” one anonymous worker told the BBC after exiting the mine on Wednesday, also saying that some workers underground had been physically assaulted.
Another said that they understood AMCU’s right to demonstrate but did not agree with the method the organization had chose.
However, AMCU representatives are claiming that the situation is a result of workers wanting to belong to its union rather than NUM.
“Workers are saying they do not wish, or no longer want to belong to NUM. They want to be represented by AMCU as the trade union of their choice,” said Tladi Mokwena, AMCU Regional Secretary.
The company has been losing approximately US$500,000 per day as a result of the situation, according to media reports.
Miners held hostage underground in South Africa:
The stand-off at the Gold One Mine in the city of Springs is dragging on. Early Wednesday, 113 miners managed to overpower their captors and escape to the surface, according to the National Union of Mineworkers. pic.twitter.com/2peAkMSgvE
— CGTN Africa (@cgtnafrica) October 25, 2023
Modder East is Gold One’s flagship operation and it is estimated to have a 10-year mine life going forward.
Forty years ago, the majority of the world’s gold came from South Africa before a more diversified series of gold mines were established throughout the world — according to the World Gold Council. Several countries including China, Russia, Australia, Canada and the United States have since surpassed the African nation’s gold output.