JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A group of miners from an unregistered, rival union are holding hundreds of their colleagues underground for a second day at a gold mine in South Africa over a union dispute, police and mine officials said Tuesday. Some 15 miners have been injured in scuffles, the head of the mine said.
Details were sketchy and there were conflicting statements over what happened, with the unregistered union asserting it represents the majority of employees at the mine and it wants to be formally recognized. It said the workers underground were staging a protest and there was no hostage situation.
According to Jon Hericourt, CEO of New Kleinfontein Gold Mine company, which manages the mine, 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 in Springs, east of Johannesburg.
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.
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.
“They are still preventing them from coming to the surface,” NUM representative Mlulameli Mweli said, adding there were also female mine employees trapped. “NUM calls for the law enforcement agencies in South Africa to intervene and go underground and arrest the hooligans.”
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.
AMCU has disputed Hericourt’s version of events, saying that there was a sit-in protest by miners in support of the union.
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.
Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa.
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